What Are the Symptoms of a Bad Distributor in a Car?

by Rebekah WorshamUpdated June 07, 2023
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A bad distributor can wreak havoc on your engine. In order to fix your car's problem, you must first know how to troubleshoot in order to determine what exactly the problem is. A bad distributor will normally present a variety of symptoms, which can oftentimes be recognizable as distributor related. Knowing what to watch for in advance can save you time and unnecessary expense later.

Unexplainable Shaking

A classic telltale sign that your distributor is going bad is unexplained shaking whenever the car is running. This can range from a vibrating sensation to a more pronounced shaking that can be felt throughout the vehicle.

This shaking can indicate that the distributor is not spinning properly and is therefore affecting the timing and firing process. With faulty distributor caps, this sort of shaking is often noticed when the car is sitting in idle, or when the car has come to a complete stop while running, such as while sitting at a red light or stop sign.

Difficulty in Starting

Another classic symptom that may seem to indicate that your distributor is going bad is difficulty in starting the vehicle. This is commonly seen when the vehicle is being started in areas with low outdoor temperatures as a result of lack of protection. The burst of heat that occurs as a result of an engine running with the cold distributor cap, which is covered in plastic, is often cause for the distributor cap to break under stress from the heat, and is most commonly seen on cars that are kept outdoors or in unheated garages.

To prevent it, check the distributor cap often for telltale signs of cracking, and try to keep the vehicle in a protected environment whenever possible during periods of colder weather.

High-Pitched Squealing

Yet another indicator that your distributor is going bad is a high-pitched squealing noise that occurs when starting your vehicle. If everything else in your car seems to be working properly, stop the car and check under the distributor cap. Oftentimes, the distributor cap will become caked with pollutants and grease.

These buildups can sometimes cause the distributor cap to make a squealing noise as the air circulates through the engine. If after cleaning the distributor cap the noise continues, a whole new distributor may be required. This is normally something that must be diagnosed by a trained mechanic who works with distributors on a regular basis.

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