How Can I Tell if My Car is Going to Break Down?

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 19 days ago

5 min read

  • Car ownership
  • Diagnostic
Fixing a broken down car at the roadside

WhoCanFixMyCar explains how to identify the signs that a breakdown is imminent.

Most breakdowns are preceded by warning signs and can sometimes be prevented by knowing which red flags to look for. That's where this guide comes in.

Contents

Battery damage or corrosion

Lumps of thick oil on the dipstick

Metal flakes in the oil

Green or blue puddles under the car

Unevenly worn tyre tread

Dashboard warning lights

Sounds

Smoke


Battery damage or corrosion

If you can see green powder around the battery or signs of corrosion around the terminals, follow the advice in this guide to change it before it causes a breakdown. 

An old car battery.

When your battery is on its way out, you should be able to notice the signs beforehand. For example, your car may:

Learn how to test whether your battery is in good working order.


Lumps of thick oil on the dipstick

Engine oil is normally light yellow and free from lumps. You can test this by removing your dipstick - if it is coated in dark brown or sludgy oil, it's time for an oil and filter change.

Woman checking engine oil

Oil loses its lubricating properties over time, which can cause engine damage. Similarly, when the filter is old, it allows dirt to circulate around the engine, causing corrosion.

It's possible to do an oil change at home with the right tools and know-how, but this isn't something you should attempt unless you feel confident. Find out how to do it in this guide. Alternatively, book an oil change at a local garage.


Metal flakes in the oil

As oil circulates around the engine, it can pick up metal shavings or flakes from components as they wear down, especially in older cars. The oil filter is designed to catch these flakes. However, if you've noticed a significant number of them in your oil, it's probably time to replace the filter.


Green or blue puddles under the car

Colourful puddles under your car indicate a coolant leak. Topping up coolant is easy enough - make sure that if you buy concentrated coolant, you dilute it as per the instructions on the bottle - but this is only a short-term fix and isn't advisable if the leak is major.

If the coolant reservoir is empty and the leak seems severe, it's best to avoid driving your car (even if you top it up) until the problem has been fixed. Driving a vehicle with low or no coolant can cause severe damage to the engine due to overheating. In this instance, search for a mobile mechanic.

This guide provides more information about identifying and fixing various fluid leaks.


Unevenly worn tyre tread

Man's hand pointing at car tyre tread.

When your tyres wear unevenly, this is often a sign of suspension issues or misaligned wheels. A good way to test the tread depth of your tyres is to use the 20p test, which we explain here.

Other symptoms of misaligned wheels include:

Find out more about wheel alignment here.


Dashboard warning lights

Dashboard warning lights can indicate a range of issues, from standard maintenance (i.e. when you need to get your car serviced) to more serious problems with the engine or other components.

An array of dashboard warning lights.

A yellow light is less urgent than a red light. However, ignoring any warning light is not a good idea, regardless of its colour, and could lead to a breakdown.

Find out what different dashboard warning lights mean in this guide.


Sounds

Unusual noises often suggest there is an underlying problem. For example, you might hear:

Use this guide to diagnose strange noises and find the right fix.


Smoke

Smoke coming from an overheating engine
  • A smoking bonnet means the car is overheating.

  • The exhaust emitting blue smoke means that oil has entered the fuel supply, affecting your car’s capability to run cleanly.

  • White smoke from the exhaust suggests that water or antifreeze has entered the fuel supply.

  • Dark or smelly smoke from the exhaust indicates an incorrect air-fuel ratio.


Think your car is on the brink of a breakdown? Whatever the problem, use the UK's most trusted garage network to find an affordable repair.

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