Car broke down - any suggestions?

My minivan ('98 Dodge Caravan) died suddenly while driving to work this morning, and the oil lamp lit up. The minivan had run low on oil before so I’d been checking regularly, but I suppose the loss rate could have gone up and the engine ran dry. I don’t have time to do anything about it till after work, except seek opinions here.

Questions are: (1) Is there any chance the engine will start up if I fill it with oil? (2) If it does, should I still take it to the shop? (3) If it doesn’t, do you think it’s worth the cost of towing it to the shop for repair estimates, or am I better off calling the junkyard?

If the engine died, on it’s own, you likely have an oil pressure/oil pump problem. Your serpentine belt may have snapped - which is not too expensive but quite serious. Attempting to restart it and drive it to a shop you may cause increased damage even if you add oil. If you don’t care about the car (got your money’s worth out of it) then you might give it a try. If you want to avoid further damage and possibly increased costs of repair, have it towed to a garage for a professional diagnosis.

In my experience, whenever the oil lamp goes on, it starts to get expensive.

FYI, there is no better time to buy new American car. The big three are all offering “employee discount” insentives now.

OK - don’t touch it, call tow truck. Check.

Any opinion on dealer vs. general repair shop for this type of trouble?

I’d probably get it repaired if it costs less than buying a similar used vehicle. I’m in no position to buy a new car.

Not really, go to someone who has a good reputation in your area. Or someone you trust.
Ask others to see who’s had good service at which mechanic.

Oh, about the car trouble;
Did the oil light come on after the car died? Or before?
Did the engine sieze up (quit running in dramatic fashion) or did it just putter out?
You may try adding oil and giving it a go.
First, check under the hood for any signs of fresh leakage, loose belts, broken parts, etc. Check the trans fluid (could have been your converter that went), the radiator fluid and the oil level before starting.
If it turns over and starts OK and holds an idle without making any strange sounds you should be able to drive it a few miles, slowly. Keep an eye on the temp gauge and the oil pressure guage or oil light. If any knocks or squeels come from the engine, shut er down.

Assuming the oil pressure warning light came on before the engine died, filling the engine with oil and attempting to start it will not cause any further problems. Any damage that will occur already has. Worst case senario engine is blown to bits, and you are out the cost of several quarts of oil.
As far as the serpentine belt goes, I am unaware of any engine that drives the oil pump off of the serpentine belt. Timing belt yes, serpentine belt no. The difference is that a car will start (maybe) with a blown serp belt. It will not start with a blown t-belt. A blown serp belt can be a very serious item as on many engines the serp belt drives the water pump, and without a water pump the engine will overheat and fry, but a serp belt cannot cause an oil pump failure.
If the oil pressure light came as the engine died, then this is normal. Engine stop = 0 oil pressure = lght on. In this case the light is the result of the enigne stalling, not the cause. It could be something as simple as you are out of gas. Or you could have blown the motor. No way to tell without more info and a diagnosis.
If I were in your shoes, I would go back this afternoon and check the oil add as necessary, do the same with the coolant, then try and start.
If it starts take it in and find out why it stalled, watch gauges, and idiot lights, listen to engine all the while.
If it cranks but does not start, listen very carefully and determine if the cranking sounds normal. If it sounds abnormal (cranks fast, or seems to skip regulary) you probably have done damage to the engine
If it won’t crank at all You either have battery issues, or the engine is blown.

I don’t actually know if the oil light went on before the car died. I didn’t notice it go on, but that doesn’t mean much.

Anyway I checked out the car. The oil wasn’t actually empty - it was right up to the max level. However the coolant level was low - just below the MIN mark in the reservoir. I know I topped it off about 3 wks (<1500 miles) ago. Is there a crack somewhere causing the coolant to leak into the engine, I wonder?

When I turn the key to the accessory position there’s an unfamiliar whining noise (like a fan) at the left edge of the dashboard - is there something under there?

I then took the chance and tried to start the engine. The starter motor whined and the engine only moved a little bit - I’d guess less than 1 complete rotation. :mad: :mad:

I take it the engine is toast? I suppose it could be the battery or alternator, but the car started fine when I left for work in the morning. Oh well… I’m calling the tow truck now.

Not much help I’m afraid

Oil level up is a good thing, Low coolant might be a problem, not enough info to tell.

Probably there are a bunch of things under there, you just never noticed the noise before

This would be a bad thing

Not sure, quite possibly

Be prepared to be screwed over by the dealership. They have cost us an arm and a leg for the simplest repairs. They wanted $800 to fix the little door that the headlight hides under. I found a site on the internet that showed us how to fix it for $0. I hate those bastards.

For a job like this (that may be requiring a rebuild or a new engine) your best bet may be to look up a good local independent mechanic. Try the Cartalk site’s lookup tool

Oops, too late - the car’s at the dealer now.

If it turns out to be serious (as seems very likely), would it be rude and/or impossible to get it towed to an independent mechanic afterwards?

Until you sign a repair authorization, you’re still free to get other estimates.

Just be aware that most motor club towing coverages cover just one tow per “incident” and that you’ll be running up quite a bill if you take the car to too many places.

You could call the other mechanic, describe symptoms,and see if his “sight unseen” worst possible estimate is still nonetheless cheaper than the dealer’s estimate. Then, you could commit to towing the car to his place.

Are the body and interior still good or do you have dents and/or rust and/or upholstery rips and stains? It might not pay to spend several thousands on a shabby vehicle.

Not all dealers are crooks and not all independents honest. Ask other Chrysler product owners you know about your dealer and others in the area.

We do that all the time. If they throw an unreasonable cost at us, we give 'em the raspberry and put the car on the hook. We also write letters to the dealer. Sometimes we get a handful of free oil changes when we’re really pissed off.

Just wanted to thank everyone for their advice. Turns out it was just a belt after all - though I thought I checked the belts and found them intact. :confused: Apparently the battery got over-drained and died as well.

Anyway the car’s running again, for less than $400 in repairs. (New battery, belt tensioner and belt, IIRC)


J.D. Power good enough for you?