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Magic Tow Truck Fixed My Dead Car

The following events occurred with my 2003 Toyota Corolla.

It was an extremely hot weekend (for Portland OR). The previous couple days were hitting 100 F and the Corolla had sat unused. In the morning we went out to the car and when I put in the key and turned it there was nothing.

Checked the battery and it was fine (if my memory serves me right the electric locks worked, and so did the lights all around).

We pushed it around the corner to a friends garage. He tried doing a diagnostic and it didn’t give any results. Checked the spark plugs and there was not electricity anywhere after the ECM. We swapped out the ECM, but got the same results.

We threw in the towel and had it towed to the Toyota dealership. When they received it the first thing they tried was to put in the key, and sure enough it fired up and started just fine. They ran a diagnostic on both ECM’s successfully with no issues. They couldn’t find anything to diagnose, so they sent it back home.

It has now been running for a couple months fine. Should I be worried about something like this happening again?

Full disclosure: It’s a salvage title with a single reoccurring, issue. In neutral the engine seems to rev higher than necessary. When in in reverse on a cold start it will rev higher and seems to choke, lurching slightly (this is accentuated when there is a significant change in temperature from when it was last started). If I let this continue without giving gas or shifting back to neutral it will get worse and has occasionally died. But is then able to be restarted and drives fine. Not sure if this symptom relates to the events described above.

You probably have a starter solenoid that is starting to hang up or have worn contacts. This is common on Toyotas. So if (when) it starts being a reluctant starter, you’ll know what to check (assuming all battery cables/clamps are clean and tight).

The same thing happened to me once.

I read somewhere (probably here) that after an oil change, if you disconnect the spark plugs and turn the key, you’ll circulate the oil through the engine, making it safer to reconnect the spark plug wires and start up the engine after the oil has circulated through the entire engine. Well, after doing this, the next morning, the car wouldn’t start. I don’t know if it’s connected, but I never tried this again. I don’t know what the cause was, but after towing the car to the shop, it started up just fine, and has every since, with the exception of a clutch safety switch failure that happened several years later.

Assuming your car is an automatic, did you try shifting it from “park” to “neutral” and then turning the key again? I’m just curious. It might be something as simple as your neutral (park) safety switch.

Whitey, I suspect somebody gave you seriously bad advice! The old way to “oil prime” an engine was to spin the oil pump input shaft independent of the engine turning over. For example on distributor driven pumps, you’d pull the dist and drive the oil pump with a drill and an adapter to engage the pump input shaft. The drill can develop enough rpms to develop good pressure from the pump and drive the oil around the engine. By trying to do the same thing with the starter motor, the rpms are way too low to develop any kind of pressure from the pump and at the same time rotating everything that is dependent on oil pressure to prevent wear! (e.g. bearings).

The second bad part of that approach is that the spark plug wires are not connected. This causes the coil voltages to rise even higher than normal with no path to dissipate all that energy. You can damage a lot of things doing that on a modern electronic ignition!

Now that I think of it, I think I heard it on Car Talk’s radio show. Thanks for the heads up. I’ve learned my lesson.

texases, I have a 98 Corolla as well that had the worn contacts issue that you mentioned. In that case I would still get a clicking noise when I turned the key.

But in this case, I got no sound at all. Complete silence when I turned the key.

But if that’s still a possible issue then that’s a really easy fix I can do myself and I’ll keep that in mind the next time it has trouble starting. Thanks!

Your symptoms indicate a park/neutral safety switch. If it happens again, jiggle the stick or put it in neutral. Sometimes they just don’t quite make the contacts and moving the switch or going to neutral will remake them. If it starts happening a lot, then replace the switch.

It’s unlikely the surging (lurching) you are having is related. This seems like an electrical problem associated with the starter. Look at the post about the GMC truck with a starting problem, there’s some specific ideas there. There’s several possibilities, but when I have this problem with my Toyota the first thing I do is try to determine if it is the starter or not, by measuring the voltages at the starter terminals during cranking. Usually cause of the starting problem becomes apparent once I do this.

If I had to guess, I’d say it probably isn’t the starter or the starter selenoids. Usually when these fail, they do so first in colder weather, not hot weather. In that case I’d say it was most likely either bad battery connections or a faulty safety switch.

My Toyota made zero noise when it was bad solenoid contacts. Worth checking.

texasas, you could be right, but those magic tow trucks usually don’t have any affect on solenoid contacts, its usually only the park/neutral safety switch that they magically fix.

Mine was kind of random. So maybe it was just a coincidence that it started after the tow truck. But the p/n switch is a good thing to check too.

Whitey

December 19

The same thing happened to me once.

I read somewhere (probably here) that after an oil change, if you disconnect the spark plugs and turn the key, you’ll circulate the oil through the engine, making it safer to reconnect the spark plug wires and start up the engine after the oil has circulated through the entire engine

I can’t believe that people would fall for something so wrong.