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91 Subaru Legacy starting problems

160K miles. Sometimes starter doesn’t seem to engage with the engine and the engine won’t start unless i put it in neutral and floor the gas pedal. Then it shakes, rattles, sputters and smokes comes out but it starts like the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (for the oldsters here). Happens about every third start. Any ideas? Once i had a 67 Plymouth where every once in a while i would have to hold the butterfly open (with a stick) on the carburator. I am not mechanical at all so any ideas will help me as i have to take it and get it fixed. So odd that it is not every start. Happening with more frequency. I just don’t want to go into repair with no knowledge (i am a woman).
Thank you…

What I meant was…it starts like that old plymouth.

Are you saying that the starter motor spins but the engine does not? If so, that’s a starter motor issue and it needs to be replaced.
If you mean the starter motor does not engage in PARK (I assume an auto trans) that could likely be a faulty neutral safety switch.

As to the running ragged on startup that sounds like a loss of residual fuel pressure. With fuel injected cars pressure must be maintained in the fuel lines and injectors so as to allow an instant start. If pressure is lost the result will be sputtering and coughing until the air is purged out of the lines and replaced by gasoline after a minute or so of running.
Think of a garden hose lying in the summer sun and water spitting out of it until the air is purged. Same thing.

The usual cause of fuel pressure loss is a faulty check valve in the fuel pump. This means a pump replacement. Other causes of pressure loss is a leaking fuel pressure regulator or a fuel injector sticking open.

Hope some of that helps you out.

“starter doesn’t seem to engage with the engine” ?? you need to explain exactly what this means.

here’s what usually happens.

  1. insert key
  2. turn key to first position (ACC)
  3. Dash lights go on. You may hear sound of fuel pump.
  4. turn key to start position
  5. you should hear whirr-whirr sound, that is the starter turning the engine.
    5a. Or you may hear a high speed whirr sound. That is the starter turning but not connected to the engine. This indicates a problem with the starter gears.
    5b. Or you may just hear a click. Or you may hear nothing. Both indicate electrical problems.
  6. The engine starts.
  7. you release key and it returns to acc position.

You may have two separate problems. If it won’t crank in Park – no rr rrr rrr sound – but does crank ok in Neutral, that’s probably a fault w/the neutral safety switch. This presumes you have an automatic transmission. The sputtering and smoke when it does start, that’s often some kind of fuel problem. Best diagnosed w/a fuel pressure test and fuel pressure leak down test.

One other guess, if you turn the key to start and nothing seems to happen, maybe you hear a click, maybe nothing, and the problem isn’t the safety switch, on cars of this era – for example my Corolla – the fuel injectors can still be injecting gasoline when the key is in start, especially if the engine is cold. Sometimes it is done with a cold start injector. So if you try 4 times and it doesn’t start, you get 4 doses of unburned gasoline in the cylinders. Then when it does finally start you’ll get that sputtering and smoking b/c the mixture is way too rich at first.

Then it shakes, rattles, sputters and smokes comes out but it starts like the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (for the oldsters here).

To me this part, sounds like an injector or 2 leaking fuel into the cylinder and causing a “flooded” condition in one or two cylinders.

Sounds that way to me, too. Holding the gas pedal to floor while cranking - not pumping the pedal - should clear it in a few seconds.

Thanks very much for the great responses. (head swimming) Been away so have not been able to respond. It is standard shift. Sounds like fuel injector leak as specified above…but then as George says, could be the starting caused too much fuel to his at once.
Normal start: first gear with clutch and brake engaged. Starter turns over but engine ignores it. Then I have to put in neutral gear with emergency brake on and hold the gas pedal completely down. Having the problem more frequently so time to go in. This has been my car since it was new in 91 so willing to spend $$ for getting fixed, just not $$$$. The last few weeks, after doing that, sometimes, it has also started not doing that the first few hundred feed…well…rumbles, stalls, then wakes up and we are on our way. Thank you for all the info. I printed all of the comments so I can take them with me to the shop. Will let you know how it all turns out.