3 Symptoms of a Seized Engine (and What Causes It)

The internal combustion engine contains many small metal components which move in harmony with one another. That is why when one of these components wears out or fails, it causes all the other components to be thrown off course.

What’s worse is that the engine will suffer a lot of damage once this happens. You could be driving along one day and have your car engine just seize up out of the blue.

This will indicate that one or more of your internal components are locking up and not moving. Because of this, the crankshaft cannot move the bearings.

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What Causes a Seized Engine?

causes of locked up engine

So, why does the engine seize up like this? Well, it usually comes down to an engine component that has broken off or come loose and is lodged against another component, sometimes penetrating the engine block.

Other causes may include overheated components which have actually welded together, rusted internal components, lack of engine oil, or water in the engine. The most common components include the piston rings, pistons, and rod bearings.

It is hard to repair these problems after they’ve occurred. You may end up having to replace your entire engine. That, of course, will mean spending thousands of dollars that you probably don’t even have available.

Engine Locked Up Symptoms

Fortunately, a seizing engine will not mean it is already destroyed. There are some symptoms that you should recognize as early warning signs.

If you can spot them early on, you may have time to take your vehicle to a repair shop and have them fix the problem before it causes worse problems for the engine.

Below are the top 3 symptoms of a car engine seizing up.

#1 – Oil Light On

low oil pressure warning light on

If your engine components are locking up, it will hinder the circulation of oil. Your engine control unit will immediately detect something is wrong with the oil flow once this happens.

In response, the unit will activate engine oil warning light on the dashboard. Some vehicles share this warning light with the “Check Engine” light, so you may have either or both lights come on.

#2 – Poor Acceleration (or None At All)

car shuts off while driving

You cannot have a seizing engine and still be able to drive your vehicle normally. When your engine begins to seize, you can expect its performance to diminish, often greatly.

This means that each time you step on the gas pedal to accelerate your vehicle, you are probably not going to go as fast as you normally would. In fact, you may not be able to pick up speed at all.

It will eventually get to the point where your engine is locked up to the point where your car will just stop for good.

#3 – Knocking Sounds

rattling noise

During a seizing engine situation, the piston rod knocks against the crankshaft. This will happen repeatedly, causing knocking sounds to be heard. The sounds will continue to become louder and worse unless you address the problem fast.

Can You Fix a Seized Engine?

Once an engine is deemed “seized” by a mechanic, there unfortunately aren’t many options available for the vehicle owner. In the majority of cases, engine replacement will be recommended or necessary simply due to the fact that the internal damage will likely be severe.

While it may be possible to repair damaged components and have the engine block repaired at a machine shop, the cost of rebuilding the engine is typically more than simply replacing it altogether. The exception are would be certain “high-performance” or rare engines (which will be expensive no matter which route you take).

However, there may be instances where the cause of engine lock up is simply due to the vehicle sitting too long and exposed to the elements. In these cases, you may be able to salvage the engine. This is why dealing with a trustworthy mechanic is so important.

Seized Engine vs Bad Starter

This is an important one. Because a bad starter that’s seized up and its solenoid is stuck can share some of the same symptoms as a seized up engine, it’s important to get the diagnose correct.

The mechanic will usually attempt to manually rotate the crankshaft to make sure your starter is not the culprit. If the crankshaft can be rotated, the problem is likely the starter. If not, the starter is then removed and manually rotating the crankshaft is checked again. 

Mark Stevens

14 thoughts on “3 Symptoms of a Seized Engine (and What Causes It)”

  1. Just got a new engine to replace my old one which done a head gasket. When I bought the new engine everything was working and rotating fine.

    When I finished installing the engine and try to fire it up, all I hear is a click sound, I trying turning the engine manually but is full seized and the engine wasn’t seized before I put it in. The engine hasn’t run at all to to consider the other factors that can cause this to happen.
    can someone please help me it will be much appreciated, thanks.

    • Can you turn the engine over by hand?

      Recheck your timing. If you have an interference engine and the timing belt is loose or slipped, that could very well prevent the engine from turning over.

  2. I have an old 77 boat with a 302 Ford V8 that I bought and when I got it home I manually cranked it by hand. Also tried the starter and it was turning over fine. Than it stopped turning over and I can’t turn it by hand. Any thoughts ??

    • I really don’t know anything about boats, but I’m wondering if there’s an issue with the timing chain in that motor. Maybe a weak chain or failed tensioner that broke when you turned the motor with the starter. Have you been able to tear down the engine to assess the situation?

  3. My 2011 Tiguan started failing power steers intermittently 4x over the past 2.5 years since buying it used in 2018. Recently was five days ago; restarting corrects it. Yesterday while driving thought I noted momentary loss of acceleration, but attributed it to imagination. Half an hour later experienced loss of engine power. Waited five minutes and restarted fine but new EPC light was on. I managed to get home with no trouble and on restart EPC light went out so I assumed all was fine. Went out to nearby errand today and it stalled again, only this time would not start again. It cracks but won’t start. Towed it home and charged battery – still nothing. I don’t have a code scanner but am very worried this is something very big I may not be able to afford. It is Sunday and doubtful any shop will have time Monday to get it in. Any ideas what the top issues could be from worst to least? TIA

  4. My 07 Cadillac sts won’t turn over. It just clicks when you try to start it. I was told it’s the motor seized but also was told it might be the starter. Does anyone have any idea?

    • If you can spin the engine with a ratchet on the crankshaft pulley, your engine isn’t seized. You checked the battery, right? Make sure the battery terminals are clean and free of corrosion. It could also be the starter going out. You’ll have to spend a bit more time with it to narrow it down.

  5. My Honda Vti oriel 2005 prosmatic is heated very hot engine oil smell block is fail head is save water body leak car is ver hot can I block repair or engine change

  6. I had my 2002 Saturn SL1 die on me on a mountain pass, i was matting the throttle to get up the mountain, the oil pressure light came on and a split second later the car died. The car is in a no crank no start situation, when I put the ignition to start I hear a clunk noise. I replaced the battery, I have no low beam lights but do have high beams.

    • Does the engine turn over by hand? Low oil pressure followed by a dead engine is not a good sign… It sounds like the oil pump may have gone out or the vehicle was starved of oil for some reason. Check the oil to make sure it isn’t low. If the oil level was low, you’re probably looking at an engine replacement.

  7. I tried starting my engine after a wrecker haul it home. A heater hose blew and it was immediately hauled home on a Flatbed Wrecker. Was turning over and even started (briefly) with starting fluid! Due to compression. After searching high and low, I discovered the ignition fuse has been removed! Thoroughly disgusts in my find, I let it SIT near two years.Trying again, as someone wished to buy it….I’ve found it locked up tight. Soaked it down with Deep Creep a few days, No Go! Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! Bruce, in Arizona

    • Since you said it’s locked up after you started it, I’m wondering if the timing belt snapped. Do not attempt to start the vehicle until you can verify the timing belt’s integrity, especially if it’s an interference engine. An interference engine will usually bend valves if it is cranked when the engine is not timed correctly.

      Next, start with the basics: make sure it has all its fluids, particularly engine oil.

      Do a visual inspection to make sure all intake and vacuum hoses are connected. A major vacuum leak would cause it to run poorly, if at all.

      If it sat for 2 years and still has the original fuel in the tank, that fuel probably isn’t going to burn very well. If the tank is low, add some fresh fuel. If it’s full, consider draining the tank. Old gasoline reeks, so you should know pretty quickly if bad gas is the issue.


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