Blown Head Gasket? Symptoms and Repairs

Reader Question

My name is Melissa, and I have had some problems with my vehicle and I am trying to find an answer, or explanation about one question. I own a 1988 Ford Bronco ii, and I took it to my mechanic because it had very low oil pressure.

He said that the crankshaft, lifters, oil pump, and timing chain all needed replaced.

Well, he did the repairs, and I picked up my vehicle 3 days later. Very shortly after, the water pump started leaking. The engine (2.9) had gotten hot a few times and now my mechanic says that I have ruined a piston.

Is this possible? Or did my mechanic possibly do something that could have caused this to happen? Should a Ford Bronco ii be having these problems?

Thank You Melissa,

Hmmm, Houston we have a problem! I can see how frustrated you must be, and you’re probably out some pretty heavy cash so far. First, I would really like to know about the oil pressure.

Was it really a problem, or did the dash gauge just say it was? Just because the dash gauge (or light) is reading low oil pressure doesn’t necessarily mean that there is internal engine wear.

It could be a sending unit (which tells the gauge how much pressure there is) or a faulty gauge. Anyway, a gauge problem is relatively small compared to a piston problem.

It would be nice if you can verify you had a real oil pressure problem in the first place. Yes, all these bad things can happen…and unfortunately it looks like it happened to yours.

Next, ask yourself these questions:  Did the truck over heat after the repair was made and was not over heating before? Did you continue to drive the truck while it was over heating?

The answers to these questions will help you determine who should take responsibility for this problem. If the truck really over heated and you continued to drive it.that could be negligence on your part.

Your mechanic had to remove the water pump to do the crankshaft and timing chain job. He could have disturbed the gaskets and caused the pump to start leaking.

This outcome is fairly common when working with older cars, and performing large jobs requiring removal of parts for access. At my shop if the pump looks like it is more than 2 years old, we would have sold you a new pump when we did the crankshaft job.

There should be no extra labor charges since we already have to take it off, and replacing it along with the other repairs can save you lots of money later now.

What is wrong with the truck now? Will it run? Does the engine miss or run badly? A “bad” piston will cause the car to idle rough and run poorly. Do you have white steam coming from the tail pipe?

If the piston is bad, it can cause excess pressure to build up in the engine when it is running. This pressure can cause lots of steam out of the tailpipe if there is sufficient water in the radiator to make steam.

Here’s an easy diagnostic exercise that you can try while the engine is COLD:
Remove the radiator cap and verify that there is plenty of water in the radiator.

  1. Add water if necessary.
  2. Start the truck.
  3. Stand back and watch the radiator opening for a few seconds.

If there is internal engine damage, you could see the anti-freeze shooting out of the radiator neck. Do this only when the water and the engine are cold or you will burn yourself.

If there truly is internal damage to the motor, you really should replace the motor if you intend to keep the truck another few years.

Realizing that the mechanic already over-hauled half of the motor and you still have problems, it still might be more cost-effective in the long run to replace your motor with a rebuilt one rather than repair this damaged motor further.

Yes, you are looking at a lot more money, but in my opinion that is the only way to fix this problem correctly if it really is a “bad piston.” The engine in a Ford Bronco ii is small in size to begin with, and 14 years old, why beat a dead horse? Get another one (engine).

Now, if you are in the mood to take a gamble…here is another idea. If you do have smoke out the tail pipe, and you do have an engine miss, then you could ask your mechanic to remove the cylinder heads and have them sent out to a machine shop to check for cracks.

At that time the mechanic can look at the pistons and see if there is a problem. If he does not see a visible problem with the pistons (and to be honest they are “probably ok”) then tell him to have the cylinder heads re-surfaced and replace all valves, valve guides, and valve stem seals.

The mechanic will have to replace the head gasket when he does this job, and that is probably the problem anyway–a “blown head gasket.” This fix will “overhaul” the top half of the engine.

It will get you by and would be cheaper for you at this time, but it won’t be the best fix for an older and probably high mileage vehicle. Remember, the pistons and all the other internal parts got just as hot as the head gasket from the over heating, and will probably need to be replaced at some point.but this fix would give you the chance to start saving for the new motor or a new truck.

If you choose this alternative, ask your mechanic to cover the cost of the labor for at least half of this job. Why you ask? I suspect a leaky water pump caused your truck to over heat, and this pump probably should have been replaced at the time of the first repair.

I also feel that the mechanic should be willing to cover some of the labor cost associated with the next course of action that needs to be made. The short amount of time that has taken place and the large amount of work you just paid for should also be in your favor.

It will take him about 10-12 actual working hours to complete all of the work, so you are not really asking him to “give you money back”, but rather perform the job at a reduced rate for customer goodwill.

You will need to purchase (from the mechanic, so he at least makes a few dollars from this job) the head gasket set for this job.maybe $75, thermostat and misc. small parts $30, the radiator cleaning and the cylinder head work at the machine shop.$85 and $225 respectively.

And of course a new water pump, not rebuilt I have never had good luck with them)–$70. Once the work is completed, you will have had a valve job performed on this motor. You will be out a few hundred dollars, but at this point it might be a good option for you if you can’t afford to replace the motor at this time.

Your mechanic can remove the egg off his face due to not inspecting the job thoroughly, and you might continue to do business with him? It’s the best win/win situation for your current predicament.

Some other things the mechanic should do when performing the head gasket job:

Replace the thermostat and check inside the radiator for any corrosion buildup or blockage. Normally when we do a head gasket job we send the radiator to a radiator shop for internal cleaning. The cause of the head gasket failure was due to over heating, so anything that could improve cooling of the engine should be checked and or replaced at this time.

Head Gasket Sealers:

If you suspect you have a blown headgasket in your car you might want to try this cheap over the counter sealer first!

1. Buy a can of K&W Engine Block Sealer Additive (follow THESE instructions)

2. Drain out all old coolant/antifreeze from the engine and radiator

3. Mix the sealer and tap water together in a bucket

4. Add bucket mixture to the radiator and top off with tap water

5. Drive the vehicle for a total of 500 miles

6. Drain out the sealer water mix and refill radiator with 50/50 coolant water

If it works the repair is usually permanent!

Caution – You will not have any freeze or boil over protection during this 500 mile period so make sure to protect your radiator and engine from freezing.
We have been using that sealer like above for many many years with great success.

Think you might have a blown head gasket? Watch this short video to see.

Posted in: Over Heating

About the Author:

Austin Davis, consumer car repair advocate. "Hi there! I love to help people solve their car repair problems and I hope my site was helpful to you today. Thank you for stopping by."
  • Austin Davis


    You need to get a cooling system pressure test first before you do anything else, that should help you locate any external coolant leaks…or help determine if there is an internal leak like from a blown head gasket. If you are positive that you have an internal leak, then try using the K&W Permanent Metallic Block sealer in the hard metal can, or the newer version Nano Technology in the green plastic bottle. Success rate is about 75% or so and if it works its a permanent repair. You can drive 500 miles over the course of a few days.

    But, I’m not really convinced you have a head gasket issue just yet. Since it overheats so quickly I would look at the thermostat, radiator restriction, electric cooling fan first AFTER you have done the pressure test. Watch my overheating video for more

  • Debbie

    Hi Austin: Debbie from Canada again..there are different types of K&W sealants out there. Which one would you recommend there is K & W Permanent Metallic™ – Block Seal Head Gasket Repair 16 oz $8.99 or K&W Permanent Head Gasket and Block Repair •Features Nanotechnology
    •Fills in cracks and crevices
    •Makes a stronger, more solid bond 32oz $18.88 thanks

  • Debbie

    Hi Austin: My son has a 2004 Ford Explorer. He was leaking coolant on the driveway and found out he needed a new water pump, thermostat, a clamp and something else, I believe a cracked hose. We repaired this job just a couple of days ago when all of a sudden he started to loose his coolant again, the engine overheated. There are no signs on the ground no white smoke no antifreeze, when he added more coolant he only got around 2 blocks when the engine started to overheat and the coolant was gone. He also said there was a smell. He had 2 friends in his truck and one is a heavy duty mechanic and the other does oil changes and they checked my sons truck when it first overheated. They happened to be with him and they both said just by the symtons it was a blown gasket. My question is I see your product where does one purchase that and what is the difference between yours and STEEL SEAL that I saw on Youtube? What is your success rate with yours? I like the fact that you only add water compared to adding antifreeze right away. Do you have to drive the 500 miles all in one day or do you bring water with you in case this doesn’t fix the problem and engine overheats? A mother with lots of questions for you from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada

  • Austin Davis

    Thanks John!

  • John Nelson

    I like your website. No bull..just good advice. Thanks, JOHN