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96 Camry Valdez (when hot)

Howdy Car Talk Community,

I have a 1996 Camry LE 4 cylinder automatic which I dearly love for reasons that aren’t terribly compelling. (example: I’m used to it, it has cold AC, etc)

The poor thing currently has four issues, two of which are extremely obvious (busted flex pipe on the exhaust, and bad tires, if bad tires can be considered an issue), and two of which are not. My husband and I have been attempting to track them down.

Issue #1: Absolutely Pours Oil When Hot and Running, and only when hot and running
Doesn’t leak when cold, will start to drip as it warms up, then turns to a disturbingly steady stream when it’s at temperature and running. Will revert back to a drip as soon as car is turned off. and will stop dripping as it cools.

Diagnosis attempts

  • Looked under the car, saw that oil was collecting around the transmission bell housing-ish area, although a fair number of parts had that oily fuzz on them.
  • Hoping it was a the intake valve gasket, we cleaned the pipes and bolts behind the intake valve until they were shiny, drove it around to induce the leak, and then checked to see if there was new oil in the area. The parts were still clean.
  • Hoping it was the distributor seal, we did the same clean and drive routine. Parts were still shiny.

Putting it up on jack stands and getting under it while it runs sounds like a really terrible idea, so beyond that we’re kind of out of diagnosis tricks that we can do ourselves without taking it to a shop.

We THINK it might be the rear main seal that connects the engine to the transmission, a repair that we couldn’t do ourselves and that would probably cost more than the car is worth. However, we’re not sure how to check that out.

Issue #2: Intermittent, Unpredictable Power Stutter/Miss

Sometimes when driving, I’ll experience a very quick, momentary loss in power that I would tentatively describe as an engine miss. This happens under acceleration, while holding the car at steady speed, while idling, basically anytime. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it.

We haven’t really put any time into tracking this one down since the oil leak is a much more compelling problem, and since it’s really hard to reproduce, but I thought I should throw it in here anyways just to show the complete picture. It could be as simple as replacing the spark plugs, but maybe it’s related to the oil leak or to the busted flex pipe?

Absolutely any information or ideas or tips are all very much appreciated. Thanks!

Well? To find an oil leak like this guess what you do?

Put the car on jackstands, start the engine and slide under the car on a creeper with a flashlight and see if it be determined where the oil’s leaking from.


Silly question . . .

Are you absolutely sure the leak is not coming from the front of the engine . . . near the belts . . . and getting pushed back?

The reason I ask is this . . . the 5S-FE engine is well known for having a leaking oil pump, which produces a very fast drip when the engine’s idling

If the car is in pretty decent shape . . . besides the tires and the flex pipe . . . it might be worth it to fix the oil leak, even if it turns out to be the rear main seal

That Camry was a well built vehicle, and the 5S-FE engine is pretty rugged, as long as you don’t let it get sludged up

Hi Tester, I definitely hear that, it’s totally the right way to go about it, but there are several extraneous safety issues that I won’t detail here that keep us from doing that at the moment.

Hi db4690, that’s an interesting thought about the oil pump and I’ll definitely take a look, but looking under the car (when it’s off and cold) the wet oil seems to be in the center, not over to the side where the oil pump is. In fact, enough of it hits the hot exhaust pipe to create a lovely smoke cloud. But gravity/motion could be moving things so it’s still worth a look.

I totally agree with you about the ruggedness. Somebody in my family put nearly 300k on their Camry which was identical to mine doing virtually nothing except oil changes. I love my humble little car and I’m very much hoping we can get all this worked out on the cheap.

Besides the comments above, the valve cover gasket should be considered also as a source for the leak. The good thing, that is inexpensive to fix if that’s the problem.

Determining the source of the leak is probably best left to a pro. It’s very hard to tell just by inspection, as the wind is blowing under the engine like crazy when driving on the freeway and blowing oil everywhere. There are ultraviolet dyes that can be put into the oil which make it pretty easy for a mechanic to see where the leak is originating.

If possible, you can take it to a do-it-yourself car wash and spray the heck out of the underside of the engine with the high pressure hose to clean it up. This might help you see more clearly where the leak is originating.

I had a mustang with an oil leak long enough that the wind carried it back far enough I thought my transmission rear seal was bad. Turned out to be coming from the front of the engine!

clean it up as best you can, its one of the easiest ways to be able to see where you’re leaking.

You can jack the car up a little with the cars jack to get a better view under there, however DO NOT climb under the car unless you buy jack stands and use them first. Otherwise just lay next to the car and see what you can find.

There’s a UV-sensitive additive that you can put in the oil to find leak sources. It’ll light up when exposed to a black light and the leak path will glow. It’s available at any parts store. Based on the symptoms, you may be right, you may just have blown the rear main seal. A reputable shop can tell when they get it up on a rack.

I prefer molded polymer ramps to jack stands, but preferences vary. Avoid the stamped metal ramps. A highly reliable regular here had those collapse on him once.

How many miles are on this car?

Thanks for your input everybody! Here’s an update. I apologize if my vocabulary terms are a little off or a little confusing. Car repair isn’t my forte and I’m stumbling my way through the Haynes manual.

ANYWAY, There were several small clues that led us to rethink the distributor housing seal, and given that the relevant o-rings retail for so little at Autozone or whatever, my husband and I decided to swear and curse our way down in there just to see.

The distributor cap seal/gasket didn’t look wonderful, but it was certainly intact.

However, when we got to where the distributor housing gasket/seal SHOULD have been, we only found a few sticky/rubbery bits and pieces of where a seal might have been in ancient years past. Also, there was no bolt on the clamp clip hole.

We’re not ready to say that this was THE issue, but it’s certainly AN issue. Right now everything’s still pulled apart, I’ll have another update when we get new o-rings in there and get it back together.

Quick side rant: I hate hate hate the design of the plastic casing that holds the electrical connections to the distributor. For anybody reading this in future years, what we figured out was that you need to slide a flathead under the tab, pry the tab downwards, and then pull it out. This was only discovered after I cracked one trying to use vice grips. Live and learn, hopefully the replacement is cheap.

Good on you for giving it the old college try. You are not alone in having problems with electrical connectors. Dislodging electrical connectors, fuses, & hose clamps is often the bane of the DIY’er.

+1 to George’s post.
And allow me to pass on a trick. Toyota (and other) electrical connections have a backward-angled “hook” that clips automatically to keep the plug engaged. To remove the connectors, one needs to first push the connector in while pressing the tab that lifts the hook. This releases the backward-angled “hook” and allows the release tab to lift the hook off of the connector, allowing the connector to be pulled out.

I wish I knew how to draw a picture to illustrate, but I’m technology-challenged.