Gear Heads: My Specific Model's Engine?

I need to know if my car has a timing belt or timing chain. How can I find this out for certain? Will a Chilton manual tell me for my specific model? What other resources are there?

I should add: Honda claims the timing chain NEVER needs to be changed. Is that to be believed? This model’s owner’s manual does NOT include a maintenance schedule for the timing belt. Honda says:

Per this link, Honda claims "Depending on the model year of the vehicle, it is typically between 60,000 and 90,000 miles. If your vehicle has a timing chain, instead of a timing belt, replacement of the timing chain is not required. Refer to the Scheduled Maintenance section of the appropriate owner’s manual for specific information.

FYI: I got 200,000 from my last model, but that owner’s manual’s maintenance schedule clearly included timing belt changes. I just can’t believe a timing chain NEVER needs changing!?! :eek:

Timing chains are not a maintenance item; they’re expected to last the life of the engine.

Timing belts are maintenance items. If you don’t change them on schedule, you risk catastrophic engine damage when they break.

Your owner’s manual (not the service manual) may not say anything if you have a chain, but it will probably tell you the change interval if you have a belt. A service manual definitely will tell you either way (how to replace a chain, or how to replace a belt, along with belt change interval).

Two other options:

  1. call your dealer’s parts department and ask them. They can look for a belt or chain for your engine and tell you which one their system lists.

  2. search the web for a discussion forum for your particular vehicle; members of that forum almost certainly know more about that car then anyone else.

What kind of car is it (year, make, model)?

If you don’t want to tell us that, the information you seek is encoded in the VIN, so find a VIN decoder on the Internet and see what it tells you.

On the inside of the hood should be a sticker that has the engine size. On some engines the size is written on a dust cover or valve cover atop the engine. With this info, you can call a dealer and find out whether your engine uses a chain or a belt. Alternatively, someone truly knowledgeable about cars can look at the engine and determine which it has.

Please note that Honda does not claim the timing chain never needs changing. Those are your words, not theirs. The link you quoted is in the context of maintenance, and the meaning is “replacement of the timing chain is not required [AS A MAINTENANCE ITEM].” Timing chains can wear out or break just like any other part, and replacement may be required AS A REPAIR. Throwing the word “never” in there distorts the message.

Not to hijack the thread, but given the above post, am I correct to infer that if a timing belt breaks, it will usuall catastrophically damage the engine, but if a timing chain breaks, this is not the case and the engine can be economically repaired? Or is it simply the case that a timing chain is much less likely to fail than a timing belt, so it is considered unnecessary to ever replace it under general maintenance?

Dead Cat,
WRT timing belts/chains there are two types of engines: interference and noninterference. It refers to what’s happening inside the cylinders. In an interference engine, the valve heads occupy the same space that is later occupied by the piston. The belt/chain controls when the valve head enters the cylinder and keeps it out of the way when the piston comes roaring in. When the belt/chain breaks, the piston comes up and smashes into the valve and Really Bad Things commence. As you may have guessed, this is not a problem with a noninterference engine because the piston and valve do not interfere with each other (because there’s sufficient room above the top of the piston for the valve to fully extend).

Some cars (with noninterference engines) don’t have a maintenance schedule for even the belt. Because if the belt breaks it’s no big deal–you just line up the cams, reinstall the new belt and drive on.

And I know from experience that timing chains do break, and that some interference engines have timing chains.

No, that is not correct.

Yes, that’s correct.

As Inigo Montoya explained, the possibility of major damage if the belt or chain breaks has nothing to do with whether it’s a belt or a chain, but has to do with one aspect of how the engine is designed (i.e., whether it’s an “interference” engine, where the pistons and the valves “time-share” some common space). While timing chains and related components do fail, their useful lifespan is typically twice or more that of timing belts, and their failure is not as generally predictable as with belts. Hence it’s relatively easy to calculate a maintenance interval for the belts, but not for the chains.

Cars were produced for many years with timing chains, and they were not considered something that you regularly replaced. They were expected to last the life of the engine. Sometimes they didn’t, as Gary T mentioned, but usually they did.

Manufacturers switched to belts for two reasons, to reduce weight and to reduce noise. Let’s face it, a belt is a lot quieter and lighter than a big ol’ clunky chain. Timing belts were a big surprise to those of us who were used to timing chains. We have to replace it every 50,000 miles? Really? We were used to timing chains which were just there and you never had to think about them (unless one broke, and that usually ruined the engine anyway).

So yeah, if the car has a chain instead of a belt, I’m not surprised at all that it is never changed as part of routine maintenance. It’s kind of funny that now this is considered to be a routine maintenance items and people are actually surprised that a chain doesn’t need to be replaced. How times have changed.

They regularly put timing chains instead of belts in pickup trucks and the like. They usually don’t put chains in cars these days. They like to make cars as quiet and smooth as possible. These days, if a car has a timing chain my first question is “what did they screw up in the design of the thing?” My mother in law and my wife both had Nissan Stanzas in the 1990s. My mother in law’s car had a belt. The belt broke when it was just out of warranty (to Nissan’s credit, they did fix it for free). My wife’s car was one model year later, and had a chain instead of a belt. There was something seriously wrong with the design of that engine because even her engine threw the chain off of its sprocket. Because the chain didn’t break, the engine never went too far out of timing and it didn’t destroy itself, but the car was never quite right after that. So if one model year has a belt and the next model year has a chain I would be very leery of that engine design.

On the other hand, if the 4 cyl. has a belt and the 6 cyl. has a chain, it’s no biggie. They just likely designed them that way.

The Gates timing belt catalogue is my favorite way to answer timing belt or no and interference or no. It also tells whether it’s a timing-belt driven water pump which is handy to know. Here it is (PDF):
Of course, you do have to know which engine you’ve got.

As for the belt vs. chain question, the more common mode of failure for a timing chain is for the chain to stretch and/or get noisy. So you’ve usually got a lot more warning before it actually breaks (and often it’ll get to the point that the valve timing is so screwed up that the engine barely runs before it actually snaps). With the timing belt, it runs and sounds fine until the microsecond before it breaks. Also because the chain gives more warning before it breaks, replacing it as a preventative item is not necessary.

Chains used to be more-or-less lifetime things (not that they didn’t go bad occasionally, but they didn’t at regular intervals), but the term “lifetime” has gotten a lot longer for modern engines. A good case in point is the Toyota 22R engine, which is an OHC 4-cylinder engine that uses a timing chain. This is one of those motors that routinely runs up to a half-million miles plus and the general concensus among enthusiasts is that the chain does indeed wear at a more or less uniform rate and that you can expect to get about 200,000 miles out of one (obviously depending on maintenance and usage). There’s some running around that are on their 3rd or 4th chain.

I’m not sure I totally agree with this. In my experience, people who push their luck (and/or have non-interference engines) can often exceed the timing belt change interval by a huge margin* (like sometimes 2 or 3 times), and every now and again you hear about timing belt failures at less than the recommended interval. It seems to me that timing belt lifespans are no more predictable, it’s just generally better to play it safe with them.

Like I mentioned above, I think that the reason for regular change intervals on belts but not chains is that belts don’t give any warning and always fail completely. That a normal lifespan for a timing chain is usually longer than the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual is also probably part of it (not to mention that the car is usually long out of warranty by then).

*As a little side-note, older Hondas (such as my '86 Accord) had timing belts, interference engines and NO factory-recommended change interval. Reading the owner’s manual, you wouldn’t even know they had a timing belt. But these are also cars that can go past 200,000 miles easily and a LOT of them have done so without a timing belt change! I know for a fact that mine went 22 years and 160,000 miles on the original belt.