It is possible that everything you’ve learned about cars so far has involved how they run and how to keep them running. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world and things break.
The car’s previous owner deferred some maintenance, the car’s designer tried to save a few too many bucks, the car was assembled on a day ending with y, or some other lame excuse.
The point is that your car isn’t running when or as it should, right?
What can you do about it?
If you are a knowledgeable car owner. You’ve learned how your car runs and how to keep it running. You’re now going to learn how to diagnose and troubleshoot car problems. Then you’ll learn how to make or oversee any needed repairs, but first here are a few things that you should know:
- Cars create and control power.
- Cars create power in the engine.
- Cars control power with everything else.
- I lied! Cars don’t create power, they change chemical power into mechanical power with controlled explosions.
- These controlled explosions require fuel, air, and a spark in order to ignite.
- The controlled explosions turn a crankshaft.
- The crankshaft’s turning is (eventually) transferred to the wheels.
- Other systems help you control your car: fuel, ignition, cooling, steering, brakes, et cetera, et cetera.
- Front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive cars, old cars and new, foreign and domestic cars all do about the same thing in the same way. They just look different.
- And the wheels on the car should go round and round.
Understanding these truths can help you figure out why your car doesn’t run and help you decide what to do about it. Why? Because cars are designed logically based on the laws of physics, which Congress has never been able to modify, try as it might.
Making Sense of Your Car
The engine is the power factory in your car. All other systems in your car control something. Some systems control the engine (fuel and ignition). Others serve the engine by controlling heat, friction, or waste (cooling, lubrication, and emissions). Some systems apply the power to move the car forward (transmission, differential, and suspension). Others control the direction in which your car travels (steering) or stop forward travel (brakes). Some systems control the lights and creature comforts (electrical, heater, and air conditioner).
So why does the gosh-dam car choose not to run sometimes?
Cars sometimes don’t run because the source of the power-the engine-loses one or more parts of the power equation:
Fuel + Air + Spark = Controlled Explosion = Power
So an engine that doesn’t get enough fuel, or air, or spark doesn’t run. That makes sense.Cars also choose not to run because related systems (lubrication or cooling, for example) stop the engine from running or because the engine’s power doesn’t get to the wheels (transmission and other junk). That makes sense, too. So what kinds of problems stop cars from running or reduce their efficiency? Lots of them, as described in the rest of this website.
Did you know?
- Low mileage means the odometer doesn’t work
- All original means needs new everything
- Health forces sale means I’m sick of this car
- Must see means I won’t put anything in writing
- Rum like a top means wobbles when driven slowly
- Mint means there’s an old roll of lifesavers under the seat
- Rare means most examples of this model fell apart long ago
Knowing what you already know about cars, the following short descriptions of common automotive problems can help you figure out why your car isn’t running. They also make impressive party factoids.
Fuel Problems: What To Do When Your Car Is Starved
What can go wrong with your car’s fuel system? Many things. And when one does go wrong, your car may be as grumpy as a hungry child. In fact, a fuel system problem can stop your car.
- The fuel tank can become contaminated with junk (just like your arteries can become clogged by eating junk food) that blocks the fuel lines, carburetor or fuel injectors, or the engine itself.
- The fuel lines can spring a hole and leak fuel.
- The fuel pump can become clogged with debris or can wear out and not deliver enough fuel to the engine.
- The carburetor linkage can become bent or stuck, making it difficult to control fuel going to the engine.
- The carburetor can get too much (rich) or too little (lean) fuel for the engine’s needs.
- The fuel injectors can become obstructed with debris, blocking the flow of fuel to the engine.
- The fuel-injection system’s controller can become damaged or wear out and not work efficiently.
- The air filtration and delivery system isn’t delivering.
- Your car is on a hunger strike because it wants the new flavor of gas at McQuickFuei.
Ignition Problems: Rekindling the Spark
Your car’s ignition system supplies the spark to the fuel/air mixture at the exact moment it’s needed-in theory. When it doesn’t, your car runs like a three-legged dog with a sore foot. Some of the more popular ignition system problems follow (vote for your favorite):
- One or more spark plugs misfire.
- One or more spark plug wires don’t deliver a strong spark. – The engine timing belt or chain is inaccurate or broken. – The ignition switch isn’t working as it should.
- The distributor isn’t distributing spark very well. – Your car’s girlfriend had
Does It Compute?
Don’t be intimidated by computers. They’re actually pretty dumb. They know only two conditions: on and off. However, they do it so dang fast that they can control thousands of things in a fraction of a second. Here’s how automotive computers can cause problems:
- Sensors are overriding common sense and stopping your car from functioning as designed.
- Wiring from your computer to components is damaged and doesn’t deliver the signal.
- A large charge of electricity has damaged a computer chip or another component manufactured in a newly emerging country.
What can go wrong with your car’s exhaust system? It can make lots of noise. It can stink like no other earthly odor. It can fail to pass an emissions test. Why?
- The exhaust manifold can leak and make excessive noise because of a damaged sealing gasket.
- The exhaust pipe can rust through, letting exhaust fumes escape into the already polluted atmosphere or into the passenger compartment.
- The muffler or resonator can be damaged or rusted through, releasing fumes and noise.
- The catalytic converter can quit converting all those little catalysts.
- The emissions-control systems can fail to control emissions.
Electrical Problems: Short Circuits and More
Electricity is vital to the continued operation of your car as well as to your stereo system. What can go wrong with your car’s electrical system?
- The starter solenoid and motor can fail to rotate and start your car’s engine.
- The alternator can fail to replenish electricity in your car’s battery.
- The battery can fail to store electricity delivered to it by the alternator.
- The battery cables or other wiring can become damaged and leak electricity like water from a torn hose.
- The regulator can fail to regulate the electricity going from the alternator to the battery.
- Lights, gauges, clocks, and other electrical components can bum out or become disconnected.
Cooling Problems: Changing Hot to Cool
Your car’s engine gets pretty hot as it converts chemical energy into mechanical energy. The car’s cooling system helps keep the engine from getting too hot. Depending on the car, the coolant temperature must stay under 1900 Fahrenheit. If it doesn’t, your car’s got cooling problems. Here are some of the causes of this problem:
- The radiator could be damaged.
- The radiator may be clogged with rust or other debris.
- The thermostat isn’t controlling the coolant temperature as it should.
- The water pump isn’t efficiently circulating coolant throughout the engine. ~ The heater system is damaged or clogged.
- Your car’s temper is flaring because it knows you’ve got your eye on a cute little sports car.
Parts inside your car’s engine are rotating thousands of times per minute. That’s pretty fast. To keep the parts from quickly wearing out, the lubrication system circulates oil under pressure. What can go wrong?
- The oil pump can become clogged with sludge or can fail.
- The oil passages in the engine block can become clogged with sludge and limit the flow of oil.
- Low oil level can starve some parts for lubrication.
Brake Problems: Stopping in Time
Today’s car brakes are more trouble-free than their ancestors. They can adjust themselves nicely. However, when they fail, they can become hazardous. What are common brake problems?
- Drum and disc brakes wear out and need replacement.
- Hydraulic brake cylinders wear out and need repair or replacement. ~ Power brake units wear out and need repair or replacement.
- Parking or emergency brake systems need repair.
Suspension Problems: A Shocking Story
Your car’s suspension system helps smooth the ride, reducing wear on tires, components, and people. What can go wrong with your car’s suspension system?
- Shock absorbers can wear out, making the car ride rough.
- Struts can need replacement, making steering more difficult.
- Steering components can wear out and need replacement.
- Power steering units need repair or replacement.
- Wheels can be damaged and need replacement.
- Your car has been to too many rodeos and wants to buck you off like an angry bull.
Transmission Problems: When Your Transmission Doesn’t Transmit
Transmissions simply transmit the engine’s power directly or indirectly to the driving wheels. Along the way, problems can happen that reduce the car’s forward travel to little or nothing. What are these potential transmission problems?
- The automatic or manual transmission gears can wear out and need replacement.
- The automatic transmission’s torque converter can lose its torque-converting capabilities.
- The manual transmission’s clutch can lose its grip on the engine’s flywheel.
- The car’s universal or constant-velocity joints can wear out and need replacement.
- The car’s gear shifting linkage can need adjustment, repair, or replacement.
- The transmission can run low on lubrication and tear itself apart.
Body and Interior Problems
Your car’s body keeps everything moving in the same direction. The interior makes it a more-or-less comfortable ride. Common car body and interior problems follow:
- Window glass is damaged by flying rocks or vandals.
- Doors don’t close well because of age or bent hinges.
- Paint needs to be repaired or replaced after being bitten by a fence post.
- Body dents need to be undented after meeting the same fence post as the paint.
- Interior surfaces need repair or replacement because of wear or woeful critters, including children.
Need to know more? Browse the articles of this website for more detailed explanations about car problems.