Head Gasket or Water Pump?

OK, we have a cavalier that is slowly dying but until we find a good price on a used car we are looking at it has to keep chugging along… It started to overheat about month ago, just when you go up a hill otherwise it is fine (doesn’t overheat but a few lines from the red zone!). Mechanic said it was a head gasket and we have noticed that the coolant level is down slightly… can it be a head gasket yet still drivable? Also about 2 months ago the car needed a new water pump, flushed and filled, could it just be the new water pump was bad? No other issues, heat works fine, no puddles under the car etc…

Have you noticed if your cooling fan/s (behind the radiator) are turning on?? You don’t say where your from, but I am going to assume its cool out. While driving around you may be pulling in enough air to cool the car down, but going up a hill with the motor really working you may not, and if your fans are not coming on it would cause you to run hot until you crest the hill and go downhill (motor not working very hard, lots of air flow). What did your mechanic do to test for a bad head gasket?? Is your exhaust white and sweet smelling?? Does your oil look like a chocolate milk shake? Does the car run hot at any other time other than going uphill??

All of what gsragtop said, especially the the way the oil looks and the exhaust color/smell.

It could be that you have an air bubble in the system. Adding coolant when the system was empty often requires the system to be ‘burped’ and here’s how:
Park it on a ramp (or uphill, for that matter), open the radiator cap, start the engine and see what happens when you rev the engine up and down a bit. If you see air bubbles coming up from the radiator filler neck, add some coolant and rev it up and down a bit more until you see no more bubbles.
Then close it up and drive it to see if the problem is gone.

As far as a car being drivable with a bad head gasket: sure but it will not be reliable because it will leave you stranded at one point.
When that happens, it will likely be during your commute, when its swansong will be it blowing coolant out of the back. Your car will briefly look like the the original GoldFinger 007 Ashton Martin to those in back of you because they won’t see a Cavalier - all they’ll see is a curtain of smoke.
When it fails like that, it will usually cause major failures and the car will be toast.

Hi, 1. Yes we are in Indiana and temps are 45 and below
2. No white smoke or sweet smell
3. Don’t know about oil, husband checks (I refuse to drive this car!) Just called oil is fine.
4. Have no idea what test was used for head gasket
5. The car does run hot if my husband is sitting in traffic
6. Husband says he does not notice if the fans are coming off and on


GSRagtop’s first comment is right on the mark. Make sure the fans turn on. Check the fuse first.
That could be difficult to detect while driving but, next time it overheats, open the hood and check.

If you find that the fans are not on, you’re boiling the coolant off and that is likely the cause for overheating. In that case, it could be a number of things like the fans, wiring, fan relays, and thermosensor.
A good way to see if the wiring, fan relays and fans are good is to turn the AC on. That should turn both* fans on high, even when the car temperature is still cool.
If the fans don’t turn on, your problem could be the fans, relays or wiring.
If the fans turn on, is narrows the culprit down a bit to possibly the thermosensor.

Not sure why I say ‘both’ except that my cars all have two fans. Yours may not, though.

Getting hot in traffic is another sign of inop cooling fans. Ask our husband to let the car run for a while at idle, and wait for the temp to go up… with the hood open at some point you should see the fans kick on automatically… Its just something that will take some time to see… If the car gets much past 1/2 way and the fans are not kick on you found your problem.

PS to check the fans them selfes, you maybe able to switch on the AC… This should cause the fans to turn on as well, but at those temps I am not sure.

Darn Remco you type faster then me :slight_smile:

Thanks, when he gets home we will try this… although the AC does not work but I believe something is cracked etc… so the fans may still respond… I will post the result tomorrow.

No if the AC does not work the fans will not respond, so you will have to let the car run. Drive it around the block a few times, and then pop the hood when you get home and wait it out. Just make sure someone is watching the fans while someone else is watching the temp gauge.

Bad water pump?

Bad Thermostat?

Bad head gasket?

If it is a bad water pump - you would probably hear it. One would think. Check the belt to make sure it is not just the belt slipping. Maybe you have a bad tensioner.

If its a bad thermostat - it just not opening enough. I would get a lower temperature thermostat (or remove it completely for just a bit as a test) and see if overheating goes away.

Bad head gasket - YOU CAN DO THIS. get a haynes / chilton / whatever repair manual and change the head gasket yourself. This is an inline 4 cylnder engine - and somebody you know has a garage and tools. Head gaskets are under 100$. (yep - whole head gasket set for 77$) Its a bit of a tight spot to work in - and I would reccomend jack stands to make things comfortable.

YOU CAN FIX THIS CHEAP. Labor is why they are quoting you 800-1000$. and its going to take you… a Christmas break probably.

Get some PB blaster, the tools listed in the manual and get crackin. fix that head gasket.

Being a mechanic I’d fix the rascal and keep going, but if this is just a last ditch effort to keep going and you do not want to drop a lot of coin on the HG repair then…

Buy a $60 Bottle of Blue Devil and follow the instructions… I have seen it fix some really bad head gasket failures and even cracks… Its permanent and it works…This is the perfect place to use it too…on a vehicle that you are just trying to keep going till you junk it.

It WILL fix your issue…permanently. It looks like clear Blue windshield washer fluid and has NO particulate to clog anything. It works by sort of calcifying at the site of the leak…like a hard water stain…almost exactly like a hard water stain actually

Blue Devil…Like I always say, I should get paid for how many x I tell people about it…the reason I do is bec it works. I have watched it fix over 50 HG failures and worse to date…all of them still going strong years later with no other issues related to its use…its rather amazing

Thanks Honda Blackbird… we have not had a chance to try some of the other things suggested yet… can we get the ‘blue devil’ form autozone or pep brothers?

You state it only overheats while going uphill. This would not likely be due to a head gasket problem.

Clogged radiator, low coolant, inoperative cooling fan, slipping transmission, clogged catalytic converter, vacuum leak, and so on should be suspected before a head gasket is blamed for this. In theevent this is an older model equipped with a distributor, ignition timing that is too far advanced or retarded can also cause overheating.

A faulty head gasket will only cause overheating if it allows enough coolant loss or if there is a breach between a combustion chamber and the water jacket.

With the engine stone cold (after sitting all night for instance) loosen the radiator cap to release any pressure that may exist. Retighten the cap and start the engine. Allow it to idle for 15-20 seconds and turn the engine off. Very quickly loosen the radiator cap. If you hear a faint hiss then there is a least a possibilty of a head gasket breach between a combustion chamber and the water jacket. If so, then further, proper diagnosis should verify it.

Thank for all comments… we traded it in and bought a used RAV4… and yes all problems were exposed… it needed help and I just didn’t feel safe driving it anymore… thanks for all your help and hopefully this will help someone else with a gasket problem…cheers!

Overheating while driving uphill, this is the classic symptom for a bad radiator cap. A new cap will run you about $13 at any auto parts store. I’ve seen people spend thousands on this problem and for some reason, even most mechanics do not replace the cap until the last thing.