What To Do (And Not Do) When Your Car Overheats

Your car being lit isn’t the same as it being hot.

A car is overheating with smoke from the front.
Depositphotos

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A puff of white smoke, a temperature needle beginning to make its way toward the red, and there, a distinctive acrid smell of what can only be boiling coolant. And then, the needle races toward the red and that small puff of smoke becomes an impenetrable cloud. Yep, your car is overheating.

Don’t worry and don’t panic, you’re not the first person who’s had to deal with an overheating car and you won’t be the last, as even our electrified truck future requires complicated thermal management systems. Most of the issues that might occur are relatively inexpensive, but there are some outliers. 

To better understand your automobile and prepare for the event of your car overheating, The Drive’s info team is here to answer all of your burning questions and guide you through the causes of heat build-up and what you need to do to stop it. Now, let’s cool down and learn!

An engine overheating.
Depositphotos

An engine overheating. 

Why Is My Car Overheating?

Given the myriad of issues that cause a car to overheat, The Drive’s crack informational team put together a short list of the most common reasons as to why your temperature gauge now reads “Hell.” Let’s get into it. 

Bad Radiator

A coolant leak can occur when a foreign object is kicked up by the truck in front of you and penetrates the radiator. The resulting cascade of fluid will see your engine overheat, warp your heads, contaminate your oil, and leave you stranded on some lonesome highway. None of those options are good for your or your cars health 

Bad Radiator Hose

As your car ages, the plastic and rubber hoses that feed the engine its vital fluids can snap and break. You may notice a few drops of coolant on the ground that turns into a flood. Likewise, a car’s hoses are clamped down by hose clamps, little metal circles that feature some type of device to sinch them tight. They too are subject to the inevitable maw of death.

Bad Thermostat

This little part manages the flow of coolant from the radiator to and from the engine and can become stuck open or closed. Neither is a good thing for your engine and will cause it to overheat. 

Head Gasket

In the automotive lexicon, “blown head gasket” is a phrase that is about as bad as it gets for the average consumer because it typically translates into many thousands of dollars in repairs, i.e. coolant gets into the combustion chambers, your engine and wallet explode. 

Bad Radiator Fan

All cars have radiator fans that assist in cooling the car’s coolant/antifreeze. If that goes out, it can’t cool the fluid and your car will overheat. 

Reaching into that engine temp redline.
Depositphotos

Reaching into that engine temp redline.

What Do I Do When My Car Overheats?

As the brilliant Douglas Adams once wrote in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t Panic.”

Your car overheating shouldn’t propel you into a frenzied fluster, that will only make you nuts and won’t solve the underlying problem. Stay calm and pull over to the side of the road. If your A/C is on, turn it off. If you can’t pull over and stop the car, turn on the heater, as it will draw in the warm air from the engine and dispel it into the cabin. We suggest rolling down the windows at this point so you don’t overheat yourself.

Once you’re in a safe location, pop the car’s hood and allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes. You can then do a visual inspection of the engine bay to see if the overheating issue was caused by a bad hose, loss of coolant pressure, leaky radiator, or bad fan. If you can repair one of those issues with what you have in the car, do so and head to a mechanic’s to have it properly repaired. If you can’t, you’ll likely be calling a tow truck. 

What Shouldn’t I Do When My Car Overheats?

The worst thing you can do is panic or keep driving with a laissez-faire attitude hoping it will all go away. Likewise, don’t crank the A/C or put the pedal to the metal... Pull. Over. 

Dangers Of Driving With an Overheated Engine

As with any broken thing, the more you use that thing, the more it’s going to break. And at a certain point, there’s no fixing a pile of metallic shrapnel. Here’s what can happen if you keep driving while your engine is overheating.

Damage Your Radiator

Your radiator is likely already damaged, but in the early stages of overheating, it can be repaired. The more you drive on it, the more you’re likely to see burst hoses burst, failed radiator stems, and exploding cooling systems.

Damage Your Engine

Here’s where you can really be a blight on your engine, as its parts are rated to handle certain operating temperatures. If you go over those temperatures for a prolonged period of time, you’re going to find yourself with warped metal, from heads, pistons, cranks, cams, and everything in between. That leads us to the most damaged aspect of all: your wallet.

Damage Your Wallet

Yeah, you heard us. The longer you drive your overheating car, the higher your repair bill is likely going to be. Every part that fails has a cost, both in the part itself, labor, and downtime as your car sits in the mechanic’s bay. 

In Russia, car overheats you.
Depositphotos

In Russia, car overheats you. 

FAQs About an Overheating Car

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q: So How Do You Fix a Car That Overheats?

A: That all depends on what’s wrong with it. It could be any of the reasons above, each ranging in a repair price of $5 to several thousand dollars. It’s all going to come down to what’s wrong with it. 

Q: Then How Do I Diagnose an Overheating Car?

A: Luckily, a car that’s overheating is going to throw either an error code, which will tell you what’s the problem. If that doesn’t occur, a plume of steam emanating from underneath the hood is a pretty good warning that something’s failed. 

Q: Please Don’t Say It’s a Head Gasket.

A: Sorry to burst your bubble, but it might be. Here are a few symptoms of a blown head gasket, pay close attention to the last one. 

Overheating

If a head gasket blows, even slightly, the engine might overheat and damage several components. One thing you should never do when your car is overheating: Remove the radiator cap and check the coolant. That’s how you punch a one-way ticket to the ER for a scalded face.

Milky Oil

If you notice milky colors in your oil, you might have a blown gasket—the underside of your car’s oil reservoir cap will likely become splattered with the milky oil. This happens when coolant comes in contact with and contaminates the oil. 

Bubbling Inside Radiator 

If you notice bubbling inside the radiator or coolant reservoir, it’s an indication your system has air in it, which could be caused by a leaking or blown head gasket.

Q: If That’s It, Can I Fix a Blown Head Gasket?

A: Hahaha, no. A blown head gasket causes all sorts of issues downstream of the original issue and essentially means you need a new engine. You can try to prolong the car’s death, but it won’t change the, you know, deadly outcome. 

Q: How Much Does It Cost to Fix a Blown Head Gasket?

A: As you’re replacing an engine, it can cost anywhere between $1,000 for a junkyard four-cylinder to $22,000 as the author was quoted for a new engine for his 2004 Volkswagen Passat W8. Now imagine what a Bently would cost. Yikes.

Q: What About the Cost for a Leaky Radiator?

A: Do you want to do it right or just get by for the time being? Because if you purchase one of the quick-fixes, you’re out about $20-$50. To properly fix the radiator, which means replacing the unit, a new radiator can cost between $300-$1,200 depending on the car, location of the radiator, and labor. 

Q: Yeah, But There’s Still Coolant in It. What Gives?

A: It might be a stuck thermostat. The thermostat controls the coolant’s flow and can go bad over time. If it’s stuck closed, you’ll still have fluid, but it won’t be getting to the engine. 

Q: Ok, So How Long Can an Engine Run Hot Before Damage Occurs?

A: We know what you’re thinking.

Q: What?

A: That you want to see if the problem just magically disappears or wait to get it fixed. 

Q. Maybe.

A. That’s not going to work. If your car is overheating, you’ve got a serious problem that could lead to you purchasing a new engine if you’re not careful. Do you want to buy a new engine? 

Q: No.

A: Then there’s your answer. 

Sometimes You Need a Certified Mechanic

As much as The Drive loves to put the "you" in do-it-yourself, we know that not everyone has the proper tools, a safe workspace, the spare time, or the confidence to tackle major automotive repairs. Sometimes, you just need quality repair work performed by professionals you can trust like our partners, the certified mechanics at Goodyear Tire & Service.

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