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Engine Intermittently Either Starts Normally,Doesn't Turn Over,or(Despite Cranking Fine)Won't Start

RE: FORD PROBE GL (non-turbo)
Last week suddenly car wouldn’t start Thurs. night. Cranked but would not turn over. Heard click at ignition switch area when key turned to start position. (Although I could only hear one click from inside the vehicle with windows shut, I was told that clicks audible under the hood from standing outside.) Tried jump starting (from a good battery using proper connections) unsuccessfully, repeated tries several minutes apart, allowing longer and longer time to charge.
About every third attempt, instead of cranking sounds, I would get silence, with only the click audible.

Temperatures decreased from approximately 50s to 20s when symptoms began.Battery is old but tests good/replace soon: 330+ CCA at 43 degrees, original rating CCA 530 (silver battery now at 7 years. Will replace, but garage did not have required size 56). At that point, the amps gauge read at the low end of the normal range (and today it read mid-way in the normal range).
Had car towed to garage on Friday. Mechanic looked at on Saturday and decided it was the inertia switch, which he said had “tripped”.
I watched video for technicians on inertia switch but it shows on newer Fords. Mine is not located at the kick panel and does not have a red button on top. I am not certain from my experience whether the reset button would actually be in a different position when tripped or he merely surmised that is what had happened, despite my telling the shop manager that I had not so much as bumped a curb. Also, the trunk was not slammed or even opened prior to the car not starting.

Car presumably started fine at mechanic when they pulled it into the garage to put air in tires and back out to the lot, as well as when I started it to drive home on Sunday. However, on Tuesday it would not start. Just in case, I depressed inertia switch reset and tried cranking again several times, giving it some gas, until I was actually pumping it vigorously in desperation as a last resort (several seconds turning key each time), and on about the 5th try, the engine began to catch just as I was releasing the key. Reset the inertia switch one more time (just in case), and after a couple more attempts, it finally started, but when I was going in reverse to back out and then putting in gear to start out in first gear, for about 15 seconds total, I heard a bizarre loud, fairly high-pitched whistle/whine type of sound that seemed to come from under the hood coming through the central area of the dash where the radio is located.

Drove about 5 miles to my job, and about 2 hours later was able to start the car on the first try.

Lately usually driven relatively short distances of 2-4 miles, with a longer drive of 11 miles broken up into 6 miles + 5 miles on the return trip the night before this started happening.

Need to call garage in the morning but in the meantime hoping for some professional and/or experienced opinions on what is going on(?)

Thank you so much for any input.

If the battery is 7 years old replace it.

Cranked means it turned over. Please describe what you heard so we know what you experienced. We won’t get too critical of your description if we can understand it.

“catching just when I was releasing the key” always brings to mind a problem with the ignition module.

What year is the Probe? Which engine? Am I missing that information somewhere?

Do you have access to a volt-ohm gauge and/or a DC test light?

What is the square root of 1?

 I apologize for the mis-terminology, as I repeated to you what I have heard others use to refer (evidently incorrectly) to the urr-urr-urrr-urrr sounds that would normally build up as the engine starts.  Mine plateaud, steadily maintaining the initial attempts without the surging into the full engine roar.  

Car is an '89 and has only 116,000 miles.
There were no choice of engine that I recall other than the turbo that I do -not- have. The GL submodel is 4-cyl.
(Car had new platinum plugs and wires put on 5 yrs. ago at 99,600 mi.)

[I believe that it was coincidental on that particular attempt that I happened to have given up and began releasing the key a split second -after- the engine started to sound like it was finally catching, at which point it caught me by surprise, therefore I was unable to react in time to avoid releasing the key.]

By “ignition module” do you mean what I came across earlier as I was doing some research trying to figure this out : Queries on starting brought up something about how to change the ignition switch, which seemed to be very easily done using only an 1/8" drill bit inserted to depress a locking pin.What about the odd whistling/whining sound after starting?

(As I said, I will be replacing the battery, but it was not on hand, is being ordered. I considered doing it last year but battery was doing fantastic until this point and does not seem to be responsible for the issues. On certain of the attempts-- despite the non-disabled car’s battery being continually hooked to mine-- there was silence instead of urrr urrr urrr. I told all of this to the shop manager, although it’s hard to say how much of the details ultimately reached the mechanic.)

I do not own a volt-ohm gauge and/or a DC test light, simply because I don’t have the know-how to operate it. My experience with electricity is book knowledge rather than practical. I have, however, worked on cars with my stepfather and done some things myself like change the valve cover gasket, so I have some knowledge of automobile systems/components-- just not enough to troubleshoot. I am reasonably mechanical as well. I once changed the alternator (on another car I previously owned) on my own after we did it together but the used replacement part had a faulty diode and had to be replaced a second time within a week.
Square root of 1 is 1! Did I pass? :slight_smile:

So, how old is the battery?
It takes a good battery to both turn the crankshaft and provide spark at the same time. Your battery could be borderline, with just enough energy to turn the crank but not enough to provide a good spark too.

But based on your revised description, it sounds like the crank is intermittently not turning at all, even with a known good battery in parallel. That “urrr urrr urrr” sound that intermittently isn’t there comes from the starter turning the crankshaft.

This, when it happens intermittently, is generally a sign of a bad starter motor assembly, specifically the contact points that engage to enable the starter motor circuit when the solenoid in the bendix assembly engages the starter gear to the flywheel gear and also closes the aforementioned contacts. These contact points engage and disengage with potential across them every time you start the car. They arc slightly every time, and they eventually become burned out. On some vehicles this assembly can be changed separately of the starter motor, but not usually.

On that math problem, you must show your work.

If the battery is 7 years old you need to replace it with a known good, fully charged battery and clean all the cable ends. Then attempt to start the engine and post the results.

@tsmb’s thoughts on the starter solenoid failing sound reasonable when reading through my bi-focals. But I’m not really certain what is occuring there. When the key is turned to the START position the starter should CRANK the engine in an effort to get it started. If the engine fails to start you can continue to CRANK it until the battery or starter fails. SOOOOOO, when you turn the key to the CRANK position you should hear the normal sound of an engine spinning in hopes that it will start. We need to get that to happen and then either the engine will come to life or fail and we can move on to why.

LOL, Rod, you made me laugh so hard with the bifocals comment I almost came to tears. Sincere thanks for the chuckle.

Now, back to the problem…

Update: Mechanic did not show up for work. Had been hoping to ask about any additional thoughts since he was the one who had seen the car over the weekend and attributed the problem to the inertia switch. (I am not convinced that was responsible.) Shop manager said that the car evidently did not have fuel pressure-- since it is always either a fuel pressure, spark delivery, or compression issue-- prompting the mechanic to check the inertia switch. He is an honest person, however until I speak with the mechanic directly I continue to wonder why he wouldn’t just check the switch first, since it’s seemingly the simplest thing to do (besides fuel gauge) if he is trying to begin to rule out a fuel issue. (There is nothing to do but lift up the trunk liner and “floor” board.) Although I had forgotten about this feature on the car, there was no reason for me to consider it anyway, since there wasn’t even the slightest jarring for as far back as I can recall.

 Shop manager instructed me to try to start the car this morning.  He states that without reproducing either the no start of the sound I heard briefly yesterday when it had started, he has nothing to go on.  Hmmm.  Car started today (temp. was around in mid forties and sunny), drove approximately 2.5 miles, parked it and hoofed it for a few errands, started ok to return home.  Decided better go to work, since problem is intermittent and garage manager indicates nothing else to do at this point.  Made it to work and back (22 mi. total with speeds of up to 50/55 mph) with normal-sounding starts (and, as always, normal engine sounds once engine is running).  (The car only sat for about 75 minutes before being restarted to return home.)  Not keen on the idea of driving until stranded in order to figure out what is responsible for the failure to start last Thursday and yesterday afternoon.  (The shop manager said that after it was towed in, initially it didn't start for the mechanic either.)  

 Why would it be necessary to get that battery in first, when I had no problem starting it yesterday evening at about 6:15 p.m. in freezing temperatures.  Car had sat at least 90 minutes last night before returning home, so wouldn't it have been cooled off?  On the other hand, the car refused to start for almost ten tries when I left home in the first place.  The car had sat in the sun all day yesterday prior to me setting out.  The interior was cozy warm from the solar energy and surely decently warmed under the hood, too, by 4 p.m. just from radiating from the dark charcoal gray body.

A 7 year old battery on a car that sometimes fails to crank is a problem waiting for a bad opportunity to leave you stranded. Why push your luck? And as for the inertia switch, cut a piece of wire and make a jumper to bypass that switch. When the engine fails to start install the jumper and if it immediately starts replace that switch.

So you think the switch is bad(?) I asked about it seemingly going off without cause, and they said since it’s just a mechanical thing, it shouldn’t be prone to going off when it shouldn’t, so they felt like something, however unnoticeable, had genuinely caused it to trip. Not at all sure how I would access any of the surrounding wires to jump the switch anyway, since nothing is exposed except the housing with the plastic reset button mounted on top. (Can’t even see down into mechanism of the the switch itself.)

Shop manager “states that without reproducing either the no start of the sound I heard briefly yesterday when it had started, he has nothing to go on. Hmmm.”

Your “Hmmm” is well placed. You need a new shop. One that can do diagnosis, such as testing the battery, checking the inertia switch, testing fuel pressure, even hooking up an event recorder. There are numerous things that can be tested without needing to reproduce the problem.

I agree with the suggestion to replace the battery. Eliminate the “knowns” first and the “unknowns” often make themselves obvious. Besides, the battery just might be the source of the problems, and at that age if it isn’t it soon will be anyway.

One thing you can try yourself is putting the key to ON for 4 or 5 seconds, perhaps even twice, before trying to start the car. If that eliminates the problem, it suggests that your fuel line is draining while parked. It basically gives the pump an opportunity to refill and repressurize the line before you try to start the engine. A pump with a bad check valve can allow the line to depressurize. If also the pintle in one of the injectors is no longer seating reliably, that can allow air to be drawn in and the line to drain completely. That could account for the intermittent nature of the problem. Those times that the injector closes completely, the line stays filled with gas and the engine start; those times that the injector doesn’t close completely, the line drains.

Seeing as this is a treasured '89, I have to ask if it’s throttle body injected or carbureted. Depending on which it is, my suggestions will be different. Carbed engines have things like high-idle cams, bimettalic spring operated chokes, and accelerator pumps, whereas TBI engines have different ways of dealing with starting needs.

Try the test I suggested for fuel line drain/fuel pressure loss. If that works, proceed with the new battery as planned.
If it doesn’t work, go directly to replacing the battery.
Post the results. We’ll go from there.

The same mountainbike: I will certainly try your suggestion. Next opportunity will be tomorrow evening when I go to work and back. Of course, if it starts, it will be inconclusive, since the past 5 starts have also been seemingly normal, so I will continue to do so with the intermediary step pausing at the “on” position to invoke the pump before proceeding to “start” key position/function. Until these recent episodes I never fully knew what differentiates the two functions “on” and “start”, besides realizing that during ignition the starter and solenoid are involved to turn the flywheel and produce the spark and that the battery temporarily supplied the reserve power until the alternator takes over recharging the battery when the engine’s running. I equated the “on” stage to a “run” mode. Curious whether there are additional key intermediaries which take place during the “on” phase on the way to, and in order to prime those other systems for, starting(?)
This car does not have an old-fashioned carburetor, so I guess that the alternative term you used “throttle-body injected” would apply. Although I don’t know the ins and outs, it is the chokes/accelerator pumps/cams that sound familiar to me, because I’ve never owned one of those computerized cars that run on electronic circuit boards. Mine is all manual, even the locks and windows and all the dash displays.

[By the way, the shop is a well-known chain that I have always received good service from (mainly at a different location when it came to what I would consider are more major jobs like replacing the master cylinder, because in recent years the car hasn’t broken down at all). I don’t see any good reason to note their identity, since my intention here is merely to get to the bottom of this, rather than to place blame. I do hope and expect, though, that if they determine that they missed the true problem that they will not double charge me for another diagnostic fee. A little aside on their business practices: They have always been very fair, including when they were not able to do much to improve my alignment (which seemed ok, but they were checking when I had new tires put on)-- due to there being no more room for adjustment in some of the settings that were slightly out of range; they did not charge for the job. Another time they put dye in the A/C system to trace a leak but didn’t charge me for that when subsequently it revealed that the problem was not feasible to fix, due to the age of the car and cost that would be involved.]

You probably already know this, but the inertia switch is a safety feature that is supposed to turn off the fuel pump in the event of a collision. I think this feature is only in Fords, or primarily in Fords. I know my Corolla doesn’t have that feature. Still, that seems like a good idea to me. The last thing you want after a crash is the fuel pump still running and raw gasoline spewing all over the place. It’s called an “inertia” switch b/c it uses the inertial (or acceleration) force of the crash to turn itself on. I’d want to keep that feature working myself.

It’s sort of odd an experienced mechanic would simply assume the problem is the inertia switch after measuring low fuel pressure. Low fuel pressure could be cause by an assortment of things, and the inertia switch would be a low probability on the list. Is the shop able to explain to you why they believed it was the inertia switch? Maybe they pressed the reset button and it started, so they assumed the switch had been set, and that was the problem. That’s possible, and would be a reasonable assumption I suppose.

If that’s what happened, it could have been a coincidence, and unrelated to the inertia switch. Which would explain why the problem persists, and pressing the reset button doesn’t work now.

So what’s the problem now? As long as the car continues to have a strong and consistent crank , that rrrr — rrrr — rrr sound with the key in “start”, then it’s hard to see how this could be the battery. But a battery 7 years old is about to give up the ghost in any event, so no harm done to replace it with a new one. But I doubt that will fix the problem, since the starter needs considerably more current than the fuel pump.

I’m guessing this is a fuel pump problem. It’s either an electrical problem – inadequate juice getting to the pump – or a mechanical problem, the pump is kaput, or the check valve isn’t working. That will be hard to diagnose until you can get it to the shop when it is not working. Of course if you agree to pay them their hourly rate for diagnosis time, I’m sure they’ll be happy to keep it at the shop and periodically start and drive it, wait for it to eventually fail. The ideas above are fairly simple to do and worth trying, but if they don’t work, unless you have more money than you know what to do with and willing to give the shop a blank check to diagnose the problem, probably the best thing is to wait for it to fail again, then tow it to the shop.

There are additional things that take place with the key in the START position. The starter circuit is activated and the accessories are not enabled, as they are I the ON position. In addition, the ECU does not recognize signals that it would store as fault codes in the ON position, in order that the sensor signals that detect signals that are normal for an engine starting but would indicate problems for an engine running don’t trigger CEL lights and fault codes.

The more experienced guys here who know that particular motor may correct me, but I don’t believe multiport injection was used on regular street cars in '89, so it’s probably throttle body injection. TBI places an injector right by the throttle plate and sprays the fuel based on the engine’s overall “demand” signals. It’ll measure the air flowing in, the speed of the crankshaft (or camshaft), and the engine’s temperature, but doesn’t need to know the position of the crank. It’s sort if like giving a half-dozen babies one bowl of babyfood and letting them all gobble together, as opposed to giving each his own bowl. It gets the job done, but all the babies won’t get the same amount of food.

Try my suggestion, replace the battery, and let us know how you make out. We’ll go from there.

PostScript: sorry about the babies analogy. I couldn’t come up with a better one “off the cuff”.

The Probe engine appears to be from Mazda and has port injection.

It is unlikely that the inertia switch is the cause for intermittant no starts. I have never seen an intermittant failure from one. But there was a great deal of interest taken in the switch so I suggested jumping it to get on to the next possible cause.

The OP mentions no start and what I understood to be no crank and slow crank with a 7 year old battery…

The OP’s shop does seem to be missing a lot of red flags. And it does seem that after the battery is PROPERLY replaced the fuel pressure should be monitored and the fuel pump relay located and a jumper wire for the relay carried to bypass the relay if it is failing.

On full sized Fords of that model year I recall that the ECU would intermittantly fail to trip the fuel pump relay. But the Probe is more Mazda than Ford so who’s to know?

Check Mechanics Files link above. Hopefully there is a good mechanic listed in your area.

Update: And now for today’s auto report…
Followed poster’s suggestion to turn key to “on” position for 4-5 sec. once or twice before starting, to address the possibility of the fuel line depressurizing as the car sits. (Turned key to “on” 5 sec., back to “lock” position, again to "on position for 5 sec., then proceeded to “start” position.)
Nonetheless-- like a week ago when the problem manifest itself and we had been trying to jumpstart and every 3rd try no cranking was taking place-- today (this time initially on first try) no cranking (vs. yesterday successful starts all 4 times).
[Depressed that inertia switch. It broke off in my hands. Held cracked plastic piece and inserted into slot and held it down a few seconds for good measure. As stated earlier, this was just in case and not expected to have any effect.]
Opened hood for bf to listen to engine as I tried to start again, and it started normally.
(He notices a “cricket” sound coming from the vicinity of the engine block, which is barely noticeable over the loudness of the engine running, however after he called it to my attention, I could detect it faintly, too.)
Drove about 5 miles to work (a 15-minute trip at speeds of 20-35 mph). Two hours later the car once again started normally. It was perhaps in the low 50’s when I went to work and high 30’s when I returned about 2 hours later.

Is it possible for a fuel system problem to account for the switching back and forth between 50% or more of the time starting normally, yet intermittently when not starting it is either cranking without catching (majority of the non-starts) -OR- not even turning over whatsoever? [How(?)]
Alternatively, is it more likely that a failing starter or other related component would produce these symptoms?
Most importantly, how can these suspected parts that could be responsible, such as the fuel pump/relay and the starter solenoid, be tested when the failure is inconsistent, only occurring occasionally randomly between numerous successful starts?
In the meantime, it is nervewracking to knowingly drive the car, realizing I may get stranded.

 Some of you are wondering about the specific type of fuel system, which I don't know the technicalities of, but I do know that it's correct what one poster said re: this car being partially produced by Mazda.  I think I was told back then that the body is Ford but "everything under the Hood" is Mazda.  Others who take interest in car restoration have phrased it more like the engine in the Ford Probe is same as in Mazdas.

@FordProbe‌

Yes, mechanically, your car is identical to the Mazda MX-6

“By the way, the shop is a well-known chain”

And that may be part of the problem

Midas, Meineke, Pep Boys, etc. are not the place to go for any high repairs or diagnosis

The first thing I’d do is replace the battery. This is something you could do yourself

Then replace that inertia switch, since it’s physically broken

If the starter is not cranking the eng intermittently, than it’s more than likely bad. When you prime the fuel pump, you turn it to the run position for a few seconds. Then do it again to the run. Finally turn key to start. If it starts, it a bad fuel pump. Also, make sure the battery connections are clean and tight.

OP says:

3rd try no cranking was taking place

Just to clarify, do you mean you don’t hear that rrr rrrr rrr sound that normally occurs just before the engine catches and runs? Maybe you hear a “click” , but not the rr rrr rrr sound? Or do you mean you hear the rrr rrr rrr sound ok, but the engine never catches and starts to run on its own?

Yes, GeorgeSanJose, I literally mean no rrr rrr rrr sound every third try last week the night it first failed. From inside the cabin with the driver door ajar (and the other car’s engine running as we tried to jump it), I’d hear only the click as the key reached the start position, but the guys outside the car with the hood open could hear multiple clicks. Today the same thing happened on that first try, no cranking sounds whatsoever.