Diagnosing Car Starting Problems

Before you get into a panic when the car won’t start, make sure it is a fault. Read the handbook to make sure you are not being thwarted by safety or security devices, or your own mistakes.

Step by step

Having established that you aren’t doing something stupid, start looking for problems.

  • If it is turning over normally are you sure it has fuel?
  • Check the battery connections are tight.

Car Starting Problems Diagnosing Car Starting Problems

  • If it is not turning over at all, do the lights work?
  • No: the battery is totally flat. If so, jump-starting is the only way of getting it going other than taking the battery out and giving it several hours on a charger. Indeed, if it is this flat it may need a heftier kick of power than most ordinary car batteries can supply, so you need to call out your breakdown service even if jump-leads are available to you.
  • Yes: look under the bonnet and check that there are no obviously damaged wires or connections to the ignition or starter motor. Most cables associated with starting are thick ones.
  • The engine turns over but the lights dim: the battery power is weak and a jump-start should help.
  • The engine turns over but lights stay bright: either fuel isn’t getting through or power isn’t.
  • If it is a fuel-feed problem, especially in very hot weather when fuel can vaporise in the pipes, trying again later might help. With old carburettor cars it is also possible, by incorrect starting, to flood the engine with too much petrol, which you can always smell, and all you can do is leave it for 20 minutes to evaporate.
  • Power problems on older cars are common on damp days because the moisture shorts the power away through minute cracks in the cable insulation. If it is doing this you can often see it in the dark or in the shade of a barely lifted bonnet. Drying the cables may get it started. Spraying with WD40 can also repel the water. You can buy spray sealants to prevent it happening again, though new cables are the best long-term solution if this frequently happens. If the car has a distributor, moisture gets inside the cap if it is cracked, so dry inside that and replace it with a new one as soon as you can.

 Diagnosing Car Starting Problems

Modern systems

Modern cars are much less prone to these types of starting problems with their electronic ignitions and fuel systems, but if they do suffer an electrical starting problem there is little you can do about it. Fortunately, modern electronic diagnostic equipment should make tracing the problem easier for the garage than hunting out poor connections and cracked cable insulat

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