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Broken head gasket - repair or replace?

Lately I’ve been smelling the faint smell of coolant in my 2001 Windstar with almost 200,000 miles. The mechanic showed me the white smoke from the tailpipe, and handed me his verdict of a blown head gasket. Now I am left to decide: Should I have it fixed or replace the car? And if I choose to keep the car, should I just have the head gasket replaced, or the entire engine, or even engine+transmission? This is a vehicle that I’ve owned since new, and have taken care of it. It has treated me reasonably well (relatively minor part replacements every once in a while), and seems to run fine. It is not overheating (although the coolant is definitely leaking - it was low when the mechanic checked it). I drive it to work, as well as periodic trips to NYC and CT (from the Boston area), and occasional longer trips.

Too be completely honest, I believe your van has the 3.8 V6 which is a truly crappy motor. It is a minor miracle it lasted until 200,000 without blowing its head gasket, as this motor is NOTORIOUS for doing so. With these 3.8’s its never been an issue of “IF” it will blow but “when”. With that said, with 200K on the clock I think it’s time for you to start looking for a new van, to put good money into this van is not a good idea, especially if you want to take these long trips you are talking about. Its getting to the point in its life where all the little things that may be ok now are going to start failing, power locks, power windows, AC, suspension bushings, assorted electronics, etc… That’s my .02, but with that said make sure the coolant is not mixing with the oil in the mean time, this could cause the motor to blow and leave you on the side of the road.

I have no reason to doubt the mechanic’s diagnosis, but before making a major decision of this type it’s always a goood idea to get a second opinion.

Assuming it is, in fact, verified to be a bad headgasket, and considering the age and mileage, I’d be inclined to start shopping. A blown headgasket is never a good thing, and once the head is pulled the chances on an old engine of it needing more cash outlay are really high. The cost of replacing the head gasket alone will even be high.

The alternative would be to take the risk, pull the head, and boneyard to car if it turns out to need more work.

By the way, congratualtions on monitoring your vehicles fluids and condition. We get countless posts here from folks that never check their fluids until the engine overheats, and by that time it’s usually too late.

I’ll second the second opinion advice. I’ll also second the advice on shopping for a new vehicle if the head gasket is blown. You can recoupe some money by selling the van for parts if need be.

I would want to know how the head gasket diagnosis was arrived at. White smoke out the tailpipe, especially in cooler weather, is not necessarily a sign of a failed head gasket.

I also wouldn’t consider the 3.8 a bad motor. This particular motor, not counting countless millions of others, has reached 11 years of age and 200k miles before this problem surfaced; assuming it’s a legitimate problem to begin with.

OK, I had me own used car dealership when during the early 2000’s when ford was making these motors in EVERYTHING. As a for example the Taurus of the day had the standard 3.0 (which is good little motor) and the 3.8 was the “upgrade”, it is the only time i am aware of that the “Upgrade” larger motor was a deduct in value according to all of the guide books of the time. Most of my fellow dealers would not trade for cars with the 3.8 as these motors were to be avoided like the plague, nothing but problems and head gaskets. With that said once you got through the 99% that sucked, I am sure a few like this one were ok :wink:

Some motors are just known as bad, and this is the mother of all of them because so many were made and put into so many cars/trucks. As a side note the 3.8 is a 302 V8 with two cyls lopped off, I dont know what got lost in translation, because the 302 was a great motor. GM did the same thing to the 350 and got the 4.3 V6 which also became a decent motor (after the bugs were worked out)

The 3.8L head gasket issue was resolved sometime around 1995. After that, head gasket problems with the Ford 3.8L engine became no more common than on any other engine. The engine in my '95 Windstar supposedly falls into the category of having the head gasket issue, but to my knowledge, the heads have never been off and it runs great with 176k miles on the clock and counting.

I agree with others that you should get a second opinion about this head gasket diagnosis. Take the vehicle to another repair shop with a good reputation (ask friends, family, coworkers, etc for a recommendation, or check the Mechanic’s Files on this website), tell them you are losing coolant, and see what they come up with. Do not mention to the next shop that the previous one diagnosed the problem as being a bad head gasket. If the shops agree, this may very well be the case, but it would be unusual if the vehicle was well cared for and has not been overheated.

My mother in law and several neighbors owned early 90s vintage Ford. 3.8 engines with high miles and never had a problem with head gaskets.

I used to do a lot of work for a car lot that was an offshoot of a local Ford dealer and I did quite a bit of service (repairs, checkovers, etc) on their used vehicles and I never saw one of their 3.8 vehicles with a head gasket problem. No doubt there were some but I don’t consider it a chronic problem.

Regardless, you may want to consider what the car is worth if you don’t fix it. Check the trade in with and without fixing it. You can’t sell it now for much privately until you do. Get estimates for a fix and do the gazintas. For example, if your car is worth about $5k with a fixed head gasket and $2k or less if it’s not running, a $1k repair bill might be worth it. These are all guess numbers on my part…but you get the point.

I have a 1995 Windstar 3.8L that had the head gasket issue not long after I purchased it. It was fixed by the dealer at Ford’s cost. I now have 159K on the vehicle and I have noticed after driving it I have a hot smell coming from the engine, no over heating indication on the temp guage. I checked the overflow reservoir and notice oil in the water. I can occasionally feel the engine misfiring. My first thought is blown head gasket. Do not see any white exhaust smoke. Your thoughts?

Doesn’t sound too promising

You already see oil in the coolant, which is a sign of trouble

And it’s 22 years old, so even if the van is in otherwise pristine condition, it’s not going to be worth much

I don’t know where you live, but it might be rusted out, depending on your location

If you want to be sure about combustion gases being where they’re not supposed to be, have a shop perform a block test. If they don’t know what that is, they probably shouldn’t be diagnosing your vehicle in the first place

At the risk of getting flagged again, I think after 5 years it is a moot issue. However my only experience with head gaskets was with my diesel and it was not good. I’ve never been a fan of tearing a high mileage engine open and with all the labor in a head gasket plus the machine work on the head, checking for cracks and flatness, valve grinding, and so on, I say either replace the engine or replace the vehicle.


I had a friend that drove one for 3 years adding massive amounts of coolant, as long as it is not getting into the oil you might survive.

Sounds like it’s already at a fairly advanced stage :frowning2:

Kind of unrelated for the Ford 3.8L but I had a 1985 Crown Victoria with a 302 cu in not uncommon from the rear plate leaking water pump. I replaced the water pump and it was still leaking. With help from a flashlight and mirror I discovered the little bypass hose had a pinhole leak. About a dollar for the hose and new clamps fixed it. Get a second opinion.

The problem with the 3.8L Ford V-6 was its aluminum heads. If it was overheated significantly it catastrophically failed but if it was marginally overheated the heads would take a warped “set” and subsequent marginal overheating would worsen the “set” and eventually the gasket would leak. Of course all aluminum heads are prone to doing that but some engines are worse than others and the Ford 3.8L was one of the worst for years. The 4.3L Ford wasn’t much better. The 302 Ford V-8 had iron heads that took quite a beating before failing.

The 1992-1997 single port 3.8L had the notorious head gasket problem. The 1996-up split port 3.8L didn’t have chronic head gasket problems. Though that’s not to say that it couldn’t happen. The 1995 and 1995.5 Windstars had the single port 3.8L. The 1996-2003 models had the split port.

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I understood that Ford had done some re-engineering on the 3.8L to correct their inherent problems but I always had doubts of their success. The split port 4.2L was somewhat prone to blow head gaskets. Maybe Ford should have used a better cooling system on the aluminum head engines.

The 1997/1998 4.2L which was only used in the then-new F-150 and Econoline did have a reputation for head gasket failure, though not to the same extent as the single port 3.8L. My family has extensive history with the Ford 3.8L;

1995 Windstar : It was one of the very first ones made, something like number 46 off the line. It suffered a blown head gasket. Also had the transmission go bad at around the 38k mile mark

1995.5 Windstar: Blown head gasket…twice. The 2nd time was the death knell for the van. Transmission went out around 60k.

1998 Windstar: Blown head gasket and transmission failure

2001 Windstar: No blown head gasket, but the transmission failed around 70k

2003 Windstar : No problems.

I also had a 1992 T-Bird SC, which didn’t have head gasket problems, but it had special low compression heads (IIRC) on account of the supercharger.

An aunt had a 1995 Taurus Wagon, which had bad head gaskets,and went through something like 3 transmissions. It was replaced with a 2001 Windstar that had the transmission go out, but the head gaskets stayed together. It was replaced with a 2005 350z roadster when my cousin got her license.

It should be noted that all but the 1995.5 were company vehicles that the company my dad worked for. They leased American made mid sized cars or minivans. Around 2005, they started allowing Japanese vehicles if you wanted one. My dad got a 2006 Honda Odyssey, which was absolutely bulletproof and did basically everything better than the Windstar did. His last company car before retiring was a 2011 Taurus SHO, which he ended up buying when he retired, he still has it.

I had a lot of history with the 3.0 engine in several Fords including Windstars and they were nearly bullet proof while the 3.8 and 4.2 engines never seemed to reach 150k without a serious problem, most often a head gasket. I discouraged the fleet managers I dealt with from buying the aluminum head Fords and all but one took my advice. His first and only E-150 with a 4.2 engine failed well before 100k while the dozen 4.9 trucks kept running with 300K+ miles on them. It was my understanding that Fel-Pro developed a gasket that significantly improved the 3.8’s longevity and I installed them on a couple of cars and never heard back about them so maybe there were no subsequent problems.

The original Ford 3.8 performed adequately but the market for those cars was usually the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” crowd and their approach to car ownership was better suited with small block Chevrolets and big Ford 6s. If well maintained as the OP’s apparently was they seem to be quite reliable. But for many it was an breakdown lookiing for a bad place to happen.When I first read the OP I was amazed that the engine had run 200k.