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"Sewing machine-like engine noise" that emerged during the possession of a repair shop..?

Hi Everyone,

I am new to the community—please let me know if I do not follow the etiquette. I have 2011 Subaru Forester, with about 48,000 miles.

There have been several surprises since I took my car to a reputable local repair shop, with the most mysterious one being “sewing machine-like noise from engine” that I have not been aware of but emerged (or became apparent) during the possession of the shop for the past four days. The owner said the (suddenly-emerged) noise was due to failing engine lifter(s); it just happened unfortunately while my car is in their possession, and has nothing with them.

I don’t think they would ever intentionally damage a customer’s engine; that’s stupid and based on the Yelp review it seems that the owner cares very much about customer’s feedback ( But given my very little knowledge about cars, I can’t figure out how this happened. Would this be another human error (they have inadvertently damaged the radiator), although unintentional? Can folks here recommend me what to do next, i.e. going forward with this repair shop, or have another one to address the engine noise issue?

Here is a summary of the story:

  1. 8/11, Friday. I took the car to the shop to fix engine oil leak problem. Previously they’ve identified oil leak and put dyes in it. The said both valve cover gasket and timing cover gaskets need to be changed, costing > $1,000 before tax, which I am aware of before hand.

  2. 8/12, Saturday. The owner informed me that their technician inadvertently damaged the radiator. So they can not give me the car on that day. He said they will fix the radiator, free of charge, though. He apologized for the delay and error (they actually installed a new one, which I had not been aware of until Monday).

  3. 8/14, Monday. I called the shop at noon, but owner was not available. Called him again at around 4:20 --he was on the phone but called me back in minutes. He said, “you car has a problem”. Then he explained it was due to the failing engine lifter(s). He said he checked with Subaru and asked if this is under warranty, turns out not to be the case. He said this is a known problem listed in Subaru’s technical bulletin. He said he will email me the technical bulletin and his statement of the problem, although i haven’t received it as of now.

Base on the conversation with the owner and my experience with his staff, I feel they are professional and courteous. If this is not a fraud…how could the engine lifter problem happen? Before taking my Forester to the mechanics’ shop, the car is running fine, and I am not aware of the noise issue at all. Or is this actually not a problem, as this blog post ( suggests? Could someone help? I appreciate it.



I just checked some other blogs, and most Subaru and Forester owners are saying they all have the same noise problem. It pertains to the lifters in the cylinder head not getting enough oil. Their solution is the following (do it at your own risk):

  1. Drain old oil and change oil filter.
  2. Fill engine with 10W30 oil, leaving 1 quart low.
  3. Fill remaining quart with straight 30W oil.
  4. change oil every 3,000 miles. Religiously.

Yes the heavier oil will cause some internal parts to wear faster, BUT, the owners claim it solves the noise issue. It’s either this or a complete engine rebuild. Your car.

What kind of shop is this? Dealer, franchise, independent?
There’s a chance #1 or #2 might do a little fleecing.
How bad was the oil leak? For > $1,000 I hope it was more than seepage.
Have you driven the car since they worked on it?
Can you tell the difference with this new problem?

They look like an independent repair shop in Seattle (Ace Auto Repair), relatively new to the business in the area.

For oil leak, about three weeks ago they lifted the car and showed the oil stain/leakage to me; they identified this when replacing tires. They said it was a quart lower than it should be.

I was aware that there had been oil seep issue, as told by an independent Subaru repair shop after my previous oil change there in February. Also when the Subaru repair shop changed the oil in February, they mentioned oil level was lower than it should be. So this time I figured it was probably time to fix the oil seep/leakage problem.

What is even more mysterious is…they owner of the shop said the NOISE IS GONE! The owner described what they did, but he acknowledged that he didn’t know why that made the noise disappear. He said he

  1. Removed valve cover
  2. Exposing valve train
  3. Then, the rockers moving back and forth
  4. Then, they used fingers(?) to adjust (?) the lifter (unfortunately this part I didn’t quite get it when he spoke)…and probably as oil being injected to the lifter, then the noise disappeared

He said he did have test-driven the car a few rounds before calling me yesterday; the loud noise was still there. But suddenly the noise was gone this morning after the “adjustments”. He had no idea why, and he cautioned that the noise may come back. I’ve talked to the independent subaru repair shop and the guys there said they seldom heard anything about the lifter noise problem. Just odd.

So, what I am going to do, is to go to the shop, talk to the owner, and see what is going on. Given so many surprises, I think it is fair to give him some benefits of doubts. And then drive the car a bit by myself to see if there is any difference, and take the car to the independent Subaru repair shop for another diagnosis…sigh

My wife’s Acura CL had similar issues. Sounded like a Singer sewing machine. Now I am adding 16oz of Lucas oil stabilizer with each oil change and this little engine sounds like a happy bee. Used to be able to hear the lifters for 5 or ten minutes upon engine start, now nothing. Give it a try, can’t hurt.

Something I don’t get here is how comes that [old] EJ engine would develop a supposedly “big” oil leak at mere 48K miles, which costs $1000 to fix and other problems follow.

I could get it if it was 148K miles, but 48K is “barely getting to adolescence” really.

Are you the original owner?
Was the car well-maintained before?

The only things I would imagine this car needed by this age would be:

  • one spark plugs change at 30K miles (unless Subaru changed from copper plugs to better ones since I owned the last one)
  • 1-2 brake systems flushes (judging on age, not mileage)
  • coolant flush - once again based on age
  • religious oil changes with good quality oil, since opposite design is so picky on oil quality

Owning 5 Subarus before, I really can not get it HOW this car would develop such symptoms if maintained well that early on mileage…

ADDITION: I would consider checking/replacing PCV valve as the engine might have some excessive gas pressure in crankcase

Yes I am the original owner, performing the maintenance as scheduled at 3,750, 7500, 15,000, 22,500…etc (for most of them I don’t even remember doing; these are totally based on the invoices).

For oil change, the first was at 3,750 miles, then every 6,000 miles afterwards. The most recent two are roughly 3,500 (10 months no change…so I did it anyway) and 4,000 miles, though.

Should I keep changing oil every 6,000 miles (that’s what an independent subaru repair shop told me), or make it shorter like every 4,000 miles? If for the next 10 month I have only driven 3,000 miles, should the oil be changed too?

Thanks for advice ,


I changed the valve cover gaskets on my own car, and it was cheap & easy - cost less than $50.

BUT, your timing belt cover gasket should NOT be leaking oil, because… THERE AIN’T NO OIL IN THE TIMING BELT area. If perchance there’s oil coming from out of there, then it’s from the main crankshaft seal, and/or camshaft seals. To fix that, the timing belt must be removed in order to change those seals, and then a NEW timing belt installed. That in & of itself would explain to me why they charged you $1000.

BUT, they could have very easily squeezed some oil at the timing belt cover, showed you “oh look, here’s the leak, blahblahblah”, convinced you that it will cost $1000 to fix, then made off like the thieves they are.

Timing belt covers are good for one thing only: protecting the timing belt in case there’s any road debris that gets kicked up during driving, and also for protecting the rest of the engine bay in case the timing belt breaks. That’s it. No oil involved. Well, there shouldn’t be. From my point-of-view: Timing Belt Cover Gasket? What’s that for? Nothing. you don’t even need a gasket for the Timing Belt Cover.

So, most of your oil leakage was coming from the Valve Cover gaskets leaking oil. Most new motors have what’s called “Spark Plug Wells”, that is a deep recess down into the cylinder heads of the motor where the Spark Plugs mount. These deep recesses will occasionally fill with oil IF the Valve Cover Gaskets fail. Each Spark Plug Well is sealed with these round donut-hole gaskets - considered a part of the Valve Cover Gasket set. When the Valve Cover Gaskets are changed, those donut-hole round gaskets should ALSO be changed. BUT also if there’s any oil down in the Spark Plug Well, that oil MUST also be removed so as to not cause the spark plugs to fail prematurely. These are things you need to know to ensure no mechanic rips you off or does a poor job.

I had this very issue with my Valve Covers. When I discovered there was oil down inside the Spark Plug Wells, I used paper towels folded up and a long screwdriver to forced them down into the wells, to soak up all that oil. Then fish it out with the screwdriver and needle-nose pliers. It was a huge mess, BUT afterwards I then was able to change the Spark Plugs. When I got them out I noticed there was dark scorching burns all around the ceramic insulators on each spark plug. A telltale sign they were shorting out from the presence of the oil.

You should have your spark plugs checked for those very same issues.

As for oil changes, you should always stick with the tried & true method all mechanics go by:

  • IF the oil is standard petroleum oil - change the oil every 3,000 miles - religiously.
  • IF the oil is Synthetic oil - go by that oil brand’s recommendation.

Hope this helps.

I’m doing my own oil changes and I’ve been sticking to 5,000 miles interval, rounding to the multiples of 5 (i.e. 50K, 55K, etc…), in this case I’m not forgetting about it :slight_smile:

from my Subaru experience, their 7,500 miles recommendation is an overstretch, especially since you drive 8,000 per year, which likely calls for oil change by the time, not mileage

for Subarus, Valvoline SyperSyn was working the best for me, as it has less volatility/evaporation than other brands for synthetic from Walmart aisle (quite important for opposite engines, especially prone to oil burning as Subaru). Valvoline also seem to keep viscosity better than Pennzoil or Castrol… but I was not doing a scientific study, mostly based my assumptions of “The Motor Oil Bible” at the time, then checked the actual specs from Mobil/Valvoline

if I’m not mistaken, your engine is EJ, so it would have 5W30 listed as “recommended”, 10W30 as “can use”

since other people here recommended thickening your oil either with straight SAE30 or with Lucas additive, I would recommend going 10W30 as it has thicker base stock and less thickener, so it is supposed to keep more stable thickness over time, once again, from my experience EJ likes Valvoline more than other brands you get off Walmart aisle, and I would strongly recommend going synthetic or at least a blend.

My guess, the shop is correct, this is just a coincidence. A noisy lifter does indeed make a sewing machine sound. And on some engines they can be adjusted to make the noise go away or at least reduced. That’s called “adjusting the valves”. I’ve heard of mechanics debating for hours whether valves should be adjusted with the engine cold or warm or even while the engine running! I think I even recall Tommy (of Car Talk radio program) saying one of his old cars had to be adjusted with the engine running for it to work. So nothing new about what they are telling you.

If there was any fault that could have caused this, it would most likely be running the engine with not enough oil. One quart down wouldn’t cause it, but two quarts down might if run long enough that way, and three quarts down could cause that type of problem very quickly. Cross your fingers it isn’t that. B.c if it is, more problems are on the way.

fyi, the “lifter” is what pushes the valves open, pushing against a spring action. There shouldn’t be much distance between the lifter and what it pushes against when it isn’t pushing. If that distance becomes too great when it engages with the valve mechanism to push the valve open, it will make a clicking or banging sound. Minimizing that distance is what happens during a valve adjustment.

Beyond that, manufactures these days are trying to get the best mpgs out of their engines possible. And they make some compromises to do that, which could contribute to this problem. Advice is to follow the manufacture’s oil change interval recommendation or better than that, and use the exact oil they specify. Make sure to use the correct maintenance schedule. For most drivers who use the vehicle for a lot of short trips, it is the “severe” use schedule. Best of luck.

AFAIK Subaru’s EJ25 has fixed lifters, not hydraulic-adjusted:

I can not imagine this is something to “fix” here easily, without removing camshafts and getting valve-caps of different size, presumably from the dealer

Wow…thanks so much…I really wished that I had known this forum before going to any repair shop (my cousin directed me here after he saw my post somewhere else)

Thank you folks again - you guys are the best, and I think it is time for me to understand better about my car, not just rely on online reviews from Yelp or Google- those who want to rip you off can still tactically earn good reviews from their customers…

Nobody recommends 3,000 mile oil changes anymore (except perhaps for vehicles that would qualify as “severe duty”) other than Jiffy Lube type places that recommend it to pad their bottom line more. Synthetic vs standard follow the instructions in the owners manual, same with the amount miles/time between oil changes. 5,000 miles is more of a “standard” distance.

the “nobody recommends anymore” comes from other Subaru and Forester owners, and most mechanics I know. They are always repairing motors from owners who relied upon the 5000 or more mileage oil change plan. Car makers have always recommended for over 40 years to change your oil every 3000 miles. That, from my point of view, is a good plan, especially considering how cheap standard oil is. So go ahead and don’t listen to me, wait 10,000 miles before changing your oil. Then, when you have your car towed into a repair shop because it just won’t run, you can tell your mechanic why you decided your $40,000 car really wasn’t worth doing a $50 oil change on.

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We’ve discussed this many times, and in my opinion . . . not to mention several of the regulars . . . a significant percentage of vehicles fall into the severe usage category

All of our fleet vehicles fall into that category

And many regular vehicles also fall into that category, due to short trips, stop-and-go driving, extended idle time, etc.

According to Subaru, that also includes any country, coast or winter driving.

Which probably includes 90% of us.

I compromise and go with 5k mile intervals.

To each their own. I haven’t had a problem with 5,000 mile intervals with any of my vehicles using synthetic in my Focus and dino in my minivan (and trust me, the minivan will fall apart from rust long before the engine croaks)

And oil technology has made tremendous strides over the past 40 years…I wouldn’t use 40 year old oil in anything except an old lawn mower

Again, I use 5,000. If I had a European spec car with the larger sump and using European spec full synthetic, I would consider pushing to 10,000 miles (though I would probably go no further than 7,500)

I did acknowledge that above, though I probably didn’t make it clear enough. And I certainly would expect all fleet vehicles to classify under severe duty. We’re lucky, we live on the side of a smaller mountain outside of town, so any driving we do won’t qualify as a short trip! (now in the winter I definitely question that luck at times…)

I was going to make a suggestion based on the assumption that this engine used hydraulic lifters but they are fixed so it wouldn’t apply to this engine. Fixed lifters seem more common on Japanese cars for some reasons and there are pros and cons to each design.

Hydraulic lifters are great if the oil is changed regularly. One of the first things you notice about an engine that has been neglected on oil changes is that sewing machine tick of lifters that aren’t working properly. You can often free these up without any disassembly simply by changing the oil frequently. Some additives such as Seafoam and Marvel Mystery Oil can help with this as well but you have to be careful as to not clean out too much gunk at once with these, especially on a neglected engine. Basically, the dirty oil plugs the tiny passages and check valves in the lifters and prevents them from filling and adjusting as they should.

Another thing you might consider is looking into Subaru forums about this engine. People will know all the problems it might have and should have suggestions for you. Something else I have seen Subaru owners do is run Rotella T6 5W40 synthetic oil in their engines. Look this up on the forums and see if they suggest it for your engine. I personally run this oil in all my outdoor lawn equipment and it does great. This is a diesel rated oil so has lots of extra detergents to help clean things out. A couple of my riding mower engines came to me with clicky lifters (yes, they are hydraulic which isn’t common on mowers) and were burning noticeable oil with clouds of smoke under load. These were commercial grade Kohler Command engines that had obviously been seriously neglected. I changed to the Rotella T6 based on a recommendation from others and ran them a few hours. The lifter tick went away and the oil burning STOPPED. I can now go an entire season without adding a drop of oil. The first change with the new oil was really dirty so I changed it again and it has remained clean-looking for the entire season after that. I change it once a year no matter what. Again, the Subaru isn’t a hydraulic lifter type system but there is nothing wrong with keeping the engine clean and the oil I mentioned is liked by the owners of some Subarus. Look into it before changing and make your own decision.

So not true. Oil is a dielectric. Air needs about 20kV to arc one inch, oil needs about 150kV to ark one inch. Oil in the spark plug wells does not do any damage at all. The brown deposits come from oil breaking down near the base of the ceramic.

Ceramic is a very good dielectric as well as a good thermal insulator. The iron head of the spark plug is a good thermal conductor and gets very hot due to the combustion process. The oil at the junction between the ceramic and the iron gets much hotter than it can handle so it begins the coking process, turning from oil to graphite or carbon and it accumulates around the base of the ceramic.

But the spark plug well seals should be replaced if they are leaking as the oil does much more good in the engine than in the spark plug wells.

Subaru Forrester’s started using a timing chain for MY 2011 instead of a belt. Timing chains require some oil so it is entirely possible that the timing chain cover was leaking, but I am not sure that it was the gasket, it could have been the front seal which in many cases can be replaced without removing the cover.

If the mechanic checked the valve lash, he would have used a “feeler gauge” aka feelers, not fingers. I think you mis-heard that.

But in my not so humble opinion, the noise was probably not due to valve lash but due to the timing chain tensioner. If the old gasket had to be scrapped off, a piece could have gotten into position to interfere with the operation of the tensioner. If the noise is gone, the piece may have flushed out by now and I would not worry about it.

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