It’s not hopeless yet
Most people don’t keep a set of mechanic’s tools in their trunk. So when your car won’t start and you get stranded with a dead engine, you feel pretty helpless. But don’t give up right away. We’ve compiled a list of tricks you can try when your car won’t start, and none of them require tools. They’re arranged by symptom, and you’ve got nothing to lose by trying them if the car cranks but won’t start. Of course, they won’t fix the root problem, but one of them just might get the engine started so you can head to the nearest mechanic to have the problem fixed.
Symptom: Starter goes click
Photo 1: Cycle the key
Turn the key to the start position repeatedly about 10 times in a row. Stop and wait five minutes. Then try to start the engine.
Photo 2: Bang terminals with a shoe
Smack each battery terminal with the heel of a shoe to rotate it slightly around the battery post. Then try starting the engine.
This can be caused by a weak battery, dirty battery terminals, a worn starter motor or a stuck solenoid. Here are a few tricks to try:
Cycle the key
Turn on the dome light and watch it while you try to start the engine. If the light goes out, it’s a sign the battery is really weak—almost dead. To heat up the battery, terminals and starter, try the “key cycling” trick (photo 1). But if the dome light stayed bright when you turned the key, move on to the next trick if your car won’t start.
Tap on the battery terminals
There’s no way to clean corroded battery terminals when you’re stranded without tools. But you can try to move or at least jar the terminals enough to make better contact (photo 2).
Smack the starter
If you have access to the starter motor, try smacking it with the tire iron from your car jack. Sometimes, the electrical contacts get stuck and can be freed by tapping on them.
Symptom: No click when you turn the key
Shift the Shifter
With your foot on the brake, move the shift lever to the neutral position and try starting the engine. If that doesn’t work, move it back to “Park” and try it again. Moving the shifter sometimes reestablishes electrical contact inside the transmission range selector (also known as the neutral safety switch).
Symptom: Engine cranks but won’t fire up
Photo 3: Swap relays
Yank the fuel pump relay straight up. Then align the pins on the replacement relay and push it straight into the socket.
Photo 4: Smack the fuel tank
Hit the bottom of the fuel tank several times with the heel of your shoe. Then try starting the vehicle.
With the radio off, turn the key to the “Run” position and listen for a two-second buzzing sound. That’s the fuel pump priming the injection system. If you don’t hear any sound, the fuel pump relay may be bad or the pump may be on its last legs. First, find the location of the fuel pump relay in your owner’s manual or on the legend of the under-hood fuse box cover. Then locate another relay with the same part number and swap it with the fuel pump (photo 3). Try starting the engine afterward. If your car won’t start, beat on the fuel tank with your shoe to jar the fuel pump motor (photo 4).
Unflood a flooded engine
If you smell gas, the engine is flooded. Press the accelerator pedal to the floor and hold it there while you crank the engine.
Trick the computer
A vacuum leak or funky temperature sensor can result in an air/fuel mixture that’s too lean to start a cold engine. If you’ve tried all the other tricks shown here and your car won’t start, press the accelerator halfway and try to start the engine. That’ll tell the computer to add more fuel.
Own a Ford? Read This!
My wife managed to sideswipe a tree on a recent Saturday morning. That’s when I got the call for help: “It won’t start.” I hopped in the truck and headed over. There she was, sitting in the dead Explorer on the shoulder of the road. There was damage along the entire passenger side, but nothing that would kill an engine. We had it towed into a garage, but the mechanics couldn’t get to it for three days. The following Monday, “Dr. Rick” and I were discussing the lead story in Car & Garage this month: “Start a dead engine.”
After he went through all his tips, I asked, “Are there any oddball ones you’ve left out?” “Oh yeah,” Rick said. “Most Fords have an automatic fuel pump shutoff switch to prevent fire if the car’s in an accident. If that’s tripped, the car won’t start.” What?
“Yeah, it’ll shut down even if somebody just bumps you in a parking lot.” I asked him how you reset it. “You just push a little button in the toe kick panel on the passenger side.”
Really? That afternoon, the wife and I went to the mechanic’s parking lot, where I pushed the reset button. Like magic, the car started instantly. A little visit with Rick on Saturday would have saved me a $100 towing charge. At least we saved on some labor, I guess.
Memo from Rick: Those reset buttons are in different places. Check your owner’s manual.