Top 10 Reasons Your Car Won't Start And How To Fix Them
Pretending we’re Tracy Chapman: Give me 10 reasons your car won’t start! And I’ll show you how to fix them.
- Auto Repair and Maintenance
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A car not starting often instigates the five stages of grief. There’s denial, “No, no, no, start!” Then anger, “CURSE YOU, YOU CLUNKER!” Bargaining, “Please start, please, please, please, start?!” Depression, “My God, I’m going to be late again. They’re going to fire me and it’s all my fault!” And finally, acceptance, and that’s where we come in.
Failed starts are caused by a variety of issues, from bad batteries, faulty starters, gross gasoline, bad engine parts, and a lot of others. That makes diagnosing the issue somewhat of an undertaking, especially for those who don’t normally work on their own cars. Luckily, you have The Drive’s editors.
We’ve gone through those stages and came out the other side alive. Our knuckles might have been bruised and sometimes bloodied, but we got the cars working. So follow along as we give you the top 10 reasons why your car won’t start and how to fix them.
Let’s do this!
Car Not Starting Basics
Estimated Time Needed: 1 hour-1 day
Skill Level: Beginner-Intermediate
Vehicle System: Electrical, combustion, remote
Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll need a flat surface such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. If you’re in a garage, open the door to let in as much fresh air as possible. If you're using the street, check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes because we ain’t getting your car out of the impound yard.
Everything You’ll Need To Fix a Car That Won’t Start
We’re not psychic, and we aren’t snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.
- Wire brush
- Socket wrench set
- Screwdriver (assorted)
- Work light
- Drain pan to catch fuel spillage
- Car jack
- Jack stands
- Wheel chock
- Class B fire extinguisher
- Jumper cables
- Gas siphon/pump
- Remote battery
- Car battery
- Fuel filter
- Spark plugs
- Starter motor
10 Reasons Your Car Won’t Start and How to Fix Each
Now that you understand what you need and what safety precautions you must take, let’s get down to brass tacks and diagnose why your car won’t start.
Bad Remote Battery
One of the easiest, and most common, issues why your car may not start is your remote’s battery is dead, and we’re not talking about the ones that simply lock the doors. Most modern cars do not have keys, they have push-button starts, so they require a signal from the remote to power up. Here’s how to test it.
- If you have a second remote that works, pull it out.
- Swap batteries with the first remote.
- If it worked, all you need is a new battery.
- If you don’t have a second remote, simply buy a new battery.
Unsynced Car Remote
Did you know your car remote might unsync itself, and you’ll have to reprogram it? Now you do! You’ll need to consult your car’s dusty, old owner's manual to find your remote’s programming procedure.
How To Change Your Starter Motor
We’ve all heard the dreaded “click, click, click, click” that occurs when you turn the key and nothing happens. Something is wrong with the car’s electrical system, and after replacing the battery, or attempting to jump-start the car, you’ve determined it’s likely your starter motor. Here’s a brief and general explanation of how to replace your starter motor.
- Disconnect the battery terminals.
- For better clearance, lift up the front end of your vehicle.
- Locate the engine’s starter motor using your dusty manual.
- Remove any parts necessary to access the starter motor.
- Disconnect any connections running to the starter motor.
- Remove the starter.
- You can turn in your old starter for a new starter and only pay for a core charge. After, replace the old starter with the new unit.
- Reconnect any connections to the new starter you removed from the old starter.
- Replace any parts you had to remove to access the starter.
- Lower the vehicle.
- Reconnect the battery terminals.
- Crank the engine.
- It may not fire right away, so give it a few tries.
Bad Car Battery
An old battery is one of the most straightforward reasons why your car won’t start. Learn how to replace a battery with The Drive’s guide, How To Change a Car Battery.
Corroded Battery Terminals or Leads
Batteries get old, and the terminals or leads can become corroded. Here’s how to repair both and ensure your next startup actually works.
- Pop the car’s hood to access the car’s battery.
- Remove the old battery by removing the negative cable from the negative terminal—the one with the minus sign. Depending on the design of the battery, you may need a wrench to loosen the cable.
- Remove the positive cable from the positive terminal—the one with the plus sign. If you are using a tool like a wrench, make sure the metal doesn’t contact the terminal as it will spark.
- Loosen the battery hold-down, connectors, and/or fasteners that secure the battery in place.
- Lift the battery out. The weight of the battery might be more than 50 pounds, so get some help if necessary. Put the battery to the side in a safe spot.
- Using a skinny wire brush and some water or baking soda, clean the clamps. Try to remove any corrosion, dirt, or debris.
- Clean any build-up on the battery terminals.
- Put the battery into the holder and tighten any brackets.
- Reconnect the positive terminal.
- Reconnect the negative terminal.
- Remove all tools from the engine bay and test the car.
How To Jump-Start a Car
Your car’s battery can go through periods of charge and discharge and might occasionally require a jump. To do so, follow The Drive’s instructions on How To Jump-Start a Car.
How To Check If Your Gasoline Is Bad
Just like milk, gasoline can go bad if you’ve left it for too long. Modern ethanol-based gasoline has a shelf-life of about six months, though stabilizers could extend its life. But excising the bad gasoline from your car’s tank takes a little more than just funneling it down the drain, so let’s see if it’s bad first. Here’s how to check if your gasoline is bad.
- Using a fuel transfer pump, slide the pump’s hose into the gas tank’s input opening behind the filler cap.
- Pump a small amount of the gasoline out of the car and into a clear container.
- Let the gasoline sit for approximately five minutes so it can settle.
- If the pumped-out gasoline separates into discernible layers or contains particulates, your gas is old and bad.
- Remove as much as possible using the pump.
- Replace it with new gasoline.
- You’ll likely have to crank the engine a few times to work the remaining bad gasoline through the system.
- Dispose of the bad gasoline properly so it doesn’t negatively impact the environment. Most local auto parts stores will dispose of your old fluids for free.
- If the bad gas ran through the system, you might also need to check your fuel filter.
Clogged Fuel Filter
There are a few things that can clog a fuel filter, including rust from somewhere in the fuel system, poorly refined gasoline, dust and debris from the gas pump entering the fuel system, or a faulty fuel filter. You can follow The Drive’s step-by-step guide for How To Change Your Fuel Filter here.
Broken Timing Belt/Chain
A timing belt/chain is an engine component that synchronizes the engine’s camshafts and the crankshaft so the engine’s valves open on time with the intake and exhaust strokes. When it goes bad, the engine could hiccup, run extremely rough, or refuse to operate at all.
Because of the meticulous labor-intensive process and the real possibility that you could seriously damage your engine, we highly recommend taking your car in to have this serviced by a professional.
Faulty Spark Plugs
Spark plugs can go bad for a variety of reasons, but most commonly, they’re just old and need replacement. Our guide on how to replace spark plugs can be found here.
Get Help With Why Your Car Won’t Start From a Mechanic On JustAnswer
Although The Drive’s detailed how-to guides are easy to follow, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or a messy oil leak can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs.
So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you.
Pro Tips To Fixing A Car That Won't Start
The Drive’s editors and writers have been getting oily and servicing cars in their own garages for years. Follow these pro tips to avoid finding yourself with a dead car.
- Modern cars have automatic headlights. Make sure they’re on auto because if you’ve just left them on, they’ll drain the battery.
- Always keep to your vehicle’s maintenance schedule. Doing so will alleviate many of the issues that could cause your vehicle to fail.
- If you don’t have the tools to perform your own maintenance, check with your local auto parts stores such as Autozone or Advanced Auto Parts. They typically have tools that can be rented, often for free.
FAQs About Broken Why Your Car Won’t Start
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q. What is a Car Maintenance Schedule?
A. A car maintenance schedule is a calendar that entails set guidelines, rules, and requirements for your vehicle’s key components. The schedule covers inspections, replacements, cleanings, rotations, and other care that will preserve and sustain the life and efficiency of the vehicle. Without following these guidelines, your vehicle could fail, or worse, create unsafe driving conditions.
Q. My Car Won’t Start, But the Headlights Come On. What Gives?
A. Most likely, your car’s battery is on its way out. It still has enough juice to power up the lights, and even some of the accessories, but not enough to turn over the engine. Scroll on up to see how to replace it.
Q. What Is Wrong With My Car When I Turn the Key and Nothing Happens?
A. Your car’s battery is deader than King Tut, it’s time to replace it.
Q. My Car Is Making Clicking Noises. Is that Okay?
A. Let me ask you a question instead. Is it okay when your shoulder or knee starts clicking? No! Clicking noises usually mean your starter has gone kaput. Don’t worry, we’ve got a guide for that and detailed it above!
Q. Can You Jump a Car With a Bad Starter?
A. Yes, you absolutely can. However, that doesn’t fix the starter nor does it avert you potentially getting stranded. Our advice is to jump the car and head to get the starter repaired.