Diagnosis and Repair Of Problems With Your Imperial's Ignition Switch

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Question from Tim:

Last night I stopped my Imp in my garage, and then tried to start it again. As usual when it's warm, it would crank but not start the engine. But to my astonishment, it did something it's never done before -- when I took out the key, the starter kept cranking! No amount of inserting and re-inserting and turning and jiggling of the key would get it to stop. A few seconds later, noxious smoke came out from under the hood, which turned out to be the black battery cable's entire insulation melting and vaporizing. I threw the car in neutral and pushed it out of my garage with all of my might, and by the time I got it stopped rolling, the battery was dead. Can anybody give me some advice as to what's going on here? Sure seems like the problem must be somewhere between the key and the starter, eh? By the way, the starter is fairly new, as are the battery cable connectors. Perhaps another hint: On two nights I've observed that the headlights tend to flash on and off after the car has been running for a while -- including the bright lights even if the brights aren't supposed to be on at all. That little glitch was happening just before this problem.


From Bill: 

Ignition Switch is faulty or the wiring to it.

From Mike:

Sounds like your solenoid is stuck.  It happened to me once and burned all my wiring.

From Norm:

I would be looking at the firewall connectors and the possibility that corrosion has caused shorting at the firewall. I do not believe that the headlights can be activated by a faulty ignition switch, but I have not reviewed the schematics and cannot be certain of that fact. Also, these cars are notorious for burning out starter relays. Usually that condition presents itself as a "no-start" when hot, but perhaps there is a flip side as well which causes the starter to continue to engage. The suggestion that you examine the ignition switch is also a very good one.  Another thought is that the previous owner did some creative wiring that you may need to sort out.

From Kent:

I'm sorry to hear about the electrical problems your having. They can make you want to pull your hair out. I don't know if this will help, but I have a 86 Ford F350 P/U that would start flashing the lights on and off also. I would lose all interior lights except the headlights. Then the headlights would start flashing. One night I suddenly lost all lights( inside and out) , talk about scary. A friend said to check out if the light switch was getting hot when this occurred. Sure as heck you could hardly touch it. I replaced the light switch and also the light relay and haven't had that problem since and it's been several years. Hopefully you'll find the problem soon, get it corrected, and to motoring soon.

Follow-up from Tim:

My mechanics tell me that the black battery cable was extremely corroded, so they replaced both the black and the red one. It doesn't seem to me that a corroded cable could cause the above behavior, all else being equal, although I suppose it could have been shorting out against something else. But those cables were admittedly ancient and didn't cost much to replace, so what the heck. They also replaced the starter for free "under warranty". They had installed that starter themselves a couple months ago. I haven't yet talked to the guy who did the work, so I don't know whether the starter was ruined, or whether they replaced it just on general principles, or what.

Question from Dave:

Is it possible to reconfigure a new ignition switch to the original key?  I had too replace the switch in our L/B a few years ago, & wanted to keep the original key.


From Mark:

Any locksmith should do it for you. I had both my last Crown and my Polara done. Still need to do the "new" one though.

From Don:

I've rekeyed all my ignition switches, door locks, and trunk locks of my '65 Dart GT convert, '65 Coronet 400 convert, and '69 A108 cargo van to use the same key as my '81 Imperial (original keys). Takes time and some patience (and a lot of spare switches to get enough of the little cylinders that go into each switch.

From Dick:

If the key blank has the same groove setup, the lock can be made to fit it.

From Paul:

If I am not mistaken, I think the original lock cylinder can be removed from the old switch and put on the new switch. I had to do the same to my '60 LeBaron 20 years ago.

Question from Craig:

When I turn the key on my Imperial, the starter will not turn (which is brand new).   Also the seats stopped moving. I have replaced the relays with no success.  What can it be?????? 

Reply from Dick:

 1. Open the door and note the brightness of the courtesy lamp. If it is normal brightness, try the starter while watching the courtesy lamp (poor man's voltmeter). One of three things will happen: 

a. The light will go out. If this happens, you have a bad or dirty connection at the battery post or cable end. 

b. The light will not change. You have a bad starter relay (most likely first guess), or a bad ignition switch, or a wire off from the ignition switch to the starter relay (AKA solenoid) or from the solenoid to the starter. Another possibility is the neutral safety switch wires. For some reason, your starter is drawing zero current, which means it hasn't gotten the word that you want it to crank the engine. Find out why. 

c. The light will dim significantly while you hold the key in the start position, then return to normal brightness when you release the key. You have excessive drain from the starter, or a bad battery, or a stuck engine, or a jammed starter. 

2. If the courtesy light does not go on when you open the door, you have a zapped fusible link. Inspect the colored wires that branch off the positive battery cable from the battery post. One of them is bad. You'll need a voltmeter or a test light to see which one is bad. My guess would be the red one.

Question from Bob:

I have a new problem - I thought I was stranded at office tonight when "no start" with key on. Battery was very strong and repeated adjustment of trans to "park" didn't help until I held key on and then held/moved lever to "park" - fired right up. How is the connection being made (and not made)?

Reply from Dick:

The "neutral safety switch" or its adjustment is almost certainly the cause of the non-start problem. The switch is probably mounted on the driver's side of the transmission. I do not have a 66 shop manual, so perhaps you can verify the following from yours: Take a look at the IMPERIAL engine compartment wiring in Section 8. There is a (probably) brown wire that is connected to the "G" terminal of the starter relay. This relay can be identified as the only gold colored bathtub shaped thingy with 4 terminals on it, two of which are screw terminals and two with push on (Plastic covered) wires, one large one (probably yellow) from the "start" connection on the ignition switch and the other the small brown one from the "neutral safety" switch. Regardless of color, this wire will be the only small wire on the starter relay. The starter relay is probably mounted on the left fender fairly close to the battery, or on the firewall up next to the power brake booster, toward the outside of the car. The starter relay is another possible cause of your problem, but since you made the car start by jiggling the shift lever, the culprit is more likely the neutral safety switch. You can find out for sure by using a clip (test) lead. The next time you experience the symptom, temporarily connect the terminal with the small (brown?) wire on it to ground (nothing will happen, and you may either remove the brown wire from the "G" terminal first or just leave it in place and connect to the same blade terminal, it doesn't matter) and then try again to start the car. If it starts right up, you've proven the problem is the neutral safety switch or its connection or adjustment. You can leave the temporary wire in place until you get the problem fixed, but be aware the car will now start in any gear (not too safe!). If you want to try to fix it yourself, you'll have to jack the car up and slither under about at the driver's door hinge, find the greasy glob with the brown wire going into it and just look things over. Fix any obvious problems. It is possible that your car may have other wires going into the same device (for backup lights etc.) but the connections and wire colors will be as specified in your shop manual. If you do not find something loose or a bad connection, obtain a new neutral safety switch from your local NAPA store and replace it. By the way, the car should start in neutral also, did you try that? I don't know what year the change took place, but my 67 Imperial has the backup light switch on the steering column, in the same assembly that controls the automatic parking brake release; I am assuming the 66 is the same. To go back to the trouble shooting, if the car still will not start with the "G" terminal grounded directly, you need to do some more checking---. Buy a 12 volt test light, and use it to see if the "I" terminal on the starter relay is getting 12 volts when your helper turns the key to the start position. If it does not, the problem is in the ignition switch or its wiring, possibly around the 12 pin bulkhead disconnect through the firewall. The wire in question is yellow, (Again, probably.) I hope this is not your problem, because unless you are about 4" tall with a built in headlight, you'll find it very difficult to see what's going on at the bulkhead connector. The shop manual will tell you what terminal the wire uses, probably the "T" terminal. If there IS 12 volts on the "I" terminal of the starter relay, and the car does not crank, put the test light on the "S" terminal (the screw terminal with the large brown wire) and see if there is 12 volts there when the key is in the start position. If there is not, the starter relay is bad, again visit your local friendly NAPA store for a replacement. (This is a very common problem with our favorite cars, but I don't expect it to be your problem this time.) If there is 12 volts there and the car is not cranking, you've either made a mistake or you have an intermittently bad starter.

Question from Tim (1955):

I'm trying to remove the old ignition switch cylinder in the '56. Its seems quite simple but..... There is a little button I assume you push in and pull cylinder out. I am not having any luck with this. Is there something I am missing???

Reply from Roger:

To remove the cylinder, you have to insert the key and turtn it from the locked position, then you can depress the little button and slide the cylinder out. If you don't have the key, you'd probably need a locksmith to help you.

Question from George (1957):

I am having a starting problem with my ' 57.  What is happening is: Once you turn the key, and push the neutral/start button.....sometimes it will crank, and sometimes not. I have had to jump the starter relay on the fender well to get it to start for me on a few jaunts out. Not a good feeling!! I seem to remember a thread of discussion about a neutral safety switch inside of the transmission. Any ideas what the problem is?


From Jeff:

One thing to check is the actual starting button behind the neutral push button. 75% of all 57-58 imps I have ever seen have a new starter switch mounted under the dash because the neutral button switch is problematic.  

From Philippe:

There's a neutral starter switch on the tranny, left side. This switch is useless as you have to be in N to run the starter... But if it is bad you cannot start !! Make a jump on it or screw the wire to the ground. Note also that if your trans. cable isn't properly adjusted, the safety switch will not ground the starter relay. Check also the vacuum switch on the intake manifold which avoid to run the starter when the engine runs and you push too far the N. You can also jump it for purpose tests. Located at the left rear of the intake near the vacuum tank hose.

From Hugh:

57/58's do not has a neutral safety switch. They have a neutral STARTER switch, which is external to the main tranny body as I recall. Obvious question from your post : have you replaced the starter relay? If you open it up you will find next to nothing in it. I took mine apart when I was having the same problem and reassembled it and accidentally cured my problem.

From Greg:

I agree that the starter relay may be the problem. I have had a similar problem with my 66 - turn the key and nothing happens. If I tap the starter relay with a screwdriver handle and get back in it fires right up. Try tapping the relay next time this happens - if it starts afterwards, you know the relay is sticking.

Question from Thomas (1961):

I was replacing my starter relay and the alternator. I stuck the dark blue wire (goes to the ignition ballast resistor) on the starter relay and the yellow wire (goes to the bulk head connector then on to the ignition switch), when they should have been connect in just the opposite way! So much for relying on my memory!!! Then I went to start the car. All I got was one click and nothing!!! I realized my mistake and corrected the connections. Tried to start it again, and guess what??? One click...and nothing!!! Now I'm really kicking myself in the rear quarters....I'm sure that's where my brain is at the moment. I'm sure I fried something!!! Any ideas what it might be??? The fuses are OK....I did have the sense to check that. Starter solenoid fried? Ignition switch fried??? I have no clue!!! I should no better than to mess with electrical, I do seem to mess it up!

Reply from Dick:

I think a good idea is to forget the history and trouble shoot from scratch:

Take a screwdriver and short between the terminals on the starter relay to make sure the starter is still working OK (make sure the car is in neutral and the wheels are blocked).  Short the heavy brown wire to the really heavy wire that comes directly from the battery + terminal. This should make the engine crank, regardless of anything else being wrong. If it does not, there's a problem with your starter and/or solenoid. I'm betting this is OK. Assuming I'm right about that, make sure that the other wires on the starter switch are going to the right place: 

1. The yellow small wire should go to the bulkhead connector, and ultimately to the ignition switch. This one must be OK or you wouldn't hear the click. 

2. The brown small wire should go to the neutral safety switch.  If it does, the NS switch may have failed, perhaps because your mis-wire routed too much current through it. To test for this, just ground the small brown wire. NOTE: THE CAR WILL NOW START IN ANY GEAR!!! If the car will now start, investigate the NS switch. If after all this, you still hear the click of the relay throwing, but the car won't crank, your starter relay has died (not at all a rare event!). 

Question from Greg (1967):

It's time to put the top down and the sunblock on! One problem.... the car won't start. The '67 Imperial was not driven at all between Christmas and March. It was driven twice earlier this month, both times without incident and starting the car was uneventful. I attempted to start the car today (79 degrees, light clouds, blue sky), but it would have none of it. The windows, horn, seats, etc all work as they should... but they are wired to do so without the key in the ignition. The battery is charged. The starter is new. Plugs and wires are good. None of the items on the car that should work with the key on do so. No wipers, instruments, no warning indicator lights on the dash light up at all, and more importantly, no starter engaging. Nothing happens if I move the key to any of the "on" positions. It appears that anything wired through the keyed ignition is not getting power. Not a whimper out of t! he starter if I fully turn the key (and connection is soli d). I suspect the ignition in the dash itself, but perhaps it's something else along the way. Any suggestions as to where to look and what else to suspect. Any solutions? All slathered in sunblock and no place to go. Recommendations as to where to buy a new ignition switch? Napa? An Imperial only part?


From Demetrios:

What happens when you turn the ignition towards the left, the accesory side? If still all is dead, check under the dash and see if the power to the ingition switch is still connected to the switch. Its possible that that hot wire is somehow disconnected. Or may be the connection between the wire and connector is corroded (shake it and see what happens). If all checks, check and see if this hot wire is still hot (look in the FSM to see which of the wires on the back of the switch is the hot one, I assume you have a multi meter). If the wire is still hot, then its probably the switch. If not, you have to go back to the circuit and find the problem (I assume you have already checked the fuses). These electrical problems can be a nightmare. I had something similar in my 68 LeBaron recently. It was a loose nut on a firewall junction. All I had to do is tighten the ntu.

From Paul:

Test your neutral safety switch. I know that if it fails, the car won't crank. I don't remember if the rest of the stuff will come on or not, but it is worth a try. They fail much more frequently than the ignition switch and it might be easier to change. Did you turn the car off in gear the last time you started it?

From Kate:

I know this may be way too simplistic, but have you bent your neck out of shape and checked the fusebox? Mine was chock full of rusty crud and all dash lights and rear lighting was inop - a thorough cleaning and a douse of WD40 solved that handily!

From John:

If the wiring harness has a disconnect at the firewall as the later Imperials do, I'm betting this is where the problem is.

Question from Spence (1967):

When I went to start my Imperial after fueling yesterday, I got nothing - no click, no warning lights, no radio - zip (headlights work though). Whipped out the VOM and got 12v+ at the battery (it's new); so I unplugged the yellow ignition feed wire from the starter relay and jumped 12v from the positive terminal to the relay and the starter spun up real nice. Now it looks like my ignition switch failed so I removed it but - how does the key cylinder come out? It must have something to do with the small button on the side. I depressed it and monkeyed around twisting and pulling the key back and forth but got nowhere. I didn't want to use too much force and end up breaking my key off in there. As my FSM is no help on this one I wonder if anyone out there could wise me up on this little matter.

Reply from Ron:

You insert the key into the lock, turn it either to the right or left and the pin should depress enough to remove the lock assembly.

Question from John (1967):

I have a problem with my ' 67 Imp and hope that somebody can help me. Currently my car has decided not to start. The symptom is that when I turn the key to the start position, all I hear is a single click from the starter solenoid. It acts like the solenoid is working but the starter is not turning the engine over. I replaced the starter thinking that would solve the problem and of course it didn't. Previously I replaced the starter relay switch. Does anybody have any idea of what to do next? 

Reply from Dick:

This should be fairly easy to sort out, but you will need a test light and a clip lead. 

#1. test: Take a clip lead and run it from the (+) side of the battery to the large brown wire on the terminal marked "S" on the starter relay. Alternately, you can take a screwdriver or the like and short between that wire and the terminal labeled "B", which has one or two very large red wires on it. This will make the starter crank the engine unless there is something wrong with your starter, the battery, or the cable/wire connections, regardless of what else is wrong somewhere else. You don't need the key on or the car in neutral to do this, so be sure it is not in gear with the key on, because it WILL crank when you do this! There will be some arcing and sparking when you make contact with the two terminals (you don't have to disconnect the wires to do this either) but don't be startled, you aren't damaging anything and you will not get a shock. Given that the above test made the starter crank the engine, we know your starter, cables, battery and the like are all OK. We need to investigate the ignition switch, the neutral safety switch (you did try jiggling the gear lever, right?) and the starter relay itself (yes I know you just replaced it, but these are common failure points, so don't assume it is OK because it is new.) 

#2 test: Verify that the neutral safety switch is OK by running your clip lead from the (-) terminal of the battery to the "G" terminal on the starter relay. This terminal will have a thin brown wire on it, it is the only flat blade terminal that is parallel to the long axis of the relay. You don't need to remove any wires to do this, but you can slip the connector up a ways to make room for your clip lead end. Now try to crank the engine with the key. If it cranks, your problem is a bad or misadjusted neutral safety switch or a bad wire to same, just inspect the wire or replace it with a new one, or replace the neutral safety switch, as applicable. Temporarily, you can just leave the clip lead on this terminal and use the car this way, but remember, the car will now start in any gear. Dangerous if you forget! 

#3 test: Assuming you did not find the trouble above, move your clip lead to connect the terminal labeled "I" on the starter relay (this probably has a yellow wire on it), and temporarily connect the other end to the (+) side of the battery. Everything else on the starter relay needs to be hooked up for this, and the car needs to be in neutral or park, with the key on. When you make contact with the (+) terminal of the battery, the car should crank. My guess is that it will not, but you may or may not hear the starter relay click. If this is the case, go get another starter relay, that's your problem. 

#4 test: If it DOES crank during test #3, you have a problem in your ignition switch or the wiring from it to the starter relay. Use your test light and see if you get 12 volts at the "I" terminal when someone holds the key in the START position. Everything needs to be hooked up to do this. If you do get 12 volts at the end of the wire to the "I" terminal, we missed something, go back to step one and start over, we missed something here. If you do not, follow the wire from the "I" terminal back toward the start contact on the ignition switch. You either have a bad wire, a bad connection at the switch or at the firewall bulkhead connector (probably terminal 31), or a bad ignition switch. The wire colors I quote here are actually out of a 69 FSM, but are very likely the same for many years either side of 69. Other than color changes, these tests will be exactly the same for all MOPARS for many, many years, probably from the first 12 volt cars to the late 80's. They do not apply to non-Mopars, however.

Question from Jack (1968):

I wonder if anyone knows where the little timer for the lamp on the ignition switch is located. My light won't shut off. I suspect the points are melted together. 

Reply from Dick:

This is a three terminal round device mounted near the power antenna switch. Follow the yellow wire which goes to one of the three terminals from the ignition switch illumination bulb.

 Question from David (1983):

My '83 Imperial has decided it doesn't like it's ignition key any longer. It goes in, but refuses to turn! I know it is the right key, it work great before. I have tried moving the tilt wheel up and down, trying to move the shifter and everything else I can think of. Anyone else ever had this problem? 


From Dick:

Have you tried jiggling the steering wheel? If there is a strong sideways push on the front wheels due to the way the car is parked, it can lock the key in the ignition in such a way that it will not turn.

From Ron:

Two years ago on my 83, the key would not function in the ignition any longer, although it still opened both doors. My mechanic had to put in a new ignition switch and key. I kept the old key for the doors because the cost of changing the door locks to go with the ignition key was more than I wanted to do. But I do miss the convenience of one key for both functions.

From John:

Your ignition lock has some little part inside it that has finally worn to the point that it will no longer either lift with the key, or has broken and fallen and jammed things up. this happened to my 98 Crown Victoria. You have to replace the whole lock assembly.

Question from Todd (1981-1983):

When I turn the key I get NOTHING. Turn it again, I get NOTHING, turn it for the third time and vroooom. Is the problem related to the starter or another ignition part?? I would assume that if the starter is missing teeth on the flywheel, it would cause this delayed start.


From Carmine:

If you were missing teeth, you would hear the starter run regardless. Perhaps grinding noises. Suspect bad starter relay.

 From Bob:

Also check the neutral safety switch (on trans). It also could be an ignition switch going bad.

This page last updated November 30, 2004.  Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club