Help! Oil in coolant - Can I drive it home? (98 Forester, 250 Miles)

I have been occasionally and faintly smelling the delicious odor of scalding coolant for a few days now. Then, today, I went to pick up my sister at the airport (150 Miles Roundtrip)

Before leaving, I checked the fluids. Oil was clean - and only oily. Coolant reservoir was overfull and also oily. Radiator, on the other hand, was not full. Needing to leave right away, I topped it off with water. Hard to say how much, since it was from a garden hose, but I would guess about 2 cups of H20.

Picked her up, stopped for gas at about 100 miles. Checked the coolant reservoir - looked the same, but I dipped a bunch of shop towels in to collect the oil floating on the surface of the reservoir (about 1/8 inch). Now the coolant looked scuzzy, but green on the surface. Continued driving. About a mile from destination, temperature needle stood straight up. I coasted into my parent’s driveway in a cloud of steam.

Looked in the reservoir immediately upon returning - it was entirely full to the point of overflowing - I didn’t open the radiator cap, but it was cool to the touch. Water return hose (top passenger side of radiator) was hot. Coolant still appeared to be clean(ish) - no layer of oil - just flecks that the shop towels didn’t pick up.

30 Minutes later I checked again - now the coolant reservoir is totally empty and the radiator cap is lukewarm.

I have a mechanic at home I trust - back home in Seattle. We are 250 miles away, and are supposed to get on a plane from Seattle the day after Christmas - Can I safely drive it 250 miles without major mechanical work being performed? I can probably get a rad flush on the 24th, but probably not anything more extensive than that.

Should I send wife and daughter home on the train and wait for a Head gasket change?

Any suggestions?

Thanks, Adam

Automatic transmission? If so, maybe that oil grunge in the radiator is transmission fluid from a leaking trans fluid cooler, which is located inside the radiator.
JMHO, but I think you’re pushing your luck. You may have already pushed it too far when the temp guage pegged out and you coasted in under a cloud of steam.

Subarus are all aluminum construction and do not take overheating very well. If you insist on driving it then what I would do is change the thermostat, the radiator cap, carry some extra jugs of water, and do not run the cabin climate controls on anything other than VENT or FLOOR. Any other position means the air compressor is running and this just contributes to engine load and temperature.

At this point don’t assume that any of this is head gasket related. You may be lucky and a T-stat and radiator cap may cure it. And of course, if the temp starts climbing anyway then pull over and let it cool down.
There’s not enough info to determine how serious the problem is so I’m not going to make the call as to what you should do, especially considering the fact that a head gasket job means you should also get a water pump, timing belt, and tensioners if that has not been done in recent memory. That of course is spelled; P-R-I-C-Y.

Manual Tranny.

Once it cooled down enough I could take the cap off safely I did so. The overflow tank was still empty, and when I unscrewed the radiator cap, there was a hissing air release sound - as if there was a vaacum in the radiator. (I suppose it could have been pressure also.) The fluid was down a few inches, but I could just see the surface with a carefuly aimed flashlight. I started up with the cap off and noticed that the fluid was not moving - probably needs to have suction, I suppose.

oil in the radiator, overheating 98 subaru? sounds like a head gasket to me. you might try the simple stuff like having the thermostat changed to see if you can get home but i think its making it home without a major repair is unlikely.

Yeah. It seems that renting a uhaul and trailer will run just under $200 with (extra) gas it’ll be $240, which is less than I will save by getting it back to my own mechanic if it is anything more than a thermostat, so I’m going to just put it up on a trailer and drag it back to Seattle.

Thanks to OK4450 and sjbien for your thoughts - helped me face up to the truth.

I think you’re doing the right thing here. If that is engine oil in the coolant then a head gasket is the prime suspect.
A little oil in the coolant is not going to hurt anything but coolant in the engine oil will do some serious damage.

Even if the car appears to run well it is entirely possible that given the previous overheating and the current complaint that a head gasket could just flat give up even if the engine was not overheating at the time.