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Honda accord mysterious starting problems

1996 Honda Accord with 170K miles. Replaced starter, distributor, plugs, battery about a year ago. Started having problems starting after the car was warmed up a few months ago. Usually it started up perfectly first thing in the morning. If I drove for 15-20 minutes, parked, came back 10 minutes later, when I first turned the key the dash lights up properly, I heard the fuel pump engage, and when I turned the key heard just one click – I believe from the starter solenoid. If I then turned the key once more (maybe twice more) the car would start right up. It sounded like an electrical short of some kind to me. So, after some online sleuthing, I decided the ignition switch was the most likely culprit. Bought a new ignition switch, installed it no problems, and two days later it did it again. It has been back at it for the last couple of months since installing the new ignition switch, but is now getting worse. It still generally starts up perfectly first thing in the morning after sitting all night, but now when I got to start again (even after it’s been sitting for 3 hours), it is taking multiple tries to get to start, and sometimes has a hesistant/rough start to it.

I have had 3 starters put on this car in the past 4 years - literally once a year a new starter. Now I’m starting to wonder if it ever really was those starters. Occassionally up until now I’d have a similar problem - I’d turn the key, just one click, but as soon as I turned the key again it would start up fine. On a couple of occassions (before replacing the ignition switch), it did a really rough start, idled very low/rough, and the shifter was stuck in park - I had to use the shift release to get out of park. But the shifter only ever stuck in park when I had the rough start/rough idle issues, which is what lead me to believe the problem was somewhere in the electrical system.

I’ve done more looking online, and some things point to maybe a bad main relay, however most folks who describe a problem with the main relay have starting issues involving cranking that won’t start. Not the case here - I get nothing, no crank at all. Some people are telling me its the starter, but seriously, no one has to have a new starter put on their car every single year. My logic is telling me it’s something else entirely that I’m missing, something somewhere in the electrical system that is not making connection.

Any ideas? Thanks a bunch.

Forgot to add: had the TPS Sensor replaced about 2 months ago. Shop told me it was a bad TPS causing the starting problems. They started up again almost immediately, then replaced the ignition switch about a months ago. So parts that are new (or only about a year old) are TPS, ignition switch, starter, distributor, plugs, battery.

Were these starters purchased at the Honda dealer? If not, you might try it.

This is just a wild guess (SWAG) but I think, without further troubleshooting that I can’t do over the internet, I would first check the battery negative cable where it is bolted to the block for corrosion. That probably isn’t it, but it could be and it is the cheapest thing.

Next, I would replace the positive battery cable completely, because if it isn’t the starter and it makes a click, it pretty much has too be one of those two items, or a battery with an intermittent open internally.

No, but they were all from reputable local repair shops - different shop each time.

The battery connections are clean and tight, but I’ll take a look at the connection to the block. Are you recommending replacing the positive cable entirely? And when you say a “battery with an intermittent open internally” do you mean basically a defective battery?


That is what is meant. It can happen, sometimes just moving the battery cables will make it work but not always.

Replace the cable entirely unless you want to bother with crimping new terminals on. Sometimes they develop connection issues where the terminals crimp on, and usually the positive cable first, but it can happen to the negative cable as well.

Yes, I meant a defective battery. This would be very rare so I don’t know why I even mentioned it. Usually when a battery opens internally, it is not intermittent. You would not see this on two batteries in a row so if the battery was replaced anytime during this Odyssey, then I think you can rule it out.

If I were to add to my SWAG, I’d probably suspect the crimp on terminal of the positive cable at the starter end to be the most likely culprit.

Replace the starter relay and see what happens. Or if there are other relays with the same number, swap them.

No cranks can be caused by at least a dozen different things. You can quickly run out of money before you run out of guesses. This problem should diagnosed by doing some voltage measurements at the starter. Are you up for that?

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That’s easy enough to check if you have a volt meter, but you have to do the check when the problem is presenting itself and it appears that that doesn’t happen very often and never in the shop. You could do it with a 12 volt light bulb.

If you can, put a 12 volt light bulb and socket somewhere inside the cabin and secured where you can see it. Connect a wire from one contact to the positive battery terminal. Connect another wire from the other contact to the terminal where the battery cable is bolted to the starter. This wire must be connected between the nut and the outside of the terminal of the cable.

If when the starter just clicks, if the light bulb lights up, the cable is bad.

Thanks for all the input. I will take a look at some of these things for sure. I should be able to do some voltage testing with an assist from a friend. I’m socked in with rain today, and forecasted for the next couple of days, so it will probably be late this weekend before I get a chance to do that.

I’m still thinking its a switch or relay, something in the electrical system that is not connecting. My primary reason for thinking this is because it pretty much only happens when the engine is warm. Something happens when the car is driven for a bit, it gets up to operating temp, then gets turned off, and then when you try to restart whatever the “something” is just doesn’t connect at first. Make sense? I had the problem happen a couple of times yesterday evening, and each time I was able to start in neutral, so it might be the neutral safety switch. But again, was it because I was in neutral or because it was just the right time to start up? I have no way of knowing right now. Since it will be raining for the next few days, I’ll probably experiment with starting in neutral vs. in park and see if there’s any consistency to the starting in neutral.

But thanks again for all the input and replies. I will be checking these things out soon. Despite its age the car is in great shape and I really don’t want to get rid of it. But I don’t have the resources to just run to the garage every six months and hope they can fix the problem. So I’m going to take some time this spring and summer to do some poking around under the hood myself, and all these ideas are really helpful.

On this generation Honda there may have been a known problem in the ignition system. Check out the owners forum. These cars are legendary for a failure of a solder joint on the main relay. There is more than one YouTube video on it like “94-96 Honda no start fix!”

From under the car – you’ll probably have to jack it up – look at the starter. You should see two wires going to it, one big thick one, and another thinner one. During attempted cranking (i.e. with the key in “start”) the voltages on both of those should be at least 10.5 volts. Measure them one at a time, for each the voltage should be measured between the terminal on the starter and the starter case during attempted cranking. Leave everything connected as it is. If either measures below 10.5 volts, work backwards – following the wiring schematic – toward the battery to find out why. If both are 10.5 volts or above and it doesn’t robustly crank, you either got a problem with the starter itself or the engine/flywheel.

No helper needed if you have long enough wires to run from the starter to the passenger compartment.

This is best done with an analog voltage meter, the kind that has a needle that moves. The voltage changes during cranking and that confuses the digital volt meters sometimes.

I know i’m jumping in delayed but just joined & read your Post. Haven’t read all the comments on this thread yet but i have a 2003 Honda Accord 4 cyl. Honda ppl mailed me telling me that they had a Recall and needed to do a:
“Install a Key Interlock Repair Kit Add.” “Kit, Lever.”

Check the main relay as well. I got stranded in a 94 civic once. It would start great then after it warmed up and would not restart. They can melt over time and cause a no start. Very common on old hondas.

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