What caused Beatrice's Camry to explode?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1999 Camry CE that is maintained on a regular basis. Since I am a senior citizen, the annual mileage is about 3,000 miles per year. Yesterday the car was parked in a garage for about one hour. I returned and turned on the ignition. After one minute, I saw on the panel the oil and electrical red symbols. Then I heard an explosion. The car did not move or shake. I turned off the ignition, got out and saw oil leaking onto the ground under the front hood. I also saw two huge bolts and three heavy metal pieces. I then called AAA for a tow to my mechanic. My mechanic could not explain the cause of this explosion. He said it is a one-in-a-million incident since the car has only 43,000 miles on it. What is your theory of what happened? I would appreciate an immediate reply. I am concerned about this event, since I am having a used engine installed next week with 85,000 miles on it. Could it happen again? Thank you!

-- Beatrice

TOM: Wow! That's exciting, Beatrice. No one at bingo is going to top THAT story this week.

RAY: I have to guess that a connecting rod broke. The connecting rods connect the pistons to the crankshaft and transfer the power that's produced by the detonations in the cylinders.

TOM: A thrown rod would explain everything. It would explain the explosive sound, which was the connecting rod bursting through your oil pan or the engine block. It would explain the oil, which then leaked out. It would explain the bolts, which came from the connecting rod. And it would explain why you now need a new engine.

RAY: I think this was Toyota's fault. Your mechanic is right, this is highly unusual. This almost never happens on cars with 43,000 miles on them -- certainly not on cars that have been well maintained and had their oil changed regularly.

TOM: And normally there are warning signs. You'll get engine noise or a knocking sound, or blue smoke coming out the tailpipe leading up to the failure. Is it possible you didn't notice the signs?

RAY: But Toyota did have a problem with these engines getting "gelled," or "sludged," with oil, which can lead to poor oil circulation -- and eventually to no oil circulation. And that can lead to your exact problem. In fact, a number of sludged Toyota engines failed in exactly the way you describe, by throwing a connecting rod.

TOM: The good news is that Toyota recognized this problem, and extended the warranty for this problem for all affected Toyota engines built between 1997 and 2002.

RAY: The bad news is that it extended the warranty to eight years, and you're well beyond that now.

TOM: Nonetheless, I think it's worth a call to Toyota's customer assistance line (888-802-9436). Explain your situation -- that you've got only 43,000 miles on the car, and you've maintained it regularly. Who knows? Maybe they'll feel guilty (especially in light of their recent quality-control problems) and help you out.

RAY: If not, then I'd go ahead and replace the engine. Just ask your mechanic to check for signs of sludge or oil gelling in the valve train. Even if it looks clean, be sure to change the oil every 3,000 miles, just to be safe. You may even want him to switch you over to a synthetic oil. If you do that, you should get many more miles out of this car -- with fewer engine explosions. Good luck, Beatrice.

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