surgeons examining under a car hood

What To Do If Your Car Won’t Start

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

jumper cables clamping on batteryIt 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.

automatic gear shift to neutral

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.

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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.

gas can hooked up like IV lineIt 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.

car battery in wheelchair

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.

x-ray of car tire

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

Get GEICO Auto insurance.

    Leave a comment

  1. Joanne (Jo) Gyr says,

    Another reason your car might not start – I needed a new ignition switch, better known as a starter, earlier this year.

    These little articles are very informative, please continue them. My VW bug is 9 years old & I’m not ready to part with it.

  2. Debra Murgha says,

    My car won’t start,it doesn’t make a clicking noise and there are lights in the dash,the battery is good I drive a 2010 mitzibishi triton

  3. Adam massey says,

    My car was charged 24 hours and it will not start my lights come on the will not say anything

  4. Rony Clermont says,

    I started my car in the morning to drop my wife at work,when i got back i parked after some hours i went outside and saw the stop light on.i checked the dash board everything was ok,ready to go to work my car won,t start what i should do?

  5. Anthony j Reyes says,

    Having a can of Fix-A-Flat on deck in your trunk during warm weather can help in an emergency with a low tire or flat awesome with some older cars the linkage in the shift steering column occurs sometime where it doesn’t catch it could be in park or in Drive with your foot on the brake at a red light and it cuts off and won’t start

  6. Jennifer Hendricks says,

    My car is trying to crank but it won’t turn over. I don’t know anything about cars. And i want to drive an 18 wheeler.?

    • Julia Robertson says,

      Of have a ford focus most off the time my car won’t start first time around.. Tune the key all lights etc will come on some times it will say engine warring light will go on.. Sometimes it goes off other times it doesn’t.. After pressing the opening door on the key and trying a few time it will start this can be anything between 2 “minutes to 45 or having to call the Aaa out… If stopped and get bk in after a few minutes it normally starts straight away… Plz. Help

  7. Melissa Pennington says,

    On 11/9/17 my car wouldn’t start. I had it jumped off, nothing. So I went and got a starter thinking that was the problem. It wasn’t. So I got a new battery. That wasn’t the problem either. And it’s not the alternator. When I turn the key, there is no sound at all. Could it be the ignition switch? I am trying not to have it put on a computer, but I don’t know what else to do.

  8. Bongani says,

    My car cranks but won’t start the fuel and oil was low so I poured two bottles of oil and 4l petrol it still doesn’t start what can I do

    • Lorraine Mukli says,

      When I try start my Car it won’t turn over at all , No sound of starter. I have power. Starts with a boost only. What could be the problem?

  9. reatile says,

    i packed my car with no problem, so in the morning when i try to start, it won’t but spak and fuel comes with a good pressure so i wonder why?