Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket: Steps and Precautions


A blown head gasket is a critical automotive issue that can wreak havoc on a vehicle’s performance and overall functionality. Positioned between the engine block and cylinder head, the head gasket plays a vital role in maintaining proper compression and preventing the mixing of coolant and engine oil. When this gasket fails, it can lead to a cascade of problems that compromise engine efficiency and safety.

The impact of a blown head gasket on a vehicle’s performance cannot be underestimated. Engine overheating, loss of power, abnormal exhaust emissions, and coolant leakage are just a few of the problems that can arise.

Despite the severity of this issue, there might be instances when one is left with no option but to start a car with a blown head gasket, perhaps to move it to a safer location or a repair facility. However, it’s crucial to approach this situation with utmost caution, understanding that it’s a temporary measure and requires careful execution to prevent further harm to the vehicle.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to start a car with a blown head gasket, while emphasizing the need for proper precautions to minimize damage and ensure safety.

What Are the Symptoms of a Blown Head Gasket

What Are the Symptoms of a Blown Head Gasket

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A blown head gasket is a serious engine issue that can lead to a range of problematic symptoms. Recognizing these signs early can help you take prompt action and prevent further damage to your vehicle. Here are the key symptoms to watch out for:


One of the primary symptoms of a blown head gasket is engine overheating. This occurs because the head gasket, which seals the engine’s combustion chambers, can fail and allow coolant to leak into the cylinders. As the coolant mixes with the combustion process, it creates excess heat, leading to a rapid rise in engine temperature. 

If you notice that your temperature gauge is climbing into the red zone or if steam starts emanating from under the hood, these are clear indicators of potential coolant leakage due to a compromised head gasket. 

Continuing to drive an overheated engine can cause severe damage, including warping or cracking of engine components, so it’s imperative to address this issue promptly.

White Smoke from Exhaust: 

Another unmistakable sign of a blown head gasket is the presence of thick, white smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. This phenomenon occurs when coolant leaks into the combustion chamber and gets vaporized alongside the fuel during combustion. 

The result is a dense white smoke that is often most noticeable during startup or acceleration. This smoke might have a slightly sweet smell and can linger even after the engine has warmed up. 

If you observe white smoke billowing from your exhaust, it’s a clear indication that coolant is being burned in the engine, pointing towards a compromised head gasket that requires immediate attention.

Bubbling in Radiator or Coolant Reservoir: 

If you notice air bubbles rising in your radiator or coolant reservoir while the engine is running, it’s a concerning sign of a blown head gasket. Normally, the cooling system should be a closed loop, but a damaged gasket can allow combustion gases to enter the cooling system.

These gases, which are produced during the combustion process, can manifest as bubbles in the coolant. You might even hear a gurgling sound as the bubbles escape. This phenomenon is a clear indication that there is a breach between the combustion chamber and the cooling system, warranting thorough inspection and repair.

Milky or Frothy Oil: 

A blown head gasket can lead to cross-contamination between the oil and coolant systems. When coolant seeps into the engine’s oil passages, it can cause the engine oil to take on a milky or frothy appearance. To check for this, inspect the oil on the dipstick or the inside of the oil cap. 

If you notice a light-colored, foamy residue, it’s a strong indication that coolant and oil are mixing due to a compromised head gasket. This mixture not only hampers lubrication but also reduces the oil’s ability to properly protect engine components, potentially leading to increased wear and tear.

Loss of Engine Power: 

A blown head gasket can lead to reduced engine compression, resulting in a noticeable loss of engine power and overall performance. You might find that your vehicle struggles to accelerate, particularly when climbing hills or merging onto highways. This lack of power can manifest as sluggishness or delayed response when you press the accelerator pedal.

 If you experience a sudden drop in performance accompanied by any of the other mentioned symptoms, it’s advisable to have your vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic to confirm the issue.

Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

When faced with the necessity of starting a car with a blown head gasket, a methodical approach is essential to mitigate potential risks and prevent exacerbating the underlying issue. While this is not a permanent solution by any means, following these carefully outlined steps can help you safely start your vehicle and make informed decisions until proper repairs can be carried out. 

Each step in this guide is designed to ensure the well-being of your car while safeguarding your own safety and the safety of those around you. Let’s delve into the procedure and precautions that should be taken when starting a car with a blown head gasket.

Step#1 Assess the Situation of Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

Before attempting to start a car with a blown head gasket, it’s imperative to evaluate the extent of the damage and understand the signs that indicate a compromised head gasket. Ignoring these signs can lead to further complications and potentially exacerbate the problem. Here’s what you need to know:

Signs of a Blown Head Gasket

  • Overheating: A sudden increase in engine temperature, often accompanied by a warning light on the dashboard.
  • White Smoke: Thick white smoke billowing from the exhaust pipe, which could indicate coolant mixing with the combustion process.
  • Coolant Leakage: Puddles of coolant under the vehicle or visible leaks in the engine bay.
  • Milky Oil: Engine oil that appears milky or frothy due to coolant contamination.
  • Loss of Power: Reduced engine performance and acceleration due to compromised compression.
  • Bubbling in Radiator: Air bubbles rising in the radiator when the engine is running, a sign of combustion gases entering the cooling system.

Importance of Accurate Diagnosis 

Given the intricate nature of a blown head gasket and its potential impact on the engine, accurately diagnosing the issue is paramount. Misdiagnosing the problem or attempting to start the car without proper understanding can worsen the damage, leading to more extensive repairs and higher costs.

Consult a qualified mechanic to perform a comprehensive inspection and confirm the head gasket’s condition before proceeding. Their expertise will help you make informed decisions about whether to proceed with starting the car temporarily or to seek alternative solutions.

Step#2 Gather the Necessary Tools and Materials

Before attempting to start a car with a blown head gasket, it’s crucial to ensure you have the appropriate tools and materials on hand. These items will not only help you execute the process safely but also contribute to preventing any additional damage. Here’s a comprehensive list of tools and materials you’ll need:

Tools for Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

  1. Gloves: Protect your hands from potential exposure to coolant, oil, and other fluids.
  2. Safety Glasses: Shield your eyes from any splashes or fumes that might occur during the process.
  3. Wrenches: Various sizes for tasks such as disconnecting the battery terminals.
  4. Coolant: Have extra coolant on hand to top up the cooling system if needed.
  5. Engine Oil: Ensure you have enough oil to maintain proper lubrication.
  6. Water: Clean water can be used to dilute coolant or temporarily replace it if necessary.
  7. Container: Keep a container handy for collecting any fluids that need to be drained.

Materials for Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

  1. Coolant: Both water and antifreeze coolant are essential for maintaining proper engine temperature.
  2. Engine Oil: Make sure you have the right type and enough quantity of oil for your engine.
  3. Water: Clean water can be used to dilute coolant or temporarily replace it if needed.

Step#3 Ensure Safety While Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

When dealing with a car that has a blown head gasket, safety should be your top priority. Taking the necessary precautions can help you avoid accidents, exposure to harmful substances, and potential health risks. Here’s how to ensure your safety during this process:

Wear Appropriate Safety Gear:

  • Gloves: Protect your hands from coming into direct contact with coolant, oil, or any other fluids that may be present.
  • Safety Glasses: Safeguard your eyes from potential splashes of liquids, debris, or any other particles that could be released during the process.
  • Appropriate Clothing: Wear old clothes that you wouldn’t mind getting dirty or stained. Avoid loose clothing that could get caught in moving parts.

Work in a Well-Ventilated Area:

  • Outdoor Location: If possible, perform the procedure outdoors to ensure proper ventilation and reduce the risk of inhaling toxic fumes.
  • Open Garage: If you must work indoors, ensure the garage door is open and fans are running to promote air circulation.
  • Avoid Closed Spaces: Never attempt the process in a closed or confined area without proper ventilation, as the fumes released during this process can be harmful to inhale.

Step#4 Disconnect Battery 

To disconnect the car battery’s negative terminal, first, locate the battery under the hood and identify the negative terminal marked with a minus (-) sign connected to the black cable. Using a wrench, loosen the terminal’s nut, wiggle the cable to detach it, and move it away from the battery to prevent reconnection. This prevents electrical mishaps and ensures safety while working on the vehicle.

Step#5 Check Coolant and Oil Levels Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

Maintaining proper coolant and oil levels is crucial for the well-being of your car’s engine, especially when dealing with a blown head gasket. Here’s how to check and manage these levels effectively:

Checking Coolant Level:

  1. Cool Engine: Ensure the engine is cool before checking the coolant level to prevent burns.
  2. Locate the Coolant Reservoir: Open the hood and locate the coolant reservoir, usually a translucent plastic container with “MAX” and “MIN” markings.
  3. Check the Level: The coolant level should be between the “MAX” and “MIN” marks. If it’s below the “MIN” mark, you need to top up.
  4. Top Up: Slowly add a mixture of coolant and water (as recommended by your car’s manual) to the reservoir. Avoid overfilling, as excessive coolant can lead to further issues.

Checking Oil Level:

  1. Park on Level Ground: Ensure the car is parked on a level surface for accurate oil level readings.
  2. Locate the Dipstick: Locate the oil dipstick, typically with a brightly colored handle, near the engine.
  3. Check Oil Level: Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean with a cloth, reinsert it fully, and then pull it out again. Check the oil level against the markings on the dipstick.
  4. Optimal Level: The oil level should be between the “MIN” and “MAX” marks on the dipstick. If it’s below the “MIN” mark, you need to add more oil.
  5. Top Up: If necessary, add the appropriate type and amount of oil recommended by your car’s manual. Avoid overfilling, as excess oil can lead to engine damage.

Step#6 Add Water or Coolant 

In situations where coolant levels are low due to a blown head gasket, adding water or a coolant mixture can help manage engine temperature and prevent overheating. Here’s how to properly add water or coolant to your car’s cooling system:

  1. Cool Engine: Make sure the engine is cool before attempting to add water or coolant.
  2. Locate the Radiator Cap: Open the hood and locate the radiator cap. If your car has a pressurized overflow tank, locate that instead.
  3. Check Reservoir Level: If your car has an overflow tank, check the level against the “MAX” and “MIN” markings. If it’s below the “MIN” mark, you’ll need to add coolant.
  4. Prepare Coolant or Water Mixture: If using coolant, prepare a mixture according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. If using water, make sure it’s clean and free of impurities.
  5. Slowly Add Coolant or Water: If you’re adding coolant, slowly pour it into the radiator or overflow tank until the level reaches the “MAX” mark. If using water, add it until the level is between the “MIN” and “MAX” marks.
  6. Replace the Cap: Put the radiator cap back on or secure the overflow tank cap.

Warning Against Overfilling: While it’s important to top up coolant or water levels, it’s crucial not to overfill the system. Adding too much coolant can lead to pressure buildup, potentially causing further damage to the already compromised head gasket. Overheating and increased pressure can also result in coolant leaks or other engine issues. Therefore, follow manufacturer guidelines for proper coolant-to-water ratios and adhere to the recommended levels indicated on the reservoir.

Step#7 Crank the Engine For Starting a Car with a Blown Head Gasket

Starting the engine after addressing coolant and oil levels requires a cautious approach. Here’s how to initiate the process safely and what to watch out for:

Turning the Ignition Key:

  1. Key Position: Insert the key into the ignition and turn it gently to the “Start” position. Avoid excessive force or rapid turns.
  2. Engage the Starter: As you turn the key, the starter motor will engage, cranking the engine. Be attentive to the engine’s response.

Listening for Unusual Sounds or Vibrations:

  1. Normal Cranking Sounds: A healthy engine will emit a smooth and consistent cranking sound. This indicates that the starter motor is functioning correctly.
  2. Unusual Noises: If you hear grinding, clicking, or other irregular sounds, stop immediately. Such noises could signify issues with the starter or other components and warrant professional attention.
  3. Vibrations: While some vibrations are normal during engine cranking, excessive shaking or unusual vibrations could indicate underlying problems. Cease the starting process if vibrations are excessive.

Importance of Observation: 

The cranking process provides valuable insights into the condition of your engine and related components. Listening for irregular sounds and paying attention to vibrations can help you identify potential issues before they worsen. If anything seems out of the ordinary, it’s wise to stop attempting to start the engine and seek professional assistance. Continuing to crank the engine if there are signs of trouble could lead to further damage.

Step#8 Monitor Temperature and Fluids

When starting a car with a blown head gasket, diligent monitoring of temperature and fluid levels is essential to avoid exacerbating the issue. Here’s how to keep a close watch on these factors:

Temperature Gauge:

  • The temperature gauge on your car’s dashboard displays the engine’s operating temperature. It’s usually marked with “C” for cold and “H” for hot, indicating the safe temperature range.
  • As you start the engine, observe the gauge closely. If the needle starts to move towards the “H” or if the gauge rapidly climbs to high levels, it’s a sign of overheating.
  • Overheating can lead to severe engine damage, so if you notice this, stop the engine immediately and follow the steps outlined below.

Oil and Coolant Levels:

  • Regularly check both the oil and coolant levels during the starting process.
  • For oil, use the dipstick to gauge the level. Low oil levels can indicate a lubrication issue that might worsen engine problems.
  • Check the coolant reservoir’s level to ensure it’s within the “MIN” and “MAX” markings. Low coolant levels can contribute to overheating.

Address Overheating

If your car’s engine starts to overheat, it’s crucial to take immediate action to prevent further damage:

  1. Turn Off the Engine:
    • Safely pull over to the side of the road or a safe location.
    • Turn off the engine to stop the heat buildup. Continuing to run an overheating engine can lead to warping or cracking of engine components.
  2. Let it Cool Down:
    • Pop the hood open to allow heat to dissipate more rapidly.
    • Wait until the engine has cooled down significantly before attempting any further action.
  3. Check Coolant Level:
    • Once the engine is cool, check the coolant level in the reservoir. If it’s significantly low, add a mixture of coolant and water as needed. Avoid adding cold coolant to a hot engine, as it can cause thermal shock and damage.
  4. Professional Help:
    • If your car continues to overheat or you’re uncertain about how to proceed, it’s best to call for professional assistance or have the vehicle towed to a mechanic.
    • Driving an overheating car can lead to further damage to the head gasket, engine, or other components.

Future Precautions and Considerations 

Starting a car with a blown head gasket should be treated as a temporary measure to manage immediate circumstances. Here are important precautions and considerations to keep in mind:

Temporary Solution:

  • Emphasize Temporariness: Stress that starting the car with a blown head gasket is not a permanent fix. It’s a short-term measure to move the vehicle to a safer location or a repair facility.
  • Risk of Further Damage: Reiterate that prolonged use of the car in this condition can worsen the underlying issue and lead to more extensive engine damage.

Driving Caution:

  • Avoid Extended Driving: Strongly advise against driving the car extensively with a blown head gasket. Operating the vehicle in this state can result in increased overheating, loss of power, and potential safety hazards.
  • Monitor Warning Signs: If warning lights illuminate on the dashboard, the temperature gauge rises abnormally, or the engine exhibits unusual behavior, stop driving immediately and seek assistance.

Professional Assistance:

  • Consult a Mechanic: Encourage readers to seek professional help as soon as possible. A qualified mechanic can accurately diagnose the problem and recommend appropriate repairs.
  • Minimize DIY Repairs: Discourage readers from attempting complex repairs themselves, as incorrect procedures can exacerbate issues and lead to costly repairs.

Preventive Maintenance:

  • Regular Maintenance: Remind readers that regular maintenance, including routine oil changes, coolant checks, and inspections, can help prevent blown head gaskets and other engine problems.
  • Address Issues Promptly: Promptly addressing any warning signs, such as unusual noises, overheating, or fluid leaks, can prevent minor problems from escalating into major ones.

Safety First:

  • Prioritize Safety: Reiterate the importance of personal safety and the safety of passengers and others on the road. Operating a vehicle with a compromised head gasket can pose risks, so it’s crucial to make informed decisions.

Should I Drive With a Blown Head Gasket?

Driving a vehicle with a blown head gasket is not advisable and comes with significant risks. A blown head gasket is a serious engine issue that compromises the engine’s integrity and can lead to a range of problems. When the head gasket fails, it allows fluids like coolant and engine oil to mix, resulting in inadequate lubrication and cooling. 

This can lead to overheating, loss of engine power, and potentially further damage to critical engine components. Continuing to drive in this condition could exacerbate the problem, causing irreversible harm to the engine, which may result in a complete engine failure.

Moreover, driving with a blown head gasket poses safety concerns. The engine might stall unexpectedly, leading to hazardous situations on the road. Sudden overheating could cause your vehicle to break down in the middle of traffic, increasing the risk of accidents. Additionally, the compromised engine performance can affect your ability to accelerate, merge, or respond to sudden changes in traffic conditions, putting you and others at risk.

While it might be tempting to drive your vehicle temporarily to get to a repair shop, this should be done with extreme caution and only over very short distances. Even short drives could lead to further overheating, exacerbated damage, and increased repair costs. 

If you suspect a blown head gasket, it’s recommended to have your vehicle towed to a professional mechanic for assessment and repair. Ignoring the issue or attempting to drive with a compromised head gasket could lead to more extensive and expensive repairs in the long run, not to mention the potential safety hazards. Your best course of action is to address the problem promptly and professionally to ensure your safety and the longevity of your vehicle.


In conclusion, starting a car with a blown head gasket is a carefully orchestrated procedure that requires adherence to precautions and an awareness of the temporary nature of the solution. 

The paramount consideration is to consult a professional mechanic for proper diagnosis and repair of the underlying issue. Prioritizing safety, proper maintenance and timely intervention will serve you well in preserving the health and longevity of your vehicle.


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