98 Subaru Legacy Wagon Not Starting Sporadically

I have a mystery that I’m hoping you guys can help me solve.

I headed out early this morning to help my sister out. I jumped in my car, started her up, and drove the 10 miles or so to meet up with her on the other side of town. And hour and a half later, I jumped back in my car and tried to turn her over…and nothing happened. I got the normal lights on the dash but no sounds at all - not even the usual “click”.

I tried a couple more times before I went back inside and retrieved my brother-in-law, who is a retired truck mechanic, and asked him to take a look at it. He found nothing wrong and even he couldn’t get it to start up.

I finally relented and called AAA to tow me to my fav mechanic. Before the dispatcher sent someone out, she offered to run through some troubleshooting stuff with me. She tells me, “Jump in, make sure the car is in park and your foot is on the brake, and give it one more try.” And guess what? YES! THE CAR STARTED! It wasn’t the normal start - it was silent for about three seconds before it finally roared to life - but at least it started.

So, I rush to my mechanic’s place and ask them to give it a check over and make sure everything is okay. (I’m heading up to the high desert tomorrow and don’t want to get stuck out there.) They came back a couple hours later saying everything looked fine - the battery, starter, and alternator were all fine. The advised me to keep an eye on it and come back when it “finally dies”.

(Gee, thanks…)

So, my question to you is what could cause this sporadic pickiness? It’s never done this before and being a responsible single mom of 2 who lives and travels in some of the more “interesting” parts of Southern California, I really don’t want the darn thing to decide not to start and get me stuck somewhere unsafe.

In the past year, I’ve replaced the fuel pump, battery, tie rods, and a boot. The alternator was replaced about 5 years ago and I’ve never had the starter worked on.

Any suggestions? Or do I just have a “ghost” in the wiring?


The starter motor - specifically the contacts inside the solenoid - may be worn. That can’t be determined without taking the starter motor apart, which is unlikely to have have done. It could also be a failing ignition switch. These are hard to diagnose but if you keep notes on what does or does not happen when you try to start the car (dash lights, crank or no crank or delayed crank, etc.) as you have related here, iit can help pin it down. Good luck.

Potentially the switch in your brake pedal or the transmission in P may not be correctly working.

Next time it happens click the gear shift in and out of P and few times and see if it happens. Not sure if having brake down is requirement too in Subaru for starting.

I agree with Andrew. There’s a transmission interlock that doesn’t let you start the car in drive or reverse. That interlock isn’t working well. That’s probably why it lets you start it in neutral.

Sounds like a faulty neutral safety switch to me. It can also be referred to as a range selector switch.

Is that the actual name for it? That’s the part I meant. Go with OK’s recommendation.

Your owners manual will probably tell if the brake must be applied to start the car, and that it must be in Park (or maybe also Neutral.) The trans, and possibly the brake, have switches that must be closed to make the starter turn the engine over.

I agree with the others about the neutral safety switch causing the problem. Subaru calls it a inhibit switch and it is a pretty common problem with older Soobs. Sometimes just cleaning the switch contacts can fix the problem without having to replace the switch. Try moving the shifter around if the problem catches you again before you can get it fixed. Bad starter solenoid contacts are another issue for cars this age. You usually hear a fairly load click when they go bad. In this case the solenoid works but bad contacts keep the starter motor from getting power to it so all you hear is the click.

Here is a good Soob site for your reference if you want it.

Thanks guys for all of your tips. I will keep them in mind the next time it decides not to start.


You’re welcome for the help. You could have a bypass switch to the starter solenoid installed. It provides power from the battery directly to the solenoid. It is similar to what mechanics use for a remote start switch when working on a car. That will get the engine started if the trouble does happen again, and it most likely will and so you won’t be stranded someplace. Doing that though disables the safety system so you have to be careful.