My plastic radiator blew in extreme stop-and-go traffic. Should I replace it with metal?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

I was in the mass exodus from Houston during Hurricane Rita when I got stuck in the slowest-moving traffic that I have ever been in. My car overheated, and the plastic side of the radiator exploded. One person told me not to get an original Volvo replacement (which will have the same plastic parts), but to get a brass radiator instead. Another friend said that that was fine, but said the brass radiators are much more expensive. This is a '91 Volvo 240 in good condition. I am planning on keeping it another three to five years. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks. -- Jim

TOM: The radiator made of brass reminds me of an old limerick about a man from Madrass. But we won't go into that, Jim.

RAY: No, we won't. You'd be hard-pressed to find a brass radiator, Jim. I suspect that your friend meant to suggest a copper radiator.

TOM: The vast majority of radiators these days have plastic exterior tanks and aluminum cores. They work great, and last a long time. In fact, the plastic completely resists corrosion and is also very lightweight. So that's what Volvo and most other manufacturers use.

RAY: You might be able to find a copper radiator for your car, but it will be a lot more expensive. And I suspect that under the circumstances you describe, a copper radiator would have exploded too.

TOM: Yeah. Something obviously went very wrong with your cooling system. The thermostat got stuck, you ran low on coolant, it was 100 degrees out, and you were in stop-and-go traffic for 26 hours. That's a recipe for serious overheating, if your cooling system is anything less than perfect. Eventually, the pressure got so high that something had to give.

RAY: So, the first thing you need to do is get your cooling system thoroughly checked out to see what's wrong with it -- in addition to the fact that you're now missing a radiator. When you figure it out, I'm sure a standard plastic radiator with an aluminum core will serve you very well for the next three to five years.

TOM: Under the extreme circumstances you were in, the only advantage a copper radiator might have provided is that it might have held on longer before exploding, Jim. And in that traffic jam, what would that have gotten you? Another quarter-mile closer to College Station?


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