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31st March 2022

Why won’t my car start and what can I do about it?

The breakdown and recovery experts at Sterling insurance explain the eight most common reasons that an engine fails to start and what you can do if it happens to you.

Car Insurance from just £125 per year

There are fewer more frustrating things for motorists than a car that won’t start. Whether you’re heading out on your daily drive to work, off shopping for groceries or planning a longer journey, a non-starter will probably leave you wondering who you should call and how much it will cost to put right.

Here the breakdown and recovery experts at Sterling insurance explain the eight most common reasons that an engine fails to start and what you can do if it happens to you.


1. Battery problems

A defective battery is responsible for more non-starters than any other problem. When this happens, the car usually makes a rapid clicking sound when you turn the key but it won’t start.

There are a number of reasons your car battery can lose its charge or completely die:

  • When an electrical component such as the lights or radio are left on for an extended period
  • If the car has sat idle for a long period of time
  • If the car has developed a fault with one of the battery components

A quick fix could be a jump start. This is when your car battery receives a booster charge from a secondary battery on another vehicle. You may also get it going with a bump start, which is when you get someone to give you a push before engaging a low gear to turn the engine over. Note that both these fixes are short term measures and you should investigate the underlying cause. 

It’s a good idea to check the battery connections are tight and check the terminals for corrosion as these might have caused the issue in the first place.

Read this blog to find out in more depth what to do if you have a flat car battery.

2. Starter motor fault

The starter motor is connected to the car’s battery and sets the engine in motion when you start the ignition – or it should do. If you have a problem with the starter motor, your car won’t start. You may hear a loud click when you turn your car’s ignition.

A symptom of a faulty starter motor might be a loud click when you turn the key in the ignition and that’s a signal you will need a mechanic to check it, along with the car’s electrical system.

3. Fuel supply problems

If you are out of fuel, your car won’t start. Other fuel supply problems include faults with the fuel pump and electrical or mechanical issues with the fuel system.

You could also have problems if you have filled up with the wrong fuel and your tank will then have to be drained, cleaned and the correct fuel added. It’s easier to fill up with the wrong fuel than you would think – every day, 400 people in the UK use the wrong fuel – so it’s worth considering misfuelling insurance from as little as £13.99 a year.  

4. Electrical or wiring problems

These include problems with the fuse box, loose battery cables or malfunctions in the car’s computer management system.

If your car has sat idle for an extended period, check beneath the bonnet before you start it up as rodents can nest within it, gnaw through cables and cause electrical problems. 

5. Mechanical problems

Mechanical problems that can prevent your car from starting are the crankshaft or the timing belt. This could be the problem if the engine won’t turn over or starts and stalls.


6. Faulty immobilisers 

Your car’s security system can stop you from starting the car if it doesn’t recognise your key. This might happen if the battery in your key fob is low. 

If that’s the case, try holding the fob against the start button or use a spare key. If that doesn’t work, you might need to get a new key.

7. Alternator problems

The alternator supplies electricity to the lights, radio, heating and other electrical equipment and re-charges the car battery. If your alternator, its wiring, or the alternator belt are faulty it can prevent your car from starting. 

8. The plugs have lost their spark

Your car will have difficulty starting if you have a flooded petrol engine. 

This happens when the engine is switched off too soon after being started from cold. Unburned fuel which entered the engine remains there and wets the spark plugs, making the car harder to start.

When this happens, you may hear a whirring sound coming from the engine compartment when you try to start the car. You may also detect a strong smell of petrol or the car may start only to cut out again.

Oily or corroded spark plugs may make the car difficult to start. Remove them for inspection and then clean them of oil or remove corrosion with a stiff wire brush. 

Breakdown insurance with homestart

So much can go wrong to prevent your car from starting that it’s probably a good idea to consider breakdown insurance with a homestart option, and that’s exactly what Sterling insurance provides for as little as £25.42 a year. 

Sterling can arrange roadside recovery or a reliable home repair service, whether your car or van breaks down in the UK, Europe or further afield. For motorists who need a breakdown service in an emergency, our instant cover provides immediate help.

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