Radiatior trouble leads to melted engine

I took my 2000 Volvo S-40 to a shop, part of a national chain, for some minor work. They called me to say “the computer says you need a new thermostat”. I said: go ahead.

The next time I had my car on the freeway, I experienced a sudden loss of power followed by smoke and steam billowing from various parts of my car. I pulled a completely dead car over to the shoulder and went by tow truck to the nearest Volvo dealer. The dealer quoted me a price for an “autotopsy” to find the reason cause of death. When this was completed, he said: “I dunno”. The national chain sent their guy to who discovered that a weak seam in radiator had conveniently decided to burst absolving the national chain of any responsibility. Can any forensic specialists out there tell us how we should proceed?

Uh…so you took the dead car to a dealer, paid for an inspection to find the problem, and all they came back with was “I dunno”? Find another dealer.

If the radiator had burst, the engine wouldn’t just immediately lose power and die. You’d see plenty of white smoke and steam, and shortly afterwards the engine would begin to overheat (the car should be pulled over and off long before that happens).

Definitely find another dealer, or some other place altogether. There’s been nothing but absolute and total incompetence on the part of…well, pretty much everyone so far.

There’s a lot of story missing here.
What minor work did you take this car in for in the first place?
Any overheating episodes at any time prior to this work?
How long a time frame between the thermostat replacement and the “next time on the freeway”?

Even if a radiator splits wide open this does not cause an engine to lose power and die quickly.
This means you must have continued to operate the car with it seriously overheating until the engine seized up and quit.
This does not occur suddenly.

There’s not enough info known to know why the radiator split.
Just theorizing for a minute, the most likley scenario is that it overheated for whatever reason, you continued driving until a head gasket let go, and excessive pressure in the cooling system from a failed head gasket split the radiator.

No idea as to why the dealer would respond with a dunno comment. Various easily performed tests can determine how badly an engine is damaged.

Your question is how do you proceed. I’ll try to answer.

First, I’m unaware of any computer that can say you need a new thermostat.

Second, can you elaborate on “I took my 2000 Volvo…for some minor work”?

Third, a charge for a diagnosis (“autopsy”) is standard these days. Nothing wrong here.

Forth, what did the Volvo shop actually say.

Fifth, how are we supposed to do forensics over the internet?

In summary, if you’ll give us the whole story perhaps we can make a suggestion. Some of us like a challenge. But you have to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There’s way too many loose ends here.

Well stated, MB.

Thank you.

Lets see, I will try to be more clear. The car was taken in for an oil change and tire rotation. The check engine light was on. The car was having no other problems at that time. The radiator was not leaking and the car was not overheating. They did a computer diagnostic and determined the water temperature was high and the car needed a new thermostat, which they replaced. The car ran for a few days without problem on city streets, short trips. Five days later the car was taken on an approx 20 mile freeway trip, the first indication of a problem was that the car lost power, there was smoke coming out of the tail pipe with a burning oil smell. I pulled over as soon as it was safe less than 1 minute. The car was towed to the Volvo dealer. I was happy to pay them to diagnose the problem. They determined that the car had gotten extremely hot, the valve cover had melted, the head was warped and a piston had a hole in it. They knew what was wrong but they were not able (or willing) to say why it happened. I believe the thermostat was defective. The shop that installed it denies any responsibility. I certainly do not expect anyone to do forensics online. I need information, resources in San Diego CA for someone who can determine why this happened. I’m a nurse. This is like trying to diagnose a disease. It could be X, Y or Z based on the presentation/symptoms. Then testing is done to discover exactly what is going on. Thanks for your help!

The thermostat could have been defective, or it is possible that the cooling system was not completely refilled after the thermostat was replaced. Or, it is also possible that the head gasket was already breached. There are lots of possibilities, but if the engine got hot enough to melt the valve cover, two things are fairly clear:

The car was driven entirely too far after the temperature gauge began to indicate that the engine was dangerously hot.
The actual cause will be very difficult–if not impossible-- to determine in the aftermath of this catastropic situation.

So much damage has likely taken place that it would be very difficult to determine the exact sequence of failures/damages.

Pay to the fix the car or junk it and no liability by shop. Your radiator & car is 9 years old and at that age can fail at any moment.

If you ever notice the temp guage very high(keep occasionally) stop and pull over immediately and tow it to a shop.

Do You Know If You Were Low On Coolant When The Car Went In For Diagnosis And A Thermostat?

Was this the entire conversation? “They called me to say “the computer says you need a new thermostat”. I said: go ahead.”

Was there no mention of low coolant level or any other conversation? When was the last time you had the fluid levels checked prior to this shop visit?

How long had the “Engine Light” been illuminated? Did somebody do an underhood check
when it came on?

Did the car illuminate a “Temperature / Coolant light” before you took it in?


Your new post provides far more to work with. Much better.

A few things I noticed were that when you originally brought it in the check engine light was on but there was no overheating problem, and that you ended up with (among other things) a hole burned in the piston. I’m going to postulate based on these facts that you (a) had a cylinder preigniting perhaps because it was lean and thus running hot, and (b) you originally had no cooling system problem. That may have been what set the CEL and what burned the hole in the piston. Sustained preignition can burn a hole in a piston, but overheating cannot. A sustained hot spot can also cause a head to warp, do a headgfasket in, and add to the overheating problems.

I’m theorizing that the first shop probably misdiagnosed the whole problem as a cooling system problem, and may have even not properly burped the air from the coolng system after working on it, making things worse.

Guys, opinions on my theory?

Just my humble opinion, but this severe engine problem did not occur over a 15 second time frame.
There had to have been an on-going problem with this car and I agree with mountainbike.

Wonder if it should be asked how long that Check Engine Light has been glowing?
(Maybe a fault leading to too much ignition advance which then caused the holed piston? Or an incorrect spark plug? Or a vacuum leak on that particular cylinder?)