What to do if your car doesn't start (1)

A driver's worst nightmare is that time when his car won't start. Or, the engine dies exactly when he is negotiating a tricky crossing. It's even more worrisome if the driver is a lady and the sun has already set, or if the location is a lonely highway instead of the city. This is the time when one regrets not knowing a little more about how cars work. 

Good news is, diagnosing why your car won't start isn't exactly rocket science. This guide, a little bit of common sense and a cool head might just be enough to get you back home.

Step 1: Understanding the Basics

Before you begin the process of troubleshooting, it is absolutely essential that you ensure your own as well as others' safety by pushing the dead car safely to the side of the road.

There are essentially 3 systems that start your engine up:

  1. The Electricals: Powered initially by the battery, the electrical system runs your starter motor which turns over the engine and allows it to fire up. It also provides the spark to the spark plugs in a petrol engine (to ignite the fuel-air mixture). In modern engines, the electricals need to supply power to the electronic control module (ECM) as well. Once the engine is running, the alternator recharges the battery and also keeps the other electrical systems running.

  2. The Fuel: Usually petrol or diesel, but alternate fuels like CNG and LPG are also used by a small percentage of owners. Since the car has stopped and it is an emergency, CNG / LPG-fueled cars should switch over to petrol. Thus, our troubleshooting sequence remains the same.

  3. The Engine: The fuel, air and (in petrols) a high voltage electric charge come together to generate the motive force in a mechanical manner by the engine. Things rarely go wrong here, but if they do, you should be able to identify what happened.

In the next few posts, we shall progressively try to identify what is preventing your engine from running, and explain some quick repair methods. The ultimate solution for the mechanically-challenged individual is to call the manufacturer's helpline and / or have the car towed to a workshop. But before you do that (it can take an hour or more for roadside assistance to turn up), let's try to get you home safe.