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