Common breakdown problems – your complete guide

Common breakdown problems – your complete guide

The RAC has been helping its members for more than 125 years when it comes to breakdowns. In this article, we look at the most common issues that UK drivers are facing today.

Although the most common causes of breakdowns have varied over time  – there are a few that happen to thousands of drivers each year. Here‘s what they are and what you should do.

Flat battery

According to RAC data, a flat or failing battery is the biggest cause of car breakdown. There are some simple steps you can take to prevent this.

Keep your battery in top condition by turning off lights and interior electrics before you switch off the ignition.

Also, if you make a lot of short journeys, try to go for a longer trip once a fortnight. This can help extend the life of a battery.

Other issues that could cause a flat battery include a faulty component or connectors, an issue with the computer that monitors the car charging system, or old age.

In order to avoid this, you should get your car serviced each year. A qualified mechanic should be able to fix any issues or let you know in advance if it needs to be replaced.

A flat battery might also be a cause for your car not to start. This guide will help you understand why your car isn’t starting.

Damaged, bald, and flat tyres

Another common breakdown issue that almost every driver has faced at some point in their life– tyre problems.

Whether you’ve had a full on blowout or your tyre tread has worn down over time and needs replacing – it’s never nice knowing that your vehicle is dangerous to drive.

Over recent years, the RAC has noticed a worrying trend of more cars not carrying a spare tyre as standard – something manufacturers no longer have as standard with some vehicles. This can be a simple fix for any of these problems – even if it is one that can get you to the nearest RAC approved garage to get a real replacement.

However, to avoid any issues, is to regularly check your tyre tread and pressure. Also check for any uneven wear and damage, as this could show that the wheels are misaligned. This will also need to be sorted by a mechanic. You can find more tyre safety tips here.

If your car does have a spare tyre – check that one as well.

Damage can also appear after you hit a kerb or go over a pothole, so if something doesn’t look or feel right – go to a specialist.

Need some help? Here’s how to change a tyre in 10 simple steps.

Broken clutch

For manual cars, if your clutch breaks, then you will be unable to change gears. This is because the clutch cables won’t be able to disengage between a shift up or down in gear.

If this happens while you’re behind the wheel and moving at speed – move the gear into neutral and try to safely roll to a stop somewhere out of the way of traffic or any other road users.

You can often feel something wrong with the clutch in the lead up to any major fault. It can often feel ‘sticky’ or in a different position to where it normally feels when you change a gear. You may also hear a grinding sound or strange mechanical noises from inside the engine.

A simple way to avoid this is to ensure your clutch is lubricated and serviced each year.

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Alternator faults

A car needs a battery to run correctly – and the alternator’s job is to charge it. Should it fail, the battery will eventually die.

Early indicators of an issue with your alternator can be seen in weak electrical output on parts of the car such as headlights, entertainment systems and air con. Drivers will also probably start to see warning lights appearing on the dashboard.

As soon as one of these lights appear, drive to the nearest garage and get this fixed, as it can be an expensive fault.

If ignored, the engine could cut out at any point and lead to more issues.

Starter motor

If you’re sitting in your car on your driveway and turning the key over – and nothing is happening – then there’s most likely an issue with your starter motor.

This is the electrical connector to the car battery that sets the engine in motion when you turn the ignition key.

If you’re turning the key and there’s a loud clicking noise, then there is an issue with the wiring and connectors. You will need to call an expert to come and have a look at your vehicle to diagnose the problem and make a repair.

For more advice about the weird and wonderful vehicle noises you might hear when your car has an issue, check our full guide.

Engine overheating

One of the most common causes for a breakdown – especially with the summer months fast approaching – is your vehicle overheating.

There are many ways that a car can overheat – but the main two causes are issues with the engine or with the cooling system.

There are several precautions you can take to protect your car from overheating. Keep your car cool in the summer by;

  1. Park in the shade
  2. Use sun screens to keep your interior cool.
  3. Add coolant whenever necessary to a cool engine
  4. Carry extra coolant in your car
  5. Open windows and floor vents to let warm air escape
  6. Check your car in with a mechanic to have your cooling system flushed out and cleaned. Mechanics recommend having this done every 40,000 miles.

If you’re worried about your car overheating, ensure you have breakdown cover to meet your needs should you be out on the road and the worst happen.

A car that is overheating can be very dangerous – especially if you’re unsure on what to do. This guide on car overheating will help you keep safe and potentially save your car from any further damage. Below is a short video on how to check your car’s coolant levels – something you should be checking regularly.

Fuel issues or contamination

It might sound obvious, but if your car won’t start it could just be out of fuel. However, if you think your fuel gauge is broken, you might need to check your car into your local garage and have it looked at.

If you’ve put the wrong fuel in your vehicle, then these tips can help you sort this issue out.

Flooding your car’s engine is a no longer a common occurrence due to the fuel injection systems now fitted to all modern vehicle types. A flooded engine means there’s too much fuel and not enough air in your engine. It usually occurs with cold engines when you move your vehicle just a few metres, switch the engine off, then try to start it again.

To counter this, keep your foot on the accelerator while you turn over the engine. Once the motor is running, leave the car idle for a few minutes to sort itself out. Do not leave the car unattended.

A clogged fuel filter means the petrol or diesel can’t reach the engine which, unsurprisingly, means your engine won’t be able to burn the fuel it needs to start. It will not be obvious if your fuel filter is blocked, but as a rule of thumb they should be changed every 20,000 miles so make sure you prevent this becoming an issue by getting the filter changed at the appropriate service times.

Electronic Control Unit (ECU)

All modern vehicles are fitted with an ECU – a centralised system that monitors almost everything under the bonnet.

In some cases, the ECU may think that there is a mechanical fault in the vehicle – however, it could be a fault with the computer itself.

Due to the complexity of modern cars, there are many processors that monitor all aspects of your vehicle.

When they break – they can be very expensive. So, the best course of action is to have it serviced and checked by an expert each year to make sure it’s all working perfectly.


Both manual and automatic gearboxes can end up being an expensive fix should anything break, so be prepared to look out for any signs that something might not be working as smoothly as it should.

You will get a warning light, should the worst happen, but an early sign can be fluid leaking from the gearbox itself, which will soon lead to the gears becoming unresponsive.

There will also likely be a large mechanical sound, that can lead to other parts of the engine becoming damaged. Your vehicle may also jerk violently, even when in neutral. Eventually, the gear may slip into neutral when driving.

Visit a garage as soon as possible, or call for breakdown assistance if you are on the side of the road.

We have further advice for drivers whose cars are juddering, jerking or stuttering.

Diesel Particulate Filter

The Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) is an integral part of the exhaust system in a diesel vehicle. In a process called regeneration, the filter traps particles and ejects them as less environmentally damaging gases into the air.

These vehicles often need longer journeys at higher speeds to burn at the rate needed. Therefore, if you’ve been making a lot of short journeys, the best course of action is to drive on the motorway to clear the filter as often as possible. The warning light will turn off once the trapped soot and particles have been burnt off.

The best way to be prepared for any eventuality is to have your car insurance and breakdown cover ready for any eventuality. Broken down without cover? We can help - call 03301598743.

Remember, RAC approved garages are available to help with any of the common breakdown problems we have covered in this list. Stay safe on the roads!

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*Excludes Basic Cover. Ends 30/11/23.

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