Can A Starter Lock Up An Engine [Explained]

Having your engine locked up or seized is one of the most painful experiences as a car owner. Naturally, you may think can a starter lock up an engine? The short answer is yes, it can.

can a starter lock up an engine

But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only reason why your engine can get locked up. There are many other issues that can cause your engine to get locked up or seized. You should be on the lookout for these potential issues as well.

We’ll discuss all these causes in detail and share how you can fix them. Keep on reading to find out all about it. Let’s jump in!

What Is A Locked-Up Engine

Before diving deep into the potential causes of a locked-up motor, it’s important to understand what it means. It simply means that the engine is locked and no longer functional because of a mechanical failure. There are many reasons behind it but the most frequently seen one is the lack of oil.

engine start stop

If your engine gets locked up in the middle of driving, you’ll most likely hear a rough sound that’s not natural at all. The car will come to a stop and there could be critical damage to the engine. 

Normally, you’d be looking at major repair costs if your engine gets seized like that. You’re lucky if the damage isn’t too severe. It’s not necessary that an engine can get locked up only in the middle of driving.

Even if you leave your car sitting, the piston rings can get frozen against the cylinder walls. The components inside the engine can also get rusty, break, and lock up the engine.

Can A Starter Lock Up An Engine [Explained]

A starter is primarily responsible for starting the engine. It’s composed of two main parts- the motor and the solenoid. The motor turns the crankshaft to start the engine. The starter solenoid engages the starter’s driver gear and closes the electrical contacts.


There’s also the relay between the battery and the starter which gives power to the starter. If any of these parts fail to work, you won’t be able to start your car. Ok, so that’s clear. But can a bad starter lock up an engine?

Yes, it can. And that’s because when you have a bad starter, it’ll take more effort for the engine to start. This extra effort can cause a sudden failure in the engine and it can get seized or locked up.

Replace the starter as soon as possible so that there’s not too much pressure on the different moving parts of the engine. Doing that will prevent the engine from getting locked up. Otherwise, it can get a little too late and you may have to replace the entire engine or undergo expensive engine repair. 

How Can You Tell If You Have A Bad Starter

The most common symptom of a bad starter is that you’ll hear a grinding noise when attempting to start the engine. You may also see the power lights on your dashboard but the car won’t start up.

Sometimes, your engine may not start because of a bad battery and you may misdiagnose it as a starter issue. So, try to jumpstart your vehicle to find out the real issue in this case.

If it starts, you most likely have a weak battery and your starter is fine. You’ll have to replace the battery in this case. But if it still doesn’t start, you have a bad starter.

There are plenty of other symptoms of a bad starter if you’re still confused about the condition of your starter. Here’s a quick glance at them:

  • The car doesn’t start when you turn on the key or press the push button.
  • Clicking, grinding, or whirring noises when starting the engine.
  • The engine doesn’t start on the first attempt but eventually starts after a few tires. You most likely have a faulty relay if this is the case.
  • The starter stays on and makes a clicking noise even after starting the engine. It indicates that the starter is stuck and the relay is constantly clicking.
  • Smoke comes out under your engine when you can’t start the car even after multiple tries.

What Can Lock Up An Engine

Although a bad starter can lock up an engine, it’s not usually the most common reason behind this issue. Here are the issues that have a much higher chance of locking up the engine.

i). Lack Of Oil

Nine times out of ten, oil starvation is the reason behind a locked-up engine. When the engine is low on oil or out of it, the components inside it don’t get lubricated. As these parts are made of metal, they get damaged when they rub against each other.

check oil level

The bearings that are meant to run smoothly grind against the camshaft and crankshaft. They can weld themselves into the other parts and lock up the engine. To make matters worse, the friction between them creates an enormous amount of heat inside the engine and causes it to be overheated.

You should check the oil level of your car after specific periods as suggested by your car manufacturer to prevent these drastic issues. Refill engine oil when you’re running low on it and change the oil filter every time you do it.

The quality of the oil can also affect the lubrication of your vehicle. If the engine oil gets contaminated or dirty, you should drain it as early as possible and refill the new engine oil. Make sure you always oil that has a viscosity that is recommended in your owner’s manual.

ii). Water Inside The Engine

Are you facing the issue after you’ve driven through a puddle? If you did, then there’s a high chance that water has gotten into your engine and that’s causing this issue. An engine is said to be hydro-locked when it’s in this state.

When water gets into the combustion chamber of an engine, it takes up the space that was meant for air. The engine was supposed to mix air and fuel to create an optimum level of the air-fuel mixture. But due to the water being there, the pistons no longer fully reach the top of their strokes.

It causes the connecting rods to bend. Once that happens, the engine can get locked up. You may sometimes avoid critical engine damage when driving in flooded water at lower RPMs. But at higher RPMs, the bending of the connecting rods and busting of the pistons are almost guaranteed.

iii). Fuel System Issues

This issue is more visible in older cars that have low-pressure fuel systems. The gasoline that’s supposed to be liquid turns into a gas and deprives the engine of getting enough fuel.

Your car’s engine will sputter, lose power, and usually turn off when this happens. When an engine goes bad this way, it’s called a vapor-locked engine. You won’t be able to start it again no matter how hard you try.

iv). Rusty Or Worn-Out Components

The components inside the engine are made of metal and they can get rusty with time. When there’s a formation of rust, the components grind against each other and metal shavings are left off that interfere with the smooth operation of the engine.

The chances of an older vehicle’s engine forming rust are higher than newer ones. But if the engine is well maintained and lubricated properly, this issue can be avoided. Unfortunately, the parts inside the engine can also get broken even when there’s no rust.

The pistons, valves, and connecting rods are the usual victims here. When they get broken, they go into areas of the engine where they shouldn’t be and make the engine locked up. When one of these parts goes bad, it can make the others malfunction as well. The end result is a total disaster.

v). Overheated Engine

When an engine is overheated, the metallic components inside it can get expanded. The pistons usually get larger in size and damage the cylinder walls. The cumulative effect leads to other parts of the engine going bad.

overheated engine

The head gasket can also be blown when the engine gets overheated. This problem is often caused by not changing the oil enough. So, make sure you change your engine oil and oil filters at the recommended intervals to prevent the engine from being seized or damaged.

vi). Dead Battery

If you find your engine seized from sitting after a while, it could be due to a dead battery. When you leave your car for months and do nothing, the battery can get damaged.

corroded battery

And if you try to start the car in that condition, it can end up locking your engine.

vii). Bad Timing Belt

Even something as simple as a serpentine belt can lead to your engine getting locked up. How does that happen? When the timing belt fails, it leads to the valves hitting the pistons.

bad timing belt

When it happens a number of times, the engine can get locked up.

What Are Engine Locked-Up Symptoms

If you’re confused about whether your engine is locked up or not, here are some common symptoms that’ll help you:

i). Engine Won’t Start

The most obvious sign of a locked-up engine is that it won’t start. The starter can impact the flywheel and make a clunking noise but the engine won’t turn over. You may be able to still run the electrical components like the radio, fan, and lights but starting the engine is out of the question.

ii). Visible Damage

Sometimes, the damage caused in the engine block when it gets seized is so bad that it can be seen from the top of the engine. A piston connecting rod can break and go through the engine block.

Although engine damage can be seen from the top only in severe cases, it can’t hurt to look. Do a physical inspection of your engine and see if there are any signs of damage. If you find it, you can conclude that your engine is locked up. Otherwise, you can move on to the next symptoms.

iii). Damaged Wires

When your engine gets locked up but you try to start it, the starter doesn’t turn over the engine. This can cause the wires to be overheated and burnt. It may also be accompanied by a smoking or burning smell.

iv). Dead Knock Noise

Unless you drive through a puddle, there’s a low chance that the engine will get locked up at once. You’ll hear knocking sounds from the engine before it goes bad. But when it gets locked up, it’ll make a loud sound which usually comes from the piston rod hitting the crankshaft.

This noise is called the death knock. If you have heard it, you can be sure that your engine has locked up.

v). Manual Testing

If the symptoms aren’t enough, you can take matters into your own hands and do a little testing. One of the most effective ways of testing for a locked-up engine is to try turning the crankshaft pulley on the engine. It’s the big pulley in the middle if you’re having trouble locating it.

try to turn the engine

Remove all the spark plugs, place a socket on the crankshaft pulley bolt and use a large breaker bar to turn it. If it doesn’t move, there’s a strong chance that your engine is locked up. If there are no damaged parts, your engine will start again.

How To Tell If The Engine Is Going To Be Locked Up

It’s not likely that the engine gets locked up all of a sudden without any warning signs. There are some common signs which indicate that your engine can get locked up soon.

If you catch these signs early on, you can know it ahead of time and you may be able to salvage your engine before it undergoes any major damage. Here they are:

i). Oil Light

Oil starvation is the number one reason behind a locked-up engine. The control unit will detect oil circulation issues in your engine when it starts to lock up and trigger the oil light on your dashboard. Depending on your vehicle, you may get just the oil light or both oil and check engine lights.

oil light

It’s a good indicator that your engine can get locked up. Drain the old oil, refill the oil pan with engine oil of the right viscosity, and change the oil filter to minimize the chances of the engine getting seized.

ii). Reduced Acceleration

There’s absolutely no way that you’d be able to drive your car at a normal speed when the engine starts to get seized. So, you’ll notice the performance of the engine going down when it happens.

When stepping on the gas pedal, you won’t go as fast as you would on a properly functioning engine. With time, you won’t get any speed at all and your engine will get locked up eventually.

iii). Knocking Noises

When the piston rod hits the crankshaft, it creates a knocking sound. As the engine gets worse, the noises will get more frequent and louder with time. If you’re seeing these signs, take your car to a mechanic soon and see what you can do to save it while there’s still time.

How To Fix A Locked-Up Engine

Before getting started on how you can go about fixing the engine, it’s important to confirm whether your engine is actually seized. A bad starter and a locked-up engine can have the same symptoms. Yes, a faulty starter will eventually lead to a locked-up engine.

But that doesn’t mean that a bad starter and a locked-up engine are the same things. So, try to manually rotate the crankshaft to rule out any potential starter issues. If you can’t rotate it, remove the starter and keep trying.

Once the issue has been properly diagnosed and you can confirm that you have a locked-up engine, now comes the question of how you can fix it. Whether the engine can be repaired or not depends a lot on the damage as well as the type of lockup.

Engines that have been damaged due to oil starvation or other major issues can be hard to fix. There’s a much higher chance to fix engines that are locked up due to vapor lock and hydro lock. Here’s how you can go about it:

How To Fix Vapor-Locked Engines

As you know by now, vapor lock is more common in engines that are older because the fuel systems in those vehicles work differently. If you have an old car with a carburetor, it’s likely that you’ll face this issue at some point.

One quick solution to fix a vapor-locked engine is to pour cold water over the fuel pump as well as the fuel lines when your ignition is turned off. Doing that will cool things down and the fuel can get condensed to get into liquid form.

You can try to start the vehicle by turning the ignition and pressing the accelerator. There might be some sputtering while the vapor gets cleared from the fuel lines but you should be able to start your car after a few tries. Remember, it only works if there’s no engine damage.

How To Fix Hydro-Locked Engines

It takes a lot more work to replace a hydro-locked engine compared to a vapor-locked engine. Because you’d have to get the water out of the engine first. Remove the spark plugs and let them dry.

hydro-locked engines

If you take action early on after your engine wall was flooded, your cylinder walls should be fine. But they can become corroded if you let the water sit for too long. After taking the spark plugs out, crank your engine to pump the water out of the cylinders.

The spark plugs may have to be replaced once you drain the water from the engine. It’s recommended that you do a full oil change so that the oil that was mixed with water is no longer in the engine.

What If The Damage Is Severe

The fixes shared above only work if the engine isn’t damaged. But if there are any bent connecting rods, cracked pistons, or other major issues, your engine will not be fixed that easily.

You’ll have to take it to a mechanic and he’ll have to strip down the engine to determine whether it can be repaired or not. Each individual component will have to be checked. Even if it can get repaired, the cost to replace it can be lower than the repair cost.

How Much Does It Cost To Repair Locked-Up Engines

When an engine gets vapor locked, you can fix it free of cost if splashing cold water to the point of condensing does the trick. But if the fuel pump has been damaged, you’d have to replace it and it cost anywhere between $500 to $1500.

For a hydro-locked engine, the cost could be little and you’d only have to pay for the new spark plugs and the engine oil. But if any of the components have been damaged, they’ll need to be replaced and the costs can escalate quickly.

The main thing that’ll determine the cost is how bad the condition of your engine is. It can be nothing to very little if you can fix it easily. Otherwise, you may have to spend thousands to repair it.

Can You Rebuild A Seized Engine

It all comes down to how bad the damage was. If the engine was seized due to a lack of oil, it can still be possible to rebuild it. But keep in mind that it’ll be expensive as a mechanic will have to check that no irreparable damage was done to the engine.

If he finds out that a rod has gone through the engine lock or any other dangerous issue, you won’t be able to rebuild it. Even if there’s no major damage and a rebuild is possible, the overheating of an engine can cause the different components inside it to get warped.

So, the engine won’t perform like before after it’s rebuilt. It’ll also lose its longevity and break down again. If your vehicle is expensive and the engine block is rare to find or too expensive, only then it may make sense to rebuild the engine.


How long does a starter last in general?

A brand-new starter usually lasts for around 80,000 starts. In terms of mileage, you can expect it to last anywhere between 30,000 to 200,000 miles. It typically lasts for a longer period in warmer climates.

Can a bad starter drain your battery?

Yes, when a starter it’s bad and you’re making more and more attempts to start the car, it’ll draw more power from the battery and drain it.

How much can you get for a car with a seized engine?

You may think that your car is worthless with a seized engine but there are many online sites that make a guaranteed offer no matter what condition your car is in. Now, how much you can sell it for depends on the other parts.

How much does an engine locked-up repair cost?

An engine can’t always be repaired after it’s locked up. Even if it’s possible to repair it, it can easily cost more than $3000 – $4000. That can be more the price of the vehicle itself.

How to fix an engine that has been sitting for too long?

A little oil can fix an engine that has been frozen because it was sitting for too long. Remove the spark plugs, put oil in the cylinders, leave it for a few days, and try to start the engine with a breaker bar.

What should you do if your engine locks up when driving?

Put the transmission to neutral and park on the side of the road when it happens. If it gets locked up when you’re parked, don’t try to start the car as you can burn out the starter and create more problems.

Should you fix a seized engine?

It depends on the severity of the issue. If it can be fixed without putting a hole in your wallet, you can consider it. But otherwise, you’re better off replacing the engine or selling the car as it is.


Hopefully, you’ll no longer have to think about can a starter lock up an engine after reading this guide. A locked-up engine isn’t a light matter and it can take a lot of time and money to fix it.

This major problem can simply be avoided by taking care of your car and changing the engine oil when needed. But if it’s too late, you’ll either have to repair or replace the engine. Both these things will cost you a lot. Comment below if you have any more questions about locked-up engines.

About John M

John contributed as a technical head at an automobile company just 2 years after his post-graduation in Automobile Engineering. He loves to lead a free life, so he left his job & started blogging. Now, he does research on every automotive problem, part & product and seeks a better solution & best products & shares his findings with his readers to help them as well as to minimize their struggle.

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