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Car won't start? Here's what to do

Few things are more frustrating than rushing out of the house only to discover that your car won’t start. 

From a flat battery to jammed ignition, there are numerous reasons why your car won’t start.

Here we can guide you through some of the most common problems to help you make a diagnosis and work out what to do.

A driver looks confused as their car won't start


What do I do if my car won’t start?

You might be able to recognise what’s gone wrong with your car and you might be able to fix the problem yourself. 

But, if you aren’t confident enough or it’s a more major problem, you might need to call for support. That could be either from a friend or family member that’s good with cars or call a breakdown service. If you aren’t sure whether you have breakdown cover check your car insurance as you might have it included or as optional extra.

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Do I have a flat battery? 

The most common reason why your car won’t start is because the battery’s dead. If your battery isn’t charged, the engine won’t turn on and none of the electricals will work.

When you turn the key you might hear a clicking noise.

Trevor Eastman of Haynes says:

“Just starting up can take 10 minutes off the life of your battery and most people don’t realise it can take around 30 minutes of driving to fully charge your battery."

So, if your regular morning commute is just 10 minutes to the station, you could be gradually draining your battery over time. Occasional longer trips might help to ensure your battery stays fully charged. 


What do I do if a flat battery means my car won’t start?

If the car won’t start, "Check the battery leads are tight," says Eastman.

Make sure everything is switched off before you start the engine. If it starts, don’t instantly switch on your lights, heating, or radio as these put added pressure on the battery.

If you’re starting a cold car, another tip is to dip the clutch as you turn the ignition. This reduces the pressure on the battery.

If it still won’t start, you could also jump start the car. But unless you know how to do this properly, don’t attempt it. You risk damage to your car and yourself if you get it wrong.

If you’re not confident in jump starting the car yourself, you could:

  • Call a friend or family member for help getting it started
  • Pay for a mechanic to come out
  • Use a mobile battery service

Once your engine is running again you probably need a good half hour drive with minimal stopping and starting to get it fully charged.

It might be a wise move to head straight out to get your battery checked and replaced if necessary.

You can also buy jump-start kits that give your battery some juice without relying on someone else to jump start your car for you. You can charge these kits up at home and keep them in your glove box for when you’re suddenly stranded. 


Have I run out of fuel? 

This might sound obvious, but an empty petrol tank is a frequent cause of breakdown. And starting a cold car first thing in the morning could use more fuel than normal.

It can be too easy to forget to fill up so if you’re already running low on petrol, top up on the way home. Don’t wait until you’re running on fumes to make a trip to the fuel station.

Or if you think you should have had a few more miles in the tank, and suspect your fuel gauge might be faulty, get it checked out at a garage.

If your tank isn’t empty there might be a problem with the fuel system or fuel pump, meaning the fuel isn’t getting to the engine to start the car.


What do I do if my car won’t start because I don’t have fuel? 

Thankfully this is a relatively easy problem to fix. You can call on a friend or neighbour for help or walk to your closest petrol station and fill up a jerry can.

That should give you enough to drive away and fill your tank properly.


Do I have a starter motor issue? 

Starter motor problems are a common reason for cars not starting.

A starter motor is an electrical motor that’s connected to your car’s battery. It sets the engine in motion when you turn the ignition. If you hear a loud click when you start the engine, this could be a problem with your starter motor.


What do I do when my car won’t start because of a starter motor problem?

"With older cars, putting the vehicle in gear – with the ignition off – and gently rocking the car could do the trick and dislodge it," says Eastman.

But, if the problem persists, you might need to go to the garage. A mechanic can check to see whether you’ve got starter motor problems or whether it’s linked to the car’s wider electrics. 


Do I have a blocked fuel filter?

A blocked or clogged fuel filter stops fuel reaching the engine so the car can’t burn the fuel it needs to start.


What do I do if I have a blocked fuel filter?

Depending on the filter you might be able to clean it yourself. But first you need to disconnect the battery and relieve the car’s fuel pressure. Alternatively you might need to replace it.

You should change your fuel filters every 15,000-20,000 miles. It’s another reason why it’s important to get your car serviced regularly.


Do I have a faulty immobiliser?

Another reason your car won’t start could be a problem with your key. If your car doesn’t recognise your key, your car’s immobiliser makes sure the engine doesn’t start. It could be because the battery in your key fob needs changing.


What do I do if I have a faulty immobiliser?

Hopefully you have a spare in the house. If not, you might have some luck holding the key fob close to the start button. 


Is my steering locked? 

Not being able to turn the key in the car’s ignition could be a sign that the steering is locked. You might have parked with the steering in full lock or find that one of your tyres is jammed up to the kerb.


What do I do if my steering is locked?

Thankfully this is usually a problem that’s easy to fix yourself. You should be able to move the steering wheel a little. Try moving it gently while turning the key in the ignition and it should unlock. It’s important not to force the key otherwise you risk further damage.


Can I call a breakdown service if my car won’t start?

Some of these problems might need a mechanic to fix, especially if you don’t fancy getting your hands under the bonnet.

Problems often occur on cold mornings when the car’s parked on your drive or outside your house. So it’s worth checking whether your breakdown cover includes home starts. 

It’s worth knowing that some services limit the number of call-outs you can have before extra charges kick in.


Quick 'car won't start' diagnosis

The noises you hear when you start the car can give you a clue as to why your car won't properly start. Hopefully this should help you identify the issue and fix it yourself or to take to the garage.

Problem Diagnosis
No noise when starting your car
Battery might be disconnected
Engine starts but cuts out
If you smell strong petrol it could be a flooded engine
Engine cranks on but your car won't start
Fuel problems like blocked fuel filter or empty fuel tank
Single click when you turn on the car
Problem with the starter or starter relay
Rapid clicking when you turn on the car
Flat/low battery or an alternator problem