It’s a sinking feeling: You put the key in the ignition, turn it and … nothing happens. If this happens to you, listen closely. The sound your car makes—or doesn’t—is a clue to what’s going on under the hood, and whether you should call for a tow or try to fix it yourself.
Here are some of the most common issues, according to Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, and what you should do about them.
No Sound, No Lights
It might be: A battery connection problem.
What to do: Check the cable connections at the battery. They may look fine, but see if you can twist and turn them by hand; if you can, the connection’s loose. Remove them, clean them with a paper towel or rag, reconnect (you’ll likely need a wrench to tighten down the clamps) and try again.
It might be: A dead battery.
What to do: Try a jump start. You’ll need cables and someone with a car to connect your battery to theirs. Here’s how to jump start your car.
No Sound But Dashboard Lights Go On
It might be: The car isn’t in park or neutral, or the switch on the side of the transmission has gone bad in the park position.
What to do: Move the gear to neutral and see if the car will start. Also try pushing the brake pedal (or clutch, in a car with a manual transmission).
It might be: A faulty starter motor, or your ignition switch or cables from the ignition to the starter aren’t working properly.
What to do: Call for a tow and get to a repair shop right away.
It might be: A problem with the key fob, like a bad transponder or a dead battery.
What to do: There should be an option to start your car even if the fob’s battery is totally dead. Check your owner’s manual.
Engine Makes A Clicking Sound
It might be: A weak battery.
What to do: Turn on the headlights. If they come on brightly, your battery is good and the clicking means you have either a bad connection or a bad starter. If the lights come on very dimly, the problem is a weak battery, and you should try a jump start.
Normal Cranking But Engine Won’t Fire
It might be: You’re out of gas, or running very low.
What to do: Call a service to bring you some fuel.
It might be: A flooded engine, if you have an older car with a carbureted engine. This happens when there’s too much fuel in the engine and the spark plugs are wet and won’t spark.
What to do: Hold the gas pedal all the way down and crank the engine; this will clear the fuel out of the combustion chamber.
It might be: A blown fuse for the fuel pump or ignition circuit.
What to do: When a fuse fails, it’s easy to spot—you’ll see the metal strip is broken and has a bit of black around it. Check your owner’s manual for the fuse box location and replace the fuse. Most car makers provide spare fuses in extra spaces in the fuse box.
A Slow, Dying Crank
It might be: A weak battery.
What to do: Try a jump. Then get to a mechanic as quickly as possible, because it’s only going to happen again.
A Crank With A Grinding Noise
It might be: The starter is not engaging the flywheel.
What to do: Cycle the key on and off three or four times; it should catch the flywheel and start. However, this means that you have broken teeth on your flywheel, so get your car to the shop right away.
Super-Fast Cranking With A Spinning Noise
It might be: A broken timing belt. The connection between the upper half and the lower half of the engine is broken. The pistons have no resistance, and they’re moving up and down faster than usual because some valves remain open.
What to do: Stop cranking immediately and call for a tow; this is a serious problem. To help prevent this problem, replace your timing belt as part of your regular maintenance.
If your car won’t start, hearing a tow truck is a welcome sound. Fortunately, it’s easy to call one with Emergency Roadside Service, available through the GEICO Mobile App. Another nice noise? Hearing that you could be paying less for car insurance from GEICO. Get a quote now and see if you could save!
Read more: The Extreme Weather Driving Guide
By Ellise Pierce
Illustrations by Curt Merlo
Walter Kowalski says,
Thank you for this information. I tried to start my car this morning, and it cranked, but it didn’t start. I’m not very good with cars, so I thought I should do some research to see if I could figure out what the problem was. Your information was very helpful. I’ll be sure to take your advice and have my car taken to an auto service.
Irena Ryans says,
Thanks for the information. My car has a problem with not starting. I’ve noticed that it especially happens when it’s cold outside, or even when it’s too hot outside. I’m going to follow your tip about taking it in to have it looked at. Is there anything I should tell the people at the shop?
Chase Wilson says,
Great tips! My battery died in the middle of a snowstorm last winter. Extremely thankful that roadside assistance exists by they way. I think it’s because I left my lights on. It’s a german car so you’d think it would be engineered to handle a little bit of foul weather! Are all car batteries the same, or do they vary in size and power?
Paige Smith says,
These are all really good ideas. Something else that would be really good to think of, is to get a tow truck ride to the mechanic. However, resolving the problem on your own is probably best.
Jamarcus Dantley says,
I’ve been placed in this situation before a few times. It can be stressful when your car doesn’t start when it should. Sometimes towing is the only way to go. You’re right, being prepared is very important!
Kent Nelson says,
This is a very helpful article. Thank you for sharing. I wish that my wife would have seen this article a few weeks ago. She was leaving work one day, and her car wouldn’t start. She panicked, and called me on the phone crying. I was out of town for work, and she thought that she was going to be stranded in the dark. I called a towing company, and got them to take her and the car home.
Delores Lyon says,
Thanks for sharing this advice on what to do when your car doesn’t start. I think if this happened to me, I would turn to roadside assistance especially if it was a problem where the car cranks but doesn’t start. Like you said, when it is not a problem with the battery, then you should leave it in the hands of a professional.
Julie Myers says,
Having to deal with a broken down car is really stressful. Just last week, my good friend was at the store, but her car wouldn’t start. She tried a few different things, but nothing seemed to be helping. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she was at the store for a while. It probably would have been a good idea for her to get the car jump started and try some of those things. She also should have gotten it towed instead of waiting for it to get started. If I ever have trouble with my own car, I will keep these things in mind!
Susan Hirst says,
My car is over seventeen years old and it has been giving me trouble. There are times where it just won’t start. Usually, the battery is the culprit. These towing tips were very helpful. I’ll be sure to remember them if my car won’t start for me.
paige smith says,
These are some great tips to help me if my car does not start. I think the most important part is being able to jump start the car. If I can get a boost then I can drive it to a mechanic shop and have them fix it.
Zach Thalman says,
Over the past year the biggest reason why my car wouldn’t start was because the battery was dead. That is always the worst when you were just able to drive it around and now you are stranded from a dead battery. I like the idea of looking to see if the lights come on. that can indicate to you if there is a battery issue. I want to say the majority of the time it is a battery issue.
Ted Smith says,
Thank you so much for the tips on what to do if my car won’t start. I didn’t know that if you turn your car lights on and they are dim, then you might have a poor battery connection. I will keep that in mind the next time my car won’t start. Thank you so much again!
Deanna R. Jones says,
Thanks for the tips! My car has been having trouble starting once winter started, so it’s good to know about what I should do to help fix the problem. I really liked your tips about what I should do when my car responds with silence or clicking. I’ll be sure to try to tighten and clean the battery connections the next time my car won’t stop, then have it checked out by a mechanic as soon as I can get my car to one.
Esther Oakley says,
In a lot of these situations it would really help to have towing services on your insurance. I love having the peace of mind that wherever I am my car will be protected. To add to that peace of mind I also carry a battery charger in my car, that way if I don’t have cellular service I have a higher chance of getting my car to safety.
Mia Boyd says,
Thanks for the information. I have a pretty old car and it tends to break down pretty regularly. I’m going to keep these tips in mind, especially the one about turning on the car lights; that seems like such an obvious way to stay safe. Do you have any other ideas for me? What about calling a towing company?