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Car won’t start? A troubleshooting guide to starting problems

Your car won’t start, but why not? And what should you do? Here are some reasons your car might not start – along with the solutions.

Your car won’t start, but why not? And what should you do? Here are some reasons your car might not start – along with the solutions.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
20 MARCH 2024
5 min read
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What to do when your car won’t start

There’s a number of reasons why you might have trouble starting your car. We round up the most common…

1. Flat or faulty battery 

When you start the engine, do you hear your engine slowly turning but failing to start, a faint click or complete silence? If so, a flat battery might be the issue. 

It’s fairly common to find your car won’t start if you haven’t used it for a while. Your battery can also go flat if you accidentally leave your lights on overnight.

What to do if you have a flat battery

To get your car going again, you may need to jumpstart the engine. You can do this with some jump leads, but you’ll need another car. Only use jump leads if you know what you’re doing. You don’t want to injure yourself or damage the cars. 

If the other car’s battery has charge but yours still fails to start, you might need to tighten or clean the connections. It could also be that your battery is getting old – most need to be replaced after about six years.

At this point, it’s worth contacting a mechanic for an expert opinion.

2. Faulty engine starter motor

If you hear a clicking noise when starting the car, it could mean there’s something wrong with the battery. It could also suggest a problem with the starter motor – the electrical motor connected to the battery. This sets the engine in motion when you turn on the ignition. 

What to do if you have a faulty engine starter motor

The most likely cause of a faulty engine starter motor is a poor wiring connection or faulty solenoids (electromagnets). 

A faulty starter motor is hard to fix yourself, so you may need help bump-starting your car. Get someone to push your car while you’re in the driver’s seat, with the ignition in the ‘on’ position and the clutch down. Then ‘pop’ the clutch back up once you’re moving. 

Alternatively, you may be better off getting a friend or recovery service to tow you to a garage.

3. Fuel problems 

When it’s cold outside, your car needs more fuel to get going. If you’re already running low, the engine could have trouble starting.

What to do if you have fuel problems

In most cases, a simple top-up should solve the problem.

But if your fuel filter is clogged, the petrol won’t reach the engine, making it difficult to burn the fuel needed to start. Manufacturers generally recommend replacing the fuel filters every two years, or 15,000-20,000 miles, but check your handbook for guidance.

4. Flooded engine

If your car won’t restart, or starts briefly but keeps cutting out, your engine may have flooded. This can happen with older petrol cars when there’s too much fuel and not enough air in the engine, preventing the spark plugs working. 

What to do if you have a flooded engine

If your engine is flooded, the trick is to be patient. Wait a few minutes with the gearbox in neutral and the handbrake on. Then put your foot flat on the accelerator and start the engine. Once it catches, leave it to idle for a few seconds so it warms up properly before you set off.

If this doesn’t work, you may need to call the professionals.

5. Faulty key fob

Newer cars come with keyless entry and ignition, where the car starts at the push of a button. The button receives a coded signal from the smart key fob to work, so if the engine fails to recognise your key it won’t start.

What to do if you have a faulty key fob

If your key fob is faulty, you may just need to replace the battery. You’ll know this is the case if the central locking doesn’t work either. Sometimes you can start your car with a dead key fob by holding it against the start button when you press it.

If you think the key fob is faulty, contact your dealer for help.

6. Cold weather

If it’s particularly chilly, or your car’s spent time in the snow, you may have a frozen fuel line. This is when water collects in the fuel line. It’s more common when your tank is on the empty side. 

What to do if cold weather means your car won’t start

To keep your car running smoothly in the winter months, mechanics recommend keeping your fuel tank at least half full.

If your fuel line isn’t the problem, you may have damp spark plugs. If you’re not sure, call a mechanic.

7. No spark from the ignition coil 

If there’s no spark from the ignition coil, you could have a problem with the wiring. But it could also be down to worn spark plugs. 

What to do if there’s no spark from the ignition coil 

Take a look at your vehicle repair manual to see if the issue is something you can diagnose yourself. But you might be better off calling a mechanic.

8. Steering lock is jammed 

It can be unnerving to start your car and find the steering lock is jammed. If this happens to you, hold your steering wheel as you start the engine, turning it in the right direction. If that doesn’t work, try turning the wheel in the other direction as you start the car. 

What to do if the steering lock is jammed 

It’s possible that your steering wheel lock is worn out or broken. If that’s the case, you may need to call out a mechanic to tow the car to a garage.

The benefits of breakdown cover when your car won’t start

Regardless of what caused your breakdown, you’re likely to need help. This is when breakdown cover comes into its own. 

Compare the Market is here to help you find car insurance and breakdown cover at a price that’s right for you. Start a quote today to see if you could save on your breakdown cover and car insurance.

Frequently asked questions

What are the most common reasons your car won’t start?

The number-one reason cars won’t start is a flat car battery. There are lots of possible reason why your battery is flat, but the main one is human error. In other words, you forgot to turn off the lights or radio, or you’ve left the car sitting for months without starting it.

What does it mean if my car won’t start but the lights come on?

If your car won’t start but the lights come on, the problem isn’t likely to be the battery. It could be a number of things, so it’s worth calling a mechanic.

Can you jump-start a car in the rain?

It’s perfectly safe to jump-start a car when it’s raining, although it won’t be much fun.

Can I call out assistance if I don’t have breakdown cover?

If your car won’t start and you don’t have breakdown cover, you can phone a breakdown provider and get immediate emergency cover. It’s likely to cost you though. You’ll have to pay an emergency call-out fee on top of the cost of a policy (if applicable) plus any parts and repairs.

What tools should I carry in case my car won’t start?

It’s a good idea to have jump leads, a tyre jack, a spare tyre and an empty fuel can in your car boot, so you’re prepared if your car won’t start.

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