Can't Figure This Out



Hello all… hope someone out there can point me in the right direction.

I have a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera 2.5L 4-cylinder, that now won’t start… several weeks ago, I started having issues with the car not starting when I turned the key to the START position. I would have to jiggle the shifting knob (3-speed automatic) to get it to start. Now, that trick won’t work at all. Turning the key to START doesn’t do anything… no starter clicking, no other noises, etc. Just the radio shuts off while the key is in START (like it always does).

Here’s what I did so far: I changed both the neutral safety switch (which did nothing), and had the starter tested (which the shop said was bad), and put a new starter in (which also did nothing). I also traced the wires to what my Hayne’s manual indicates are the wires used during ignition start (yellow & pink) and crossed them, hoping to by pass the ignition switch, since I don’t want to have to pull the steering wheel if I don’t have to. But even this didn’t work.

Can someone out there give me a direction to point into, so I’m not pouring $$ into parts probably not needed? And/or, does someone know if I have the right wires to “hotwire” the ignition on this particular car?

This car has to get me through another couple months of nursing school, maybe toward the end of the year…




This is just a really wild guess, since nobody else has responded.

When you were jiggling the shift knob, you were probably also pressing on the brakes. My car will not start unless I’m stepping on the brakes. Yours may be that way too.

It could also be a coincidence. It could be as simple as a corroded ground strap connection. I assume you’ve checked the battery?

Check for 12VDC at the starter while you have the key in the “start” position and the brakes being pushed on. If you don’t have it, you know the problem is pre-starter. Possibilities incude anything on the circuits including the fusible link and the starter relay.


And check the wiring in and out of the starter switch. Junk yard switches work pretty well. Just be sure that there is at least one key so you can have additional keys made. You can check the switch right at the 'auto recycling center" if you know the color code for the switch. An ohm meter will suffice–no juice needed. If continuity checks out all o.k., then that switch is good. You might end up with a switch out of a different-year vehicle, but most GM switches, within a year or two of each other, are most often the same. You could even end up with a Chevy, Pontiac or Buick switch. As long as it works just like your old switch does, it’ll work for you. A differnt switch may be color coded differently. Just make sure that the switch plug-ins are thae same. No need to butcher your existing wiring. But as before stated, check all battery cable connections at both ends and also the solenoid wiring for a break or short. While you’re underneath checking the starter out, with someone using the brake, and with the parking brake engaged, try to start it. Do a voltage check on the battery cable connection on the starter. If it doesn’t do anything, try putting the gear shift into neutral. Try to start again. If it starts, you have a bad ign. switch. Then put it back into park or leave it in neutral. Check the voltage on each solenoid wire separately. If no reading, you may simply have a faulty solenoid. But if after all of these checks fail, then it’s back to the ign. switch. Most switches are a (female dog) to get at, but a Hayne’s or Chilton’s manual for your make, model and tear will give you step-by-step instructions on how to get to the switch. Good luck and check back with us to let us know what you found and how you fixed it. A starter can be checked while it’s still on the vehicle. “Jumper” a jump starter cable from the battery positive terminal to the battery cable post on the starter. If it turns over, your starter is O.K. The best way to check it is to take the starter out and bench test it hooking battery jumper cables up, negative battery to the starter case, positive to the battery connection on the starter. If it works, then check the starter solenoid on the starter. Leave the cables hooked up to the starter and use a smaller positive jumper wire onto the solenoid connections. If the starter doesn’t turn, you probably have a bad solenoid. But I’d start with checking out the ign. switch first then work down to the starter. My bet is on a bad switch because of how you describe the radio turning off, etc.


Professor Handy’s comments about resistance just reminded me of something. GM vehicles used to use a resistive chip in the keys. Their security system measured the resistance of the circuit and either recognized it or refused to start. GM had a problem wherein when the keys and/or lock mechanisms became worn and/or corroded, the circuit’s resistance changed enough such that the security system would not enable the start circuit.

This may have relevence to you. Do you have an old master key handy?


Doubt this is the issue - it’s a 1985 GM - I don’t know for sure but I don’t think the GM Passlock system was used in 1985. And if it was - I believe it shuts down the fuel injectors so you would be able to crank the engine but it wouldn’t start.


Not being paranoid or anything but you mentioned that the shop you took it to said the startewr was bad - and “they replaced it” (and I’m sure charged you handily for it) but that wasn’t the problem. Well - what you describe sure sounds like it could be the starter (jiggling the shifter may have been a red herring). It’s possible your shop tried to “fix” your starter and re-install it - or put another one in that they had laying around the shop. You may still have a bad starter.


A screwed-up ign. switch will screw everything else up with the exception of the emergency flashers, head and parking lights and brake lights. I also think that '85 GMC products did not incorporate a resistive chip, but it’s a good hint on another thing to look for in newer vehicles that do use the chip.


passkey was not used in GM in 1985 - check for 12v at starter cable and then check for 12v at starter solenoid wire(purple)with key in crank position - if you have both the starter should work


First of all… this car does not have the passlock system nor does it have a starter relay or a shift interlock system.

The components in the starter control circuit are the ignition switch and the neutral safety switch.

Check for battery power at the S terminal of the starter solenoid when the key is in the crank position.

Check for battery power at the main terminal on the solenoid, it is hot at all times.

Check the ground cable from the engine block to the battery, it has to be clean and tight.

Report back with your findings and we’ll go from there.


My wiring diagram shows the yellow wire from the ignition switch goes to the A/T Selector Switch. From there, a purple wire goes to the starter solenoid (it splits to the ECM, also).
Use an electrical test meter (voltmeter) to check resistance (ohms) from the yellow wire to the purple wire (at the starter solenoid), when the gear selector is in neutral or park. Check for 12+ volts on the yellow wire (and then, on the purple wire) when the ignition switch is held to START. If there is no voltage (12+) on the yellow wire, with the ignition switch held to START, the voltage isn’t getting through the ignition switch.
If there is no voltage on the purple wire (at the starter solenoid), with the ignition switch held to START, the A/T Selector Switch is not making contact (maladjusted lever, or bad contacts).

You can’t do electrical testing without an electrical test meter (voltmeter). Walmart has a decent multimeter for under $25.


Thanks everyone for contributing to this question…

To answer/clarify some points, here’s how it all went down… as I said in my initial post, I started having the issue, jiggled the shifting knob, which worked 100% of the time. Last Tuesday (3/11) at school when I came out of class, the thing wouldn’t work at all… and had to leave the car there at the school lot. I called my father (who knows several mechanic friends through a local school bus garage, etc.) they all were convinced it was the neutral safety switch, he brought a new one with him on Saturday when we went to either repair or tow… The neutral switch didn’t do the trick, and he tried several times on the school lot to “jump” the starter by tapping the starter motor with a hammer, and then crossing the two posts that had wires on them, with a screwdriver. This didn’t work either. The starter just whirred, but made NO effort to engage the flywheel. So we had it towed to my place, where we took the starter out, and took it to a local auto parts store where they tested the starter and said it was bad. We brought the new one home, put it in, and… NOTHING. Same problem. My dad tested the starter by trying that same screwdriver “jump” and the same problem happened… starter whirs, but doesn’t engage.

Since then, I’ve double-checked all the connections in the car to make sure everything was tight and clean (didn’t think of the ground strap, though), and looked under the dash to see if anything was loose or disconnected.

Thanks for all the input so far… further questions:: does anyone know the locations of the Starter Relay and the A/T Selector Switch (is this last item the same as the neutral safety switch?)?

Hope these details may guide our discussion further… thanks for all suggestions, I will grab my multimeter (that needs new batteries for the ohmmeter – gotta go to Wal-Mart!) and check voltages etc. and will definitely keep everyone appraised of the results!


You don’t have to pull the steering wheel to change an ignition switch. You only need a torx bit with a hole in the end to remove the switch after you lower the steering column a bit by removing the four bolts that hold it up. The switch is attached to the column with a rod going to it from the ignition lock. The rest is easy and costs about twenty dollars. Before you do that, check the battery cables and terminal ends to make sure they aren’t really corroded.


If the starter makes a whirring sound and doesn’t engage it’s not getting enough power. I would be looking close at connections. Check that ground cable from the engine block.


OK everyone… UPDATE…

First off, thanks everyone for contributing! Taking everything into consideration and tracing down wiring, voltmeter readings, etc., I went back to the neutral safety switch (on these cars, mounted on top of the transmission)… only after having added a new ignition switch to the list of replaced items (hey, that was the original switch – still had paint overspray from the car’s assembly!). So, with wife in car, I pulled the NSS off the transmission shaft and stuck a 3/8" ratchet extension into the central slider switch (I guess that’s what it’s called) and turned until we got the car to turn over! YEA!

But, here comes the big question I still need help with… the instruction sheet that came with the NSS (gotten from AutoZone) was horribly vague about how to adjust the switch. It seemed to indicate that I should move to neutral, move the slider switch to match where the flat sides on the trans. shaft are, and stick a pin in the “adjustment hole”, then remount the switch and tighten. But there are ** 2 ** adjustment holes on this thing… one is on top about a 1/4" or so away from the central slider, and one is on the side of the unit, next to the wiring harness… which one to I stick the pin into to hold the switch in place? I’m stumped now on how exactly to adjust this thing, since every time I THINK I have it, when I tighten everything down, the car doesn’t turn over… but when I unbolt the NSS, all it needs is a slight turn of the central slider to move it back into a position where the key will turn the car over.

Can someone please run down for me an EFFECTIVE procedure for adjusting these NSS’s?



Click on these instructions at Auto Zone to help you with the neutral saftey switch replacement.


Thanks… I checked these out, but being the doof that I am, I’m wondering about defining some of these terms, though…


  1. Place the transaxle control shifter in the neutral notch on the detent plate. -------- does this mean that I should have the shift shaft in neutral? Because this instruction sounds like it was written for the floor-shifter versions of this car (of which I’m sure there were a few made).

  2. Loosen the switch attaching screws. -------- fine… got that down.

  3. Rotate the switch on the shifter assembly to align the service adjustment hole with the carrier tang hole. ---------- what is the “carrier tang hole”? In my Haynes manual, it mentions the same, but shows pictures for the floor-shifter version.

  4. Insert a 3/32 in. (2.34mm) maximum diameter gauge pin to a depth of 5/8 in. (15mm). ---------- again, which hole do I use; the one on top, or on the side?

  5. Tighten the attaching screws. ----------- got that one, too.

  6. Remove the gauge pin. ------------ ditto.

Thanks again for help…



Thought I’d just chime in with a final update for those of you who contributed to this question… since, perusing through this forum, I notice that often, the original poster never comes back to either provide more details, interact with those of you generous enough to offer your time and talent to a question, or they don’t provide any “what ended up happening” closure.


Some of you will probably never guess what it was. I’m prefacing this by saying that it was my DAD who procured the Neutral Safety Switch from AutoZone (my apologies out there for my upcoming rant for those of you who work at AutoZone – I’m sure you’d never act this way :-> ). After reading through everyone’s comments, I settled on the concept that since the key-turned-into-START-position wasn’t even attempting to kick the starter solenoid over, that there had to be something preventing that… my somewhat elderly knowledge of electronics (hey, I’m only in my 40’s, but my last electronics class was in HIGH SCHOOL) kept thinking, “it’s got to be a switch or relay” since all the wiring itself seemed to check out (no breaks, fusable link breakages, etc.). And after pulling the NSS from its mount and setting it on the side where I could turn the internal slider switch with a 3/8" rachet extension, and my wife in the car holding the key down (I’d already decided to put the new ignition switch I bought in, since heck, the car’s like 23 years old, and still had the ORIGINAL in it), I got the thing to turn over when I turned the ratchet extension, only in two places (by design, obviously). But every time I remounted the switch, it’d move ever so slightly off where the hot position was when it was dismounted, and I was getting frustrated.

THEN… I considered the possibility that maybe, JUST maybe, AutoZone put the WRONG switch (one for a 4-speed transmission) in the RIGHT numbered box (one for a 3-speed transmission). Following this logic, I ripped both the new switch and the old switch apart, and besides noting that the old (original AC Delco) switch was corroded to Hades & back, I pulled that plastic slider from the old one, and butted it up against the new one… and GUESS WHAT? The “flats” on the switches (where the hole in the slider matches the flat sides of the transmission shaft) DIDN’T LINE UP! Acting on a hunch and with this newly-found knowledge (God, am I starting to sound like Click & Clack now or what?), I swapped out the old corroded contacts on the OLD switch’s plastic slider with the contacts on the NEW AutoZone-procured switch, put this assembly in the new switch, realigned, mounted, and VOILA! Instant start!

I suppose the moral of this story is – never assume that a part you’ll get from AutoZone is actually the part you’re supposed to have! I’m joking of course, all apologies to AutoZone… heck, if we’d have gotten the same deal from Advance, I’d be ranting on them! But the real moral I guess is that make sure that the new part you get matches everything on the old part you took off…!

Thanks again for everyone’s input, you all really did help out. I can’t wait to possibly contribute in some small way to other topics here in the future.



Wow, that’s quite a tale! Glad you figured it out, and thanks for posting the final outcome.


Yes, I’m glad that it had a favorable outcome, and that you RSVP’d. From your responses, it looks like you did try to follow the advices given.
Here is the picture of the 3-speed A/T, and the 4-speed A/T neutral safety switches from the Auto Zone Web site. Does one look like your old one?,16400218/shopping/partTypeResultSet.htm