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99 Ford Escort: Dropped Valve Seat, Need Advice

I bought this car for $1,900 in July because I could afford it and was sick of walking and busing everywhere. As soon as I bought it, I had the fluids replaced and saw it wasn’t terribly well-maintained… needed new transmission fluid and the spark plugs were factory and falling apart. I knew buying it that the timing belt (and associated things) hadn’t been replaced, so I got that done, too. It’s been a great little car like everyone assured me it could be. No issues at all.

Well, last week it wouldn’t start one day out of the blue, so I got it towed and found out the engine dropped a valve seat (as, I found out, this engine is known for doing). Wow, great. That’s expensive. I authorized the repair a couple of days ago. It costs about as much as the car did, which may or may not have been the right choice, but well, I made it.

The mechanic called me this morning telling me the piston skirt shattered and he found it in the oil pan. A new piston and connecting rod was quoted for an additional $300. That makes this venture, plus towing and diag, $2,640. That’s… a lot more than this car is worth. I criticized him for not finding the piston issue earlier, as I understand you can check it with a borescope, but he said from above it looked okay. No idea how legit this is as I’m no expert.

I have some questions I was hoping someone more familiar with cars and their engines than me could answer. (That isn’t difficult, trust me.)

  1. In this instance, should only one piston really be replaced? I thought they were like tires… replace 'em all or don’t.
  2. This car is at 119,000 miles. It’s an automatic. That tranny is going to go out someday. If it was your car, would you put the money in? I know no one has a magical answer but thought I’d try.
  3. What other options do I have? It sounds like if I pull out now, I could get away with paying for the tow, diagnostic, and a little bit of labor.

Thank you sincerely from a girl with no one to seek advice from but the internet. All input is appreciated and I can provide more information if needed.

I would recommend that you cut your losses. Just move on and hope your luck improves on the next car.

So it dropped the valve seat, which presumably was then hit by the rising piston. That cause the piston to cock to one side so violently that it cracked the skirt (my guess). What did it do to the cylinder bore?

And yes, pistons do get replaced in sets…when they are worn out. Your presumably aren’t, just one is damaged.

Not sure why you think the tranny is going to fail. Something you aren’t telling us?

If in fact you can pull out now without the full bill, I’d do so. Sinking $2600 into a $1900 car, with no assurance that it’ll be 100% repaired, is not a bet I’m willing to make.

I wish you had posted while you were looking at used cars - says the guy with a '97 Escort on its 3rd engine - with a rebuilt cylinder head on it. I could have warned you about it and told you how to get around this one really stupid and well-known (among Escort people) issue - and have years and years of cheap and easy and reliable transportation.

When I say ONE really stupid issue that is what I mean. My '97 chassis has 350K on it. Many of the things on the car are still original and still doing fine - fuel pump (!), A/C system (does leak just a little by now), whole steering system minus tie rods (obviously), power windows/locks, etc. etc. I could go on. Other than that one stupid thing about valve seats it has to be the most reliable and cheapest and easiest car to own that I’ve ever had. That’s why I’ve been keeping it on the road. Dirt cheap and easy transportation.

I could tell you long stories about my own saga but you are in pretty deep by now. All I can say is that you might just ask how much to find a used engine and drop that in. If you take care of the car and fix normal, little wear and tear things as they go along, it will be the little engine that could and just keep going and going and going. (A full rebuild is a little nutty).

On the transmission, the automatic transmission currently in mine came with my last used engine (I bought a whole parts car with good engine and trans for $700 from craigslist, and had the whole thing swapped in). The current engine and transmission are approaching 250K. BUT, I change the trans filter and fluid regularly. If you don’t do that, don’t expect the transmission to last. Last summer (figure 240K on the engine), the compression on the engine was 175psi across all 4 cylinders - pretty good for that mileage. It burns no oil (though it leaks a little) and drives great.

My current engine did get a new cylinder head at the first sign of a valve seat problem (sometimes there is no warning - usually it starts weird, random misfires). I bought a rebuilt head from a machine shop on eBay for $350 and installed it myself. That’s going on 80-100K ago and its been perfect. It cost less than I spend on tires.

Anyway, you’re in deep, and I can’t tell you which way to jump. I can tell you that if you can get around the valve seat problem - it will be one of the cheapest and easiest cars to keep on the road that you’ll see. If your pointed question is whether to just jump an extra $300 for the piston - well, I’d probably do it.

Valve seats dropping out of the head is a common thing in Escorts? Really? I never heard of something like that before happening with econo-box engines. Is it something about the design that causes this? Incompatible materials? Just curious, what could possibly cause the valve seats to drop out?

On the skirt thing, since the skirt is the side of the piston, it rides right up against the cylinder wall, so you can’t see the skirt using a bore-scope on an installed piston. You can only see the top of the piston that way, so the mechanic is probably being accurate about this observation.

Given all what’s known here, me, I’d be looking for a replacement car probably. Cut my losses.


You can use a bore-scope to look at the skirts of the pistons.

You drain the oil and and insert the bore-scope in the drain hole to look at the underside of the pistons.


@GeorgeSanJose, there is actually a dropped valve seat survey on the Ford Escort Owner’s Association site ( ) That thread has a link to a very similar thread on a Focus forum ( It is legendary among those who pay any attention. Most, of course, see an Escort as a disposable econobox so it just goes to scrap with a shrug if the engine self-destructs and they never know why. I still see them on craigslist all of the time - needing an engine.

One problem with knowing specifics about causes is that it tends to happen only up over 100K or so. So you will never hear a whisper from Ford about it. It’s never been investigated or “officially” addressed or acknowledged. There are no TSBs and I know a Ford tech who still denies any knowledge of it. But I promise that it’s not just a random conjuring of the internet. Most machine shops are quite familiar with it. I did read one account, I think from a machine shop’s site, but can’t recall what it said. It was either specific material choice or install - one or the other or both. It’s been an issue on all of the 1.9L and 2.0L SOHC engines - back to the 2nd gen Escorts into the 3rd and even on into the Focus.

The general issue has to do with the fact that the seats are steel and the head aluminum. So with the heat they don’t expand an contract at the same speed or in the same degree. This is pretty normal these days, but whatever was done in the manufacture of these wasn’t up to snuff for the long haul.

I actually went and dug up my very old thread when I went to replace the head. I had never done one before so sought general advice before doing it. A description of the symptoms is toward the end of the thread:

Thank you everyone for all of your input and advice. It’s true that this problem is well-documented and that Ford has avoided it like the plague. I wish I had known, but that’s failure to research the car properly on my part.

Per your recommendations I pulled out. However, the shop insisted I pay for the cylinder head. When I confronted them about it, they said they couldn’t return it because they rebuilt the one that was in there. I’m annoyed that wasn’t communicated to me. As someone with a very small amount of auto knowledge, there’s no way I’d know it was being rebuilt. After researching it I can see why it was done, but still. It seems shady that I should pay for it. It’s $795, nowhere near what it’s worth. What the hell.

My complaining aside, I really appreciate everyone’s comments despite my lack of knowledge. I’ve definitely learned a lot throughout this whole ordeal.

Well, the shop does need to get compensated for whatever they have done. Not knowing about the skirt is understandable. But if they have already rebuilt the cylinder head then it is worth money, and if you have paid for it then you own it. The car itself, dead as it is is also worth about $200-250 in scrap metal. I would do what I could to recoup what you can from it. That might sound like a task you’re not equipped for, but its not that hard. Craigslist is easy

I would not take this as any failure on your part. The valve seat problem is NOT easy to learn about. It’s one of those things that you only end up finding once you already have some reason to look for it. Or maybe a little like the Isla de Muerta - the island of death that can only be found by those who already know where it is.

At this point, with a rebuilt head on hand and paid for, it almost seems worth it to replace that single piston, hone the cylinder wall if needed, and put the engine back together with a fresh gasket set . . .

I have repaired a number of these engines after valve seat failure by replacing just the broken piston, rings, and honing the cylinder walls. This has got to be one of the easiest engines to repair in car. This was a common failure before these cars got old enough that there aren’t very many on the road anymore.

Your mechanic apparently wasn’t experienced enough to know that the piston damage happens at the bottom side, the part not seen when removing the cylinder head. But once repaired it should be a durable car again. You’re already into this for some money, right? Might be worth putting a piston in it and driving it for a few more years.

BTW, if you do put it back together, tell the mechanic to be sure to clean the intake manifiold of any metal debris that found its way in there when the valve seat broke.

My vote is for slapping another piston into it as long as the cylinder wall and crankshaft journal on that cylinder has not been damaged.
Seeing as how it has to come out anyway, checking the connecting rod for damage such as bowing or twisting would also be a good idea.

That’s a good idea @Tester – yes, I can see how a mechanic could use a bore-scope from the underside through the oil pan drain hole to inspect the underside and skirts of the pistons.

Curious abut one other thing. If OP decides to replace the single damaged piston, can this be done without removing the other good pistons, crankshaft, and oil pump?

Since this is a transverse engine layout . . . possibly

This is my thinking:

Remove the head
Drop the pan
Remove the rod cap
Push the piston out through the top
Figure out what size piston, rings, bearings, etc. you’ll need
Remove the ridge at the top of the cylinder
Hone the cylinder walls as necessary

Sure @GeorgeSanJose. I’ve done it many times on this engine. Once the head is off, remove the oil pan, take off the connecting rod cap and push the piston out the top. Piece of cake.

Interesting coincidence today. In 2008 this happened to one of my customer’s 99 Escort. They chose not to fix the car and were going to junk it. I bought the car, replaced the head and one piston, and sold the car to another customer who was looking for a car for teenage daughter. 2 years later daughter drove the car with a leaky radiator and overheated it and blew the head gasket. Removed the head for resurface and replaced head gasket. Daughter is now in college and the car has been in use and made several round trips between Seattle and college in Michigan. Came in today for routine maintenance, still running great at 180,000 miles. Like cigroller said, these are actually pretty reliable cars.