Cars are complex machines with computers and multiple systems that all need to work together to run properly. We couldn’t cover every issue in just one article, but we’ll explore the main reasons why your car won’t start, common solutions to these problems, and how to avoid it happening again.
Most of us have felt that sinking feeling at one time or another when you turn the key in your car, but nothing happens. Don’t panic. If you can troubleshoot the problem by using your eyes and ears, you’ll have a better chance of finding the solution before you resort to calling for a mechanic.
The first thing you must do is try to insert the key. What happens next?
The key won’t go into the Ignition Barrel
Your key might be damaged. Car keys run the risk of getting damaged or worn out like any other bit of property. If the key has become bent or misshapen, or the grooves have been damaged, it won’t engage with the ignition barrel. You’ll feel stronger resistance, or the key might only go in halfway if this is the case.
If you have a big bunch of keys hanging from your car’s ignition, over time this can cause damage to your key or even the ignition barrel, making it stiff or even impossible to turn on. Try to keep your car key on a small, light keyring.
You Can’t Turn the Key
This is a common issue that can happen without warning. Most cars have a steering lock that engages after you have turned your car off and turned the steering wheel until it clicks. Try turning the key at the same time as the steering wheel, and it should disengage.
If you happen to have an automatic car, there’s a safety feature that engages if you try to turn on the ignition when the gear selector is set to any setting other than P, or Park. Some cars will let you turn the ignition when N, or Neutral is selected as well.
The Key Turns but Nothing Happens
If you turn the key to the “Start” position and nothing happens at all, including any dashboard lights, there’s a good chance you have a flat battery. When your battery is completely dead, there’s not enough power to turn over your starter motor or power any of the car electrical systems.
If you check your battery and find it has a charge, but your starter still wont turn over, it could be a few things: your starter motor could be faulty or broken, or your engine might have seized.
You Hear a Clicking Sound
If you turn the key and hear a single click, or repeated clicking, it’s likely that there’s a fault in your electrical system. You could have a problem with your alternator, which is the device that converts your car’s mechanical energy into electrical power. Or, you could have a short circuit somewhere in your car that slowly drains your battery when you think it’s switched off.
Your Engine Struggles to Turn Over, Then Stops
You can also check for corroded battery terminals or cables. If your battery has been exposed to the elements, the terminals or battery leads can rust or get dirty, which can cause a bad connection. This might be bad enough to stop your engine from turning over.
The same problem can be caused by loose battery connections. Over time, the leads connecting your car’s battery can become loose or damaged, causing a short.
If your electrics switch on, but your engine won’t turn over, check that you haven’t run out of fuel. If you’ve been running your car on empty, it will give up. Or there could be a fuel leak, which would need immediate attention.
If you think you’ve sussed what the problem is, you can try fixing it yourself before you’re forced to call a mechanic.
Your Key won’t go into the Ignition
A dirty key or ignition barrel might be your only problem. Check the grooves on your car key for any dirt and use a torch to look inside your ignition slot.
Clean your key with a rag and remove any obstructions from the ignition with a pair of tweezers or use compressed air and a thin tube to blast it out. You can use WD-40 and the thin nozzle as well but watch out for drips on your carpet.
If the ignition barrel has jammed, you can give it a smart tap with a small hammer, which can release any stuck pins inside.
This is a common problem, especially in older cars, so it’s good practise to carry a set of jump leads or a power pack in your boot.
If you have jump leads, you need to find another (working) car to help you jump start yours. Position the donor car as close as you can so that the jump leads can reach from their battery to yours. It’s a good idea to buy the longest leads you can find and turn off the working car.
Always connect your battery leads in this order:
- Attach the red (positive) lead to the positive (+) terminal on the dead battery
- Then attach the other end of the red lead to the positive terminal on the working battery
- Attach the black (negative) lead to the negative (-) terminal on the working battery. Some cars don’t have an obvious negative terminal, if so, you can attach it to any bare, unpainted metal on the engine
- Then attach the other end of the black lead to any bare metal on the dead car’s engine. Don’t attach it to the negative terminal of the dead battery
- Once the leads are attached, turn on the donor car’s engine. Let it run for a few minutes
- Try your ignition. If your car starts, leave it running to charge the battery
- Remove your leads in reverse order as above: black lead from your car, then the donor car, then the red lead from the donor car followed by your car
If jump starting your car doesn’t work, your battery might be beyond saving, or there’s a different fault that you can’t solve without talking to your mechanic.
As they say, prevention is always better than cure, so try to follow these few rules that will help you avoid costly repair bills in the long run:
- Have your car serviced regularly or learn to do it yourself. Basic things like clean oil and a good battery will keep your car running for years to come
- Always investigate strange noises, knocks and smells as soon as you notice them. Leaving these problems rarely fixes them
- Carry spare fuses, quality battery leads or even a booster pack just in case
- You can fix a lot of problems on the fly with a tin of WD-40 and a roll of duct tape