What was that?!: Car sounds and what they mean

If your car is making strange noises, it may be trying to tell you something about its health. Car experts give us the lowdown on what certain car noises could mean.

Worried woman after she hears a loud noise from her car


A whirring noise coming from the back part of your car by the gas tank could mean that the fuel pump is beginning to fail, which can be very expensive to repair.

Howard Fleischmann, Sr., owner of Community Tire Pros and Auto Service, says, “A whirring noise coming from the back part of your car by the gas tank could mean that the fuel pump is beginning to fail, which can be a very expensive repair.”

To prevent this, he suggests never letting your fuel tank go below a quarter of a tank to keep the fuel pump cool and lubricated, thus prolonging its life.

Barb Moran, president and CEO of Moran Family of Brands, one of the leading companies in the automotive aftermarket industry, says, “A whirring noise from under the car could mean low transmission fluid, a plugged transmission filter or a transmission torque converter.”

Squeaking or squealing

John Boghosian, research manager of Tech-Cor, Allstate’s Collision Repair Center, says, “A squeak or squeal from under the hood is typically due to a worn or damaged accessory belt. As belts age, they stretch and become loose or lose traction on the underside of the belt. Both wear conditions result in slippage — producing the all-too-familiar squeaking sound. Install a new belt.”

He adds that a squeaky noise coming from the car’s windshield wipers is an indication that the rubber compound is drying out. He says, “When this stage is reached, the wipers are unable to readily conform to the windshield surface. Squeaks or a chattering sound result as the wiper is literally dragged across the windshield. Install new wiper blades.”

If you hear a squeal coming from the steering wheel, this could be a result of a loose fan belt in the engine, which will need to be repaired, says Fleischmann.

Fleischmann notes if you hear a consistent squeal when you apply the brakes, your brake pads are probably wearing down. He says, “Get into an auto repair shop ASAP to have them check the brake system.”

Clunking or knocking

Moran says, “A clunking noise while driving could mean a problem with the car’s steering or suspension (shocks/struts).”

Greg Burchette, owner of Bridgewater MOTORWORKS, in Bridgewater, New Jersey, says that worn out suspension struts can also cause a knocking noise from under the car, particularly when it goes over speed bumps in the road.

If you hear a knocking noise from the front end of your car on turns, Burchette says this could be caused by worn CV joints in the front drive train.

What’s that smell?

Aside from noises, your car may communicate with you through one of your other senses — that of smell. Fleischmann says if your car smells like dirty gym socks when you turn on the air conditioner, mildew in the system can be at fault. He advises, “Turn on the A/C fan to dry it out or get chemicals to kill the mildew at an auto parts store, like Auto Zone.

If you get a whiff of rotten eggs, Fleishmann says a problem with the catalytic converter is almost always at fault. Aside from the nasty smell, it can cause your car to fail emissions testing and dump large amounts of gas into the engine, costing you valuable gas mileage. Get it checked out right away.


Matt Allen, owner of Virginia Auto Service in Phoenix, Arizona, and host of Bumper to Bumper Radio on 92.3 FM KTAR, says, “A rapid click noise while turning is commonly a worn-out axle joint.”


Allen adds, “A groaning noise while turning the steering wheel is usually a sign of low power steering fluid, usually from a leak.”

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