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1996 Toyota Camty 280,526 miles--Repair or Replace?

My Camry has been a good car; I have had mostly routine maintenance on it since I got it at about 248,000 miles two years ago. I am, in fact, up to date on all routine maintenance issues, according to my mechanics, who declared it a well-maintained vehicle last month. Up to then the only major repairs (about $900) resulted from a leak which damaged parts under the hood. Now I have decide whether to raise up to $1400 for work related to a faulty head gasket or to find another way to get that work done (for less money–lower labor costs) or to replace the car. I paid only $1500 for the two years ago. Have I gotten my money’s worth out of it? Is this a good time to get another vehicle? Or should I have the work done?

Thanks in advance for thoughtful answers.

If this were mine, the first thing I’d consider is the physical condition of the car. If it’s good with no dents, paint in good shape, glass all ok, and the interior is good, then fixing it might make sense. If you like this car and it serves your needs, that’s another plus. With good care this car should go a lot farther. But if it’s rusted on the lower part of the body, or the body is dented, or the interior is worn out, I’d wouldn’t spend that kind of money on it.

If the physical condition is good, and if it has not been burning oil, then I’d next think about the transmission, especially if it’s an automatic, before I gave the go ahead on the head gasket. What you want to consider is how often the transmission has been drained and refilled. An automatic should have the fluid and filter changed every 30,000 miles. Check records from previous owner. If the fluid has never been changed, and if the transmission has never been rebuilt, then visit a local independent transmission shop for the service and while you’re there, ask what it will cost when you need to rebuild the transmission. Figure that cost into your decision.

Then consider what it would cost you to buy another car that would be in equal condition and not needing a head gasket or a transmission rebuild. Do the math, that will tell you what to do.

You can fix the car, but not for $1500 by putting a head gasket on it. Others here may disagree, but assuming that the car went 280,000 miles without any internal engine work, a head gasket job on this engine is not a good idea. The engine is just too old and worn for a simple head gasket job. You’re opening up a can of worms. You’d be better off installing a good used low-mile engine.

As a professional I cringe when I hear another shop suggest something like this.

Any car you buy for $1,500 could have as many or perhaps even more problems the Camry you have now. A head gasket repair on a car with 280K miles isn’t really out of line with the age and miles on the car.

I’d advise fixing what you have rather than getting into another car with lots of “unknown” issues.

My vote is with asemaster. This would be especially true if the cause of the head gasket failure was overheating and not simply a matter of a weeping gasket.
A dry and wet compression test could shed some light on if there’s a piston ring/cylinder wall problem.

There’s also the matter of any timing belt job which should be done if that particular job has not been performed in recent memory.

Given what the pros said, and if you are mechanically inclined my vote is for CONVERSION to electric.

If the engine is essentially shot, but the transmission is good, keep the car and convert it to electric. It could be a super project that you could do with the community, physical and online (here and youtube). Look up electric car conversions on youtube.

I think there’s still a guy on ebay selling new electric motors for cars.

no gas, no noise, no oil, …

More information: The car is in good condition outwardly and inside. There are two broken handles at doors I seldom use, but replacing hose handles has been a low priority for a long time. And I have had the transmission fluid changed twice since I got the vehicle–twice in just slightly over 30,000 miles. The first time I got the transmission fluid changed I established a baseline, for I did not know when the previous owner had gotten that done last.

Also, the head gasket is causing leaks (note the plural form of the word).

I do not know what problems the previous owner had to address over 248,000 miles, but she does seem to have taken very good care of the car.

I disagree with asemaster on this engine being too old and worn based on just the miles. If the engine has been properly maintained all this time and not showing any other signs of advanced wear, chances are good that a head gasket repair will provide years of continued service. And the replaced gaskets will solve a lot of other leak issues, as well.

I’ve got three cars I’ve done head gasket repairs to with over 200,000 miles on the clock. The first, and my overall favorite, was my 1990 Toyota P/U with the 22r. The engine had 252,000 miles on it. I had the valves re-seated against the advise of the machinist. He felt the increase in compression would accelerate the ring wear. I disagreed, because I knew the maintenance and condition of the lower end. I pulled 325,000 miles on that engine before a wreck caused me to part it out (bent frame).

My '88 Toyota Supra needed a head gasket repair 6 years ago at 225,000 miles. I really don’t regret that one, since it has 275,000 miles on it right now, and is my daily driver.

And I did a head gasket repair for my cousin’s 1999 Volvo with 196,000 miles on it. She couldn’t afford to replace the car and it was in decent shape otherwise. We did that job for about $600 in parts and shop fees and I donated the labor to her. That was 4 years ago, and she is still driving it.

My guess is that any car you might get at a similar cost is likely to be in about the same condition as what you now own.

I am leaning toward finding a way to finance this repair job for a variety of reasons, including many I have read in the comments of others. Besides, this Camry has been a good car, and at least I know what its issues and repair schedules have been for the last two years. And I have been conscientious in maintaining it under the hood. Beyond that, I have used the same mechanics shop since 2005. There are good and capable people there, people who have demonstrated professional ethics and given me discounts. They have earned my loyalty.

I still think that it’s foolish to spend that kind of money on a near 300k miles engine without at least running a compression test.

What’s going to happen if a head gasket is blindly replaced and the engine starts consuming oil at an alarming rate immediately afterwards or in the very near future while making a monthly payment on that repair?

The only reason I point this out is because as a mechanic I’ve seen and gotten into these kind of things before. Some end up well; others do not. Best of luck anyway.

I do have one question. With all of the declarations about this being a well maintained car by both yourself and the shop you use, has the timing belt EVER been replaced?

If not, or it is not known, then any such declaration is not accurate.

I will ask about the compression test.

I’m in agreement with @ok4450. I’ve seen too many of these decisions turn into a money pit, throwing good money after bad. Why did the head gasket fail? Is the radiator partially plugged or leaking, requiring replacement? Will the customer decline to replace the radiator and cause another blown head gasket? Will the heater core start leaking after replacing the 280,000 mile heater hoses during the head job? Will the cylinder head be properly machined and reconditioned, or is it going back together as is and hope for the best?

Now that’s not to say it won’t turn out to your satisfaction, you may very well get a few more years. But for me as a mechanic, the job would be too risky to take on.

  1. Yes, I have had the timing belt replaced.
  2. I am still pondering information.
  3. The radiator is not original. And the mechanics flushed it last month.

You are really up there in mileage. Anything could break any minute. What if you fixed the engine and one week later the transmission went. I could go on. On the other hand $1500 would not get you much of anything nowadays in the used car market. You have to up the budget so you can get something that would at least last another 5 years. Tough call.

This is starting to look like a choice between the devil you know (your car with proposed repairs) against the devil you don’t know (a replacement used car). Your replies thus far suggest that your car is in pretty good shape and has been well maintained by you and perhaps the previous owner according to your comment. In other words, the devil you know is starting to look less risky than the other option, simply because you know some of the history. But it’s still a risk.

However, @asemaster’s advice in his first reply was, as always, excellent: consider a good used low mileage engine. If you can find the right engine with half the mileage, that might be a better option for you. Of course you want to have your mechanic check it out before purchase, ideally hear it run if possible and do a compression test etc on it before purchase. I always think about finding a “donor car”, ie, one with a running engine but serious body damage which didn’t affect the engine, or a blown transmission, and thus for sale very cheap. That may be too complicated for your situation, but you might discuss it with your shop, and start looking at Craigslist or other car ads. On Craigslist, also search “auto parts” and note any ads for “parting out…”

Something more for you to ponder…

I am also consulting various people–especially local ones I have known for years.

I have a different car, but the same problem. I got a quote from a reputable mechanic to install a used engine with 116K miles. He will change the timing belt, hoses, water pump - everything for $1600. Cheaper than another car.

The crux of the issue seems to be costs–known and unknown, some of them projected, with various shades of probability. Not being able to foresee events does complicate matters, for the past is not always prologue.