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Did this damage the engine or not?

I am interested in buying a 1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera (3.1L V6) with 86,000 miles on it. The common problem of the intake manifold gaskets has already been repaired.

The day before I was supposed to test drive it, the owner emailed me and said that they started the car, let it warm up and they have a “major oil leak”. They said that they thought it might be the PCV valve, but they are having it towed to a repair shop to see what the issue is.

I emailed them back and asked if they know how many quarts of oil leaked out and how long it was running before they noticed the leak, as well as whether the “oil” light on the dash came on. They replied that It looks like about 1½ quarts, and that it had “no oil pressure”. They added that it is either the PCV valve or the oil pump has a leak around the seal.

I’m not terribly familiar with that engine, so while they are waiting to hear back from the mechanic, I wanted to see if I can get opinions on what happened and whether it damaged the engine. The owner seems to have limited mechanical knowledge, so there is a good chance that they are incorrect in their diagnosis.

This is a major “red flag” in my book so I think I would walk away from this deal. A major oil leak does not usually come from a bad PCV or a very suspect “leak around the oil pump seal.”

Agree with missileman. You will probably never get the straight story. Sounds like the engine was run with essentially no oil in it. Walk away.

I too agree with Missileman. And with jesmed.

Anything is possible.
Oil depletion is probable.

I hope the OP posts back.

Walk away. This isn’t some rare classic.

Thank you for the replies. I’m not sure that the seller even knows for sure what “oil pressure” means. Is it possible for this car to have “no oil pressure” because it is 1½ quarts low? It appears that the capacity is 4½ quarts.

Also, assuming that the car was idled until it warmed up, then the seller noticed that it was 1½ quarts low, would that have damaged the engine by itself? If not, what amount of oil would have to leak out before the engine would be damaged?

I’m not worried about what the issue was in and of itself, because the seller would have it repaired before I bought the car, but I’m concerned about what damage may have been done to the engine as a result.

It’s not a rare classic, but in searching for “1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera problems”, there are very few that show up with the exception of the intake manifold gasket leak, and most reviews seem to say that it is a reliable car. That’s exactly what I’m looking for without much money to spend, and the sellers of imports around here keep reposting the listings for their overpriced cars.

However, that’s not going to make me purchase a car that has a reasonably good chance of having engine damage, since that defeats the purpose.

It is entirely possible for it to be illuminating the oil pressure warning light while idling even being only 1-1/2 qts low. That would simply mean the engine is worn out. Oil pressure is generated by the pump trying to force the oil through the small spaces between wear surfaces and sleeve bearings. If they’re too worn, the pump won’t be able to maintain enough pressure, and the “no pressure light” illuminates.

In short, either the seller is misrepresenting how low the oil was and the engine may be damaged from oil depletion, or the seller is being honest about the “1-1/2 quarts low” and the engine is shot.

Either way, you’d be wise to pass on this one and keep looking.

No, it’s not possible to have zero oil pressure only because it was 1-1/2 quarts low on oil. The owner is not giving you the straight story. It would have to be more like 3 quarts low to have zero oil pressure.

The whole story sounds fishy, so I don’t believe anything the owner says. What if the true story is, he drove the car for 10,000 miles without checking the oil, then the oil light came on and he found the engine had almost no oil in it? That sounds more likely to me than a sudden massive oil leak while the car was idling.

Rule number one in buying a used car: sellers lie.

@jesmed‌ I am definitely open to the “driving for 10,000 miles” scenario being a possibility, and perhaps they assumed that there was a leak because the oil pressure light came on, but when I was searching online for the possible causes before I started this thread, I came across this article where someone else apparently had a sudden oil leak with the same year, make, and model, and someone mentioned the oil pressure sender cracking:

Check the oil pressure sender, they are known for just up and cracking then you’ve got an oil leak that that really runs when the engine is running, the senders aren’t very expensive and usually easy to change.

@thesamemountainbike Thank you for the detailed explanation. It’s helpful to be able to know that it’s either one or the other. Does the light on that car actually say “no oil pressure”? I’m just trying to figure out where they came up with the “no oil pressure” statement.

No, it’s just a basic oil pressure warning light that tells the driver the pressure has dropped too low, an “idiot light” as we say. The manual probably calls it a “low oil pressure warning light”. I probably should have proofed my post better.

Regardless of what may or may not be wrong with this car we’re trying to diagnose over the internet…The car is nearly 20 years old and seems to have one of the most major of major car problems: a serious oil leak and questionable engine status.

I can appreciate wanting/needing cheap transportation, and you seem rather set on this car. But I think you have to ask what other red flags you’re going to need in order to walk away from this. It seems very likely to me that if the car is already having these problems…more are just down the road.

Good luck.

In fairness to the seller, if the oil pressure sender cracked and leaked 1-1/2 quarts of oil before the engine was shut off, that could explain the idiot light coming on even though the engine (maybe) still had most of its oil.

So the seller’s story could be true. If he shut the engine off immediately, and it really was only 1-1/2 quarts low, it’s possible no damage occurred. Have you asked the seller how long the engine idled before he shut it off?

@ledhed75 I am probably going to walk away, depending on the exact situation.

As far as being set on the car, when I have a low amount that I am able to spend, it doesn’t give me many options. I’m not interested in and can’t really afford to take on a car payment. This would likely have been a very good low mileage car were it not for the oil leak.

@jesmed that’s what I was hoping happened - that the seller started the car, saw the oil leaking from under the car and/or the oil pressure light, then shut it off. I asked how long it was running before they noticed the leak, but they didn’t really reply. The only clue that I have was that they said that “I started the car yesterday, let it warm up and we have a major oil leak”.

If the seller ends up telling me that it was in fact a cracked oil pressure sender (which could indicate that the oil pressure was not actually low), and that it was definitely only 1.5 quarts that leaked and they shut it off right away, what type of test would my mechanic need to do to rule out engine damage when I took it to them to have it looked at?

I can discern obvious things such as bad noises when the engine is running or smoke coming out the tailpipe, but I’d like to know what type of test to ask for.

Find out what the mechanics needed to fix, I would be more leery of why they needed to warm it up. Does it have trouble starting and running when cold?

Sorry, nothing the seller could say would make me feel better, and the damage (unless it’s catastrophic) is hard to test for.

Unless it is convenient for you and agreeable by the owner for you to be a passenger while he drives 30 miles at highway speed after which the engine idles smoothly and the oil light doesn’t illuminate but turning the key on without starting the engine results in the oil light shining to prove that it is not disconnected the car shouldn’t be considered. And if it were to pass that preliminary test a close inspection of several weak systems would be necessary before considering the purchase.

I would be very suspect of the car and the owner based on the OP, @98Caddy

@texases thanks for that info. I guess I’ll have to pass on it then.

It’s a shame because it only had 86,000 miles.

Yes, it’s too bad. But a major oil leak can result in a junked engine, just too much risk for me.