By on March 18, 2009

johnkr3 writes:

I have a question about a car that is hard to start. It’s a 1995 Olds 98 (52,000 miles) that I mainly drive on the weekends. It sometimes takes four or five cranks before it will start. Rarely does it start on the first try. This is annoying and embarrassing.

My suspicions lie with the key. It is the GM key with a security feature on it, a small black square with a metal slot in it.


Sajeev responds:

Sounds like GM’s “PassKey” system in all its (faded) glory. Usually the problem stems from dirty/oxidized contacts. You can fix it by cleaning the contacts on the ignition barrel and the key. This is a free fix if you are a somewhat mechanically inclined.

I’d Google “PassKey Cleaning Contacts” and grab a can of contact cleaner from any place that sells electronic components. This link looks good.

I’ve restored 1980s electronics (and ATARI 2600 cartridges) by removing heavy oxidation on metal contacts with a pink eraser. I swear they work like magic, but only the pink ones. “Erase” the chip on the key until it shines.

If you hate PassKey with a passion, the web shows you how to splice resistors in the ignition circuit to fool your car into thinking the system is working correctly. I don’t condone it, but that’s certainly Youngsmobile thinking.

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18 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Olds Man and the Key...”


  • avatar
    racebeer

    johnkr3

    You might want to have the fuel pressure regulator checked out as well. On the 3800 Series engines, a hard start is most common when the fuel pressure regulator has a busted vacuum diaphram causing a low pressure situation. I’ve seen this many times — so it also bears investigation.

  • avatar

    never heard of the passkey system. What’s it for?

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Try cranking it for about one second. Stop. And then try cranking again. When cold, that worked every time for my 1989 GM with a 3.8L. (this procedure isn’t needed when warm)

  • avatar
    racebeer

    David Holzman

    Its a system that utilizes a resistor in the ignition key that completes a circuit to the Theft Deterrent Module in the car’s electrical system. If the TDM detects the correct resistance in the circuit when the key is inserted into the ignition switch, it signals the PCM that all is “OK”, and the fuel injectors are engaged. If the circuit resistance doesn’t match, it’s a no-go on the injectors. It also disables the starter, and flashes the security warning light. It all resets in 3 minutes or so for another try at starting.

  • avatar
    brettc

    If you need electrical cleaner, get yourself some Deoxit. I believe Radio Shack sells it, or local electronics supply places have it too. it’s worked well for me with electrical problems in cars.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    johnkr3: If you’re not getting a security message on the IPC, it’s probably not the key. To be sure, you can take the key to just about any GM dealer and they can test it for free at the parts counter.

  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    If you have a direct ignition system (coils & control module) that was manufactured by a certain bankrupt former arm of GM, it could be an issue with the ignition control module mounted beneath the coils. I actually worked this issue at said bankrupt supplier. From an engineering standpoint, it is an annoyance, but nothing detrimental other than a little more crank time. I have the same problem with my 98 S-10 and have never gotten it fixed. I think there is actually a GM service bulletin on this….if I find it, I will post again.

  • avatar

    racebeer : You might want to have the fuel pressure regulator checked out as well. On the 3800 Series engines, a hard start is most common when the fuel pressure regulator has a busted vacuum diaphram causing a low pressure situation. I’ve seen this many times — so it also bears investigation.

    Excellent advice. Get the fuel pressure checked (schrader valve on the fuel rail) with the key on, engine off. I don’t know the exact pressure of this system, but I’d expect it to be over 25psi and below 45psi.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Brilliant headline. Next time I see the writer, a beer is on my tab.

  • avatar
    RayH

    Crankshaft position sensor if not the key. $20 part 1 hour labor with impact gun. “Aligning” the sensor not as critical on ye old 3800. Good luck.

  • avatar
    MBella

    I would clean the key first, since it doesn’t cost anything. Than the cam sensor like RayH said. Cam sensors are the most common cause for extended crank.

  • avatar

    Totally forgot about the crank sensor: more great advice.

    Pass Key fixing > Fuel Pressure Testing > Crank Position Sensor

  • avatar
    JG

    > $5000.00 clunker credit

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    I find it amusing that GM saw the need to put the passkey system in the 98.
    Maybe it was less to stop our young friends from stealing them than to reminder the frost tops that they had perhaps got in the wrong car

  • avatar
    racebeer

    HEATHROI

    Geez …. I just about snorted my Diet Coke all over the keyboard…..

    +1 for that comment!!!

  • avatar

    Thanks racebeer.

  • avatar
    Power6

    Seems like everyone is covering the usual 3800 suspects, ingition coils/module, fuel pressure reg, cam/crank sensor. Just a couple notes to narrow it down.

    Cam/Crank Sensor: If either is failed the car won’t start, so it would be suspect for this to be “bad” but could be flaky.

    Leaky Injectors: The injectors tend to leak with age, pooling fuel in the intake as they leak while the car is off, and making it hard to start, especially when the car is warm and has been sitting for a while. You can check for this by putting your gas pedal to the floor while starting, which shuts of the injectors(“flooded mode”) and you can see if the car starts easier. Checking the fuel pressure, while leaving the car off for a while will find this condition too.

    Fuel pump check valve: this is in the pump in the tank. When it fails, the pump only keeps pressure when it runs, so the “prime” before you start the car is of no use. Then you have to crank, wait for the pump to start and fuel pressure to build, then the car will start. This can be confirmed by testing fuel pressure.

    Also, make sure when you turn the key to the “on position” when you are starting the car, that you hear the fuel pump “prime” for a few secs, it sounds like a motor/hissing sound coming from the back of the car.

    Excellent advice. Get the fuel pressure checked (schrader valve on the fuel rail) with the key on, engine off. I don’t know the exact pressure of this system, but I’d expect it to be over 25psi and below 45psi.

    Proper fuel pressure check is going to be with the engine running. Before start, the pump is just run up to prime the system, not to bring to full pressure. Also you don’t usually run out of fuel pressure when idling, so you need to drive around with the gauge taped to your windsield which is fun.

    Also I am pretty sure the PASSKey system will disable the starter, so if the car cranks then there is no PASSKey issue.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    I would go with the fuel system, too. Willing to bet with that low mileage and high age, the injectors are leaky. I really don’t think the passkey is the issue. My two cents…

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