Mystery Electrical Problems in '94 Cavalier in Cold Weather Only

My '94 Cavalier, with around 87,000 miles on it, has never started well in the cold. It was not a problem until I had to start driving to work and parking in cold places in the winter. (The car came from Florida, where my late aunt drove it only 5,000 miles in its first five years.)

If it is below 30 degrees outside and the car has been parked all day out in the weather, and it has been consistently below freezing all day, half the electrical system doesn’t work until the engine warms up. The heater fan, the radio, and the windshield wipers and squirters don’t work. After the engine warms up, I turn it off, then start it back up and everything works. If I don’t wait for it to warm up enough, things come back in phases - first, the windshield wipers will work even though the radio and heater fan do not work yet. If I let it warm up more, I get those back, as well.

I have to stop and restart the car to get the warming-up to take hold in the electrical system. Sometimes I will restart it and only get back some of the functionality, sometimes I will restart it and it will be sufficiently warm for everything to work.

If it is absolutely frigid outside, this can take about ten minutes. Of course, I can drive the car under these conditions - if it isn’t snowing, because there are no wipers until it’s warmed up. It’s a toss-up which is worse, sitting in the freezing cold to warm up the car, or driving home in the frigid cold which takes just a bit longer. The lights all work, the gauges work, and I presume the alternator is working and recharging the battery, as they do not dim.

My mechanic, a brilliant man and great mechanic, has not yet discovered what causes this. In fact, his garage lot seems to be shielded from weather sufficiently that the car does not reproduce the effect for him.

I have not yet had a winter experience since a groundhog chewed my wiring harness and the mechanic meticulously repaired the wires. Maybe this will have fixed the problem.

It’s just interesting - I really don’t expect to find an answer to it. I live in the Northeast U.S., where temperatures get down below zero only a few times a year.

If it were me, I’d want an answer. You do not want your wipers suddenly stopping in the middle of a highway in an icy snowstorm. A terrible crash might ensue.

To get an answer, you’ll need to find a shop in your area that specializes in automotice electical systems. Since warm weather causes the ciruits to turn on, it may be a relay that’s gone flakey (perhaps the mechanical portion, the portion that moves the contacts when the soleboid energizes, is sticking in the cold). Someone will need to have the knowledge to read the schematics, identify the common relay & circuits, and be able to perform some testing…or change the relay(s).

Sincere best.

When you start your car try turning the key back to the run position by hand rather than just letting the spring do it. If this makes everything work, you need a new ignition switch , or you could just get in the habit of turning it back. ( free )

Thank you to those who have responded. I have edited the original description, as I did not sufficiently describe that in order to get the car’s warming up to take hold in the electrical system, I have to turn off the car and restart it. Then, depending on how warmed-up it is, various systems or all of them will work.

This problem shouldn’t be real hard to pin down. Looking at some data for your vehicle it shows the vehicle has a number of fusible links that connect things to battery power. The links should be pretty close to the battery. There are a few rust colored links and of them is called Link B. It supplies power to the areas you say are having trouble and to other things also, like the ignition switch. There is also a 30 amp fuse in the fuse panel marked “PWR ACC” that ties to that link along with the ignition switch. See if that fuse has power getting to it while the trouble is happening. If it doesn’t check the connections of the fusible link. The trouble is most likely due to a loose connection at the link. Check the other link connections also. Make sure the battery connections are clean since you are there, though they aren’t causing this problem. If the fuse does have good voltage getting to it while the problem is occurring then the ignition switch ACC position is suspect. A brown wire comes from the switch and ties to several fuses and one of them is marked "Wiper Motor Assy’’. You will most likely find no power getting to that fuse while the trouble is happening. If the brown wire is making good connection between the two points then the ACC position of the ignition switch is most likely causing the problem.

I’m with @oldtimer 11. Your ignition switch is bad.