It’s happened to everyone who’s ever gotten behind the wheel of a car: it makes a baffling, scary sound, and you find yourself trying to recreate the backfires, pops, or “eh-eh-eh-brrrp” sounds to your mechanic. Learning how to recognize some of the most common automotive sounds can save you from those small humiliations, and potentially hundreds of dollars as well. Knowing what they mean can help you diagnose a problem before it gets serious.

Tick, Tick, Tick


Image via Flickr by Jeremy Noble

A ticking sound can be heard from various spots. Sometimes it’s simple and largely unimportant. For instance, if it’s coming directly from one of your wheels, you might have rocks, dirt, or debris stuck in your hubcap. You still want to take care of it because it can damage your rims, but it’s usually more annoying than dangerous.

However, this noise may come from your wheel bearings, and that’s serious. This is one case where that tick-tick-tick is more like a ticking time bomb. Your bearings are no joke, and letting this problem persist could lead to an issue with braking or steering. It’s also problematic if the ticking is quieter and more rhythmic, because a nail, splinter, or another object might have lodged itself in your tire.

Grumbles and Groans

Sometimes your vehicle makes strangely human noises. In many cases, it’s sending you a message. Aren’t you usually in pain or trouble when you growl, grumble, and groan? It’s the same for your car. A humming kind of groan may mean that your tires are seriously worn down, usually on the inner portion. This can lead to exposure of the belts, which is incredibly dangerous.

If your car growls when you’re turning or swerving, the wheel bearings in front are at fault—and at risk. Again, get it looked at right away. Whining and creaking as you turn around or reverse can similarly point to problems with your tie rods or ball joints.

Worrisome Hisses

No one wants to hear hissing from under the hood. If your car hisses at you after you turn off the ignition, consider it a red flag. It’s especially serious if you see any mist, steam, or smoke after shutting down the car. This usually means that the cooling system has an issue. Maybe it’s simple, like a loose or corroded radiator cap. However, you may also have problems with the fans, a hose, or your radiator itself.

Concerning Clunk

Ford Shelby Cobra GT500 Show Car

Image via Flickr by cmonville

Any clunks mean bad business. A clunk from under the hood, especially when combined with whining or humming, usually points to the transmission. If it happens when you shift, you need to get a look at your transmission right away. Given the labor and cost that goes into replacing a transmission, you don’t want to mess around with this sound.

Learning how to identify the most common sounds your car makes can help you take care of the problem before it requires an expensive fix. What’s the scariest sound your car has ever made, and what did you do about it?