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Mysterious Starting/Non-Starting 2001 4wd Toyota Highlander

The other day, I got into my Toyota Highlander and attempted to start it and only got the rapid click, click, click without the turnover. I had assumed that I needed a new starter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take care of it immediately, so backburnered it until this morning. I got in the car to get my autoparts store loyalty card and thought, what the heck… and decided to try to turn it over. Miraculously, the car started just fine.

I don’t want to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere and I have never known a starter to miraculously heal itself. Anyone have any ideas?

Probably not the starter. Check your battery connections and clean if corroded. Also, battery may be weak and need replacing.

As knfenimore suggests the click click click is more like the sound of a starter not getting enough juice. Do check the cable connections at the battery and follow to the other end as well. Once you know those are clean and tight you can drive it to most any big box auto parts store where they will test your battery and charging system for free. If your battery is found to be wanting, they will install a new one for free (most cars) - assuming that you buy it from them, of course.

Good comments above, good idea to try those things first. Might get lucky.

This symptom isn’t uncommon at all. Not possible to tell what the problem is based on the description. Could be anything from a worn out battery, a temporarily drained battery, corroded battery connections, ignition switch, clutch and shift lever safety switches and relays, starter motor solenoid, and starter motor rotor corrosion or brush problem. The reason why it works sometimes and not others could be a temperature or humidity difference. Or sometimes an unsuccessful attempt can reposition the parts enough so the next time it will work.

The way to diagnose this - besides simple trial and error – is for your mechanic to measure the voltages at the two terminals of the starter motor during attempted cranking. Depending on these measurements, your mechanic can determine if it is the starter motor or not and go from there.

The trouble isn’t with the starter. Since you say the engine fired right up later on the clicking was due to the classic case of bad battery connections. Another case of negeleted maintenance of the battery connections. It takes a lot of current to run the starter motor so when dirty battery connections supply power to the starter there is a resistance between the battery post and the cable clamps. When the high current passes through that resistance a voltage drop occurs between the connections and prevents the full power needed by the starter motor to reach it and run correctly. The lack of power causes the starter solenoid to drop out and the high current demand drops off. That makes the voltage to the solenoid go higher and it turns on again. The action goes back and forth rapidly and that is why you hear the fast clicking from the solenoid. A very weak battery can cause the same thing to happen but most of the time it is just dirty battery connections causing the trouble.

Sometimes bad solenoid contacts can also cause a problem similair to this but when that happens you usually hear a single loud click since power is okay to the solenoid but not to the starter motor due to the bad switch contacts.

Intermittent no-start is common with Toyota starter solenoid, caused by worn contacts in the solenoid. If all battery connections and cables (and the battery itself) check out OK, that would be my next guess. Happened twice to mine.

Same experience here with Toyota starter motor solenoid contacts as Texas reports. I’ve cleaned/replaced them several times on my early 90’s Corolla due to intermittent cranking problems. The contacts are part of the starter motor ass’y. Most pro mechanics would just replace the starter motor with a new one rather than fussing with the contacts. But a DIY’er can save some $$ by replacing the contacts, or having the local auto-electric shop do it .

Whether it is the contacts or not can be verified before removing the starter. There’s a place on the starter (you have to move a rubber boot out of the way, at least on mine) to probe if the full voltage is making it though the contacts when the close.