Car overheated & now needs head gasket?



1997 Cavalier, 83,000 miles, bought used approx 1-2 months ago for $1,600.00 from an individual, not a dealership. Passed MD state inspection w/out any repairs.

While driving on residental street w/ many lights, she noticed white smoke/ steam near the right front tire & at same time the temp gauge went into the red. She pulled over & turned off the car & noticed coolant leaking from car. The mechanic is telling her, she needs a new head gasket for approx $750.00. The mechanic also said if the head was cracked it could cost a bunch more. Should I believe this mechanic? Are these any tests that may narrow down the problem? Any advice about this issue is appreciated.


Find another mechanic and get a second opinion. It’s very easy to crack a head when your vehicle overheats. It may just need a new head gasket but a new head may be needed as well.


The story is a bit shaky. The gauge did not go into the red “at the same time”. Odds are the gauge was ignored until this smoke and steam was noticed and THEN the temp gauge drew some attention.

A gauge does not go into the red instantly. It takes a bit of time to get there.

First step should be a compression test of all cylinders. Unless blown from one end to the other (unlikely) the cylinders affected by a blown head gasket will be abnormally off but the remaining cylinders will give different readings.
If overheating was occurring before this cloud of smoke and steam then it’s possible the piston rings are damaged; a.k.a. time for a new engine.



Shouldn’t a leak-down test be performed instead of a compression test?

A compression test is a dynamic test where compression can be built to the proper specs because the leak is so small it doesn’t effect the readings. Where with a leak-down test this is a static test. If there’s a leak in the head gasket the static pressure slowly bleeds off.



Jennbo, the FIRST thing you need to do is repair the coolant leak and get the car running again. THEN check for a blown head gasket. Perhaps your mechanic has already done this. Perhaps a blown head gasket is the cause of the original overheating…

If the head turns out to be cracked, a salvage yard part is another option that will save you about half…


I agree with you that a compression test is the way to go. It’s just that when a problem like this exists I’ve always done a preliminary compression test because it’s faster and gives me a quick read on a potential problem.

Guess my point is that not all of the cylinders should be affected by a blown head gasket and if the readings are down some on all cylinders then I’d follow it up with a leak-down test.

The odds of having all cylinders affected by a head gasket are very slim but anything can happen. We had a lady roasted a new VW one time (5 cylinder with less than 500 miles on it) and that engine was stunningly fried from one end to the other. One cylinder had about 50 PSI, one at 20, and the other 3 were at 0. It was so bad that hot coolant had removed most of the heads from the exhaust valves and on the 3 cylinders that were at 0 there were only valve stems sticking out of the valve seats. My only regret is not taking pictures of this thing!


This is what would be the first course of action.

I would say if this engine has an aluminum head (I don’t think the 2200/2.2 does- but there are 3 other available) AND the head gasket is indeed blown, that the head will require machining to do the repair.


Would you really spend the money on a used or rebuilt head beyond lots of labor on a 13 year old $1600 car?


With all respect, the Cavalier was discontinued for a reason. This engine used in this car was the same basic engine the Cavalier used in the 1980s. I wouldn’t invest $750 in this car. I would let it go.