starter (also self-starter, cranking motor, or starter motor) is a device used to rotate (crank) an internal-combustion engine so as to initiate the engine's operation under its own power. Starters can be electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic. In the case of very large engines, the starter can even be another internal-combustion engine.

Internal-combustion engines are feedback systems, which, once started, rely on the inertia from each cycle to initiate the next cycle. In a four-stroke engine, the third stroke releases energy from the fuel, powering the fourth (exhaust) stroke and also the first two (intake, compression) strokes of the next cycle, as well as powering the engine's external load. To start the first cycle at the beginning of any particular session, the first two strokes must be powered in some other way than from the engine itself. The starter motor is used for this purpose and is not required once the engine starts running and its feedback loop becomes self-sustaining.

The electric starter motor or cranking motor is the most common type used on gasoline engines and small diesel engines. The modern starter motor is either a permanent-magnet or a series-parallel wound direct current electric motor with a starter solenoid (similar to a relay) mounted on it. When DC power from the starting battery is applied to the solenoid, usually through a key-operated switch (the "ignition switch"), the solenoid engages a lever that pushes out the drive pinion on the starter driveshaft and meshes the pinion with the starter ring gear on the flywheel of the engine.

The solenoid also closes high-current contacts for the starter motor, which begins to turn. Once the engine starts, the key-operated switch is opened, a spring in the solenoid assembly pulls the pinion gear away from the ring gear, and the starter motor stops. The starter's pinion is clutched to its drive shaft through an overrunning sprag clutch which permits the pinion to transmit drive in only one direction. In this manner, drive is transmitted through the pinion to the flywheel ring gear, but if the pinion remains engaged (as for example because the operator fails to release the key as soon as the engine starts, or if there is a short and the solenoid remains engaged), the pinion will spin independently of its drive shaft. This prevents the engine driving the starter, for such backdrive would cause the starter to spin so fast as to fly apart.

The sprag clutch arrangement would preclude the use of the starter as a generator if employed in the hybrid scheme mentioned above, unless modifications were made. The standard starter motor is typically designed for intermittent use, which would preclude its use as a generator. The starter's electrical components are designed only to operate for typically under 30 seconds before overheating (by too-slow dissipation of heat from ohmic losses), to save weight and cost. Most automobile owner manuals instruct the operator to pause for at least ten seconds after each ten or fifteen seconds of cranking the engine, when trying to start an engine that does not start immediately.

This overrunning-clutch pinion arrangement was phased into use beginning in the early 1960s; before that time, a Bendix drive was used. The Bendix system places the starter drive pinion on a helically cut drive shaft. When the starter motor begins turning, the inertia of the drive pinion assembly causes it to ride forward on the helix and thus engage with the ring gear. When the engine starts, backdrive from the ring gear causes the drive pinion to exceed the rotative speed of the starter, at which point the drive pinion is forced back down the helical shaft and thus out of mesh with the ring gear