Timing Belt Broke two days after tune-up, Engine blown

Hey guys and gals, I’m in a big pickle!

My girlfriend bought a 2000 Ford Focus SE (SOHC) in September 2009 from a private owner (who was the son of a used car dealer, who had previously used the car to shuttle things around) for $2000.

The car had 96,000 miles, and after 2.5 years it’s at 110,000. Mostly used to toot around NYC.

It had a really low, vibrating sound in the engine that started a year ago. Two different mechanics said it was just a low idle. Three weeks ago, it wouldn’t start, so we towed it to a shop, and they replaced the fuel pump. $450.

Last week we took it to another shop because the vibrating and rumbling, as well as screeching brakes were a problem. This shop is a family business. Very nice, thorough and patient mechanics. They said the rumble was the motor and transmission mounts, and the misfiring could be solved with a tune-up. All told, new front brake pads, new rotors, motor mount, transmission mount, Pcv valve. $900.

Got the car back, things were good. Three days later, leaving a grocery store with Super Bowl provisions, the car stalls while pulling out. I crank the engine, and it sounds like there’s a wrench knocking around in the engine. Got the car towed back to these mechanics, and a day later they call to tell me the timing belt broke, and the pistons, valves, and rods in the engine were irreparably damaged. Essentially, I have a blown engine. They said that when they opened it up they could tell the timing belt had never been changed.

My question is, I never knew about a timing belt. I should have consulted a scheduled maintenance book for the car. But isn’t the mechanic that did the tune-up and evaluated and repaired several different systems in the car, responsible for checking the timing belt? Anyone got any advice?

Thanks in advance!

The mechanic is responsible to do the work you hired him to do. If you contracted with him to replace the belt, he should have done that. You didn’t hire him for that.

There is no such thing as “check the timing belt”. One does not dismantle a car’s engine to check anything. You should have consulted the maintenance schedule, as you’ve said. I think you’ll find the belt’s replacement was long overdue on both mileage and years in service.

Sorry, but this one is on you. The responsibility is yours alone. Start looking for a replacement junkyard engine.

“isn’t the mechanic that did the tune-up and evaluated and repaired several different systems in the car, responsible for checking the timing belt?”

Only if you told him that you wanted the timing belt checked, and even then–a visual inspection is essentially useless. A timing belt can look fine, and can snap–literally–5 minutes later. That is why they are supposed to be changed proactively on a specific schedule. In this case of this sad car, that would have been about 4 years ago. It was slightly overdue when the car was bought, and–unfortunately–lack of attention to what needed to be done for another 3 years put the nails in the coffin for this engine.

Asking for a “tune-up” (whatever that general term might have meant) and then blaming the mechanic for a subsequently broken timing belt is the automotive equivalent of getting a tooth filled today, and then blaming the dentist when it turns out two days later that you have colon cancer. Colonoscopies–like timing belt replacements–are supposed to be done proactively, but the patient has to be the one to take the initiative to have the procedure done. Ergo–one health care procedure has nothing to do with the other, and the “tune-up” had nothing to do with the failed timing belt.

Unfortunately, if you want to see who is responsible for this mishap, you and your girlfriend should look in the mirror. This was a failure of personal responsibility on the part of the both of you, and is not the fault of the mechanic.

In the future, get into the habit of following the maintenance schedule that comes with the car, usually in the Owner’s Manual. And, if you buy a used car that does not have the manual/maintenance schedule, this is a perfect example of why a car owner needs to obtain one.


The car was overdue for a new timing belt the day you bought it. A new belt would have cost about $500 to $800. More likely the higher number in NYC. If told; would you have spent another $800 on a $2000 car?

It would have been nice if some mechanic along the way had brought up the timing belt and suggested it be changed. Mechanics are busy and often deal with the issues presented to them. Going over the maintenance history takes time and many owner’s just don’t want to hear about spending more money on a car that is running. In the end, no responsibility falls on the mechanics, at least in a legal sense.

For NYC it seems the last mechanic did good work at a fair price. Brakes, rotors, and motor mounts can all be used in the car if you decide to find a used motor. The question then is will you have a new timing belt put in this used motor? Decisions, decisions.

Interference engines are a real hassle and there is honestly no reason for manufacturers to not dimple pistons to “bullet proof” the engine. And to add insult to injury the manufacturer can quote the page, paragraph and line where they “recommend” timing belt replacement at some specific mileage. That’s B-S. Has anyone ever replaced a jumped timing chain on a small block Chevy or Winsor Ford and when the job was complete the engine would not start because the valves were bent.

"The question then is will you have a new timing belt put in this used motor?

Uncle Turbo makes an excellent point.
The best way to deal with the self-destructed engine is to obtain a decent junkyard engine as a replacement. However, unless you have the timing belt changed on that replacement engine, you will likely just repeat the very expensive mistake that you made with the first engine.

But isn’t the mechanic that did the tune-up and evaluated and repaired several different systems in the car, responsible for checking the timing belt

Absolutely NOT. Do you have any idea how much work it takes to just check a timing belt?? On many vehicles the hardest part of replacing the belt is just getting to it. So you expect a mechanic to spend a couple of hours every time a car comes in to check the timing belt??? REALLY???

Timing belts have a set schedule for replacement. It’s usually around 100k miles/or 8 years (which ever comes first). You NEED to know this when you buy a car.

I’m afraid I agree with the crowd. It would have been nice if the mechanic thought to remind you that possibly the timing belt needed to be replaced, but that wasn’t his responsibility. It had nothing to do with the issues you had them work on.

I have to agree with Rod Knox here and will go even further than he did. There is no good reason that timing belts should exist at all. The engineer who came up with this “planned obsolescence” should be drawn and quartered. Having said that, the best advice I can give you is to always check your owners manual when you purchase any vehicle. It can save you a lot of time and money.

CHEAP IS EXPENSIVE, as my mother always says. Back in the day, my cuz got a Dodge Avenger as his first car. It has the V6, and timing belt. One day he was driving it home from school, and he heard a high pitched squeal… Kept driving… Then the motor stopped… Turns out the water pump seized and took out the timing belt at the same time, the belt was WAY over due for replacement and the pump should have been done there. He replaced that Avenger with another, and you would think his FIRST STOP would have been to replace the belt… NOPE, a year later it happened again… CHEAP IS EXPENSIVE !! IF you get a new motor before it is installed (because its way easier) have a new belt and water pump installed.

Unless they have pulled the head, stating that the engine is trashed is just an assumption. Since the belt failed at low RPM, it is likely that the damage is restricted to the cylinder head, IE bent valves…This is repairable, the solution is to install a rebuilt head or have your head rebuilt.

The problem is the cost of doing this…But you are already in pretty deep with this car, so I would at least pay to have the head removed to ascertain the true extent of the damage…Otherwise you will have to sell it as a “tow-a-way”…

As a sidebar, the rubber timing belt has not worked out for auto-manufacturers and most of them no longer use this design…If they DO use it, they design it so there is no valve interference with the pistons should the belt break. No engine damage results…As you can imagine, the demand for used engines like yours is GREAT so prices will be high…

Nope, the mechanic is in no way responsible for what happened. Consider it a cheap education. Learn from it that when you buy a used car you need to (1) review the owner’s manual and (2) get all the required maintenance up to date.

Based on your description, and assuming that “they opened it up” means they popped the head, I see no reason to doubt what they told you. Perhaps your most cost effective solution would be to seek a boneyard replacement motor.

Sincere best.

The mechanic is not responsible for this but the point could be made that it would be a good idea for the mechanic to bring the timing belt issue to your attention when servicing the car. This could prevent what happened and also generate some additional work for the shop.

The problem with recommendations is that too many people are willing to dump on a mechanic for even suggesting repairs other than what is asked for.

Everyone, thanks a lot for the response. I guess I learned a really big lesson. Glad I didn’t blow my top at service shop!

I had no idea that timing belts were so crucial, and that they could wreak disaster if not tended to. I just talked to the mechanic, and he said that it would be $500 to pull the heads and really evaluate what’s going on. And that’s before rebuilding it, putting in a new water pump and timing belt, and putting it back in. Bought the car for $2000, and have already spent another $1800 in repairs since my gf bought it. All told, I’m guessing it could be another $1500 -$3000 to get things back to normal, new or old engine. Hopefully I’m as wrong about the price as I was for blaming the mechanic…

You were all very helpful, what a great community here.

He should be able to pull the spark plugs and take a look inside to see if the pistons/cyl wall are destroyed. Many shops have a small camara just for that job, but on your motor I think you can get a lgood look with the naked eye. Most likley you bent the valves and a new/used/reman head will get you back on the road, NOT a whole new motor…

Bent valves would be obvious with a pressure gage. I thought of a borescope too, but in truth the questions is would the cost of pulling and remorking the head would be justified on a 12 year old NYC Focus…even if the pistin tops weren’t dinged.

MT: I guess that all depends on the amount of money in the OP’s pocket… I am a big beliver in the devil you know is better then the devil you dont. Since everything else on the car is known good, fixing it and knowing that also is new, maybe a better bet then buying another $2000 hoopty…

Is it a 4 cylinder or a V6?? Most Focus that year were 4 cylinder cars, but there was a V6 option. They also used 4 different 4 cylinders…Do you know which engine option is in your car? There is a label under the hood…

Caddyman: 6 Cyl Focus?? Not in the states. I think you are thinking Ford Contour?

My error, I was thinking about a different vehicle…But this did come up…As near as I can tell, the SOHC engine is NOT an interference engine… The DOHC engine is…The OP will need to clarify that…

The books says to “inspect the belt at 120K miles and replace as needed”…

I would VERIFY that the Gates book is correct and that it’s the SOHC engine…If so, I would install a new belt and see what happens…

There is another thread running now, “maintenance while the head is off?” I think these are the same engines…