My car is steaming

September 1, 2016 | By Staff


My 1956 Studebaker Champion is blowing steam these days when I speed up even after it is warmed up, and it is running hotter than usual. Is this terminal?


Most likely your problem is just a blown head gasket, which is easily repaired on your Champ’s engine. Before you whip out the wrenches though, take a look at the coolant. Does it look like chocolate pudding? If so, oil is getting into the coolant, and that is bad news. Also check the oil in the engine to see if it is contaminated with water. This too is a bad sign because it may indicate more than just a leaky head gasket. Next, remove the head. Loosen its bolts/nuts evenly, and then pop off the head using a sharp putty knife. Upon examining the head gasket and the head and the deck of the engine block, your problem should reveal itself. If the problem is just a defective head gasket, all you need to do is replace the old one.

But before you do that, you will want to place a machinist’s metal straight edge across and down the length of the head and deck in several places to make sure both surfaces are flat. Use feeler gauges to determine unevenness and if you find a variance of .002 or more the head and/ or deck will need to be re-machined.

You will also want to have the head Magnaflux tested at your local machine shop. The steam may be moisture getting into the combustion chambers via a crack in the head. Ideally, the engine block should be tested too, but that would entail extricating the engine from the car and stripping it down. The next best thing is to go with a Magnaflux Spotcheck Jr. kit available from auto supply stores.

Spotcheck Jr kits involve a three-step process that includes cleaning the block surface carefully, shooting on red dye and then shooting on white powder. The dye soaks into the cracks, and they appear as red lines on the white surface. This process is not as reliable as Magnaflux testing involving metal filings and magnetic forces used in machine shops, but it should be enough to tell you what you need to do next.

Repairing cracked heads and blocks is possible, but in the case of your little Champion engine, it may not be worth doing because another engine block or head is probably out there that can be had for a reasonable price, and that will be cheaper and more reliable than any repair.

However, assuming the block and head are not warped and the block or head is not cracked, there is a good chance that all you need to do is replace the head gasket. Chase the threads on any head studs or bolts so you can achieve the correct torque measurements, and make sure the mating surfaces of head and block are scrupulously clean. Shoot the head gasket with a little silver paint, let it dry, and then put it and the head in place. (Because you don’t use any kind of sealant, you shoot on two coats of silver paint which cooks in and seals the gasket.)

head gasket
Before replacing a head gasket, make sure the head is not warped and check the block deck while you are at it. Any gap over .002 means the head needs milling.

Torque the head bolts down evenly in three stages by following the torque-sequencing chart in your shop manual. Make sure they are torqued to the correct figure and then fill the engine with water at the head. Put the thermostat back in facing the correct direction, and then add the filler neck for the radiator using a new gasket.

A little silicone sealer or Permatex will help make a good seal. Assuming your block and head were in good shape and there is no oil in the cooling system or coolant in the pan, fill the radiator and start the engine. Let it run at a fast idle for about 20 minutes, and then shut it off. Now re-torque the head to make sure it is evenly tightened at the correct specs. You are now ready for the road again.