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Starter actually smoking upon attempting to crank (ignition on "start")


This is a non-start problem on an '87 Dodge Lancer 2.5L. Over past 2

months, the cranking had been getting weaker, but the car would start.

Once started, the engine runs fine.

Ten days ago, had a non-start. I checked the water level in the 4.5

year old battery. Found the water level in battery low (about 1.5 cm)

so that just a bit of the tops of the internal plates were exposed.

All six cells equally low. Added distilled water to cover the plates, but

careful not to fill too much. No water squeezed out when two fill hole

caps were replaced. Got started with AAA jump, but took multiple tries

to get the engine to crank fast enough to start. Cranking was better

for about a week, but cranking was never strong (yet just strong enough

to start the car). Car has an amp gauge, and when the car is running

it shows the 14.something volts as described in the manual as in-spec.

I don’t suspect the charging system. All cables and connections appear

acceptable; the battery case does not appear to be cracked anywhere.

There is no corrosion to speak of at the battery terminals; I use those

green & red terminal donuts.

Then, attempting to restart a hot car (after sitting about 20 min),

it cranked very weakly and would not start. Kept ignition engaged to

“start” for about 20 sec. Then a smell. Tried engaging to “start”

about 4 more times, for no more than 20 sec. Continually weaker cranking

until nothing.

Called AAA for jump. Had cables correctly attached. Upon ignition to

“start” we noticed a bit of smoke coming from the 10 year-old, non-OEM

starter. The smoke was same smell as when I tried to start the car

30 min earlier. A few very weak cranks, then nothing. And this is with

jump cables attached, so I’m presuming starter circuit has full voltage

available to it. AAA tech suggested burnt bushings in the starter.


I’m thinking the starter/solenoid assembly needs to be replaced.

I’m also thinking the battery has been drained by my attempts to start.

What I seek advice on is: do you think the starter is the root cause

of the continually weaker cranking symptom and the puffs of smoke were

its dying breath,

- or -

could the starter be caused to smoke (thus ruined) and fail to

crank if some other part of the start circuit is faulty (eg. battery

or starter relay?). What, in your experience, is the life expectancy

of a starter? In my case, it was replaced in '98, when the car was 11

years old. And now, appears to have failed again 10 years later. I feel

this is an acceptable lifespan, but I want to assure the new/rebuilt

starter I install won’t be immediately fried. Thanks for any thoughts.

I think the AAA guy was right. It sounds like the bushing(s) in the starter have worn to the point that the starter has failed catastophically. Had the bushings been replaced at the first sign of a problem you wouldn’t need an entire starter. Now, the rotor has been allowed to contact the stator and cause enough damage that the entire starter is damaged. The two parts being in contact made it difficult to turn, so when you tried to start the engine it just applied enormous current to the wire coils inside it, and they in turn got so hot that the insulation burned.

You can disassemble the old starter and verify that the bushings at each end of the the rotor are worn (it only takes one worn bushing to cause your problem). If you find one worn, you’ve found your problem and a new starter should entirely cure your problem.

Seems like you diagnosed the problem. If the starter fries and not the cables, you pretty much found that the starter is the problem. See what shape your negative battery cable is in. Last: Normal lifespans don’t apply. Nothing fails on a schedule.

it cranked very weakly and would not start. Kept ignition engaged to
"start" for about 20 sec. Then a smell. Tried engaging to "start"
about 4 more times, for no more than 20 sec. Continually weaker cranking
until nothing.

You fried the starter by doing this. It may have been well used but this killed it and could kill a new starter motor. Low voltage or severely diminished battery capacity applied to a starter motor causes excessive current draw and heat. Neither of which the starter motor is designed to handle. That’s WAY too long a time to keep trying to start the motor that has no chance of starting. And then, to do it repeatedly…