Did I destroy my son's car by giving him bad advice?

My son was driving home from school and called me about an issue with his car. The needle on the temperature gauge was pointing towards the “Hot” side. I asked him how much over it was, and he said it was just a bit over.

He was about 20 miles from the house, and I told him to wait a few minutes to let the car cool, then continue driving and watch the needle and go to the next gas station and call me again. If the needle moved farther to the right (towards Hot), stop the car immediately and give me another call.

Five minutes later, he called again. The needle suddenly jumped all the way to the right (towards Hot), and his engine started smoking. He had maybe traveled another mile down the highway. The car was now being towed to some strange mechanic which is what I wanted to avoid.

The mechanic told me the engine block was cracked due to overheating, but he would do me a favor and not charge me for towing and storage if I simply gave him the title.

Feeling a bit suspicious I paid the $200 or so, and had the car towed to my mechanic for another $400. The worst $600 investment I made. My mechanic told me the same thing. The car had overheated to such an extent that the engine was pretty much cooked.

So, my question: Did my advice to my sone to continue driving to the next gas station cause the engine damage? Again, my son told me that the temperature gage read just a bit pass the middle towards the high side. I realize it shouldn’t be passed the middle, but I’ve been in similar situations and managed to get my car back home for repairs by keeping my eye on the needle and stopping every few miles to let the engine cool down.

Was it cold weather? Was the coolant maintained? Had it boiled out or pushed out the coolant? What model car? Was he beating on it leaving school to impress his friends? Hard to say. Chicken or the egg kinda thing. Ed

The weather wasn’t cold. I believe it was about May. The car was a 1996 Toyota Camry. It was my Mom’s who gave it to my son because he was going to college and a car would be convenient. Otherwise, I’d have to make the 8 hour round trip each way when he comes home or he’d have to spend 7 to 10 hours taking public transit each way.

He’s 18 years old, so he drives a bit faster than I am comfortable with, but he’s no speed demon who races down the road while weaving in and out of traffic. He’s a fairly safe driver.

He’s also a responsible kid and why he called me about the car. He didn’t want to damage the car by driving it, but he didn’t want to have it towed to some strange place he didn’t know. Especially, since it was fairly late at night and it wouldn’t be even looked at until the morning.

The car was 14 years old, and it had about 120,000 miles on it, but it is a Toyota.

I don’t know the coolant level at that time, but I had my mechanic look it over just a few months before the incident to make sure it didn’t need any servicing. The car was fine.

I just find it hard to believe that the block cracked due to mild overheat. If the coolant hadn’t boiled out. Does it run now? Smoke? Locked up? I know the head gaskets would go on those V6 and can hydrolock a piston. Now that can do some damage. How much or what kind of diagnosis did shop do? There is alot of tests to be done. You could buy a chemical cylinder leakage test kit for $40-$50 and check coolant yourself. A cheap radiator testor on radiator will quickly increase pressure as motor runs. If it runs with cracked cyl it should push air into radiator and bubble. Water should be in oil (milky). May be head gasket or head unless you REALLY trust your mechanic.

If you would please search overheating on this site you will find numerous threads that begin with a post similar to yours. I must add that I have personally seen the results of numerous overheating problems. It appears to be human nature to want to get to a “safe place” when there is a problem. If your son called you before there was a catastrophic failure he might be commended for his efforts to take care of the car. Most drivers just continue until the car dies and they coast to the shoulder. It is impossible to know how much damage was done but when the coolant is blown out the damage can be quick and there are no incremental warnings on the instrument panel.

Many of these problems could be avoided if the driver would simply pull over, stop the car, open the hood, and TAKE A LOOK at what is going on instead of relaying by cell-phone what the temperature gauge is doing to a third party…

If, say, a radiator hose burst, ALL the coolant and pressure would be lost very quickly. The temperature sender needs this coolant to send it’s signal to the dash gauge. If the cooling system suddenly empties, the sensor is surrounded by air, not coolant, it can take a long time for the METAL the sender is mounted in to make the gauge read “HOT”…By the time this happens, the engine is EXTREMELY overheated…

1996 Camry with a cracked block. Consider it toast. Even if it is a Toyota, a 14 year old car with NO chance of becoming a classic just isn’t worth any additional effort.

As far as the advise, it was somewhat decent given the circumstances.

To crack the block, the car had to have been driven some distance without coolant. If there was no coolant in the engine, the gauge may have been giving erroneous readings, since it was designed to be immersed in coolant. Surrounded by air, because of lack of coolant, the readings may have been off. This engine may have been cooked before your son placed the first call.

I feel compelled to add that you did what most parents would do, you advised him to continue on to a safe place to stop. Damn the car…

Thanks for your advice. Our mechanic did a complete check in January when we got the car. The fluids were done in April. This happened in May. The mechanic said it looked like a sudden coolant leak which could explain why the temperature didn’t show the car as being overly hot and it suddenly shooting up.

If that’s what it was, at least I’m glad to know that my advice wasn’t at fault because it is very possible that the engine was cooked by the time he called me the first time.

The first mechanic either had an engine on hand that he could install or wanted to sell the parts of your car. If you still have it, you should look into one of those options.

“The car was 14 years old, and it had about 120,000 miles on it, but it is a Toyota.”

You’re correct in thinking that 120,000 miles isn’t anywhere near high miles, especially for 14 years. I’m not sure what the comment ," . . . but it is a Toyota." has to do with it. Are you referring to the fact that Toyota has put out so many sludging engines that have not made it into middle-age ? Most of the bad Camry engines were made beginning in 97 model-year.

I doubt it was a sludge problem in this case. However, sometimes relatively low miles is as harmful or more harmful to an engine than high miles.

I wouldn’t necessarily hold it against Toyota, but rather the fact the car was 14 or 15 years old. It was a senior citizen in “car years”.


I must be lucky in living where I am or something, because if I was within 20 miles of home there is no way I could rack up $600 in charges for a tow.

It’s a shame, but like another person said, the damage may well have been done by the time of the first call. Chalk it up as an expensive lesson on how S#!t happens in life and consider getting a AAA membership. If something happens to the next car, at least the towing will be free.

Probably not. It was gone before the one mile trip.

The first mechanic might also have been considering selling the car for scrap by the pound to recuperate his expenses.

Yep, someone’s been drinking the Toyota kool-aid again.

Does your insurance on this Camry have any emergency towing coverage? You perhaps could recover some money from the first tow.

I don’t think either of you are at fault. The gauge should read at dead-center, but neither a minor drop or minor increase in the normal range of the gauge at the car’s warmest driving temperature should be be a cause for alarm.
But a big swing either way WOULD be a reason to schedule something, either a diagnosis or a fluid change and maybe a thermostat change. I will say that if a gauge starts reading hotter, that’s significant and I’d start by making sure the coolant is full, not leaking, etc., before accepting that I needed either a new water pump or a new radiator.