Clicking, popping, clunking. Strange car noises may be annoying or even harmless, or they may be signs of something more ominous. There are certain noises that are so irritating that you can only ignore them for so long. What’s more, they may be signaling there is a serious problem.
When your car is making a strange noise, you will listen carefully and wonder where the noise is coming from. You also wonder if maybe it will go away on its own. The car may even hiss and whine like it’s alive.
Like people, cars communicate when something is wrong. In fact, taking your car to a mechanic is similar to when you are sick and go to a doctor. You describe your physical symptoms to your doctor, and in a similar way you describe your car’s symptoms to a mechanic.
Just as a doctor will ask you questions to find the exact location of the physical problem you are describing, the mechanic may ask you questions to narrow the cause of your car’s problem. However, the similarities end here.
When you are sick you most likely accurately communicate your aches and pains to your doctor. On the other hand, when your car is sick, you most likely do not accurately communicate to your mechanic the sounds and noises that your car has been making.
For example, when telling your doctor about a symptom, you will describe what kind of pain it is, where it is, when you first noticed it, and give him all kinds of other information that might be helpful in making a diagnosis. However, when you take your car to a mechanic to figure out what’s wrong with it, you provide very few solid details.
Communicating with Your Mechanic
If you are like many car owners who do not have a basic understanding of mechanical issues, you will probably describe your car’s problem in some vague terms. You will describe the problem as the car making a weird or strange noise, or you may even characterize it as making a funny sound. And you will expect your mechanic to be able to diagnose the problem based on what little information you have rendered.
Here is a fact: if you cannot effectively explain the problem, your auto mechanic cannot accurately diagnose it either. If you want your car fixed, you must be able to communicate as accurately as possible.
If you don’t know the technical verbiage your mechanic uses or cannot remember any of the terms, or none of the terms seems to describe the problem, don’t be too embarrassed to recreate the sound to the best of your ability. It won’t be the first time a mechanic has been asked to listen to someone impersonating a car making a strange sound or funny noise.
Before talking to your mechanic, be sure you are also able to describe the circumstances surrounding whenever you hear the sound. This information will help your mechanic narrow the possible causes of the problem, which will save him time and you money.
Car Noises and What They Mean
Of course, it would be nice for both you and your mechanic if you could tell him the name of the noise rather than having to recreate it. Following are several car noises beginning with A and ending with W that mechanics are routinely confronted with in order to diagnose a car problem.
- Bang – momentary forceful, startling sound similar to a rifle shot, i.e., a backfire.
Possible cause: Interruption of fuel supply, i.e., fuel filter, fuel pump. etc., or it could be a result of the ambient air temperature.A backfire can usually be traced to something that tends to cause a rich mixture of air/fuel. In the past, it might have been due to a heavy carburetor float; nowadays it would be faulty coolant temp signals or O2 sensors.Or it may be a damaged catalytic converter. A clogged monolithic converter is another possibility. Cars with air injection could have a diverter valve that is no longer diverting.
- Boom – low frequency hollow type noise or sensation like reverberation from a bass drum; sometimes like rolling thunder. Or you may have the sensation like you are riding in a metal drum where the atmospheric pressure is rapidly alternating between positive and negative.
Possible cause: unburned fuel in exhaust system, ignition problem, fouled spark plugs. A rear wheel-drive spinning “out of true” will cause waves to push up on the floor of the car, which can indicate a problem with driveshaft and U-joints.
- Buzz – constant, annoying low- to mid-range noise similar to the sound of a bee, trapped insect, or electric shaver. Vibration like that of an electric shaver is felt through the steering wheel or floorboard.
Possible cause: wheel bearing, loose lug nuts, or low tire. Can also be traced to car’s interior if trim parts have been poorly positioned.
- Chatter – metallic noise that rapidly repeats, like teeth chattering.
Possible cause: severe fuel or ignition interruption.
- Chirp – repetitive bird noise, like there are birds nesting under the hood of your car.
Possible cause: bearing going out on alternator or water pump; fan belts or idler pulley are worn or misaligned.
- Chuckle – rapid noise, like a small branch positioned between the spokes of a bicycle wheel that is spinning.
Possible cause: worn belt shredding or a flat tire.
- Clang – metallic ringing like a metal bell that briefly reverberates. Similar to the noise of a wrench dropping onto the floor.
Possible cause: loose balancer or pulley.
- Clank – non-reverberating metallic striking noise. Similar to the noise of a hammer hitting against an anvil.
Possible cause: something fell off the car.
- Click – high-frequency but light tapping noise. Similar to the sound of someone cocking a pistol, tapping a pencil on a desk, or taking a picture. In an engine it repeats rhythmically.
Possible cause: low oil or oil pressure; also hydraulic lifters that are bad as described under the “Tap” section. On carbureted cars it may be the fuel pump. During a turn if sound comes from the lower regions of the front end, it could be due to an outboard CV-joint.
- Clack – harsher noise than a click, but almost the same. Similar to the noise of billiard balls hitting into each another.
Possible cause: fan blade could be hitting the shroud, or there could be detonation or gear problems in the transmission.
- Clunk – heavy non-reverberating thumping or bumping noise that may also sound muted; not a really hard sound like a clang.
Possible cause: when driving over a speed bump you could have loose strut mounts or worn shock absorbers; could also indicate loose U-joints or a worn part in driveline; suspension bushings.
- Flapping – repetitious noise similar to a flag waving in a strong breeze or a bird’s wings fluttering.
Possible cause: a belt coming apart, tire, fan interference, or seatbelt hanging outside the door; back window could be partially rolled down.
- Grinding – similar to a pepper mill, except a more metallic sounding torturous noise.
Possible cause: brake lining worn away; gear clash when transmission is shifted improperly; wheel bearing or axle bearing going out; loose lug nut; brake linings are worn out.
- Groan – continual low-pitched noise, similar to a person groaning.
Possible cause: suspension failure.
- Growl – deep, guttural noise, like a vicious dog growling.
Possible cause: bearing in driveline or axle bearing going out.
- Hiss – noise of steam or air escaping from a small opening.
Possible cause: a punctured tire; vacuum leak in the cooling system, i.e., a fitting or rubber/plastic vacuum line has fallen apart or split open.
- Howl – mid-range noise like a strong wind.
Possible cause: wheel bearing going bad.
- Hum – continuous noise at fluctuating pitches, like a wire whirring in the wind.
Possible cause: bad bearing most likely in steering system, water pump, or alternator.
- Knock – deep, hollow sound similar to the noise made when a person knocks on a wooden door with his knuckles.
Possible cause: serious engine failure manifested by a rod knocking.
- Moan or Drone – low-frequency timbre similar to the sound made by blowing across the top of a large size pop bottle.
Possible cause: motor mounts or exhaust system grounding on the underside of the vehicle are worn out.
- Ping – sounds like marbles being dropped into a can.
Possible cause: engine with detonation or pre-ignition problems (aka/spark knock).
- Pop – explosive type sound, similar to someone popping a cork from a bottle or firing a shotgun through a mattress
Possible cause: a mini backfire, engine belching back through the intake; a leaking or sticking valve, jumped valve timing, twisted distributor.
- Rattle – like the sound of marbles in a can being shaken.
Possible cause: loose exhaust system that is slightly in contact with another part of the car; loose brake pads, calipers.
- Roar – similar to the roar of a tiger or lion or roar of a crowd of sports fans at a game.
Possible cause: bearing failure in engine compartment; flat tire.
- Rumble – muffled, staccato type roar.
Possible cause: a car driving over warning strips in the road; a loud, mellow sounding muffler.
- Sizzling – with the engine off, sounds like bacon frying.
Possible cause: oil leaking onto exhaust manifold; minor seepage of coolant.
- Slapping – sounds like the noise that playing cards inserted in the spokes of a bicycle make.
Possible cause: disintegrating belt; tire separation.
- Scraping – high-pitched cricket-like noise. As the car gains speed the sound often speeds up.
Possible cause: loose hardware on brake system; warning tab on some disc brakes.
- Screech – a drawn out squeal.
Possible cause: noise associated with tires skidding on the pavement while brakes are locked.
- Squeak – High-pitched noise, that sounds similar to continuing to rub a clean window.
Possible cause: metal is rubbing against metal or rubber is being forced over the top of a metal pulley.
- Squeal – piercing high-pitched noise that is long lasting. Similar to the sound of a car in the movies taking tight corners.
Possible cause: brake pad wear indicators or defective fan belt. The brake discs and semi-metallic linings are not compatible due to an error in assembly, inferior rotor finishing or washing, or an annoying friction formula. Belts could be contaminated, loose, or worn.
- Tap – similar to the noise made by hitting a tabletop with the flat side of a ruler; a heavy click. Also sounds like beating a screwdriver blade against an intake manifold.
Possible cause: related to the valve train; either hydraulic valve lifters are stuck or valves are out of adjustment.
- Whine – extremely high-pitched constant noise similar to the sound of a vacuum cleaner or a jet engine, except not necessarily as loud.
Possible cause: worn ball and/or roller bearings inside alternator, water or power steering pumps, AC compressor, or most likely the idler arm; mismatched gears in transmission, lube too light in a manual gearbox.
- Whirl – High-pitched, buzzing noise, like an electric drill or motor
Possible cause: ranging from cheap tires to engine fan clutch engaging, to stereo being improperly grounded to transmission problems.
- Whistle – piercing, high-pitched noise.
Possible cause: typically wind noise if it occurs at highway speeds; leak in car body gaskets; improperly adjusted latches and latch pins.
As you can see from the above list, there is an array of noises, starting at one end of a vehicle and running to the other end. Understandably, any one of these noises can be confounding and potentially damaging. Some noises are temporary while others come and go during different times of operation.
Noises that are sporadic can be the most difficult to diagnose. Also, some noises begin gradually and then become progressively worse. These types of noises will naturally tip you off to some potentially serious problems. Hopefully, using this list to identify any strange car noises will help prevent costly car repairs.