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Sue Hayward

What to do when your car won't start


We can all feel a bit sluggish on winter mornings, and even the most reliable cars can play up. So here’s how to save yourself a breakdown call-out.

Woman trying to pull her car

If your car won’t start on a cold morning, it’s most likely to be a battery problem according to the AA.

"Always give yourself a fighting chance by making sure everything is switched off before starting the engine", says AA mechanic Max Holdstock.

And once it’s started, don’t instantly switch on your lights, heating and radio as this puts added pressure on the battery.

Battery checks

If it won’t start, "check the battery leads are tight" says Trevor Eastman, head of technical services at Haynes.

Another tip is to dip the clutch as you turn the ignition, as this reduces the pressure on the battery when starting a cold car.

"Just starting up can take ten minutes off the life of your battery", says Eastman. "And most people don’t realise it can take around 30 minutes’ 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.

In this case, "it can be worth investing in a ‘trickle charger’ to help keep your battery in tip-top condition," Eastman adds. You can pick these up for around £25 at shops such as Halfords or Maplins.

Check your fuel

Petrol pump in red car

Starting a cold car first thing in the morning can use 40% more fuel than normal, according to the AA. And an empty petrol tank is a frequent cause of breakdown. So if you’re already low, stick some petrol in on the way home.

Low oil

If oil levels are low, the engine can sound like it’s struggling to turn over.

"This is because there’s more strain on the battery to get the car started," says Holdstock.

"And if there’s not enough antifreeze in the system, you could freeze the cooling system."  While the car may start, this could mean a cracked radiator – so check your handbook for the levels of antifreeze needed.

It's worth getting a service to identify potential problems before winter. Or pop into Halfords for a free winter check, which includes a screenwash top-up (with antifreeze), plus checks for your battery, oil, lights and wipers.

Sticky starter motor

If all you hear is a ‘click’ when you turn the ignition, it could be a problem with the 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.  However, if the problem persists, you’ll need a trip to the garage.

Should you jump-start a car?

Man jumping a car battery

"You may have the leads in the boot. But unless you know how to do the job properly, don’t attempt it," says the AA’s Max Holdstock.

"It's all too easy to damage your car or injure yourself if you get it wrong."

And the advice from Trevor Eastman is that if you’re going to do it, "check the instructions in your handbook, as each manufacturer may have a slight variation".

Breakdown company Green Flag point out some manufacturers actually recommend their cars aren’t jump-started, as it can damage the engine management system.

If you're prepared to take the risk, read our guide to jump and bump-starting.

Call a breakdown service

You'll need the home start option if you’re stuck at home. It’s worth knowing that some services limit the number of call-outs you can have before extra charges kick in.



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