For all our protestations about not wanting to live in a disposable society, there comes a time and a place to let everything go: For experts in the field with a subject in question (doctors, veterinarians or mechanics), this is a harder decision because there is often that illusive “little bit more” you can give, try or even bully out of an unwilling universe.
This is a bird’s eye view of my last six months with my husband’s 2.2L SOHC 1995 Subaru Legacy and how mechanics decide what is “reasonable” and what is not. This is also a sappy medium for me to walk you through, triaging head gaskets on a boxer motor 2.2's and 2.5’s (the problem child), respectively. We Germans are mercilessly didactic, aren’t we?
Every car reaches a point at which the money you invest in repairs exceeds the KBB, NADA, parts or sometimes even “crush value” of the car. But this is not to say that, as a shrewd (or particularly desperate) consumer, continued expenditure is always unwarranted. No one is more keenly aware of this than the individual who has invested countless hours of their time in the patient, the dog, the car. This is not to equate an inanimate object with a living, breathing, loving and sentient being, but these same living, breathing, loving and sentient beings invest time and emotion even in the inanimate.
Enter my husband. He has the misfortune of being married to a woman who has, for the past 11 years, believed that anything is possible. Pity him, really, really pity him.
At the zenith of this summer’s heat wave (a 109-degree drive home) and hopefully the nadir of my career as a mechanic, my husband phoned me from 2.2 miles away (a now poetic number) on the access road with the phrase, “So … the car overheated.” Staring mournfully at the thermometer on the back porch that read 107 F in the shade, I gave the pat instructions for turning on the heat, turning off the car and pulling off to a safe spot, and I headed out to meet him.
Subaru radiators come with a nifty little vent plug at the top because of their notorious propensity to airlocks in the cooling system and a limited number of ways for “burping” these cars without pulling more air into the system as is. As I approached the car, the sad, sweet smell of coolant wafted along the baking access road toward me. The vent plug had blown open, though the pressure cap was still in place and there were no visible hose. I gave him a lift home, leaving the car to cool since the rural routes afford you luxuries of time that other arteries and urban centers do not (all while berating myself for now being “one of those people who leave cars on the side of the road”). When I got back to the car the next morning, I inspected the hoses, radiator and head gasket seams for signs of a visible leak, topped off the radiator while cool and started the car. No knock, no whine, no smoke, no water from tailpipe and no missing cylinders. It ran almost the 2.2 miles home before beginning to overheat again, a feat I considered worthy of paying homage with at least a diagnosis.
This car, a Subaru Legacy Outback outfitted with the smaller 2.2-liter motor before the introduction of the larger cousin, the 2.5, had at the time of the overheat 245,000 miles on original motor. With the chassis being reasonably clean and straight and the interior in excellent shape, I had opted to rebuild the transmission and transfer packs as well as the ABS unit two years prior. I had decided because of apparent engine health and in a desire to preserve a new set of tires to revamp the suspension the prior year, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 book hours all told for me. This, of course, didn’t include small stuff like sensors, plug wires, coil packs, valve cover gaskets and the usual death of a thousand cuts that comes with an EconoBox more than 200K, 17 years and many New England winters old. This investment in time was combined with my husband’s sentimentality: an insidious combination.
I set about picking up a thermostat and draining, burping and refilling the cooling system. When this delightful ethylene glycol bath was finish, the car overheated again, and acquiescence began to take hold. The insidious part of having a farm in the South with plentiful barn space is the ability to “store” (read: procrastinate) large projects, like, say, a head gasket failure. I put him in a spare Volvo 240 and put the compression check on hold until I had a second set of hands. On a warm afternoon, I cranked it again and let it warm up 15-18 minutes before overheating began. So with fuel disconnected and daylight running short, a friend and I ran compression on all four cylinders. Normal. Bloody normal.
I waited and repeated on a cooler motor. Still normal. When I was running the car I noticed no heat present, which, combined with the nominal compression values, took me for a short and erroneous detour into suspect water pump land (reread what I just told you about burping these systems—I should have.) This was compounded by the fact that I had no noticeable vacuum on my oil filler neck, no coolant in the oil (the dirty-sounding “milkshake from a blown head”), and no grease, residue or bubbles in the expansion tank for the coolant. The car reached three-fourths hot, and I backed off.
But a third recheck of compression and a careful listen inside the cabin revealed a light gurgle, rather akin to someone down a hall using mouthwash. Now I had an answer: An exhaust side head gasket leak, and a careful ear on the backside of the motor let me hear it from the top as well. With exhaust gasses passing from the combustion chamber into a cooling channel, it will result in an overheat and is often vibration and speed and load dependent. Additionally, boxers can take time to fail catastrophically, as this one had. But here comes the math. With a nearly rebuilt chassis, transmission, new suspension components, brakes, rotors, tires and a reman differential—and my husband’s subtle inquiries into the status of his car—junking her wasn’t really on the table. Parting her out seemed a lot of work for what I had installed so recently (and myself), crush value was insignificant and a waste of the good components, and Craigslisting a 17-year-old Subaru with a bad motor wasn’t even going to pay for the tires.
In a lower-miles motor gasket, replacement and honing the heads would be in order and take all of a weekend of my time. But at 242,000 and a lot of cold weather driving, this motor had a significant amount of crank rattle. The crank and splitting the case wasn’t on the table when a reman or low-miles motor could be gotten and put in about the same time as head gasket replacement, without the risk of the crank coming back to haunt me in another 35K. And here is where I broke all my rules: The motor was going, one way or another, the radiator was the original and likely would be replaced along with the motor in any event, I had three other cars backlogged, giving me menacing glares, and I didn’t have time to do this.
Then a friend suggested (with a nod to how offensive it was to my tech sensibilities) throwing a bottle of Bar’s Head Gasket sealant at it. In any other case, I would have railed, lectured and promptly ordered a crate motor just to prove my purist point, but this time, I didn’t. With a radiator and heater core I was planning on replacing along with the motor, a crank that prevented me from simply resealing this engine (and three separate overheats now in her past), I succumbed to the silver and black bottle.
That was 500 miles and no overheats ago.
She is still running. It won’t last forever. It has undoubtedly clogged my radiator and heater core in some way (heat is back up, FYI). But you know what? The hubby is happy, no harm was done and it’s a reminder that pulling out all the stops and doing everything you can at the end isn’t always the right thing to do. The car has a finite lifespan just like we all do, and whether there is a motor transplant in her future or she becomes someone else’s project here in a few months isn’t for me to worry about at the moment. Sometimes, you do take the easy road, enjoy a little more time and readdress the problem when necessary.
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.