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January 2011 Willie's Workbench

Starter Task
Willie Worthy | Writer
Posted January 1, 2011

Starter Woes and Fix-It Tricks

A buddy of mine came over the other day and wanted to know just why he was having starter problems with his mid-'80s Chevy truck with a big-block engine. He never had a problem in the winter, but on hot summer days after he shut it down, it would not crank over. He said that he had to let it cool down first, and had even resorted to pouring water over the starter to cool it down. He had swapped out the starter for a rebuilt unit that has a lifetime warranty; now he was on the second starter but was still having the same problem. He even bought a new battery and replaced all the battery cables.

This used to be a major problem-not only with trucks and not just exclusively to Chevy big-blocks, but also with performance small-blocks, especially those engines with headers. I used to own an IH pickup with a performance 392ci V-8 that exhibited the same problem, and yes, it had a Delco starter just like those other GMs.

Generally speaking, heat is the enemy of starter motors, especially the GM style due to the fact that the starter solenoid is mounted on the starter, and in most instances the exhaust system is quite close to it. There are a wide variety of different-quality "stock" starters available, and generally speaking, the "discount car parts/ lifetime warranty" units are not the best choice. There are several solutions to the problem, and we will tackle them in no particular order. In fact, all of them can be used in combination.

First, the starter itself, and starting problems: on GM starters, the solenoid is mounted directly to the starter motor. Its function is to act like a large switch to transfer power to the starter itself, as well as to engage the drive teeth on the starter to the flywheel. When the windings in both the starter and the solenoid get hot, there is a lot more resistance to electric current flow. More heat equals more resistance. The electrical contacts within the solenoid also have a tendency to wear and not make good contact.

Let's start out with the wiring. It's important that the wiring connections and the cable itself offer minimum resistance. This means it is sized properly for the length of the wire and has clean corrosion-free connections. Always remember, bigger is better when it comes to wire size.

Now, with heat being the enemy of the starter, it stands to reason we want to keep that heat away from it. There are several different types of heat shields available that either wrap around the starter (they're made from a reflective soft material) or shields that are made of metal and which stand off the starter, offering an air gap between the shield and the starter.

Actually, you can buy a stock-type starter that is listed as a heavy-duty version that was used on certain truck and high-performance cars. These use a larger solenoid, and the internals of the starter-such as the field shoes, coils and armature-are a bit different. The aftermarket, and even GM Performance Parts, has some great gear-drive permanent-magnet starters that not only offer more starter power but are considerably lighter, usually running in the 10-pound range (as compared to a stock-type starter, which weighs in at over 20 pounds).

Okay, let's go on a bit on how to make use of a Ford-type solenoid. (Oh, if you don't want to tackle locating the necessary parts to do this, Summit Racing [www.summitracing.com] has it all in kit form.) By mounting the Ford-type solenoid on the firewall, you're ensuring full amperage to both the GM solenoid and the starter. This is especially true when the current that activates the GM solenoid has to travel from the battery through the ignition switch, through the neutral safety switch and then down to the starter. There are lots of chances for flow resistance along this path. A Ford-type solenoid, which in reality is nothing more than an electromagnetic switch, connects the battery directly to the starter and takes considerably fewer amps to make work.

You're going to need a Ford-type starter solenoid-just about any one will work, up to about 1996-or an AMC/Jeep solenoid, or an AC Delco unit (p/n U939), along with two new cables. Mount the new solenoid on the firewall or the inner fender panel, making sure the mounting surface provides for a ground.

Okay, let's go on a bit on how to make use of a Ford-type solenoid. (Oh, if you don't want to tackle locating the necessary parts to do this, Summit Racing [www.summitracing.com] has it all in kit form.) By mounting the Ford-type solenoid on the firewall, you're ensuring full amperage to both the GM solenoid and the starter. This is especially true when the current that activates the GM solenoid has to travel from the battery through the ignition switch, through the neutral safety switch and then down to the starter. There are lots of chances for flow resistance along this path. A Ford-type solenoid, which in reality is nothing more than an electromagnetic switch, connects the battery directly to the starter and takes considerably fewer amps to make work.

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