Help! My car won’t start, what do I do? | RAC Drive (2023)

One of the quickest ways to derail your day is your car not starting. We’ve all been there — you get behind the wheel, turn the key and… nothing.

But what’s causing your car to fail on you? And is there anything you can do to get your vehicle going again?

To help give you some insight, we’ve put together a quick guide on everything you need to know for when your car won’t start.

Broken down? Not covered? Get instant breakdown cover.Call our hotline on 0333 2000 999 and speak to one of our operators who will be able to set you up on any one of our breakdown cover policies immediately.

Broken down?

Get breakdown cover or call for recovery if you’re already an RAC member.

Report your breakdown

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The reasons a car won’t start

There are a number of different reasons your car won’t start, from being out of fuel, to more complex issues like a fault with its electronics.

But some things are more common than others. Here’s a rundown of some of the more typical reasons your car won’t start.

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Flat or faulty car battery

A flat battery is the most common reason your car won’t start and can be caused by a number of things, such as lights being left on,something in the electrical system causing a battery drain, or even a faulty battery that won’t hold its charge.

As well as your car not starting, aflat battery will usually stop your vehicle’s electrics working properly, meaning no power for lights, the radio or charging your mobile phone. Find out that your battery is definitely to blame for your non-start in our guide to what to do if you have a flat battery.

If you have a flat battery, you might be able to jump start your car using jump leads and a second vehicle with a fully-charged battery.

Check out our guide on how to jump start a car in 10 steps. If the problem keeps occurring, you need to get the battery and charging system properly tested by a professional at a garage.

Can you charge a flat battery?

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A car battery will recharge to some extentwhile driving, however you’ll need to drive for at least 30 minutes after a jump start to allow it to recharge sufficiently for the next time you start the engine.

This drive cycle should ideally be in traffic-free conditions without lots of battery-hungry systemson such as headlights andheating. If you're in a dark, cold layby and using these comforts can't be avoided:don’t worry, it will justtake a little longer to recharge the battery.

To charge the battery fully, a dedicated battery charger should be used to bring the battery back to its peak capacity, which usually involves several hours or overnight on the charger.

There are also products known as Battery Conditioners, which provide a small trickle charge to the battery and are especially useful where the vehicle is used infrequently, or parked up for long periods.

Watch RAC patrol Ben Aldous show you how to look after your car battery.

Fuel problems

It might sound obvious, but if your car won’t start it could just be out of fuel. It’s surprisingly easy to forget to fill up your tank so if you’ve been running on fumes then dig out your fuel can and walk to your local petrol station for a top up.

If you think your fuel gauge is broken, you might need to check your car into your local garage and have it looked at — otherwise you could end up being surprised by an empty fuel tank more often than you’d like.

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Ignition lock jammed/ wheel stuck

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If your car won't start because you can’t turn the ignition key, the steering lock may be jammed. This is often caused by a front tyre on one side of the vehicle stuck hard up against a kerb.

To free it off, simply turn the wheel slightly from side to side whilst carefully turning the key back and forth at the same time until the lock frees off.

If you cannot move the wheel, put your foot on the brake and carefully release the handbrake and allow the vehicle to slightly roll away from the kerb, then reapply the handbrake and retry. Caution: only do this when safe to do so – do not attempt if you are parked on a steep incline.

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Broken starter motor

It’s also possible that the starter motor itself is at fault. This isthe electrical motor connected to your car’s battery that sets the engine in motion whenyou turn the ignition.

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If the battery is fully charged, but you hear a loud clicking noise when you try to start the engine, then this is a typical symptom of a faulty starter and / or an electrical wiring fault which will require inspection and diagnosis to repair.

Immobiliser or security system

Sometimes, it’s your car’s own security system that stops the engine from starting – if the immobiliser fails to recognise your key, then your engine won’t start at all.

This may be a flat battery in the key fob which weakens the signal from the fob to the system. A tell-tale indicator of this is often when the central locking will not operate either. Try replacing the battery.

If battery replacement isn't practical, try holding the fob up against the start button and pressing the start button at the same time. If there is no start button on your model, try holding the fob very close to the ignition switch whilst you turn the key.

If available, try a spare key,but if your engine fails to recognise that too, you may be able to reprogram it manually – check your handbook for details. Failing that, you may need to contact your dealer for assistance.

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Flooded engine

Flooding your car’s engine is a no longer a common occurrence, due to the fuel injection systems now fitted to all modern vehicle types.

A flooded engine means there’s too much fuel and not enough air in your engine.It usually occurs with cold engines when you move your vehicle just a few metres, switchthe engine off, then try to start it again. Moving it into or out of a garage or a short ways down the road to get to your preferred parking spot,for example.

If you think it might be flooded, try pressing the accelerator pedal to the floor while you briefly try and start the engine for a few seconds. Do not try and start for more than a few seconds as you risk flattening the battery or damaging the starter motor.

Once it starts, allow it to idle for a few minutes – do not leave unattended.

Blocked or clogged fuel filter

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A clogged fuel filter means the petrol or diesel can’t reach the engine which, unsurprisingly, means your engine won’t be able to burn the fuel it needs to start.

It will not be obvious if your fuel filter is blocked, but as a rule of thumb they should be changed every 15,000-20,000 miles so make sure you prevent this becoming an issueby getting the filter changed at the appropriate service times – consult your vehiclehandbook for more information.

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What do I do if my car won’t start?

Depending on the reasons behind your car failing to start or turn over, you may be able to fix the issue yourself or with the help of a fellow driver.

However, some issues aren’t quite so easy to fix, including those not on this list such as such as faulty components, electronics, mechanical failure -so for complete peace of mind consider RAC breakdown cover that includes home start assistance.

If it’s a reoccurring issue, you might want to use the RAC Approved Garage Network to find a local garage that’s guaranteed to provide quality work and exceptional customer service, giving you complete peace of mind.

And just in case the worst should happen out on the roads, make sure you have the correct breakdown cover in place.

Can you call the RAC out without breakdown cover?

Yes. If your car breaks down but you don’t have breakdown cover, you can still call the RAC for breakdown assistance.

Call our hotline on 0333 2000 999 and speak to one of our operators who will be able to set you up on any one of our breakdown cover policies immediately. Please note that for the first 24 hours of your policy you will be put on our Roadside Assistance Only policy.

Broken down?

Get breakdown cover or call for recovery if you’re already an RAC member.

Report your breakdown

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Help! My car won’t start, what do I do? | RAC Drive (9)

*New, single vehicle and single personal based cover. Includes Standard and Complete cover. Ends 01/12/22, 7am.

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How do I get my car to start if it won t? ›

What to Do If Your Car Won't Start
  1. If the Car Clicks When Trying to Start. Try Cycling the Key. Try Tapping on the Battery Terminals. Try Tapping the Starter.
  2. If There's No Click When You Turn the Key. Try Shifting the Shifter.
  3. If the Engine Cranks But Won't Fire Up. Try Swapping Relays. Try Smacking the Fuel Tank.
12 Apr 2022

Why won't my car start but has power? ›

Bad Spark Plugs

If the engine holds compression well, and the fuel system is working correctly, but it still won't start, that tells us that your car's spark plugs may not be working. The spark plugs ignite the air/fuel mixture inside the engine's cylinders. It's the resulting explosion that actually powers your car.

How do I fix my car if it wont start in the cold? ›

Make sure the radio, headlights, heater, etc., are switched to “off,” so they aren't pulling energy from your battery and engine. Now put the key in the ignition and turn it from the "off" to the "start" position about ten times. You're "cycling the key," which can help warm up the battery and starter.

Why won't car start if battery is good? ›

If your car won't start, but your battery is fine, chances are you have a bad alternator. This is another charging system issue, like a dead battery, that won't let you start your car.

Why would my car all of a sudden not start? ›

If your vehicle won't start, it's usually caused by a dying or dead battery, loose or corroded connection cables, a bad alternator or an issue with the starter. It can be hard to determine if you're dealing with a battery or an alternator problem.

How do you tell if its your starter or your battery? ›

When you attempt to start the vehicle, is there a clicking sound, but it won't turn over? That may be a good sign. If a jump gets the car running, but won't turn over again once it's shut off, a dead battery is likely the cause.

Why wont my car start but the radio and lights work? ›

If the lights and/or the radio come on, but the car does not start, you may also have dirty or corroded battery terminals. The terminals are what connect the electrical system to the battery. If these are dirty or corroded, the connection could be negatively impacted.

Will warming up a car battery help it start? ›

Once the battery is warm, turn the vehicle off, grab a blanket or some towels, and cover the battery and close the hood. "Because a warm battery will start the car much better than a cold battery," he said. "All you're trying to do is retain the heat in the battery that you've generated by letting the engine run."

How do you warm up a frozen car battery? ›

If you see ice or if the battery has started to bulge, it is probably frozen. Use sunlight and electricity. Open the hood of your car to see if the sun shining on your battery is enough to unfreeze it. If your car is parked close to an electric outlet, try using a hairdryer to help you thaw your battery out.

How long should you wait to drive your car after starting it in the cold? ›

When temperatures drop during winter, it's a good idea to let the car run for about a minute. Some drivers prefer to let the engine idle for 20 minutes or longer to get everything—including the cabin—really warm, but the fastest way to warm up an engine is by driving.

How do you tell if your car needs a new battery or alternator? ›

Jumpstart your car. If you can turn the engine on, but it dies shortly thereafter, your car alternator likely isn't able to charge the battery. On the other hand, if you jumpstart the car and later on it fails to start on its own, it's likely a dead battery.

What are the most common engine starting problem? ›

Dead Battery

A dead battery is the most common reason why engines fail to start up.

What would cause no start? ›

When your engine cranks but won't start or run, it could mean your engine is having trouble producing a spark, getting fuel, or creating compression. The most common causes are problems in the ignition (for example, a bad ignition coil) or fuel system (for example, a clogged fuel filter).

What happens when your starter goes out? ›

The starter is a small motor, powered by the battery. It gets the engine of your car running. A starter relay sits between the battery and the starter motor, transmitting power. Without a properly working starter relay and motor, you won't be able to start your vehicle and may need a tow.

Is it my battery or alternator or starter? ›

If jump starting gets your engine started and running, but the car will not start again once you turn it off, the battery is probably the problem. In this case, the alternator is doing its job of keeping the battery going once it has been jumped, but the battery can't hold a charge when the alternator is shut off.

How do you tell if you starter is out? ›

Common Signs of a Bad Starter
  1. The engine won't turn over. The most common signal that your starter has a problem is if nothing happens when you turn the key or push to start.
  2. Unusual noises, such as clinking, grinding and whirring. ...
  3. Intermittent problems starting the car. ...
  4. Smoke coming from under the hood.
30 Aug 2021

How long does a car need to run to recharge the battery after starting? ›

Remember: After you've done a jump start, you'll need to keep the vehicle's engine running for around 30 minutes to allow the alternator time to charge the battery sufficiently.

Does idling a car recharge the battery? ›

Does the Battery Charge if You Let the Car Idle? The simple answer to this question is yes, your car's battery will start to charge as long as your engine is running.

Does jumping a car help the starter? ›

A jump start is to boost your car's battery, not the starter itself. While the battery does power the starter through a relay, and a jump start can help give the starter the extra juice it needs to get your engine going, it is not guaranteed that a jump start will help if the issue is with the starter.

How do you know if battery is frozen? ›

Know The Signs Of A Frozen Battery
  1. Cracks anywhere on the battery case.
  2. Bulging sides.
  3. No sound of liquid when the flooded cell battery is moved.
13 Nov 2015

Will a frozen battery start a car? ›

If you spot ice don't try to jumpstart your car. Your battery could actually explode if you try to revive it and the last thing you want to encounter at any time of day is an exploding box of sulfuric acid. So if you see ice inside you'll need to warm up the battery before attempting to charge or jump it.

Will a cold car battery recharge itself? ›

Freezing weather drains your battery power by 30-60%. Your battery naturally recharges as you drive—but you must first face the challenge of getting it started.

How can I warm up my engine? ›

4 Steps for Properly Warming Up Your Vehicle
  1. Make sure your vehicle is in a safe spot. It should be out in the open air, not in a garage.
  2. Turn on the vehicle and defroster. ...
  3. Let the engine run for 30 seconds. ...
  4. Start slowly and take it easy for the first 5-15 minutes.
3 Feb 2021

How can I get my car to warm up faster? ›

Fortunately, there is an abundance of ways to warm up a car faster, and we're going to discuss some of those.
  1. #1: Warm It Up Before Driving. ...
  2. #2: Drive, Drive, and Drive Some More. ...
  3. #3: Park in the Sun. ...
  4. #4: Stop that Heat Loss. ...
  5. #5: Park in the Garage. ...
  6. Helpful Reminder: ...
  7. Check the Heater Controls. ...
  8. Is the Blower Motor Working?

Should you drive your car with cold engine? ›

The best way to bring your engine up to operating temperature is to gently drive your car. By simply driving your car, the engine and its components (brakes, transmission, etc.) will warm up faster which allows your car to run more efficiently.

When I try to jump my car it just clicks? ›

A single loud click when starting (even after trying to jump-start your battery) is usually caused by a faulty starter motor, starter relay/solenoid or other electrical problem.

How much do a alternator cost? ›

In general, expect $130 to $250 for a quality alternator. The lower end is offers professionally remanufactured alternators, while the high-end price range is generally new alternators running higher amps for modern vehicles.

What happens when an alternator goes out while driving? ›

What happens when alternator stops working while driving? The car tends to slowly lose power if the alternator has gone bad while the car is being driven. You'll notice the headlights start to dim shortly before the car loses power and dies.

What are some common causes of starting system problems? ›

These are 5 of the most common reasons a car won't start.
  • Failed Ignition Switch. The ignition has a couple important roles. ...
  • Failed Alternator. The alternator produces electricity in the vehicle. ...
  • Malfunctioning Starter Motor. ...
  • Fuel Delivery Problems. ...
  • Dead Battery.

What are the three 3 things you need for a engine to start? ›

It's often said that an engine needs three things—fuel, spark, and compression—to start.

What are the 3 things needed to start an engine? ›

Photo by Lemmy.
  • Ingredient one: Compression. An engine needs compression to run. A compression test is a straightforward (and usually simple) test to perform. ...
  • Ingredient two: Air. Air is required to run an engine. ...
  • Ingredient three: Fuel. Fuel and air sort of work hand in hand, as we just discussed.
25 Jun 2019

How do I know if my power is going starter? ›

Connect the negative lead of the voltmeter to the live terminal of the battery, and the positive lead to the starter-motor feed terminal (on a pre-engaged starter this is the solenoid feed terminal). It should read 12 volts, then when you work the starter switch drop to below 0.5 volts.

What does it mean when you start your car and nothing happens? ›

Classic sign of a dead starting battery. If you can put the battery on a charger for a while, or get a jump from another car with jumper cables, your car should start. This can also be caused by badly corroded or loose battery cables, so check those too. Finally, a loose connection at the starter motor could cause it.

Can I tap the starter to make it work? ›

Temporarily Fixing Your Starter

If you turn the key and the engine does not try to turn over and instead is silent, you can sometimes make it start one more time by taking a regular hammer and gently tapping on the side of the starter towards the rear, while someone else is holding the key in the “start” position.

How much is a car starter cost? ›

How Much Does a Car Starter Cost? Expect to pay between $80 and $350 for a new car starter, depending on the make, model, and whether you buy a rebuilt or new starter. Of course, you'll have to pay more for labor if you don't install it on your own.

How do I test if my starter is working? ›

Connect the remote starter switch to the battery positive and the solenoid (smaller wire) terminal on the starter and click the switch. If nothing happens, you've got a bad starter. If the starter turns, the problem is in the electrical system.

Why won't my car do anything when I turn the key? ›

The most common reason cars don't start is a dead or faulty battery. Even though most cars run on gasoline, they all require electrical power to function. The starter that cranks your engine to start requires an electrical signal to fire. If something's wrong with your battery, your car engine won't turn over.

How do you start a car with a low battery? ›

5 Dead Car Battery Tricks to Try When Your Car Dies
  1. Tap the Battery Terminals. While you can't clean the battery terminals if you're stuck without the right tools, you can try tapping them. ...
  2. Try Starting the Car in Neutral. ...
  3. Trick the Computer. ...
  4. Use Jumper Cables. ...
  5. Call a Professional.
1 May 2020


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