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10 Nasty Noises Cars Can Make and What They Mean

10 nasty car noises and what they mean

Listen up, your car may be trying to tell you something, and the chances are it’s not good news!

We won’t try to diagnose every noise your car will make. That’s an expert job that requires years of experience, a lab coat, a clipboard and almost certainly a stethoscope. But we can describe ten of the most common groans, squeaks, rattles and thumps you’re likely to encounter during your daily drive.

You might not like what you hear, but it may not be as bad as you think. Some noises are more serious than others, and our guide is designed to get you closer to a diagnosis and a best course of action.

01 The Floppy Rumble

This is almost certainly a flat tire, especially when accompanied by soft and heavy steering and road irregularities felt through the steering wheel. To be sure, you could lower the window to see if the noise gets louder (it will), but don’t waste time because you need to pull over as soon as it’s safe.

It’s almost certainly too late to save the tire, but it’s very dangerous to continue.

02 The Short Squeak

If it happens as you let the clutch out, that’s your clue. A squeaky clutch may carry on for some time  – we’ve driven an ‘04 Ford Taurus that’s been doing it for the past three years – but eventually that annoying noise could turn into something more serious, and if the noise and the clutch feel is changing quickly, there’s trouble just down the road. Probably literally.

03 The Long Squeal

This one happens as you pull away, particularly if the engine is cold. It’s likely to be one of the drive belts under the hood, also known as the ‘fanbelt’ – though there are lots of belts, and not just for the cooling fan.

It squeals because it’s slipping, and it’s slipping because it needs adjusting or because it’s nearly worn out. Don’t wait until it breaks (or your neighbours complain).

04 Knock knock

If you hear or feel a knocking sound as you drive over bumps, it’s likely to be either a worn out shock absorber or, more likely, worn suspension parts. It could be a perished rubber bush or a worn-out ball joint.

Both need replacing because they’re not going to get better and they will affect the car’s handling. It’s also incredibly annoying.

05 The Hollow Roar

It’s the exhaust, obviously. The police will be able to tell you that when they pull you over and then do an inspection on every inch of your vehicle and find a lot of other stuff you didn’t know about.

A blowing exhaust is an easy, if sometimes expensive, fix at a tire and exhaust centre, but it could be a broken bracket – if you hear a scraping sound too, then the exhaust is dragging on the road and you need to pull over and rig up a temporary fix before you continue.

06 Tick tock

If this is the only sound you get when you turn the key in the ignition, it’s likely to be a dead battery, especially if it’s a cold winter’s morning. Today’s sealed-for-life batteries go on for a long time and need no maintenance, but when they fail, you don’t get much warning – often just one or two ‘slow’ starts ahead of total failure.

You may still get the dash lights coming on, but they don’t draw much power so that doesn’t prove the battery is OK. Get a jump start, then head down to the tire and exhaust centre for a battery check.

07 Whine ‘o clock

A a steady droning whine that builds up and develops a higher pitch as you speed up could be a worn wheel bearing. They can go on for a while like this, but they can also collapse completely, so it’s a good idea to get it diagnosed and get it fixed.

08 The Horrendous Scraping

An occasional fault that is is easily confused with wheel bearing failure, but far more innocent. It happens when a bit of stone or gravel gets trapped between a brake disc and its rear cover.

It sounds like a horrible metal-on-metal failure as the wheel is turning, but it’s just the way the sound resonates through the braking system.

09 Braking bad

If you get a horrible metal-on-metal sound as you brake, it could mean the brake pads have worn through (shame on you for not checking). If you hear an oscillating rumble, especially with the window open) and feel a slight pulsing through the steering wheel, you could have warped discs – this can happen if they overheat on a long descent.

Unfortunately, discs don’t un-warp, so it’s curtains for that set.

10 Tapping or knocking

If it’s a tapping sound coming from the engine it could mean the tappets (valve lifters) need adjustment or, if it’s more of a knock than a tap, that could mean something more serious is going on in the reciprocating parts of the engine such as the crank and connecting rod bearings.

One is hopefully nothing more than a service item, the other is a lot more serious, so good luck with that, and with any other nasty noises your car decides to make. One day we’ll make a mixtape you can download.