Advice sought about '94 Toyota Camry

First of all, I am female. Secondly, I took one class of auto mechanics when I was in high school so I wouldn’t be a helpless, ignorant female when it comes to cars.

I have owned this Camry for a few years. It has been very reliable and ran well most of that time. I had the distributor replaced in it, 2nd one in three years, a few months ago. I was quite shocked when the distributer was bad again but I attributed that to perhaps a bad distributor a bad mechanic put in it a few years ago. I did not track that guy down and tell him to redo it because I would never want him to touch my car again.

I took it in for the oil pan to be replaced a few days ago. The oil pan nut threads were stripped, thus the need for the new pan so I could do an oil change.

Suddenly after picking the car up and driving it for 2 days I noticed the smell of burning oil. Today it was even worse and I saw smoke coming from under the hood when I was at intersections. I took the car back to the oil pan mechanic and he assures me nothing he did is leaking, but I did point out to him that he overfilled the crankcase. I checked the oil yesterday and it’s too high and is still too high today even though I’m burning oil and there was an oil spot under my car after work. He also installed a stupid $4 oil filter which i asked him to replace with one of better quality, but I was so mad at him this afternoon I didn’t even wait for him to do that.

He pointed to the top of the valve cover and oil in that area and claims that’s proof of a valve leak. Then I asked him two questions:

  1. If you saw this evidence of a valve leak why didn’t you tell me about it when you were changing out the oil pan?
  2. If this valve leak has been going on for so long, as he claimed as he pointed to the oil around the cover, why is it only smoking like a chimney NOW, after he worked on it for another problem?

I’ve known for years this old car loses oil. Every mechanic I’ve ever talked to about that says, “That’s going to happen with old cars.” I check the oil regularly and have added it when needed between oil changes.

But now, all of a sudden, after going to this shop, it has a bad valve gasket? They were quite ready to keep the car to look at it further and I said no. I have to get to work tomorrow. I have no one to drive me, no bus goes out near my workplace, and I have no time to rent a car or the budget for the expense of letting them do God knows what to my Camry.

So here are my questions:

  1. What are the symptoms of a bad valve gasket?
  2. Once I take it to a new mechanic and he tells me if the oil pan replacement is screwed up, or if it is indeed a bad valve gasket, is it worth getting it repaired, or should I try to buy a new, used Toyota for under $3,000? Here’s how I look at that - with my current car, I know everything that’s wrong with it, and everything that’s great. With a new used car, even if I take it to a mechanic prior to purchase, it’s still a bundle of unknowns. I hate that. I kind of like the security of knowing what’s going to break down next with my current Camry.
  3. Because they overfilled the crankcase, is it possible that oil is forcing itself out of tiny leaks, soaking the engine, and that’s what’s burning? I don’t even know if that’s possible - I just know an overfull crankcase is bad.

Thanks so much for your advice.

Oh, Lordy, where to begin…

Fiirst, he was referring to the valve cover gasket. And oil weeping past the valve cover gasket is normal in old cars. Firstly, gaskets lose their compression over time simply by having been compressed. If you were to remove any gasket after this many years and compare it to a new one, it would be much thinner. That loss of compression allows fluids to seep past easier.

In addition, old engines suffer from a condition called “blowby”. The cylinders wear, the rings wear, and the rings lose their “springiness”, their ability to press against and seal the cylinders. That allows gasses from the explosions in the cylinders to blow by the rings and, since explosions cause huge pressure pulses, pressurize the crank case. The crankcase is connected to the space under the valve cover by open “return channels” through which the oil drips back to the pan. Which means the area under the valve covers is pressurized too. So, you have pressure within the space under the valve cover pushing oil through a valve cover gasket that’s lost its compression. Ergo, leaks!

This condition also can cause oil seepage past other gaskets, as well as past old seals around the crankshaft and the camshaft. All of these leaks are common, none are abnormal. And IMHO as long as the oil level is not allowed to go low and the oil isn’t seeping onto the exhaust manifold of system and burning, the condition is perfectly acceptable on an old engine.

On to the oil pan replacement: you got screwed. Stripped drain hole threads are so common that repair kits are available dirt-cheap to retread the hole and insert a “helicoil”, which is a new steel thread. You are not the first that has posted here that was told they needed a new oil pan because the thread in the drain hole were stripped. It seems to be a new revenue generator for less-than-ethical shops.

On to the oil filter: as long as it was the correct filter for your car, the $4 filter was perfectly fine. That’s what I use. And in 45 years I’ve never worn and engine out, even after hundreds of thousands of miles.

On to overfilling the crankcase: that will not cause oil leakage, but if it’s very high, more than a quart, it can cause other more serious issues. And if it is high, it’d be good to discuss other possible symptoms and to check the condition of the oil for evidence of water/coolant and the coolant for evidence of oil. If the coolant is brown and gumpy, it deserves further evaluation.

Allow me to comment also on your approach. I’m getting from your thread that you don’t trust your mechanic and/or believe that the auto class gave you much more in-depth knowledge than it really did. You need to find a mechanic you trust and then trust him. If something doesn’t sound right, ask for an explanation, but realize that you’re learning and not directing. You can safely eliminate the shop that installed the new oil pan, however. IMHO what they did was unethical.

And finally, this is an old car. If you’re willing to accept that it’ll occasionally need repair, accept some oil seepage, and not expect it to be as tight and sealed as a new vehicle, it’ll probably get you to work for many more years. The only oil seepage you should be concerned about is that which burns on the exhaust system and seepage that comes out of the front crank seal. I believe the '03 Camry still used a timing belt, and oil seepage past the front seal can destroy the timing belt. I’m unable for some reason to open the Gates guide. If I’m incorrect, please guys, correct me.

I hope this helps you better understand your car and your concerns.
Sincere best,

Hi - Thanks for your reply. Under no circumstances do I believe that my one automotive class made me smarter than an honest, fully trained mechanic, or even smarter than the average person working at a neighborhood “Speedy/Jiffy/Quick Lube” shop.

I simply wrote that about myself so people would know that if you explain something to me, chances are I will understand it. Thank you for your very thorough explanation about why older cars leak oil. Now I hope others will answer some of my other questions.

Also, I changed out the oil pan because the worn threads had already been replaced once about 18 months ago with the gadget you described. That too wore out. Could they have installed a new one of those plugs? I dunno. The bad mechanic suggested I replace the oil pan. I’ve had that repair suggested with other old cars I’ve owned in the past too. Perhaps that’s the “Ladies’ Special” for some auto repair shops? (Men have no idea how much intelligence and credibility they are automatically granted when they walk into a repair shop just because of gender.)

I am also well aware that I need to find an honest mechanic. Do you think I haven’t looked? I took it to the dealer for some repairs, and their prices were fair on some things, but it’s a 20-year-old car! I don’t need, for example, the gorgeous, shiny, new, $170 Genuine Toyota oil pan on my 20-year-old car. A good quality OEM part is fine with me. I’m looking for a mechanic who will comprehend that. The dealers won’t and can’t. I thought I found a good mechanic. He did a good job with my last repair. He let me order the part online myself and have it shipped to him. But maybe it’s been a slow couple of months in his shop and he saw me as an easy mark this time? I don’t know.

I would love to hear of a Car Talk report where they hire some mechanics to dress in drag and visit some repair shops as women. LOL. That would be a fine learning experience for the listening audience.

Thanks again.

Trust me, crooked isn’t gender biased. Crooked people screw everyone. They operate in full compliance with the equal rights amendment.

Dealers are bound by their franchise agreement to use only parts obtained through their manufacturer’s parts distribution system. Thus, they can use only shiny new OEM parts. Ususally, these are double the price of an aftermarket price… or more.

Yeah, they probably could have drilled & tapped it oversize (made the hole bigger) and put in an oversize plug. I’ve never tried it with an installed helicoil, as the bit would have to be big enough to remove the helicoil, but perhaps someone here who’s done it can comment.

Well, it appears my mystery has been solved. I called one Toyota trained mechanic today. He said he had no time to see my car today, but suggested I start with an oil change to cure the overfull crankcase problem.

After searching for the cheapest one I settled for a major retailer nearby. I explained what had happened, how the bad mechanic said it was a valve gasket leak, and told him why I wanted an oil change.

At first he was going to do that because he said that he couldn’t just drain a quart since he was limited by the constraints of working for a major retailer. But when he got under my car I guess he took pity on me as he saw all the oil dripping from the oil pan gasket that was not properly installed by the bad mechanic, onto an exhaust pipe/manifold. The mechanic I saw today said he drained about 1/2 a quart.

That’s what’s burning as I drive along. Yesterday the oil was about 1" above the full mark. Today when I checked it this afternoon it was about 1/2" above that mark. So I’m losing about 1/2 a quart a day. I haven’t been able to see that when I leave my parking spaces because it’s been very rainy and snow-melty everywhere I park. I can see an oil ring in the water, but not a real clear oil spot like you can see on dry pavement. The oil runs off with the water.

I’ve been dealing with this issue for 3 days now. It’s cost me a lot of worry, I wonder if the extra pressure of so much oil has made my old-car-leaks worse, and I had to cancel two days of work at my second job to call and/or visit mechanics before they close at 5 each day. (I can’t usually make phone calls at my first job.)

The whole thing disgusts me. The bad mechanic took a risk to see if I would fall for his story, and now he’s lost a customer forever. It makes no business sense whatsoever for him to pull such a stunt. To heck with the morality of his game - it makes no business sense!

Thanks again.

As far as Toyotas, I’ve only worked on my early 90’s Corolla, never a Camry, but on the Corolla at least if the oil pan gasket leaked, the oil would just drip on the ground. Oil would be lost, but no smoke would be created. While that gasket may in fact be leaking, if your Camry is similarly configured, the explanation for the smoke must be caused by something besides that. Here’s some ideas.

  • The tech spilled oil during the filling process, which is sticky and remains on engine parts that get hot when the engine is running. If so, eventually this smoking will stop after all the oil spill evaporates. But it may take weeks.

  • The new oil filter might be leaking. Sometimes the rubber gasket doesn’t seal, or the old one sticks and stays on the sealing surface instead of coming off with the old filter. Oil leaking from the filter can land on something that gets hot I think, and would cause smoking.

  • The valve cover gaskets could indeed be leaking. Very common in cars of this vintage. I had this problem on my Corolla in fact a few years ago. Inexpensive repair.

  • Unlikely, but a problem with the PCV system may have developed or been caused by the tech during the oil pan replacement or oil and filter refill. Significant overfilling might clog up the PCV system for example. Or the hoses could have been reversed for some reason. It’s easy for a mechanic to check the PCV system, might be worth it to have it tested.

BTW, it’s a good idea for the car owner to double check the oil-change tech’s work after the oil level on the dipstick any time the oil is changed. You are paying so you are the boss in this transaction, and it is up to you to check your employee’s work quality. After they return the keys to you, pull the dipstick. The oil level should be right on the line. Not over, not under. If it is wrong, give the keys back and insist it be corrected. Check this three times: At the shop before leaving the parking lot, the next AM before starting the car, and about a week later.

The crankcase being overfilled by a small amount (even a quart) should not be a problem. Without seeing the car I can’t tell you exactly what is going on but these cars are prone to multiple oil leaks with age and miles accrued.
Checking the PCV valve is a good idea as a clogged PCV can pressure up the crankcase and cause oil burning and/or leaks. The PCV is easy to check and cheap to replace if needed.

It seems to me that some of your complaints are not really warranted. A replaced distributor that fails at some point in time after being replaced is likely not the fault of the mechanic.
A 4 dollar oil filter is not a problem and even the overfilling of the crankcase with oil is not an issue unless it’s excessive. Even a quart over should not be a problem.
If the valve cover gasket is leaking I fail to see how that is the fault of the mechanic.

The main point of contention to me would be if the replacement of the oil pan was botched in some manner due to the gasket being dislodged or torn in some spot during the installation.
If that is the case the mechanic who did the pan swap should redo the job free of charge.

For what it’s worth, a stripped drain plug is generally not a reason to replace the pan. Tapping the stripped hole out for an oversized drain plug is the easiest and cheapest method of repair.

I’m very happy for you that the problem has been solve. I’m also very happy that the engine wasn’t as tired as I suspecting it might be,

Be sure to tell everyone you know or meet about the bad shop. He deserves to lose his customer base IMHO.

Sincere best,