Car won’t start? What to do, what to do?

By Monico D. Mekaniko

Hi! I’m Monico D. Mekaniko and I’m here to give you easy driving tips to make your life less stressful when traveling using your motor vehicle. Every now and then I will also give you other motoring tips, vehicle purchasing tips and even motoring industry news and trends.

Let’s start with one of the most basic yet most frustrating scenarios. You’re all dressed up and already late for an important meeting. You hop into your car, switch on the ignition, and nothing happens. Your car won’t start. Kaput. Goodbye car, hello MRT and perspiration. Good luck with that important meeting, right?

Not necessarily so. Sometimes all you have to do is take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves and troubleshoot it yourself. It could take you a few minutes, but more important, you might save a lot of money from a needless check-up and you could still get to your meeting on time.

With today’s computer-controlled vehicles, the possibility of a no-start is less likely to happen, but it still does, so let’s try to help the hapless mortal motorists out there. For this particular discussion, however, we shall exclude carburetor-based vehicles. Seriously.

Key won't turn. First off, are you using the right key? I know it sounds silly but this does indeed happen, something like what call center agents encounter when callers complain about their computers, when in fact their computers are not even plugged in. Check your keys. If the key is too worn, try using your spare key. Key still won’t turn? Try forcing the steering wheel to one side, then the other, while trying to turn the key. You might have left your car parked with the front wheels turned all the way to one side. By turning it all the way to the left then right (depending on which direction your wheels are pointed) while turning the key, this releases pressure on the steering lock, allowing the key to turn.

Click or crank? First off, once you turn on the ignition, do you hear the engine’s cranking sound, or in Filipino, what they call “redondo”? If there is none and all you hear is a hollow click or a series of clicks like a woodpecker happily pecking away, that means there is no electrical current coursing through your system and ignition is not achieved. If you switch on the ignition and you hear the engine crank but it won’t start with your usual “vroom” from the exhaust, electricity is indeed coursing but somewhere along the system, ignition and combustion are not being achieved. If the engine does not crank, you might have a weak or dead battery. Or your battery connection cables are dirty or corroded. Put on some gloves, check if the cable connectors are firmly attached. See if there is corrosion or dirt and try to clean your battery posts a bit. Be careful not to use any metallic tool if you are not familiar with the car battery. Then try starting your car again.

Dead battery. Turn on the interior lights then try to start the car. If the light goes dim, your battery is the problem. This does not mean your battery is already useless, it only means that it does not have enough charge to start your car. Remember that your battery serves only to provide temporary power to start your car or use electrical accessories like the stereo when your engine is turned off. Once your engine is running, the charging system takes over, and this is where your voltage regulator and alternator go to work by continuously charging your car. If your battery is dead, you will need jumper cables, a battery booster box or another vehicle to jump start your battery. In which case you will need to call someone who can help with this operation instead of replacing your battery altogether. More on jump starting a car in future articles, this deserves an entire article altogether.

Faulty ignition switch. On the other hand, if you determine that your battery is okay, but the starter is still quiet and the engine does not crank, your ignition switch may be the problem. Switch the key to the “ON” position, taking care not to start it (read the engraved words around the switch). If on your dashboard you see that the red warning lights don’t light up, and assuming that your battery connections are clean as instructed above, the ignition switch is faulty. If the warning lights on your dashboard do light up, turn your key all the way to the “START” position. In most cars, the warning lights should turn off at this position. Now, turn on your headlights. When you try to start the car, the lights should either get dim or turn off. If they do, your ignition switch is not the problem. If not, you might need to have your ignition switch checked or replaced.

Starter connection. Corrosion may also affect any of your car’s electrical components like the starter. If someone is with you, you can test the connection by holding a circuit tester on the small wire connected to the starter (there are two wires, the other is smaller). Make sure you or any part of your body is not touching the engine, it could start all of a sudden. Have someone turn the key and check the current. If you see that there’s a current going to the starter but it still won’t spin, you need to change it.

Engine cranks but does not fire. So you switch it on to the “START” position and you hear the “redondo”. Remember that your car works based on what is called an internal combustion engine. For such an engine to start, a spark needs to ignite the fuel in the combustion chamber. A coil and distributor are needed to send spark to the spark plugs. If your engine is getting fuel, check if the wires leading to the coil and the distributor are not broken or loose. On some vehicles, you can check the coil by unhooking the wire going from it to the center of the distributor. Hold it against either the body or the valve cover and start the engine. If there is spark traveling from the end of the wire to the metal, the coil is good. Then you can inspect the rotor and contact terminals by removing the distributor cap. If there are black spots or no metal at all, you should replace your cap and rotor.

More on these in future articles. Till next time, this is Monico D. Mekaniko, Va-va-vroom!


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