Dear Car Talk:
I have a ’95 Chevy Corsica that I have driven for 21 years. It’s been a pretty problem-free car. About a year ago, my heater quit working, and then, about six months later, I finally had it checked.
Turns out I have a cracked head. My mechanic said to put in Stop Leak, keep the radiator full of coolant and drive till it dies!
What will the car do when it fails? Will it stop suddenly in traffic, or will I have time to pull over? I am 81 years old and don’t like surprises. I could sure use your help. I have been a fan of Car Talk for years. Thanks. — Trava
I think your mechanic gave you the right advice, Trava. The only thing he failed to do was pin a Purple Heart on you for driving this thing for 21 years.
Stop Leak or Bar’s Leak may or may not help. But for $10, or whatever a bottle of the stuff costs, it’s worth a try in your case.
The key is to keep an eye on the coolant level. With a cracked head, coolant will definitely leak into the cylinders and get burned up and sent out the tailpipe. What you need to know is how quickly you’re burning it.
I’d have your mechanic add the Stop Leak for you and then top up your coolant. While you’re there, he can show you how to check the coolant level correctly when the engine is cold.
Then, buy yourself a notebook and make a list of cars you’d like to test drive next. No, use the notebook to keep track of your coolant loss. After a couple of days, check the coolant again, see how much you have to add, and make a note.
Do that for a few weeks or a month, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how fast your coolant is disappearing and how often you need to add more.
The key, if you don’t like surprises, is to keep the coolant from running low. If your engine has sufficient coolant, it’s very unlikely to die on you without warning. At least because of this particular problem.
Eventually, the leak will get worse — despite a third or fourth bottle of Stop Leak. And at some point, you just won’t be able to keep up with it without strapping a 55 gallon drum of Prestone to the roof and running an IV line to your radiator. That’ll be your clue that time’s up.
Even if it does get dramatically worse suddenly, you’ll probably get a warning. One warning is the one you’ve already had. If there’s not enough coolant in the system to reach the heater core, you won’t get any heat. Of course, that clue won’t help you in the summer.
After that, when the car starts to overheat, you should get a dashboard warning in the form of a red light. By the time that warning light comes on, you may not have a lot of time. If the engine is over-heating badly enough, it could seize and leave you stranded.
So, once you see that dashboard light, you’ll want to act quickly and find a safe place to pull over and stop. Preferably the parking lot of a used car dealer. Good luck, Trava.