Last week, I was on holiday in the Kruger National Park with my trusty 12-year-old family SUV. After 3 days and some 250 kilometers on some of the worst, corrugated sand roads in the Southern part of the park, my vehicle began to emit a loud, jarring, clunking noises the passenger side wheel. Being in the heart of big cat territory, stopping wasn't an option, so I pressed on, praying the disturbance was nothing serious.

Being far from home in a remote area heightened my anxiety about the noise. I had only basic tools—a tyre repair kit and a 4-way wheel spanner—which fortunately proved adequate. When I finally managed to inspect the issue by jacking up the car and removing the wheel, I discovered that a stabilizer link nut had come loose. One side of the 4-way spanner fit the nut, allowing me to tighten it back into place, which stopped the noise. This minor fix was a relief, especially since the nearest town, Komatipoort, was far, and I was unfamiliar with finding a mechanic there.

This experience served as a perfect prelude to my exploration of car noises—what they mean, and when to worry or breathe a sigh of relief.


Common, Harmless Car Noises

Outlined below are several noises that typically stem from normal wear and tear and can be quickly addressed, potentially saving you from more substantial repair bills down the line:

  1. Engine Squeals Upon Starting
    The squealing noise you hear when you start your engine is most likely due to a worn serpentine belt. This belt is crucial, powering the alternator, starter, and other components. Fortunately, the remedy often involves a simple adjustment or replacement of the belt—both straightforward and economical solutions.
  2. Brake Squeaking
    Hearing a high-pitched squeak when you press the brake pedal usually means it’s time to replace your brake pads. A clear, squeaky sound serves as a gentle reminder for a quick pad change. If the noise sounds more metallic, however, it suggests that the rotors are dangerously close to making contact with the brakes, which is a more serious issue.
  3. Steering Clicks
    Clicking noises during steering can be unsettling but are often due to worn CV (constant velocity) joints. These joints are essential for providing flexibility to wheel axles. Recognizing this sound early and having a mechanic inspect the CV joints can prevent more significant damage, making replacement both simpler and cheaper.
  4. Loud Tyre Noises
    Tyres naturally produce noise, but certain sounds, especially vibrations, may indicate issues like a bent wheel. While this points to potential problems with alignment or wheel balance, these are generally quick checks and fixes that shouldn’t be neglected, despite not being immediately dire.


How to Respond to These Noises

  1. Stay Calm
    First and foremost, do not panic. Remember that while cars are complex mechanical entities, not every noise signifies a catastrophic failure. Addressing small, localized issues is often routine and won't break the bank.
  2. Consult a Professional
    Think back to how your car sounded when it was brand new—that’s your baseline. Any deviation from this should be considered a signal to have a professional evaluate your vehicle.
  3. Don’t Ignore Them
    Ignoring minor noises might seem like a viable option, especially if they don’t affect your driving experience directly. However, small issues can escalate quickly. For example, accustomed clicking from the CV joints might be tolerable until the joint fails completely, leading to potential loss of vehicle control.


Noises as Preventative Cues
Ultimately, treat every car noise not as an alarm, but as a helpful guide prompting you towards preventative maintenance. Whether it’s checking the serpentine belt, replacing brake discs, repairing axle joints, or monitoring your tyres, these sounds are your reminders to maintain vigilance and address issues promptly, ensuring your safety and the longevity of your car.