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98 Manual Subaru Legacy Outback-black smoke from engine block


My husband said that this morning when he took my car on an errand, grayish-black smoke came from under the engine block and there was a burning smell. For whatever reason, he checked the oil and said it was empty. I find this really odd, since the oil light never came on and we only had an oil change a couple of months ago, without a ton of driving since.

He also said the clutch felt tight/hard to operate. Our clutch was totally replaced just 3 months ago.

Any thoughts on what to do or check for? I can’t get the car into a shop for at least 2 days and need it for those 2 days.

Does the oil light work? Are there oil stains under the car where you normally park it? Look at the underside of the engine, is there any oil dripping?

Did you check the oil periodically, subsequent to that oil change? Even without a lot of driving, if this engine has developed an oil leak, it could certainly have lost a significant amount of oil in 3 months.

That being said, the smoke that he observed could have been from oil leaking from the valve cover gasket(s) onto the exhaust manifold(s). Or it could have come from the clutch. Either way, I would suggest that you have the car flat-bedded (NOT towed) to a competent mechanic for diagnosis. Just bear in mind that if the engine was chronically driven with a low oil level, the engine could have sustained major damage.

Good luck!

Since I have regular maintenance on the car, I actually don’t know whether the oil light works. There is no sign of oil leakage anywhere. We put oil in and the car is not smoking now, but we only did a 5-minute drive. My husband said he still smelled the burning (I didn’t).

Oops. I checked and the last oil change was actually Oct. 23, only a month ago. Car has seemed perfectly fine until today, when oil was empty. The oil MUST be leaking in this case, since we have not driven more than a few miles per day since the change–other than one weekend trip. How much will the leaking oil hurt the engine or other things it’s leaking onto???

OK… this morning my husband put one can of oil in. Tonight, I took the car to the station to get more oil. On my way, the oil light came on a few times (first time I’ve ever seen it). There was a burning smell. After putting in two more pints of oil, I came home and the smell was gone. When I was putting the oil in, I noticed some silver-looking grease on the car, under the hood but on the frame, not in the engine. Like something regergetated the car’s oil. Any clue what that could be???


You need to get this car flat-bedded to a qualified mechanic a.s.a.p.!

By my count, you have added at least 3 qts. of oil (the oil that you added was probably qt. containers, rather than pt. containers) since the original incident, and the oil pressure warning light is still coming on–at least intermittently. Since you did not shut down the engine at the first indication of low oil pressure, the prognosis is not good.

Everything that you have described gives me little optimism for a good outcome. However, only a competent mechanic can tell you just how much damage has been done.

In the meantime, I will reiterate what I stated in my original post–Do not drive this car! Don’t start the engine, don’t drive it. Just have it flat-bedded to a well-reputed mechanic and hope for the best.

How much oil did he need to add? On most cars, the dipstick will read dry, but have 2 to 3 quarts of oil in the pan. This is enough oil to keep the pump from running dry, and dropping the oil pressure. The oil light will only go on when the oil pressure drops to 6 psi. Truthfully, this is a separate issue.

The smoke scares me to the point where I strongly suggest, as others have, to have a professional look the car over. If it was just leaking oil, and a couple of quarts needed to be added, then I think it is OK. If more oil than that, and a leak cannot be found, I think you need to let the mechanic find out what happened.

The light came on after one quart (you’re correct) of oil put in. At that time, the dip stick showed a small amount of oil, but it was low. Later, I put in another 1/3 of a quart and the smell subsided and the light did not come on again.

I had no choice but to drive the car–very locally–to pick up my young children. (It was literally about 1.5 minutes between the oil light coming on and me adding more oil).

I don’t have the funds to get the car fixed right now, so even though that’s excellent advice, I still want to research in the interim. I hate being in the dark. And if it needs a new engine, I’d like to know that now, so I can start looking for a second job. :frowning:

Thank you for replying! After about 1.75 quarts the smell subsided. When I drove the car (only about 15 minutes) to get my kids and more oil, there was a burning smell, but no smoke. After I put in more oil, no more smell, and still no smoke.

As I posted above, it will be at least a week before I can afford to have anything done to the car, and I’m not good at waiting for info.–need to research the possibilities while I wait.

(I don’t know if the grease has anything at all to do with the oil–it could have been a blob of lubricant left by the mechanic last time it was serviced. I was just providing whatever clues I have.)

OK, more oil, but how much in total. That;s what I’m getting at. If it was dry, there is engine damage. I think this car needs 5 quarts total. If you had to add 4 quarts to get it to read OK on the dipstick, that is a problem sign.

I only added 2 quarts, and later read in the manual that its maximum is 4.35 quarts. The dip stick was still low, but not critically low at that point. I haven’t driven the car for 4 days. My husband was away. This morning he called a mechanic to get the car and I don’t think he insisted on a tow. He didn’t want to listen to his “non-car-expert wife.” I just hope the mechanic towed it and didn’t drive it. :frowning:

Actually, I hope that he didn’t tow it!

If you tow an AWD vehicle such as your Outback, there will be substantial damage to the center differential, and that damage has the potential to be more expensive than the unknown engine problem. If the car can’t be driven, then it should be flat-bedded, as I advised twice, back on 11/26/08!

I know :slight_smile: I meant a flatbead tow, not a traditional one. In any event, what he did of his own accord was fill it with oil and coolant and then drive it when the levels were high enough–it was a 1/4 mile. The problem was a big crankshaft gasket leak, which was fixed today and he says the car is ready. Just crossing my fingers that no additional damage came of the situation. Thanks everyone for your help and advice!