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What to Do When Your Car Door Won't Shut

Stephen Fogel
March 9, 2018

We take car doors for granted. They open, they shut, they lock — what more do you need? But things can go wrong that will prevent your doors from closing securely, and when that happens, you’ll need to get it fixed.

car door won't close

A car door that won’t close puts your safety at risk and makes it pretty easy for thieves to gain entry. Let’s look at what can cause this problem, and what to do about it.

How your car door works

The mechanism that operates the opening and closing of your vehicle’s doors relies on the interaction of several components:

  • The door itself
  • The door hinges 
  • The inside door handle
  • The outside door handle
  • The latch that releases to open the door, and engages to keep the door closed
  • The anchor that the latch works with to release and engage the door
  • The door lock 
  • The mechanical and electronic parts inside the door that allow the lock to work

Rear doors often have an additional complication: child safety locks. These can be engaged to prevent small children from opening the rear doors from the inside.

If your door won’t mechanically latch

Let’s say your door opens fine, but when you go to close it, it won’t latch. It’s not safe to drive with this for several reasons, including the fact that the safety system that’s designed to protect you in a collision is now compromised.

The causes of an inoperative latch mechanism can include:

  • The latch is stuck
  • The latch has accidentally closed while the door was open
  • Worn latch components
  • Rusting of the latch mechanism
  • Damaged or bent latch components
  • Broken door handle cable
  • Damaged anchor on the door jamb
  • Failed electronic components

The first two items on the list, the stuck and the accidentally closed latch, may be easily fixable.

Stuck latch solution: For the stuck latch, shoot some oil, silicone spray or WD-40 into the latch mechanism on the door. Let it soak in, then rub it into all the visible parts with a clean cloth. If you see any rust on the latch components, use some steel wool to remove it. Try opening the latch with the door handle and see if it now works. If it doesn’t, proceed to the next step:

Accidentally closed latch solution: To fix an accidentally closed latch, first take a look at the latch on the door that won’t close, and see how it is oriented. Now look at one of the other doors that does work properly, and see how that latch is oriented.

The one that works should have a latch whose “jaws” are open, ready to engage the door jamb anchor and then rotate to a closed position. The one that is not working because it has accidentally closed will show the “jaws” in the closed position, unable to engage the anchor.

Get a screwdriver. While you hold the door handle in the open position, use the screwdriver to rotate the latch to the open position. If necessary, get someone to help you by holding the handle open, while you move the latch. Now try closing and opening the door a few times. If it works properly, you’ve fixed the problem. 

Solutions to other mechanical issues: Most of the other issues mentioned above are likely to require the attention of your mechanic. When it comes to disassembling and repairing the mechanisms inside your doors, you want a professional involved.

Today’s highly computerized vehicles have a variety of features that depend on door latches for their operation. Remote locking, automatic locking when you are in motion, warnings that a door is ajar, and interior lights that fade off are some of these items. These complex electronic systems make do-it-yourself repairs inside the doors difficult. If you damage something, it can get very expensive.

Get it diagnosed by a professional
 

If your door is sagging or out of alignment

Over time, the doors, which are held on the vehicle only by the hinges, can sag and get out of alignment. This is a more common problem on two-door vehicles, which typically have longer, heavier doors. If you have to lift the door a bit to get it closed, the sagging has begun. If left unchecked, it can get so bad that the door won’t latch.

Solution: Unless you have specialized body shop experience, this is not a do-it-yourself repair. The door needs to be realigned with the body. This is a straightforward process, and shouldn’t be terribly expensive. Ask for an estimate first, and survey a few reputable body repair shops for the best price. 

Trunks and hatches are doors, too

The design of your trunk lid, hatchback or SUV rear hatch is very similar to that of your doors. They are all held on by hinges and secured by latches and anchors. The solutions listed above, relating to lubrication and releasing an accidentally closed latch, should work on these items as well. If your trunk or hatch doesn’t have a handle, then turn the key to the open position, or hold the remote release open while trying to move the latch.

If your trunk or hatch won’t close because the latch is out of alignment with the anchor on the body, try this: Take a look at the anchor as you slowly close the trunk or hatch. If the latch is not properly engaging the anchor, it may need adjustment. Grab the anchor and check if it is loose. This may be the problem.

Get a screwdriver or whatever tool is needed to adjust the anchor, and move it to the spot where the latch engages it most easily. Tighten the anchor just enough to hold it in place while you test different positions, then tighten it securely once you have found the ideal spot. That should do it.

Check the emergency trunk release

Starting with 2002 models, a glow-in-the-dark inside trunk release has been required on every vehicle with a conventional trunk sold in the U.S. This prevents the possibility of someone getting trapped inside. If this release has been pulled and has gotten stuck in the open position, the trunk may not close.

Solution: Lubricate the release mechanism and make sure that the release has returned to its original locked position.

For other, more complicated problems regarding the operation of your trunk or hatch, call your mechanic.

 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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