Dare I drive this car home? 99% Sure Timing Belt?s Going



Here?s the skinny: The car is an old car I was considering buying from a relative of mine, a ?97 Toyota Celica. I like the car, and it?s been well kept up in many respects, but when I took it to be checked out by a trusted mechanic he said it would need a fair bit of work soon, including a new timing belt. I told my aunt the verdict and said given the additional costs I didn?t think it would suit. She?s been traveling a bunch the past couple weeks and I haven?t had a chance to return it to her, and she generously said I should feel free to use the car to drive back and forth to the train and so forth until she could pick it up.

Well, today I needed a car to attend a meeting, so I drove it into my job in downtown Boston from the ?burbs --- about 40 miles. The last half of the trip was in stop and go traffic, and even to my uneducated ears the engine sounded a little off. In the lower gears, particularly second, there was a squeaky whine in the background, seemed to go away during the rare times I managed to get up into fourth. (It?s a manual.) Just as I got to work and was turning to down a street to park, the engine abruptly stalled (it had been idling at a light in first, with the clutch in) and it took me several tries to get it going again. I then parked it about halfway down the block. When I got out of the car and went over to the passenger side to retrieve my laptop, I noticed an odd, burnt smell.

I don?t know much at all about cars, but from what the mechanic had said and what my googling has turned up it sure seems like it?s the timing belt. Do I dare risk driving this thing home? I don?t want it have it break on me and the engine wrecked. From my office I could wait until traffic thins out and get on the highway fairly quick, and take a route home that?s nearly all highway driving ---- the engine sounded fine in the high gears. I?d prefer not to shell out for a 40 mile tow from downtown Boston if I don?t have to.


Timing belts don’t usually give any warning before they break. No noise, no smell, nothing.

It’s unlikely that the erratic running, stalling, or smell came from the timing belt. Not impossible, but unlikely. It could be many things, but the timing belt is pretty far down the list.

If the timing belt breaks the engine will stop running, regardless of where you are or how fast you are driving, and it will NOT restart no matter what you do. That’s why it’s a good idea to replace the timing belt BEFORE it breaks.

The good news is; the engine in a '97 Celica is not an interference engine, and it won’t be “wrecked” by a broken timing belt.

You didn’t tell us the mileage on this car, so it’s hard to say whether or not it’s “worth it” to replace the timing belt and keep driving the car. It’s hard to imagine the car is worthless at this point, but again, we don’t know the mileage or the maintenance history.

If it were mine, and it started, I’d try to drive it home.


Whether this car has the 1.8 liter engine or the 2.2 liter engine, the timing belt should be changed every 60k miles or 5 years, whichever comes first. You haven’t told us the odometer mileage or the last time that the belt was changed (likely Auntie did not share this info with you). So, neither you nor any of us knows if the engine is due for a timing belt change, but based on the mechanic’s advice

Anyway, the good news is that neither of the possible engines for that model year are “interference” engines, meaning that a snapped belt will not destroy the engine. However, it will strand you, and if it snaps while you are on the highway in the midst of 18 wheelers, the loss of engine power, power steering, and brake boost could be…very bad.

All of this being said, timing belts don’t normally give any indication of their impending demise. The engine works, sounds, and smells normal right up to the milisecond after the belt snaps. However, I guess that if the belt was beginning to shred, it is possible that you might smell something.

If you are not a gambler, then you should have it towed to your aunt’s mechanic. If you are a bit of a gambler, then you can drive it, but I suggest that you take local streets rather than highways just so that you are not driving at more than 30-40 mph if the belt snaps. This is one case where local driving would be preferable to highway driving, simply because of the highway scenario of having to dodge trucks while you have no engine power, power steering, or brake boost.

Good luck!

Edited to add:
Mcparadise–You beat me to it by 19 seconds!


The timing belt doesn’t give you any warning-- it’ll be running fine one moment and then completely dead the next, and there’s no restarting it. So that’s not the issue (yet).

It sounds to me like a clutch issue-- maybe the hydraulic clutch system (if so equipped) is losing pressure. It could be a fairly simple hose or cylinder. Either way, it’s not your car and I don’t think you should risk damaging it by driving it home like this (you could burn out the clutch). I think you need to either spring for the tow or get someone there to at least look it over and tell you if it’s something simple and/or if it’s safe to drive home.


Don’t ignore the smell. Check the engine oil, transmission fluid level, and coolant in the radiator. Check these things before even starting the engine again.


Just as I got to work and was turning to down a street to park, the engine abruptly stalled (it had been idling at a light in first, with the clutch in) and it took me several tries to get it going again.

Based on this statement alone tells me it CAN’T be the timing belt. When a timing belt breaks…it doesn’t just fix itself. A broken timing belt and the car won’t start no matter what you do…IT’S IMPOSSIBLE.

Something else is going on here…and it’s NOT the timing belt.


Mike makes an excellent point about the timing belt being intact at this point.
However, since we don’t know its age, the belt could snap the next time that it is started–or it might be good for another few years.

When someone doesn’t know the maintenance schedule of a car, everything tends to be a bit of a crap shoot.


Have it towed to a reputable independent garage and fix whatever needs fixing, including the timing belt, tensioner and water pump.

There is a guy in my neighborhood who drives an older Celica with 1.2 MILLION miles on it. He got it from his brother in Nevada where it was used a great deal in the dry desert. The original white paint still looks OK and the engine has never been rebuilt!

Celicas are tough little cars.


Wow! 1.2 million miles! I only have 508,000 on my old Accord. Now I have something to shoot for. Rocketman


Well look dude. Something’s wrong. Maybe the timing belt has slipped a notch. Or maybe any of a dozen other possibilities. And burning smells from a car are rarely a sign that things are going well. By the time you get this thing out to Lexington or Framingham or whatever you’ll likely be a nervous wreck. … If you make it out to the burbs.

If diagnosing this were within your current capabilities, I imagine that you’d be out on the street working on the car. Maybe this is a time to admit defeat. Why not call around, find a mechanic who sounds intelligent. Ask him what to do, and what to do if the car dies on the way to his shop. If I recall correctly, there is a Mechanics Files section somewhere on this site that contains information on repair shops inhabited by intelligent lifeforms.


Yes, it’s an '83 model and in 1997 it already had 933,000 miles on it when his brother gave it to him. He has replaced the clutch, hinges on driver’s door, and a few other odds and ends. The car now “burns” 1 quart every 3200 miles, not bad for having gone around the world 48 TIMES!!! The owner plugs the car’s block heater in in the winter.


The OP could call Click & Clack’s own place, The Good News Garage in Cambridge, and have it towed over there.

The Good News Garage
75 Hamilton St
Cambridge, MA 02139

(617) 354-5383

Just don’t expect either of the brothers to be there when you visit.


I agree…if you don’t know the history then the belt should be changed anyways. Not sure why the vehicle won’t start…this vehicle obviously has a few problems.


Thanks, all. There’s a couple reputable mechanics over by me in the files, I’ll ring one of them and see what they say, maybe they’ll be able to come take a look.