My Car Won’t Start

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Reader Question

My car won’t start, what do I do now? How can I check the battery, starter and alternator on my car to see if that is the problem?

I get tons of e-mails each week that ask this very simple question. Unfortunately when asked that way it is all but simple.

Okay so what happens when your car won’t start? A gasoline engine needs three key ingredients to operate:

1.  Fuel (there has to be something to burn)

2.  A spark to ignite the fuel

3.  Some way for the fuel to meet the spark and ignite a fire–this is called compression. Compressing fuel in a confined cylinder inside the engine, then introducing a spark from a spark plug will produce a small explosion. This explosion process is what generates horsepower.

So before you call the mechanic and tell him your car won’t start, ask yourself this question FIRST, “What is missing in the equation (fuel, spark, compression)?”

You went out to your car today, and the car won’t start… how? Suppose the engine won’t turn over. When I say the engine won’t turn over, I mean when you turn the key the engine goes…blank..(nothing is happening). The radio and the lights may still be functioning fine.

What are the things that cause the engine to turn over?

The battery and the starter are the two most important. If the headlights are on and are bright, then we could probably assume the battery is up to snuff and doing its job.

The starter takes electricity from the battery and turns the engine over to start the piston explosion process I described earlier.  So in this case there is probably a problem with the starter, or something is hampering the electricity from the battery to the engine or starter (maybe burned or damaged wiring or a bad ground connection).

The other type of “no start” occurs when the engine turns over like it is trying to start but will not start.

So the battery and the starter are doing their jobs, but we are lacking one of the main exploding ingredients. Is there fuel? Look at the gauge first (we still get cars towed in to the shop and the no start correction is adding gas to the tank!)

Do you have compression? Does the engine sound like it is turning over fully, or does the engine sound like it is turning over too fast or too slow? A broken timing belt or timing chain will cause the engine to turn over very easily and very fast because the compression process is not taking place.

Is there spark? This is not as easy to determine as it sounds, and can require some tools and experience to test. Now you probably don’t care to “do it yourself” from here on out, but at least you have ruled out the battery, the starter, and a lack of fuel in the tank.

This little bit of effort on your part saves the mechanic a lot of time trying to guess what happened and why, and you might actually find the problem yourself.

Is the car in PARK? I have been to many roadside assists only to find out the car is still in DRIVE. The engine will only start in park and neutral. Do you have an anti-theft device, and is it working properly?

If it is a stick shift, do you have the clutch pedal depressed? Are the front tires up against the curb? Sometimes it is very hard to turn the key if the front tires are in a bind on a curb, or if the car has rolled back a bit after it was placed in PARK. If this is the case, you can turn the steering wheel real hard to the right, or try to physically move or rock the car forward to release the key.

If you still have trouble it is time to call the tow truck. When you call the shop to inform them your car is on its way into their shop, you should be specific in the nature of the “no start” you’ve experienced. Saving your mechanic time should save you money.


Austin Davis

16 Responses to My Car Won’t Start

  1. Thanks Chad. I would first try a new or alternate ignition key, the key chip wears out over time. If that does not do it, the ignition lock cylinder (part the key goes into) might be worn out and need replacement. Worst case scenario the BCM (body control module) might have a problem and need replacement…rare, but I have seen them fail and cause issues like this.

  2. Austin,

    I wanted to thank you for the article. I assumed my issue was my battery. The place said it was keeping a charge, but the cranking power was low. I had just replaced another battery with the same issue so I bought it.

    I installed it and had the same results. Well, I could have gotten more time out of my original battery, but not much I suspect.

    So the issue ended up being the Passlock® passive theft deterrent system. I have a 2002 Pontiac Grand Am and it along with other GM models have this system. It does some checks and if it isn’t satisfied it won’t send fuel to the engine. (Problem #1!)

    I could tell this was my problem by seeing the “Security” red light blink on and off after I tried to start and put the key in the and tried to start it and then let it go back to the “On” position.

    I had to wait about 10 minutes for the Security light to go out. I then turned the key to “Off” for about 5 seconds. Then I tried to start it again … and it worked.

    Now, I assume that some piece is going bad and I’ll have to replace it. But for now, I’m able to get my car started.

    Again, thanks for the post. Hopefully this comment may help someone else. More detail about this issue is found at the bergerweb (dot) net website. He lists some models that this affects. People should be able to tell if the Security light blinks at them (or stays on) after trying to start the car.

  3. Does this vehicle have a MAF sensor (mass Air Flow) located in the fresh air duct before the air filter, usually toward the front of the vehicle. Large round Sensor with wires before the air cleaner. If so, try unplugging it and see if the engine starts and stays running, you can sometimes bang on it lightly with your hand as someone cranks the engine over.

  4. debbie stanford says:

    eb falcon hard to start and wont stay running but wheb it does go will run for 5-10 seconds and conk out have changed the spark plugs, fuel filter tested fuel pump have changed fuel pressure regulator and o2 sencor tested MAP sencor i hope you can help me with this problem as we cannot seem to get the car going thank you

  5. Austin Davis says:

    I would start with checking the fuel pressure AT the engine using a manual fuel pressure gauge.

  6. jeff says:

    question nobody been able to fix my car
    1997 ford contour 2.0l fi cranks won’t stay running starts and dies with pedal on the floor and pops in throttle body not like back fire like burb

  7. Austin Davis says:

    Hi there, thanks for the kind words!

    My first thought is to change the battery with a new one or a known good battery and see what happens. I am hoping either a weak internal battery cell or a bad connection at the battery cables is causing your problems.

    If you still have troubles, let me know and we can start ruling things out.

    BTW, we home school our children ( I see your email address :))

    God Bless you too

  8. Miss M says:

    Hi! Thank you for this article! Unfortunately, I find myself somewhat between a couple of the symptoms.

    I have a 1990 Mercury Villager Sport. Recently, we’ve had some trouble starting it, but have had to jump it only once.

    I am familiar with the full, very audible, “Rar-rar- rar-rar” sound that a car will give when it is turning over but not starting. This is somewhat different, or at least I think it is.

    Usually, it will start up after a split-second pause. When it doesn’t, I hear this quiet “sh-sh”, long pause, “sh-sh” (like the pulleys and belts moving quietly for a moment every few seconds). If I keep the key turned, it will continue this, and then eventually, suddenly, without explanation, it will start… but somewhat weakly. Depressing the gas helps bring it to a more normal running level.

    Driving it, we have sometimes dared to use the A/C (turning it on a few minutes after starting), as it is very hot right now. I noticed today that sometimes the fan speed varied with the speed of the car — or with whether I had my foot on the brake or accelerator. The engine seemed abnormally quiet when I had to stop to turn, as well, but it has not stalled.

    If I am not imposing too much, can you give me any idea which part is failing? I know a dying battery can give some strange symptoms sometimes, but I’m just not sure what to think of this.

    Thank you in advance for any direction you can give me, and God bless you!

  9. Austin Davis says:

    Grate, thanks for your comment. Glad it was helpful and hope you learned something new.

  10. Vanessa R says:

    Thank you very much, it is good to know what the car needs to start and what to check before calling the mechanic, usually it is a mystery to me when my car does that.

  11. Austin Davis says:

    Glad to help, thanks for your comment

  12. Boe jankins says:

    Thank you very much. This site is very helpful!

  13. Austin Davis says:

    Sounds like either a bad starter motor (drive gear on the end of the starter is not engaging the flywheel) or you have a worn out flywheel that is missing teeth that the starter motor is trying to turn…so the starter just free spins.

    Easiest thing is to replace the starter motor and inspect the flywheel for any missing teeth.

  14. Boe jankins says:

    I have just put a new battery into my 68 f100 pickup. But when I turn the key, it only makes a whirring sound with no engine movement. What could be the problem?

  15. Austin Davis says:

    Thank you very much! God Bless You Too!

  16. saldy(philippines) says:

    your site is very comprehensive so easy to understand.
    I’ll try it with my nissan bx type 90 model.

    God bless You,

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