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AN ON-AGAIN, OFF-AGAIN CAMARO

Dear Tom and Ray: I have a '91 Camaro -- and, believe it or not, my name is not Donna -- that I think either has an electrical short or a key that isn't working properly. Sometimes, I turn the key in the ignition and . . . nothing. Sometimes it does this two or three times and then starts. Then it can go a month without doing it.

It seems to be happening more frequently now, and I would like to get it fixed before I get stranded. My battery's good, and the cables are not corroded.
-- Diane

Ray: We'll use the scientific method to get at this answer, Diane -- the same thoughtful approach that led us to conclude that the majority of gum-chewing, Camaro and Firebird owners with teased hair are named Donna.

Tom: We'll begin by testing the starter. Ask your mechanic to check if current is getting to the starter solenoid when your car won't start.

Ray: If he doesn't have the patience to keep trying it all day until the problem occurs for him, ask him to hook up a test light so you can see it in the passenger compartment. Then, drive around. And next time the car won't start, you can see for yourself if the light comes on (that would mean there is current at the starter), and report back to him.

Tom: If current is getting to the starter, then you know the starter is going bad, and you can replace it, and all your problems will be solved (except what to do with that ugly test light your mechanic installed in your passenger compartment).

Ray: If there's no current getting to the starter, you have to work your way backward. Next I'd ask the mechanic to replace your neutral safety switch -- assuming the Camaro has an automatic transmission. That switch prevents you from starting the car in any gears but park and neutral, so you don't start in drive and crash through your mother-in-law's garage door. When a neutral safety switch goes bad, it can prevent you from starting the car in any gear. So I'd put in a new one and see if the problem goes away.

Tom: A lot of stick-shift cars have a similar device called a "clutch interlock," which prevents you from starting the car unless the clutch is fully depressed. And that can cause similar problems.

Ray: If the problem is still there after your car passes the other tests, then I'd strongly suspect the ignition switch. Ignition switches are like that. They go bad by failing some of the time . . . then they fail more of the time . . . then most of the time . . . then all of the time.

Tom: Kind of like the strategy my brother employed during his eight-year college career.

Write to Car Talk in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Tom and Ray can't answer your letter personally but will run the best letters in the column. Their radio show airs at 7 and 10 a.m. Saturday on WBFO (88.7).

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