Pay for service today, not a new engine tomorrow, advises Jack Biddle.
We have talked about the benefits of regular oil and filter changes in past columns but sometimes people have to view the engine damage created from lack of service to become a firm believer.
A regular Driven reader is a good example. At his local garage recently he was shown the remains of an engine that had a seized camshaft.
Several things about this failure raised his eyebrows. First was the condition of the oil, the reasonably low odometer reading of the vehicle, and the fact it was a Toyota (used import mid-2000 Alphard) that had travelled fewer than 140,000km.
He described the oil condition as being glazed and hard, which had eventually caused a blockage in the lubrication channels feeding the camshaft. End result was the camshaft seizing, in turn completely destroying the engine. The most cost effective repair involved fitting a second-hand engine — estimated to cost in excess of $3000.
The engine oil had been changed approximately 5000km earlier as part of the conditions of the warranty the owner took at the time of purchase.
So you get the picture; a trusted brand of vehicle, a recent oil change and a busted engine.
It didn’t make a lot of sense to our reader who wondered how and why this had happened.
First, this has nothing to do with the brand of vehicle. This is, I strongly suspect, a classic case of a vehicle that has a very poor past service history or — highly likely — no service history at all.
I have seen this type of engine failure on a number of different makes and models. Mainly on used imports, but to be fair, also on the odd vehicle registered new in New Zealand.
Engine oil will deteriorate over time and if left long enough will eventually solidify and turn to sludge as moisture and contaminates build up.
Oil also acts as a coolant but when sludge is formed, heat will be retained, which can eventually give the oil a burned-like impression. Lots of short and cold running can also contribute to oil degradation, which means it never pays to assume a vehicle with a low odometer reading has an engine in perfect condition.
In most cases, oil sludge will start to form first in the top part of the engine (where the camshaft is located in modern engines) and/or in the sump.
Once there is a heavy build-up of engine sludge, no amount of oil changes will improve the situation. In fact it could make it worse as this is when oil galleries or oil strainers can get blocked due to the breakdown of the sludge.
So how do you know the real condition of your engine, especially if you recently purchased and the past service history is vague or unknown?
The best way is to remove the top engine cover to expose the camshaft and the surrounding oil. It can be fiddly and messy however, and new gaskets or sealant will be required on reassembly so not a five-minute job and one maybe left to experts.
The no-cost anyone-can-do-it alternative is to shine a light inside the camshaft cover through the oil filler cap opening (engine off) to check for a build-up of sludge.
Some owners also get lucky at times. The oil pressure warning light will come on to warn of a problem. The unlucky ones are when the engine simply expires completely without warning.
So, it does pay to continue with regular servicing during ownership and never assume one brand of vehicle is bullet-proof.