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Why Does My Car Smell Like Burning Oil?

“Why does my car smell like burning oil?”

While it’s a stressful situation to be in, it’s incredibly common to have a car that smells like burning oil, especially as it gets older. With that said, what causes an oil leak; and is it dangerous to leave an oil leak unattended?

First and foremost, an oil leak is exactly what it sounds like, where oil from the motor or gearbox escapes and does its absolute best to cover everything in sight. While this might be normal operation for a Land Rover (that's an inside joke), it’s not the way the engine was designed and is often caused by damage to a gasket or seal.

In most cars, gaskets and seals are used to create an oil-tight mating between 2 parts of the motor. These seals are usually made out of a rubber, cork or paper-like material which becomes brittle over time. As the motor heats up and cools down over and over and the material becomes brittle, these seals begin to crack, allowing oil to pass by.

While seals and gaskets may seem like a small aspect of a car, we rely on them for many important functions (as anyone who has blown a head gasket will tell you). When a seal is damaged and begins to leak, the fluid it was holding hostage will escape and usually drip downwards, covering anything and everything in its path.

Though it isn’t common for an oil leak to be an immediate safety concern, oil has been known to drip onto hot components, such as the exhaust. As you might expect, oil dripping onto the exhaust is often the source of the smell of burning oil and can be dangerous due to oils flammability.

Another dangerous situation caused by an oil leak effects the environment or 3rd parties. Oil dripping from a car is incredibly bad for the environment and can cause damage to water supplies and local ecosystems. While it may not seem like common knowledge, oil leaking onto the road can also be incredibly bad for other road users, especially motorcycles. When a motorcycle drives over an oil patch, it is very easy for them to lose control.

Does this mean you should fix an oil leak immediately?

Not necessarily. While there are a number of downsides to leaving an oil leak untouched, they can be costly to fix. On top of this, once an oil leak is disturbed/fixed, it’s common for another leak to appear elsewhere in the period after.

Fixing an oil leak may be the preferred option but, if the oil leak is not causing immediate danger or actually dripping onto the ground, there is a chance you can leave it for a period to prepare to have it repaired.


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