We depend on our cars to always be there when we need them. That’s why it can be such a shock when you turn the key and your car doesn’t start. If that happens to you, don’t panic. A lot of times the problem is relatively simple to fix. To figure out what’s going on, pay careful attention to what happens when you turn the key.
Click what happens when you turn the key to jump down to your specific issue:
- Nothing happens when I turn the key
- There’s a clicking or slow whirring sound
- The lights come on but no noise
- The starter runs but the engine won’t turn over
- I have an older car, more tips…
Nothing Happens When I Turn the Key
Say you turn the key and nothing at all happens. Dead silence—no dash lights, no interior lights. That means your car’s systems aren’t getting any power from the battery. The most likely culprit is a dead battery, but before you spring for a new one, you should check that your battery connections are good. Check by hand that the terminals are tight on the battery. If they feel loose, tighten the nut on the side of the terminal. If they feel tight, but there’s a lot of corrosion and buildup, that might reduce the effectiveness of your battery. You might want to take the terminals off the battery posts and carefully clean the posts and terminals. Often you can get the terminals clean enough just using a wire brush, but this video will show you a more thorough procedure to keep your terminals cleaner long-term:
Now, let’s say you’ve cleaned the terminals and tried to tighten them down, but they still seem loose. Sometimes battery terminals just get loose from wear. It’s happened to me. In that case, you’ll want to replace the terminal. In the meantime, however, you can turn a screw into the gap between the post and the terminal to make a better connection. This video will show you an example of a battery terminal replacement:
If your battery connections are all good, then you probably just have a dead battery. See if you can get a jump start from a friendly neighbor. If your battery is really drained, it might even be too far gone for a jump start. I’ve been there too. In that case, it’s time for a new battery. If you can’t get to the store, some roadside assistance services will bring a battery to you for a fee.
There’s a Clicking or Slow Whirring Noise
You might hear a click-click-click noise or a slow whirring noise when you turn the key. The good news is that means your starter’s getting power. It’s just working slowly or inconsistently. That probably means your battery output is poor. To check, Family Handyman magazine recommends turning on your interior lights and turning the key. If the light dims when you turn the key, then the battery’s not putting out enough power. All the battery tips up above still apply here.
It’s also possible that your starter motor’s electrical contacts aren’t making good contact. Sometimes you can knock them into place by whacking the starter with whatever tools you have available. Family Handyman suggests your tire iron.
The Lights Come On, But There’s No Noise
If your dash lights and dome lights come on and are bright, then the battery’s working. But no noise means the starter’s not working. Where to start?
First of all, if you have an automatic transmission, you have something called a neutral safety switch. That keeps the car from starting with the transmission in drive or reverse. Sometimes the switch gets out of alignment, though. When that happens, if you can’t start the car in park, you might be able to get it to start in neutral. Just make sure your foot’s on the brake if you’re on a hill.
Another possibility is that the battery is working, but the starter isn’t getting power. The starter is connected to the battery by its own special wire. Make sure you have a solid connection at both ends and the wire doesn’t look frayed. The Chicago Tribune points out it could also be a problem with the starter relay or fuses, so be sure to check those as well.
Of course, it could be the starter itself. Again, you can try whacking the starter to realign its internal components. If the starter’s too far gone, though, you’ll have to replace it.
The Starter Runs, but the Engine Won’t Turn Over
What if the starter runs fine, but the engine still won’t run (which, by the way, is what car guys mean when they say it cranks but won’t turn over)?
Unfortunately, you’re now in the domain of engine trouble. Basically an engine needs three things to work: fuel, spark, and compression. According to our own auto expert Jeremy Nutt, fuel and spark are much more likely to be your problem than compression.
Your engine could be starved of or flooded with gas. If your fuel pump isn’t working, then the engine won’t be getting gas. You can check if your fuel pump is running by ear. Family Handyman recommends turning off your radio. Then turn the key to the on position. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear the fuel pump running. It makes a quiet buzzing noise.
It’s also possible that your fuel lines are frozen. In cold, wet weather moisture in the fuel can condense in the fuel lines and freeze, keeping fuel from getting to the engine. The Chicago Tribune recommends keeping your tank above half full in cold weather to keep moisture out.
The opposite problem, that the engine is getting too much gas, could also prevent the car from starting. If your engine’s flooded with gas, you may be able to smell gasoline. With the transmission in neutral, try pressing the gas pedal while you start the car. That will open the throttle, and let in more air to help you burn the fuel.
If the problem isn’t fuel, then it’s likely spark. Check your spark plugs. Some modern plugs can last up to 100,000 miles, but they can still get fouled. Take out the plugs and look for black or sooty residue. Check the gap with a spark plug gapper. If you don’t have one, you can usually rent one from a local parts store. If the spark plugs are fine, then test the ignition coils or spark plug wires. This video shows what a worn spark plug looks like and how to use a spark plug gapper:
Some Tips For Older Cars
Older cars with carburetors and distributors can have their own quirks. For Dummies has some good tips for these cars. If your car doesn’t like to start on rainy days and it has a distributor ignition, there may be moisture in the distributor. You can clean the distributor cap with a solvent and a lint-free rag to get the moisture out. If it’s cold mornings that give you trouble on a carbureted car, then you might have a problem with the choke.
It’s not necessarily a catastrophe if your car doesn’t start up right away. With the symptoms and simple tests outlined above you should be able to track down the most common issues that can cause a no-start condition. Usually the problem is something pretty minor, and with a jump start or a new battery, you’ll be back on the road.