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Automotive Engine Failure – Common Warning Signs – Major Causes

When your “check engine” light turns on, alarm bells in your mind might start going off. These can be exacerbated when the engine fails and you’re stuck either replacing your vehicle or the entire engine. While sometimes this is unavoidable, there are steps you can take to help prevent this from happening. A big part of this is knowing what the top causes of engine failure are, a few of which are listed below.

Some Of The More Common Warning Signs

  • Look for warning lights to flicker on
  • Listen for popping; knocking, or other unnatural sounds coming from your engine
  • Your engine producing foul scents or the distinct smell of burning or melting rubber
  • Feel for sudden jerks and shaking
  • If your car starts smoking


Engine Overheating

So, engine 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. Also, 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. Finally, even a missing fan shroud that reduces the fan’s effectiveness may be a contributing factor.

Engine Lubrication

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


Detonation And Spark Knock

Piston 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
  • Blow head gaskets


Leaking Oil

You might notice a few oil stains in the driveway but brush them off as stains that were there before you moved in. However, if these are caused by your car, that could mean you’re losing quite a bit of oil without realizing it. Unfortunately, this means less oil for your engine to run, which can cause it to dysfunction over time. To help avoid this, always pay attention to stains in your driveway or anywhere else you notice them where your car has been. Brown or yellow are signs of oil while other colors are signs of other fluids that might be leaking.

Not Changing Your Oil

Oil is the most important source of energy for your vehicle, so you must make sure you have regular oil changes done. If you skip a few or never pay attention to your engine, this can result in failure later on. If you’re not sure how often you’re supposed to have oil changes done, check your owner’s manual.

Tip: It’s recommended to use high quality synthetic oil when having your oil changed. However, check with your owner’s manual to make sure what type of oil is best for your vehicle.

Checking Your Engine Later

Your “check engine” light has come on, but nothing seems to be wrong, so why go to the mechanic? This is never the way to think about this light. Even if it is a simple malfunction, such as with a fuse causing the light to come on, you need to know for sure. If something is causing engine failure, the last thing you want to do is ignore it. This will cost you more money down the road and can lead to possibly needing a replacement in the very near future.

Engine Flooding

When you drive through areas with extremely heavy rain or flooding, this can cause damage to your engine. The only way to know for certain whether or not your engine has been damaged is by going to a professional to have an inspection.

Ignoring Coolant Flushing

How often do you flush the engine coolant in your vehicle? If you don’t do this every few years, this can cause your engine to easily overheat, which can lead to failure. If you do notice that your car has been overheating, then stop driving it right away and take it to a mechanic. This may help prevent engine failure, although it’s not guaranteed if the damage is bad enough.


Engine won’t start

It’s perhaps one of the most nerve-racking and common engine problems, nearly every driver has experienced that sinking feeling of turning the key and the engine failing to start as normal. You can usually conclude it’s a battery problem if the engine is clicking but there’s no crank. When there’s a crank, but still not start, you are looking at a fuel or ignition problem.

Some other typical reasons engines fail to start include:

  • Low or discharged battery
  • Corroded or loose battery cables
  • Starter motor relay failure
  • Ignition switch failure
  • Faulty fuel pump
  • Clogged or dirty fuel filter
  • Neglecting oil and filter changes
  • Catalytic converter failure

Your motor oil has a big responsibility.

The oil lubricates the engine, cools engine parts, keeps the engine clean and prevents deposit buildup. Unfortunately, even the best oil eventually degrades. When the oil becomes old, it will begin to fill with sludge and debris. This has a negative effect on your engine. When you change the oil, the contaminates are removed along with the old oil and filter. Your manufacturer will have a recommended oil change schedule, but a good rule of thumb is to have the oil and filter changed every 3 months or 3,000 miles.

The catalytic converter is a vital part of your car’s exhaust system.

The catalytic converter breaks down dangerous chemical emissions from the engine and routes them away from the driver. Regular wear and tear will happen, but driving habits, road conditions and vehicle type can also affect the catalytic converter. If you notice rattling during acceleration or braking, or any loud noises during the drive, it’s time schedule an exhaust system check. The catalytic converter can fail due to a leak caused by rust or corrosion, or as a result of internal plugging caused by excessive carbon buildup. Regularly scheduled maintenance checks will ensure the entire exhaust system is functioning properly.