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Baffled by electrical problems when car doesn't start

A couple of times in the last two months I would take my car somewhere park and go do my thing. When I came back I turn the key in the ignition and the electrical quickly came on and then nothing: no clock, no radio, no head lights, no powered windows, no engine sounds, . . . .nothing. I would call for help to get a jump-start and after a 30 minutes to an hour when help arrived it started normally. The first time was after a 45 minute drive to a different town, the second time happened in the grocery store parking lot down the street from where I live.

This last week, I got in my car to go to the store. I turned the key and the electrical came to life briefly and then nothing. I cam back an hour later and nothing. As an experiment, I flipped on the head lights and got nothing. I left them on and came back 20 minutes later and they where on. I open the door and the inside light comes on. The clock is on. I turn the key and everything goes dead again. I repeated this two or three times in the last 48 hours. I got someone to jump-start me so I could get to a doctor’s appointment. After the appointment I come back to the parking garage and there is no electrical what-so-ever. I get someone at the garage to jump-start me and I make it home, but it is too late on a Friday to find a mechanic.

Since I’ve been home I’ve checked the car twice within 30 minutes and the car will start normally. I have left it now for a few hours and just went to check. Everything appears to be working properly, but I am afraid to take it any ware if I can’t start it again. Now, I can rescue a bad hard-drive from the brink of disaster, but when it comes to cars I am clueless. Some people have suggested an alternate, the ignition, a power transistor unite, or the battery. The battery is about 2.5 years old, from what I can tell there is no corrosion on the plugs, and reading about alternator problems doesn’t seem consistent with my experience, and I am not sure what a PTU is or does.

It is an 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera with 180,000 miles on it. If anyone has encountered something like this before or have any ideas It is appreciated.

Batteries don’t magically come back to life, so that’s not it. I have had dirty cable connections refuse to turn an engine over, but once they do that, they have to be cleaned to make a proper connection and work, so that’s not it. Once it starts, it would seem to me to recharging the battery, so the alternator isn’t it.

My guess is that you have a faulty ignition switch. It’s the electrical part, the switch itself, not the part you stick the key into. Have a qualified independent shop take a look at it.

The trouble is most likely due to a simple power connection fault. Whenever problems like this happen the first place to start is to clean the battery connections, even if they “look ok”. If that doesn’t solve the trouble then you need to check the power wire running from the battery to the power distribution panel under the hood. The trouble is just due to a faulty connection somewhere in the main power distribution. The trouble could also be with the chassis ground connection but that is less likely the case since there is more than one ground to the battery.

On a car this old I’d replace both the battery cables on car, + and -. Sometimes they deteriorate under the plastic insulated covering and they don’t look bad, but internally they are shot. New cables means an nice new and clean connection to the battery, to the ground, and to the + terminal on the starter or starter solenoid. That should do the trick.

I am thinking shift interlock problem or ignition switch.

Thanks for the suggestions. I didn’t think the battery connections needed cleaned but I am going to clean them anyways, and replace the cables. If the problem persists I will lookinto the shift interlock or ignition switch.

I had this exact same problem. I pulled into a gas station for a fill-up late last fall, and when I tried to start the car, nothing. And the whole electrical system was dead. At first some of the dashboard lights came on, but when I tried to start the car with the starter, even those went off. No radio. Nothing.

It was caused by loose battery connections in my case. I discovered I could twist one of the connectors by hand while it was supposed to be securely held on the battery post. This was the first cold day of the year, and I expect the temperature had something to do with it. Anyway, I cleaned them with one of those battery post cleaner wire brush tools, both on the battery and on the cable connector, then tightened both of them down securely. It worked fine after that, and never had it happen again. So battery connections are the first place to start, and if that’s the cause, great, because they are inexpensive to repair.

If the battery connections aren’t the problem, get out your wallet, as you’ll probably have to get a qualified auto-electrical tech to figure it out. My first guess is a bad connection or splice somewhere. This can be caused by somethng as simple as the battery fluid leaking from the top or side of the battery, which travels down the wire by the decanter effect, and eats whatever metal it encounters along the way. If the battery is leaking at all, or has ever leaked, that’s the first suspect. If not, my guess would be that there is an intermittant short somewhere, which is shutting down the main power through the car’s circuit breaker mechanism. That would explain why it might start working 30 minutes later. A circuit breaker resets itself automatically. Not the case for a fuse. Again, you’d need an auto-electric expert for help to debug this. Best of luck. Let us know what happens.