We all know that breaking down is a driver’s worst nightmare, especially if it leaves you stranded in the rain (highly likely!), on a main road. After all, no one wants to be that person stuck on the hard shoulder with their hazards on!
We’ve compiled a Top 10 of the most common causes of breakdowns, with advice on how to avoid them, and suggestions on what to do if you’re unlucky enough to be a victim of one of these problems.
No. 1 – Flat or faulty battery
If your car battery is flat, when you go to start your car it will turn over slowly or not at all. Leaving your car headlights or stereo on can drain your battery, or a battery can simply become flat due to it being old and in need of replacement. Often, a weak battery will fail on the first chilly day of winter, as the cold affects a battery’s performance.
We recommend booking a pre-winter vehicle diagnostic to reduce the risk of your battery letting you down at the first sign of frost! Here are some other preventative measures you can take:
- Check the battery terminals regularly, making sure they’re secure and free from corrosion.
- If you make a lot of short journeys, be sure to take your car on a long journey every so often. This will help charge the battery.
- Make sure that all your car’s electrical equipment (lights, aircon, heated seats) is turned off before you try to start the engine.
- At the first sign of trouble (difficulty starting your car, dim headlights, warning dashboard lights) have the battery tested or replaced.
No. 2 – Flat or damaged tyre, or damaged wheel
Getting a puncture, or damaging a wheel or tyre by hitting the kerb is often unavoidable, but here are some measures you can take to help prevent or minimise the damage:
- Check the tyre pressure and the condition of your tyres regularly (don’t forget the spare!)
- If you ‘kerb’ a wheel when parking or driving or drive over a nasty pothole, try to check the condition of the wheel and tyre as soon as possible.
- Consider carrying a can of ‘tyre repair’ foam. This can be an effective, temporary solution for small leaks.
- If you are comfortable changing a tyre then make sure you have the jack, wheel brace and removal tool for locking wheel bolts. If not, don’t panic! A breakdown company or a kind passer-by may be able to help you out.
No. 3 – Alternator faults
The alternator’s job is to charge your car’s battery. If the alternator fails, the battery will soon fail too, and if you’re driving the car may cut out and struggle to restart. Not ideal! The tell-tale signs of a problem with your alternator include:
- Frequent battery problems and dim headlights when the engine is ticking over.
- A squealing sounds from the engine, which may indicate a slipping alternator drive belt.
- A red charging warning light and/or an illuminated battery warning light on the dashboard.
- Stop driving as soon as possible if the charging warning light comes on.
- When warning lights come on, we recommend booking a vehicle diagnostic to get to identify the cause of your car’s problems.
No. 4 – Starter motor failure
The starter motor spins your car’s engine over fast enough to start it, which can take its toll over time, particularly if you use your car for a lot of journeys that involve a lot of stopping and restarting. The following signs are indicators of a failing starter motor:
- Metallic noises when trying to start the engine.
- The engine turns more slowly than usual when you try to start it (might also indicate a problem with your car’s battery)
- When the ignition key is turned a click can be heard from the engine, but the engine doesn’t turn over (might also indicate a problem with your car’s battery)
- The only solution is to get a replacement starter motor.
No. 5 – Misfire problems
A car that is misfiring will usually suffer a loss of power, particularly when going uphill. You might also struggle to get the car to start, especially in cold or wet conditions. It may also judder or shake and be making strange noises. Here are the most common causes of misfire problems:
- A faulty spark plug.
- Faulty ignition system or fuel system components.
- A blocked fuel filter (more common with diesel engines)
- The wrong type of fuel, or the car running low on fuel.
- A blown head gasket
- Because driving a car with a misfire could cause further damage, it is advisable to book your car in for a diagnostic check or a service to get to the root of the issues.
No. 6 – Running out of fuel, or filling up with the wrong fuel
What to do if you run out of fuel
- Don’t keep on trying to start the engine – you might suck air, and possibly dirt from the empty tank, into the fuel system, which will make starting your car even harder when you’ve filled up.
- If you have a can of fuel, switch off the engine and fill up your car. If the engine now starts, drive on and fill the tank at the next petrol station. If the engine still won’t start, dirt or air drawn into the fuel system could be causing problems, in which case you’ll probably need a mechanic to take a look at your car.
- If you’re out in the middle of nowhere, don’t panic, all’s not lost – if you have breakdown cover they can deliver an emergency can of fuel.
- If the fuel gauge indicated plenty of fuel in the tank, and you still ran out, have the gauge checked. If there’s a fuel leak you’ll probably be able to smell the petrol vapour or diesel – don’t drive the car until you’ve had this problem fixed.
What to do if you fill up with the wrong fuel
- If you’ve put the wrong fuel in your car, don’t try to start the engine. If you do, you won’t get very far and will have to have all the fuel system components thoroughly cleaned, which could be expensive! In some engines, the wrong fuel can cause quite serious and expensive damage.
- You’ll need to have the fuel tank drained, cleaned and refilled before you can drive your car.
Tips to avoid these problems
- Fill up with fuel before a long journey
- Keep an eye on your fuel gauge, and don’t wait until the warning light comes on before filling up. Fuel gauges can be notoriously inaccurate!
- Always double check you’re filling up with the correct fuel. Put a sticker inside the fuel flap to remind you which type of fuel your car needs.
No. 7 – Clutch failure
Sometimes clutches fail suddenly and without warning. If this happens your car will need to be recovered and repaired. However, in many instances the symptoms occur gradually. If you experience any of the following symptoms, get your car checked as soon as possible to avoid a breakdown.
Common symptoms include:
- Your car seems to ‘rev’ when accelerating, especially in higher gears.
- The clutch feels strange when you press the clutch pedal – the pedal might seem higher or lower than normal.
- The gears crunch or clunk when changing gears.
- The clutch pedal has no resistance.
- Gears are hard or impossible to engage.
No. 8 – A broken suspension spring
With poor road surfaces, potholes and speed bumps on the rise, your car’s suspension can take a daily battering. This can cause suspension-component failures, the most common and potentially dangerous of these is a broken coil spring.
- A corroded spring can snap at any time and without warning. If it breaks close to the end you may not notice, and it could go undetected until your next MOT or service.
- However, it’s possible that a breakage could cause a sudden drop in your car’s suspension whilst driving. So, if you receive an advisory about a spring during an MOT or service, don’t ignore it!
No. 9 – Engine overheating
Overheating is a serious problem, and can be caused by a number of things. But provided your car has been properly maintained you shouldn’t really have any problems. When the engine gets hot, as it undoubtedly will on a hot summer’s day, the cooling fan should cut in to lower the temperature.
The most common causes of overheating are:
- Faulty cooling fan.
- Low coolant level.
- Coolant leakage.
- Faulty coolant pump.
- Faulty thermostat.
- Blown head gasket.
What to do if your engine overheats
Keep an eye on your temperature gauge when stuck in traffic, as this is when cars most often overheat.
- If you notice the temperature gauge creeping towards the red zone, or if a temperature warning light starts flashing on your dashboard, try switching your car’s heater to ‘hot’ and turning it up to full blast. This will get rid of some of the heat from the engine. If it still doesn’t seem to be cooling down, pull over and switch the engine off.
- If there is steam coming from your engine, pull over as soon as possible. Don’t open the bonnet until the steam stops.
- If no steam is coming from under the bonnet, open it up to help the heat escape. You may have to wait at least half an hour for the engine to cool down.
- Check under your car for coolant leakage – coolant is usually brightly coloured (often green yellow or pink). If you think there’s a leak call for assistance. You’ll most likely need to book your car in for an engine coolant flush and replacement.
- When the engine has cooled and if there’s no obvious sign of a leak, check the coolant level. If the coolant level is okay and there’s no leak, you can carry on driving, but get your car checked out as soon as possible.
No. 10 – Leaking cylinder head gasket
A leaking cylinder head gasket can be a big problem and can require a lot of work to fix. Unfortunately, there’s little that can be done to avoid this problem, but a common cause is engine overheating. The most likely signs of a problem include:
- Misfiring, especially when the engine is cold or starting.
- A lack of engine power.
- Fluid leaks on the outside of the engine.
- Oil in the coolant – usually looks like frothy ‘mayonnaise’.
- Coolant in the oil – usually looks like frothy ‘mayonnaise’.
- White smoke from the exhaust.
- A mysterious drop in coolant level.
Fixter is revolutionising the car maintenance industry, one repair at a time. Fixter was founded to make car maintenance as easy as booking a taxi. Digital, transparent and stress-free, with world-class customer service. Since launching in Manchester in 2017, Fixter has expanded to more than 100 cities across the UK and provided thousands of car owners with honest, convenient and affordable car repair services.