Key Takeaways

  • Don't drive a car more than 30 to 60 seconds while it is seriously overheating.
  • Driving while overheating puts you at serious risk for damaging internal components
  • Have a tow truck or transport take your vehicle to a mechanic
  • A quick solution is to add more coolant to your vehicle, though it will be temporary

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Sometimes getting an auto repair becomes rather urgent. How long can a car overheat before it starts to cause damage?

An engine can be damaged by excess heat in as few as 30 to 60 seconds. Engines are designed to handle a specific heat tolerance. Driving with excessive heat can cause damage to many parts of the engine crucial to cooling it, and can crack the metals that make your engine sturdy.

We’ll explain how overheating works, what you should do about it, and why you should just stop your vehicle.

Table of Contents

What makes a car overheat?

An overheating engine is a sign of issues with a vehicle’s cooling system. More often than not, an engine overheats because of coolant leaks that result in a lack of good, proper coolant in the engine. You might know that coolant itself is a fluid that absorbs heat and moves it away from the engine. When this fluid is not present, the car can overheat quickly.

The cause of cooling system leaks is often a hose or coolant tank that has a hole in it from use or even being struck by debris. No matter how not having enough coolant in your vehicle can quickly result in a serious heat build up. If you are an experienced garage mechanic, it is honestly not that difficult to replace the hoses in your vehicle’s coolant system - it is literally just a hose or container. Accessing it might be more difficult than replacing it!

What should I do if my engine does overheat?

Stop and let the engine cool. Ideally, you should call for a tow truck or help get your vehicle to a shop right away. Most vehicles have a temperature gauge in addition to a warning system that will tell you if the vehicle is overheating, and often offers a loud warning sound if the engine is too hot.

Driving any longer puts you at serious risk for a repair that you don’t want to make - unless you don’t like your vehicle and want it gone!

What engine damage can I cause if my car overheats too much?

There isn’t a simple answer to this besides the word “everything”. Your car engine has many moving parts, mostly made of metal, that are designed to withstand a certain amount of heat. An overheating engine could lead to issues with a cracked engine block, head gasket oil leaks, the warping of cylinder heads, and long term damage to many other engine components.

Most anything made of metal and meant to otherwise withstand a normal engine temperature becomes at risk when the heat generated by a coolant leak causes that temperature gauge to rise.

As we said earlier given the 30 to 60 second rule, this can easily happen faster than you are expecting.

Engine damage is about as expensive and time consuming as engine repairs get. They often require pulling the entire engine apart and replacing a part completely, which will cost you some serious money. The engine block, cylinder head, and head gasket are amongst the hardest to reach parts and require the most effort to expose. They are also made of solid metal pieces, which makes them expensive parts.

How do I prevent an overheated engine?

Your coolant system tends to either leak slowly or fast. If your coolant system does spring a fast leak, there isn’t much you can do on the spot, but once your vehicle’s engine starts to give you warning bells about the temperature gauge, you best start listening.

For slower leaks, take a look at the pavement or even dirt under your car more frequently, especially if it has been sitting overnight or while you are at work. You might notice a pool under the engine compartment - which on a dry day might not be normal. If the liquid isn’t clear and has some color or a smell to it, it is probably time to get to a mechanic soon before it gets worse.

While leaking coolant tends to leave yellow, pink, or green substances on the ground, you should bring your vehicle to a mechanic if anything but water is down there. Oil leaks are commonly found using the same method.

Having inspections done to your car when you bring it in for an oil change and tire rotation can also help hunt down issues with the cooling system. You might suspect that the dealership or service center wants to take a closer look at your car to make more work and more money - but in reality, many of these inspections are done for preventative maintenance. Service advisors deal with many people who let things go for too long or simply didn’t notice - and it’ll cost you!

Another common action to take is simply refilling your cooling system with more coolant. Under the hood, your vehicle will have a coolant tank that is generally white or gray with a MAX and MIN indicator for how much coolant it needs. You can refill the coolant when needed, adding it slowly. We also strongly recommend checking the manual for your vehicle to make sure you put the right kind in - it does really matter! You’ll probably have to do this repeatedly for more serious leaks, and get the vehicle to a mechanic soon - this is basically a bandaid.

How to drive your car if you absolutely must

First, to offer some clarification, we think there are relatively few times when you truly need to drive your vehicle unless you are trying to get your vehicle to safety.

We would suggest starting your vehicle but driving very slowly - preferably under 30 miles per hour, until the vehicle starts to overheat again. Turn the car off and let the car engine cool down enough that touching it feels normal. Once it feels normal, you can start it again and try to drive.

Of note, we wouldn’t suggest doing this for long because you will probably make the problem worse in a short amount of time.

Do some cars “drive hot”?

Some performance vehicles drive warmer than others, like BMW and Mercedes. This creates a slightly different issue in that some higher performance vehicles will burn oil faster than less performance oriented vehicles.

How Long Can A Car Overheat Before It Starts To Cause Damage?

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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