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Causes of Engine Failure

Copyright AA1Car.com

An engine failure is always bad news. Besides taking away your wheels, it forces you to make a painful financial decision. If the cost to repair, overhaul or replace the engine is more than the resale value of your car or truck, the investment may not be worth it. But if your vehicle is in good condition otherwise, repairing or replacing the engine may be less expense than trading for another used vehicle (always a gamble), or taking on payments for a new car or truck.

Assuming you have gotten past the initial trauma and has decided in favor of fixing the engine, you have to figure out why the engine failed so the repaired engine (or replacement engine) won't suffer the same fate.

A good place to start your postmortem is to review the circumstances that preceded the failure. Sometimes failures occur unexpectedly. One minute the engine is running fine and your keeping up with traffic, and the next you're sitting along side the road with the hood up wondering what happened. In most instances, though, there is ample warning that something is amiss long before the engine actually fails.

Unusual engine noises, low oil pressure, engine overheating, loss of power, misfiring, hard starting and similar driveability and performance complaints can all be indications of problems that need attention. The underlying cause may be something minor or major. There is no way to know unless somebody checks it out. If a motorist ignores such warnings long enough, it can be a very costly mistake because eventually the engine may succumb to whatever is causing the problem, which is a classic example of the famous preventive maintenance line, "You can pay me now or you can pay me later."

Common Causes of Engine Failure

The major causes of engine failures can be lumped into four basic categories:


Overheating can be caused by any number of things. It is often the result of coolant loss or a low coolant level, which is turn may be due to leaks in hoses, the radiator or the engine itself. A weak radiator cap that leaks pressure can allow coolant to escape from the system. Not getting the cooling system completely filled after changing the antifreeze can allow steam pockets to form that make the engine overheat or run hot. An electric cooling fan that fails to come on due to a faulty thermostat, relay, wiring or motor may be an overlooked cause of overheating. So too can a slipping fan clutch. Even a missing fan shroud that reduces the fan's effectiveness may be a contributing factor.

Another common cause of overheating is a faulty thermostat. When most thermostats fail, they do so in the closed position preventing the flow of coolant from the engine to the radiator. Replacing the thermostat will obviously solve the problem, but may not prevent the same thing from happening again at some point in the future. So you might want to install a "fail-safe" type of thermostat that still allows some coolant flow in the event of failure.

Less obvious causes of overheating can include a clogged radiator that is filled with sediment as a result of coolant neglect, corrosion or using excessively hard water. Incorrect ignition timing and/or a lean fuel mixture (which may be due to air leaks, low fuel pressure, etc.) can also elevate normal operating temperatures. An exhaust restriction (typically a clogged catalytic converter) can also make the engine work harder causing it to run hot.

Too much heat in an engine can cause serious problems because heat causes metal to expand. The hotter the engine gets, the tighter clearances become until there are no more clearances left. Overheating can cause valve stems to gall and stick, and pistons to scuff and seize. So if you see either of these conditions when you tear the engine down, it is a pretty good clue that overheating caused the engine to fail.

Excessive heat can also cause cylinder heads to swell, warp and/or crack. Ford 2.9L heads are notorious for cracking because the thin wall castings can't take the heat. Other heads that often crack include those on Ford 1.5L & 1.6L Escorts, Ford 2.3L and 2.5L, General Motors 2.5L, GM 250 six-cylinder heads with integral exhaust manifolds, and 1987 and later Chevy small block V8 "Vortex" heads.

Aluminum heads are especially vulnerable to warpage and cracking because aluminum has a much higher coefficient of thermal expansion than cast iron. Consequently, when a bimetal engine with an aluminum head gets too hot, the head tends to swell up in the middle, causing it to warp and blow the head gasket. If the engine has an overhead cam, the resulting misalignment in the cam bores created by the warpage can gall or seize the cam bearings, or even break the cam. Anytime you encounter a warped or cracked aluminum head, or an OHC head with a seized cam, chances are the damage was caused by overheating.

In some engines where the center exhaust ports are siamesed together, hot spots can develop in the head between the exhaust ports causing the head to swell so much it crushes the head gasket resulting in a blown head gasket. Replacing the head gasket may temporarily solve the compression problem, but unless the underlying cause of the elevated exhaust temperature is diagnosed and corrected, the replacement gasket may eventually suffer the same fate. Some aftermarket gasket manufacturers have gone so far as to develop special reinforced replacement gaskets for engine applications that have a history of crushing gaskets.

One such example is Honda 1.3 & 1.5L engines in 1984-87 Honda Civics. These engines will often blow the head gasket if the engine overheats because the head has a natural hot spot between cylinders #2 and #3. On these engines, each cylinder has a precombustion chamber. The precombustion chambers for the two center cylinders are located back to back. The exhaust valves are also right next to one another, and coolant flow is also limited in this area. So if anything happens to make the head run hotter than usual, thermal expansion between the cylinders in the head can crush the head gasket causing the gasket to leak or burn through. The underlying cause may be anything from a coolant leak to an EGR or detonation problem, or even preignition caused by spark plugs that are too hot. The fix is to replace the OEM head gasket with a special reinforced head gasket made by Fel-Pro for these engines.


Every engine needs oil between its moving parts not only to reduce friction but also to carry away heat. Oil is the primary means by which the rod and main bearings are cooled, as well as the pistons. So any reduction in oil flow may cause these parts to run hot, gall and seize.

Low oil pressure is often a contributing factor in engine failures. The underlying cause may be a worn oil pump and/or excessive clearances in the main and rod bearings as a result of high mileage wear or neglect (not changing the oil and filter often enough).

Oil starvation is almost always fatal to any engine, and is usually the result of a failed oil pump, a plugged oil pickup screen inside the oil pan, or a low oil level. Bearings that have been damaged as a result of insufficient lubrication will be shiny and worn where the crankshaft journal wiped away the bearing material.

Overhead cam engines are even more vulnerable to oil starvation and low oil pressure problems than pushrod engines because the cam and valvetrain are farther from the pump. When an OHC engine is first started, it takes awhile for oil pressure to reach the cam bearings. If the oil viscosity is too heavy (especially during cold weather), it may delay the arrival of oil long enough to starve and seize the cam. For this reason, most vehicle manufacturers recommend using a 5W-30 oil in late model OHC engines year round, but especially during cold weather. Refilling the crankcase with the recommended viscosity oil can prevent a repeat failure.

If you suspect engine damage may have been caused by a low oil level, check the dipstick to see how much oil is in the pan. A low oil level may be the result of neglect, oil leakage and/or oil burning.

Oil-fouled spark plugs and a heavy buildup of black wet deposits on the backs of the intake valves and in the combustion chambers would tell you the engine had been using oil. Oil usually enters the combustion chamber past worn valve guides and seals, and also past worn or broken piston rings and worn cylinders. Worn valve guides can sometimes be knurled to reduce clearances, but usually it requires installing new guides, guide liners or valves with oversized stems.

Installing new valve guide seals can often reduce oil burning dramatically. An engine that sucks a quart of oil every few hundred miles may be able to go several thousand miles without using any oil with a new set of valve guide seals.

Any evidence of oil leakage around the front or rear crankshaft seal, pan gasket, valve cover gasket or other gaskets, would tell you new gaskets and seals are needed. Most of these gaskets and seals will have to be replaced anyway if you are opening up the engine.

Bearings ruined by dirty oil will have foreign material embedded in the surface and/or be scored by debris. Check for a plugged oil filter and/or a missing air filter or oil filler or breather cap. The underlying cause here may be not changing the oil often enough.

piston detonation damage
Piston damage caused by detonation.


Detonation (Spark Knock ) is a form of abnormal combustion that results from too much heat and pressure in the combustion chamber. The fuel ignites spontaneously causing a sudden rise in cylinder pressure. The result is a sharp hammer-like blow on the piston that produces a metallic knocking or pinging noise. Light detonation is considered normal and should not cause any damage, but heavy or prolonged detonation can crack rings, pound out piston ring grooves, punch holes through the tops of pistons, smash rod bearings and blow head gaskets.

Detonation is sometimes confused with preignition, which is altogether different. Preignition occurs when a hot spot inside the combustion chamber ignites the fuel before the spark does. The hot spot may be an overheated exhaust valve, a spark plug that is too hot or even a sharp edge in the combustion chamber itself. Such hot spots can be caused by anything that makes the engine run hotter than normal or inhibits normal cooling (such as a buildup of carbon deposits). A hot exhaust valve may be the result of insufficient valve lash, a weak valve spring, excessive wear of the valve stem or guide, or retarded ignition timing. Preignition can be a contributing factor in detonation.

Detonation can have numerous causes. One of the most common ones is loss of EGR. The exhaust gas recirculation system dilutes the air/fuel mixture slightly to lower combustion temperatures when the engine is under load. This reduces the formation of oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and also helps prevent detonation. So anytime you find evidence of detonation damage, be sure to check the operation of the EGR valve and system.

Other causes of detonation include excessive compression, elevated engine operating temperature, preignition, overadvanced ignition timing (spark knock), lean fuel mixture, spark plugs that have too hot a heat range for the application, low octane fuel, and even bad driving habits such as lugging the engine excessively with a manual transmission.

If you find detonation damage in an engine and discover a heavy accumulation of deposits in the combustion chamber, it may be the result of a rich fuel mixture and/or oil burning. Frequent short trip driving can also accelerate deposit formation. Black, oily deposits in the combustion chambers and on the backs of the intake valves would point to worn valve guides and seals as the underlying cause. Black dry carbon deposits should lead you to check for conditions that may be causing the fuel mixture to run rich (a bad oxygen sensor, a defective coolant sensor that keeps the computer in open loop, excessive fuel pressure in a fuel injected engine, etc.).

Detonation may also be a problem if someone has done a performance tune on the engine computer and gotten the spark timing over advanced and/or the fuel mixture too lean. Either condition may result in detonation when the engine is under heavy load or accelerating hard. A performance tune may void the vehicle powertrain warranty (see GM Duramax Diesel Warranty Issues for more information on this subject).


You can probably ignore misassembly as a factor in a high mileage engine failure. But in a newly rebuilt engine or a low mileage failure, it should certainly be considered as a possibility. Some common mistakes to look for:

New Motor Oils Are Bad for Older Engines with Flat Tappet Camshafts

camshaft wear
The lobes on this 289 Ford Mustang flat tappet cam suffered excessive wear because the motor oil did not contain adequate levels of ZDDP anti-scuff additive.

If you are driving an older classic muscle car or hot rod that has an engine with a flat tappet camshaft, you should be aware of the fact that today's "SM" rated motor oils contain much lower levels of anti-scuff additive called "ZDDP" (Zinc Dialkyl Dithio Phosphate). The level of ZDDP in current motor oils has been reduced to no more than 0.08% phosphorus to extend the life of the catalytic converter. Phosphorus can contaminate the catalyst over time if the engine uses oil, causing an increase in tailpipe emissions.

The lower ZDDP content is not harmful to late model engines with roller lifters or followers because the loads are much lower on the camshaft lobes. But on pushrod engines with flat tappet cams, the level of ZDDP may be inadequate to prevent cam lobe and lifter wear. In some cases, cam failures have occurred in as little as a few thousand miles of driving! This is even more of a risk in engines if stiffer valve springs and/or higher lift rocker arms are used.

To avoid such problems, you should add a ZDDP additive to the crankcase, or use an oil that meets the previous "SL" service rating, or use diesel motor oil or racing oil that contains adequate levels of ZDDP to protect the camshaft and lifters.

If you are installing a new camshaft in the engine, be sure to use the cam manufacturers assembly lube and follow the recommended break-in procedure. But you will still need to add ZDDP to the crankcase or use an oil that contains adequate levels of ZDDP for continued protection.

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engine failure More Engine Articles:

Diagnosing Engine Noise

Troubleshooting Low Oil Pressure

Oil Pump Diagnosis

Oil Pumps: The Heart of the Engine

Causes of High Oil Consumption

Engine Oil Leaks

What Every Motorist Should Know About Motor Oil

How Often Should You Change Your Oil?

API Motor Oil Classifications

API Oil Rating Guide 2004 (PDF file)

Motor Oil Additives

Motor Oil Viscosity

Synthetic Motor Oil

Valve Failures

Engine Compression Testing

Engine Leakdown Testing

Measuring Blowby

Finding & Fixing Engine Vacuum Leaks

Engine Overheating: Causes & Cures

Why Head Gaskets Fail

Head Gasket Failure: Common Causes

Preventing Repeat Head Gasket Failures

Engine Replacement Issues

Engine Repair Options

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