My Car Won't Turn Over, What's Wrong?

Man looking under hood of vintage car
Cultura/Leon Harris/Riser/Getty Images

A car that won’t turn over can be a very frustrating problem. If your engine won’t turn over, there’s a good chance you have a very inexpensive repair on your hands. Of course, if your inexpensive repair is diagnosed by an expensive repair shop, you could end up with a much more expensive repair on your hands, and that’s not a good way to start your day.

If your engine doesn't turn over, there are a number of problems that could be the cause.

The first and most likely problem is a dead or drained battery.

Dead Battery

Just because you have a dead battery today doesn’t mean you necessarily have to go out and purchase a new battery. Many batteries lose their charge or go dead because of an outside power drain. Something as simple as leaving the headlights or overhead dome light on can drain your battery overnight, meaning your car won’t turn over in the morning. This dead battery will still hold a full charge if you recharge it. You can recharge your battery by getting a jump start and driving your car around for an hour or so, or you can use a battery charger to recharge the dead battery. If your battery is still good, you won’t have another no-start problem unless there is an outside drain on the battery.

Dirty Battery

Another thing that can cause your car not to turn over are the cables that connect the battery to the starter. This is the thickest cable in your car’s electrical system and carries the most current.

As such, it is also very susceptible to corrosion. If your starter cable becomes corroded, you can clean it fairly easily by removing each end (one end is attached to the battery, and the other is attached to the starter) and cleaning the connections with a wire brush. Unfortunately, the same fate can befall your ground cables.

A corroded or poorly connected ground cable can mean your car won’t turn over either. Clean ground wires and connections in the same manner.

Bad Starter

Finally, your car might not turn over if you have a bad starter. Starters sometimes go bad slowly, a little at a time. It may seem that your engine is starting more slowly in the morning. You may be able to hear the starter turning slower when you turn the key. Also, there can be a situation where your car fails to start one day, then starts the next seven days, but on the eighth day, it fails again. It can be very frustrating, but this is also a sign that you need a new starter on your engine. For more troubleshooting help regarding your engine not turning over or if your car doesn't start, see the No-Start Troubleshooting List.

There is nothing more frustrating than a car that won't start intermittently. Keep your cool, because your starting system has very few parts and doesn't need much troubleshooting to figure out why it's not working. The bad news is if your engine is turning over, there are all kinds of things that can keep the engine from actually firing. These include everything from distributors to coils, fuel pumps to fuel filters, spark plugs to plug wires; it goes on and on.

If your car doesn't start, at least you know it's probably not a problem with the brakes (unless you own an early-90s Jetta, in which case even a problem with the gear selector or seat belts will be happy to keep your 4-cylinder from firing when you turn they key). 

If you've been dealing with a no-start situation, it might be worth it to drop the car off for a session with the professionals. If troubleshooting is your passion, this is your dream problem. Go for it.