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02 Aug 2021
Jamie Gibbs Jamie Gibbs

Common reasons why your car won’t start


Man sat by broken down car

You turn your key in your car's ignition - nothing. But don't panic, here are some common reasons why your car won't start.

We know how frustrating it can be when your car won’t start, and even the most reliable cars can play up. 

You might have starter motor problems or your car key won’t turn in the ignition. Regular motor maintenance could help keep these problems at bay.

We’ve listed the most common reasons why your car won’t start and tips on how you can check what’s wrong. 

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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 ten 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 ten minutes to the station, you could be draining your battery over time.

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 can 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 confident enough to give it a go, read our guide to jump and bump-starting.

Once your car has started you’ll 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 your car for you.

Alternatively you could call out a mechanic or mobile battery service.


No fuel in the tank

This may 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.

To refuel your car, you’ll need to walk to the petrol station and fill a can to bring home. 

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.

Alternatively 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 fuel isn’t getting to the engine to start the car.


Issues with the starter motor


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.

"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’ll need to go to the garage.

A mechanic can check to see whether you have starter motor problems or whether it’s linked to the car’s wider electrics. 


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.

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

Filters should be changed every 15,000-20,000 miles. It’s another reason why it’s important to get your car serviced regularly.


Faulty immobiliser 

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

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


Steering lock or jammed ignition

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

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.


If all else fails, call a breakdown service

Many 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 callouts you can have before extra charges kick in.

If you don’t know what your breakdown cover contains – or even if you have breakdown cover – check your car insurance policy documents. You might have added it to your policy as an extra.


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