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Head Gasket? Radiator?

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lonedad | 18:50 Sat 01st Sep 2012 | Cars
32 Answers
Apologies in advance for the long post

Hi, Ive had my Primera 2.0 SVE for just over a month now. Its a 2004 plate with 86k on the clock and a FSH. About 6 weeks ago my car was in the garage having the wheels realigned and a new tyre fitted. When I collected the car, the mechanic told me that it was overheating and in the red. I opened the bonnet to see that the coolant resevoir was dry as a bone. When I bought the car there was a max of coolant in the tank so this had emptied in two weeks. There was also a burning smell, I cant really describe the smell. I just smells like burning. Its not a sweet smell, if anything it smells like exhaust perhaps but from the engine.

I took the car to Halfords for a pressure test. No leaks were found. They then performed a sniff test on my coolant which showed nothing out of the ordinary. There is dripping from the exhaust but they say its nothing to worry about, there is also no coolant smell or dry white residue on the exhaust. I was told there were intermittent air bubbles running up to the opened radiator cap when they first tested but I was told these bubbles weren't consistent with a head gasket failure as it wasn't consistent. The mechanic said he felt it could be an air pocket so suggested that I emptied and flushed the coolant system. I agreed to do that but then asked them to do it. They say they've seen no air bubbles since the flush. He asked me to keep an eye on it and if it drops again then I should bring it back.

Since Halfords things were ok at the start. At first I had to top up every now and then but I put this down to Halfords not being able to fill up to the max with the engine being warm. Last weekend I didnt need to top up the coolant. I did about 40 miles. Some trips were a total of 4 miles from start up to switch off but I did also make the occassional 1 mile trip too. There was no drop in coolant levels from AM on bank holiday Friday to Tuesday, so about 4 days in total.

I had to top up the coolant in the bottle on Wednesday (1/2 litre) and decided to check the radiator level too. Upon releasing the radiator cap I noticed cloudy water. I dropped a finger in and it had a very greasy texture. The anti freeze in the bottle wasnt affected though and the oil is clear too. I drove my car home and when I got out the car I noticed drips coming from under the car. Under the car is a metal panel which is immeadiatly below the radiator. This is heavily corroded and the water was coming from there. I wasnt sure whether this was a pipe or the radiator. I also noticed that there was now no sign of any oil in the radiator at all and by touching the coolant between my fingers, it does not feel greasy. The dripping carried on right up to PM yesterday although it was not dripping as bad last night. All the levels are correct and now the dripping has stopped (just when I took it to another garage to have a mechanic check it out). He noticed the wetness around the radiator and said it was near a pipe that went into it but confirmed he couldnt see a leak. Ive just driven it 5 miles and there is no water dripping anymore and the coolant level is on the max. What is going on with this car!?

So all in all I have the following:

Loss of coolant about 1/2 ltr per day
Strange leak coming from under radiator/pipe that stops at will
Pressure test done on car with no leaks found
Sniff test done on coolant which showed no adverse signs
Exhaust emissions tested, normal
No smell of coolant in the car, engine or exhaust
Burning rubber/exhaust smell from engine when running
Exhaust dribbles warm clear water with black residue at times
No signs of oil in coolant or vice versa
Signs of oil/thick black mess around the engine block where I believe the seal of the head/head gasket is
No oil loss
No wet patches in footwell
Car runs smooth with no misfire or noises.
Temp gauge below mid range
Overheated once that I know of

Has anyone got any ideas?


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Question Author
I should add, its petrol
why are you driving such short distances in the car to test it?
Check that the core plugs on the cylinder head are not weeping ( leaking ). best to do this with the engine running at normal temperature.
Question Author
Dotty, I have only driven it short distances because Ive not needed to go far at the moment. Im also worried about getting stranded as I have a 5 year old who always comes with me.

tonyav, Im not much of an under the bonnet person. Where would I find the core plugs and how would I check them?
Look at both ends of the cylinder head ( that is where they usually are on most cars, although they could also be on the front or the back ). The core plugs are usually about the size of a 10 pence piece and are pressed into the cylinder head.
I would advise against unnecessarily topping up the coolant level – it is easy to unknowingly overfill the system – which will have some vent route of automatically ejecting the excess (this residue may be what you are observing).

It is possible that the electric thermostat (that controls the radiator fan) suffered an intermittent failure at the tyre fitters (which caused the overheat there) – or it may have failed completely.

The radiator fan on my old Ford would only ever come on when I had been in slow moving traffic for some considerable time. The normal airflow through the radiator due to the forward motion of the car was enough to keep the engine/radiator at normal operating temperature. I recall on the few occasions when I was stuck in traffic watching the temperature gauge climb until it hit the ¾ mark before the fan would cut in and bring the gauge back to mid point.

Next time you take the vehicle for a run, at your destination allow the engine to run (on idle) for at least 10 minutes (with no cabin airflow) and observe the temperature gauge and look to see if the radiator fan is running. Check that the vehicle does not overheat without any forced airflow (due to vehicle movement) which will either prove or eliminate my theory re a faulty fan thermostat.
Question Author
I havent been able to locate anything that youve just described, sorry.

I just went to take the car out for a long drive (just did 20 odd miles on the M42). Before I went out I checked the coolant level which was at the max and also released the radiator cap to check that too. When I released the rad cap I noticed the water to be very dirty, perhaps slightly greasy. The dripping under the car reappeared but with an added drip from just in front of the front n/side wheel arch...Ive not seen that leak before. I ran the car without the coolant bottle cap and radiator cap on to check for air bubbles, no were present. The bottle levels remained constant with no air bubbles and the radiator level rose to the brim which shows that its acting as it should. I replaced the caps and drove off. It was smooth and the car responded exactly how it should. After arriving back, I checked the leak from the rad with the engine running and then with it switched off the and dripping had already stopped. The coolant levels remained the same.

I have just taken some pictures showing the two leaks, the corrosion and something ive just noticed whilst using the flash. Is there a way to upload the photos onto here?

Im not sure this is related but the steering often whines when I turning the wheel. Ive heard I just need to bleed the system by releasing the power steering fluid tank and turning full lock either side 10 times. I just thought Id throw that in just in case its related to this.
Question Author
Hi Hymie, Ive done exactly what youve suggested and the fan always kicks in. The gauge never goes past just under halfway. The only time it overheated was at the garage. Since I filled it up when it was bone dry the car has kept its temp low.
I only fill the coolant back to Max when the car has been sat over night or for at least 5 hours. I overfilled a coolant bottle many years ago when I first got my licence. Lets just say you could see me from 2 miles away with the smoke that erupted from the car I was driving at the time!!
It is strange that you appear to have a coolant leak but nothing showed up on a system pressure test.

I have had a slow coolant leak on a vehicle where the leaked coolant created a partial vacuum within the system – preventing any further leak (unless I took the filler cap off).

Since you appear to have identified two leak locations/areas – my advice would be to try and locate the upper most location above these leaks where the area is wet (given that gravity will make water fall) – this should be somewhere close to where the coolant is escaping.

If none of the hoses are split or leaking at their union, favourite sounds like the radiator itself. But given the costs involved I would be reluctant to replace the radiator on a speculative fix.
Question Author
Thanks Hymie

Im taking it back to Halfords tomorrow as they said they will do a free retest for me. Theres 3 leaks all in all. One either side of the radiator and this new one in the nearside wheel arch. If its a pipe, wouldnt that always leak regardles of whether the engine is running or not? I should add that the leak stops within about 10 minutes of shutting the engine off
Question Author
Halfords have done the test and say its the radiator. Theyve quoted £292 which includes a flush and coolant refill
I suggest you get a quote from a local independent garage too. nearly £300 is pretty expensive to fit a rad.
Wouldn't pay that if I were you ( very expensive ) If I were you I would try and find a radiator my self ( have a look on the internet, maybe Ebay ).
Eurocar parts sell the radiator for just under £150 with free delivery.

Normally a vehicle radiator is quite easy to replace – to remove; drain the system, remove the hoses (from the radiator), remove all bolts securing the radiator.

Replacement is simply the reverse of the above.

It is advisable to have an assistant who can take the weight of the new radiator while you are fixing it in place.

Doing it yourself could save you around £150.
Question Author
I was told that was pretty standard for this car as the air con unit is fitted within the radiator so thats what the majority of the money is going to...labour. Ive had 2 quotes so far, £292 from Halfords and £350 from Hi Q
At least try putting a can of Radweld in , it can't do any harm and it might just fix it.
Question Author
Id rather just get it replaced than mess with that kind of stuff. Im not sure what the previous owner has already done as it must have been a problem when he had it.
can i just add, that the aircon unit collects condensation from within the car and leaks it onto the ground, so sometimes looks like a leak. my mondeo usually has a small pool of water under it, and my focus had a blocked tube from the aircon disharge and the water was dripping inside the car. I would be absolutely certain thats it the rad before spending money.
Question Author
Hi Percy. I just had a pressure test and they said it was the radiator. Also, I never use the air con
I can't find any information about changing the rad on a P12 primera on the primera owners club website (mainly because the don't consider the P12 as a proper primera, the P11-144 was the last "proper" one)

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