CarTalk.com Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

The mystery of the disappearing oil

Hi There,

I recently bought a 2000 Altima and three weeks after I purchased it, it died. My boyfriend’s friend sells used cars and owns/runs an auto shop so we went up there to buy it since neither of us know much about cars.

When I bought it he assured me he had just done the oil and that the car was in good working condition.

Apparently it wasn’t because it broke down exactly 3 weeks after I bought it. I was driving on the highway, heard a clicking noise in the engine and started to loose power- I pulled over and it wouldn’t start or turnover, it was completely dead and completely out of oil.

I spend $300 to have it towed back to the shop and now, a week later, he can’t give me a straight answer as to how this happened.

I specifically asked him twice if he did the oil and he assured me that he had. I owned the car for a total of 21 days and I drove less than 1000 miles, the oil light never came on, there was no oil leaking out that I could see (and I park in the same spot everyday), and there was no smoke or burning smell when I drove. Is there any possible way the oil disappeared or did he just fail to fill it up?

I am completely annoyed, he is claiming I should have checked the oil but I’ve owned a few cars and have never had to change the oil every 3 weeks. He still claims that he filled it up with oil but if that’s really the case shouldn’t a mechanic be able to tell me how the oil magically disappeared from the tank?

How does a full tank of oil disappear? Or was there never any oil to begin with?

Any ideas?

There had to be oil in it at first because it would never have made it 1000 miles otherwise. It would have died in just a few miles.

With no leaks and assuming there was oil in it, there are only 2 places for oil to go.
One is past the valve seals and the other is past the piston rings; or both.
It may not show much smoke because it is being caught by the catalytic converter.

As to the oil light not being on you might consider this. Turn the key to the RUN position and make sure the light actually works. If it does not work then an examination of why it doesn’t needs to be done. If the bulb has been removed or the wire lead at the sending unit disconnected then you know this was intentional and you’re dealing with a crook.

Sorry to hear of your car problems but at this point you can’t really lay the blame on the guy selling the car. Odds are he picked this car up from who knows where, did an oil change or whatever, and may not have known the car was even an oil consumer.
This is the danger in buying a used car without an inspection first and even an inspection is no guarantee of zero problems.
If the oil light has been sabotaged then the suspicion level needs to go way up.

It either leaked out or got burned. Or it got left almost empty when he did the oil change. You should always always always check the fluids on any car when you take delivery, even a brand new one, and you should check them again regularly for the first few weeks. A drain plug can get left loose on even a new car.

I’m not making an excuse for him. But on any used car most states’ laws are explicit that the deal is “as-is” unless otherwise specified in writing.

Hopefully he’ll do some “good will” work for you. But he’s under no obligation to.

Sincere best.

Where’s Your Boyfriend ? He’s Probably The Reason You Bought This Car From His Friend. Why Doesn’t He Handle It For You ? Why Do You Have To Come Here For Help ?

Did you get any warning light(s) on the instrument panel prior to the engine quitting ? Just before the clicking noise a warning light should have alerted you that you had low (no) oil pressure.

I’d be interested to know if the “oil light” comes on now when you put the key in the ignition and turn it to “on”. It should always light just before the engine starts. Any way to go over and try it ? If that light was inoperative then and now you would have had no warning of imminent disaster.

What’s with your boyfriend? Used cars are usually “as is” and might not have any warranty. This boyfriend of yours might be your best hope.

CSA

You could have had a leak in oil filter. It would only have leaked when the engine was on, and therefore may not have left a puddle.

Was there any sort of warranty when you bought the car? If so, read it. If not, the situation is not good.

You took the salesperson’s word that he changed the oil. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. Maybe he changed it but didn’t fill it completely. There’s no way to know.

What is known is that you didn’t check the oil level. This is the owner’s responsibility. You don’t have to change the oil every three weeks, but you should check it periodically, especially on a car that you just bought and don’t know anything about.

Checking the oil could have saved you a lot of trouble and expense. Good luck.

Any used car is an “iffy” proposition in terms of reliability.

A 10 year old used car is even more of an “iffy” proposition.

Buying a car that did not come with full maintenance records increases the “iffyness” of that car.

Not having the car inspected by a mechanic of your own choosing vastly increases the chance of getting a 10 year old car that is riddled with problems.

Not checking the oil on a car whose rate of oil consumption is a total unknown moves the entire situation into the highly risky category.

Unfortunately, I think that the OP–unwittingly–stumbled into the perfect storm, so to speak, for disaster with a used car. While I certainly do not blame her for her apparent naivete and her total trust, these qualities helped to put her in the situation that she currently finds herself in.

When someone buys a car–even a brand new car–it is very important to monitor the level of the motor oil very frequently in order to be sure that it isn’t consuming oil at an alarming rate. If the OP, or her boyfriend, had bothered to check the dipstick even as late as a week or two after purchasing the car, the ever-shrinking oil level could have been caught in time to avoid disaster. Once someone knows the typical rate of oil consumption of an engine, then it is safe to check it on a less frequent basis.

So–unfortunately, this car was probably not maintained well over its preceding 10 years (and unknown odometer mileage), and it probably has a very high rate of oil consumption due to poor maintenance and/or possible internal defects. None of the self-defense strategies that we always suggest on this site were used. And, now we see the result of these situations coming together.

I sincerely hope that the boyfriend’s friend will come to the OP’s assistance with the needed repairs–which likely means obtaining and installing a used engine. However, before the OP invests any additional money in this car, she should have it towed to a mechanic of her choice to determine the actual condition of the engine and the transmission.

If the engine was so poorly maintained that it is a massive oil burner, it is a sure bet that the transmission fluid was never changed. On a 10 year old car, an un-maintained transmission can be counted upon to fail very soon, and the cost of that repair, coupled with whatever she will have to pay for engine overhaul/replacement would make this car worthy of sending it to a junkyard.

Sorry for the bad news!

Your car was 10 years old when you bought it. After any oil change I check the oil a couple of times over the next few days to be sure there are no leaks. Since this is a “new” and unknown car to you; it is a good idea to check the oil every week or so to see if this car uses oil.

You can burn oil with seeing blue smoke as you are driving. The smoke dissapates before you can see it from the rear view mirror. I agree the car should not have lost all the oil in 1000 miles and 21 days. But, there was oil in the motor after the oil change or you couldn’t have driven it for 1000 miles or 21 days.

Where did the oil go? Out the tailpipe as burned oil perhaps. A leak at the oil filter only looses oil when the car is running so it could be a defective oil filter or the filter was not tightened properly, or the old gasket from a previous filter was stuck onto the filter housing. The drain plug could be stripped or needed a new gasket and had a slow leak, but this should have left spotting where you park.

There was a mistake in the oil change or the car has an old tired engine that burns oil. Either way it is the final responsibility of the owner to know how to pop the hood, pull the dipstick and check the oil level.

Your 2000 Altima is now in need of a new motor. At some point you have to move into dealing with that. Why it needs a new motor is a shared responsibility. Perhaps you can work a deal with the shop to put in another motor without a labor charge.

I would tend to suspect that the oil drain plug vibrated loose. My Nissan van had this problem and I was fortunate to notice it dripping on the driveway, before it fell out. Since I’ve had it more than 100k miles, I’m certain they didn’t properly tighten it after a recent oil change. (It was so loose that I could turn it easily with my fingertips! I only do oil changes now at a reputable dealer or mechanic…) It would also be possible to over tighten, thus cracking the neck and allowing the head to eventually fall off. Did you check on the oil drain plug after the disaster? That would be grounds for liability on the part of the seller or mechanic.