Home TroubleshootingEngine Timing Belt Broke While Driving – Can You Drive Without One?

Timing Belt Broke While Driving – Can You Drive Without One?

by Kelvin Yates

Ah… The timing belt. Such a simple piece working towards the motion of a car, but so vital at the same time. If your timing belt broke while driving, you are going to have one of the worst days possible.

Whenever you encounter the word broken, it is not going to be good. The same is true with the timing belt as well. Without the timing belt, your engine is going to sputter so much that you are not going to be able to drive. Simply put, your engine is now dead.

Encountering this disaster is not uncommon, especially with aged cars. Just like everything else, a timing belt has a life span too. This problem is not likely to happen in a parked car, so waking up to a broken timing belt is not possible. If you do ever experience this, then your timing belt broke while driving.

Just like every other problem, this has a solution to it as well. To understand how to work your way around a broken timing belt, there is some key information that you are going to need to know at first.

Timing Belt

Timing Belt Broke While Driving

When it comes to an engine, one of the simplest parts is going to be the timing belt. Do not let its simplicity fool you, as it is one of the most integral parts of the functionality of your engine. Whenever you engage in a conversation about engines, the term timing belt or cam belt is bound to pop up. First off, the timing belt and cam belt are the same things.

If you aren’t familiar with the engine of your car or how engines work generally, you might not know what a timing belt is. So let’s answer the question, what is a timing belt?

A timing belt is a reinforced rubber belt within the engine of the car with one particular task. This is to keep the rotations of the camshaft and the crankshaft in sync. By making sure the motion of the camshaft and the crankshaft are working with precise timing, the timing belt can allow the valves of the engine to open and close at the same time.

The timing belt contains multiple tooth-like serrations. This allows it to connect between the camshaft and crankshaft securely. The reinforcement is usually made by adding nylon fibers to the rubber.

The overlapping fiber structure of nylon is considered one of the strongest synthetic materials. When this durable silk-like polymer is combined with rubber, it helps to increase the entire timing belt’s persistence.

What Does A Timing Belt Do

So now that you know what a timing belt is, you are going to start to question its importance. To understand why this timing belt is so important we need to take a look at how it functions.

The camshaft is in charge of controlling valves that are going to bring the air and fuel inside the engine. In the meantime, the crankshaft is going to move your pistons up and down inside their cylinders. When the piston compresses, the air and fuel mixtures need to be inside the cylinder.

Just like that, the air and fuel mixture enters the cylinder when the piston compresses. Alone, neither the camshaft nor the crankshaft cannot control the time they do their specific tasks. The timing should be precise so that as soon as the air and fuel mixture are injected, the piston compresses and the fuel ignites.

This is where the timing belt comes in. The timing belt is connected to both the camshaft and the crankshaft and keeps the motion of both components in sync so that the timing is just perfect.

If the timing belt doesn’t function, the timing will be off. The fuel won’t arrive when the piston does and vice versa. This would car to lose its fuel economy, your engine would misfire or temporarily lose power, and eventually, you’ll end up with a seized engine.

If your timing belt is not in order or it has slipped out of place, your engine is going to suffer catastrophic damage. Since your camshaft and crankshaft will not be able to work in the order they are supposed to, you will immediately suffer engine failure.


Bad Timing Belt Symptoms

As mentioned above a broken timing belt could be disastrous. To avoid serious engine damage or to save yourself from saying “my timing belt broke while driving” there are some symptoms that you can be on the lookout for.

By knowing when your timing belt is going to give out on you, you’d be able to get it replaced before you get stranded on the side of the road with a broken timing belt.

Before considering all these signs of a failing timing belt you should check your manufacturer’s recommendation for when your timing belt needs to be replaced. Most cars would need their timing belt replaced between 60,000 to 90,000 miles. But some brands are said to have their recommended timing belt replacement mileage much higher before replacing the timing belt.

You should understand that these numbers are just recommendations and there is no guarantee that your timing belt is going to survive this long. Sometimes it might survive longer than the time period mentioned above. So it is safe that you know what to look out for to identify a bad timing belt.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Common Symptoms #1: Noise From The Engine

As with a lot of other issues, here too, engine noises are common. Random noise from your engine is never a good indicator. You most probably are going to be familiar with the sound your car makes in pristine condition and this familiarity should allow you to spot any noise out of the ordinary.

Your timing belt is attached with a series of pullies to connect it with both the camshaft and the crankshaft. When the timing belt starts to wear off you will start to hear a distinct ticking noise originating from the engine block.

The repetitiveness and its fast pace are what are going to separate this noise from other noises you could hear from the engine. This distinct sound would allow you to pinpoint the problem with the timing belt of your car.

There are times that you might hear a squealing sound with a worn timing belt. This is not a noise endemic to the timing belt but is often heard due to it. Unlike the ticking sound, this is not repetitive or fast-paced. You will be able to hear this when you are trying to accelerate or press the brakes.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Common Symptoms #2: Engine Will Not Start

With a worn timing belt in some cases, you won’t be able to get your engine started and running with a broken timing belt. What happens is when the serrations are worn off, they cannot create enough of a grip to move the pulleys. When you turn the key, you might hear the starter motor engage, but since the timing belt operates the crank and camshaft, it will not turn over.

If your timing belt broke while driving, it is not that common, but when starting an engine it is unlikely. A worn timing belt with a few tries might get your engine running but the odds aren’t in your favor.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Common Symptoms #3: Engine Misfires

Engine misfires are another common sign of a failing timing belt. It makes sense since the timing belt is responsible for the timing of the camshaft and crankshaft. So, with a  faulty timing belt, the timing will be off and result in engine misfires.

This happens when your timing belt is worn off. Once your timing belt is worn it won’t be able to keep up with the camshaft and the crankshaft. This would result in your valve opening and closing at the wrong time, or your fuel-air mixture being injected when the pistons are not ready.

Without the fuel to burn a spark, if at all created, would have been created in vain. Once this happens during those strokes the engine will misfire. Continuous engine misfires will end up damaging other engine components and cause many more problems.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Common Symptoms #4: Oil Leaks From The Motor

You will be able to notice the engine leaking oil originating from the timing belt cover. The cover is fastened with a series of nuts and bolts. It is not uncommon that over time these nuts and bolts loosen.

Another issue that will cause oil to leak is when the gasket between the engine block and timing cover wears out. Sometimes the gasket is cracked, or improper installation with the gasket could also cause similar leaks.

An oil leak from the timing belt cover could result in two things. One, your engine will suffer from overheating. Secondly, the oil could mess with the friction of the timing belt and reduce the grip it gets. This would cause temporary engine misfires.

Another cause of oil leaks could be one of the teeth from the timing belt snapping off and getting stuck plugging the oil pan directly below the timing belt. Once this happens, oil cannot circulate properly. This will lead oil to pressurize in a particular area which will again result in a leak.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Common Symptoms #5: Rough Idling

If your engine is idling rough, it could be several different problems. A faulty timing belt could also be the cause. Your car isn’t supposed to be rough when your engine is doing nothing. But vigorous vibrations or rumbling could mean that your engine is definitely suffering.

If you notice that once you turn the key and your engine starts, and before you even start to drive, it vibrates actively it is best if you get your engine checked as soon as possible.

Often, these problems go unnoticed or the timing belt is never accused of the problem. Often, the result of this would be that your timing belt broke while driving. The best advice is to read your manufacturer’s guide and get your timing belt replaced if it is due even though you think it is working perfectly fine.

Prevention is better than cure. You would eventually have to replace a new one when your existing timing belt breaks so it is best if you get replaced when your car is functioning rather than being too late and having to tow your car to the mechanic.

What Causes A Timing Belt To Break

If your timing belt broke while driving you are surely going to be thinking, why did it break? Even though you did nothing wrong it just snapped in two. Let’s see why timing belts break.

There are 2 main reasons why your timing belt broke while driving.

1. Age And Miles

These are the killers when it comes to a timing belt.

As mentioned earlier the timing belt is made of rubber. Yeah, it is reinforced with nylon but that is not going to make it indestructible. It consists of teeth on one side to keep it fixed to the pulleys and ultimately connect it to the camshaft and the crankshaft. Combined with the heat of the engine and friction with time and miles under it, wear is inevitable.

When the rubber teeth are worn, they are no longer capable of gripping the pullies. This often results in slipping and causes potential damage to the engine. The stress that the timing belt is constantly under could cause stress fractures. These stress fractures build up with time and it is just one strong pull away from snapping in two.

2. Water Pump Seizure

This is the second issue that could potentially be the cause of your timing belt breaking while driving. So what does the water pump has to do with the timing belt? Nothing exactly, they are not connected in any way when the engine functions.

Here the problem is the result of positioning. The timing belt runs through the water pump, as the water pump is located along the path of the timing belt. This would mean if anything does go wrong with the water pump, there is a good chance that it is going to affect the timing belt as well.

When the water pump seizes, that is when the problem starts. When the water pump seizes, the gears stop turning with a strong force that will almost always break the timing belt.

Why does the water pump seize? It could be the result of many problems. Pumps running dry is the most common but it is not limited to that. Foreign objects can enter the pump, low flow operation can cause excessive shaft deflection, or fatigue stresses can cause a shaft to break. Again, a pump with wear to its metal components runs the risk of breaking and causing excessive damage.

Timing Belt vs Timing Chain

After finding out that your timing belt is vital for the functioning of the car, how can your car not have a timing belt? So here’s the deal, if your car doesn’t have a timing belt, then it has a timing chain which is considered better than a timing belt.

All of this started with timing chains, not timing belts. Earlier cars used to have timing chains rather than timing belts. Timing chains are much noisier compared to a timing belt.

At first, automakers used timing chains and timing gears because that was all that was available. Later, timing belts came around and were found to be quieter, and cheaper, but problematic. Broken timing belts have damaged many interference engines due to valve crashes.

Interference designs help engines breathe better by improving engine efficiency, power, fuel economy, and emissions. And this has led modern car makers to move back to stronger and more reliable timing chains over commonly used timing belts.

Timing Belt Broke While Driving, Belt vs Chain – Which One Is Better

Timing Belt Broke While Driving

The answer to this question really depends on what people have been asking. Before the 1980s, the only kind available was timing chains. That was the case until it was gradually replaced in the mid-80s. After the early 90s, almost all car manufacturers used timing belts instead of timing chains.

Compared to timing chains, timing belts are the result of much more modern technology. They are silent and require no lubrication. Unfortunately, they also break. Yes, they last on average about 60,000 to 100,000 miles. But even that is not enough for today’s customers.

It is not necessarily because we look for ways to reduce maintenance. The damage that a broken timing belt can cause is hard to fix. This led to the question, is the paying price of a possibly damaged engine worth it just for some peace and quiet while driving?

Today’s drivers are asking for longevity and reliability much more than silence. So that answers the question. Even though for decades timing belts have been state-of-the-art, the heavier and much noisier timing chains were the better option all along.

And it seems true. This request from drivers was heard among manufacturers and nowadays most modern cars rolling out of the line are equipped with timing chains and not timing belts.

This doesn’t mean timing belts are out of commission. Most cars on the road as of now are equipped with timing belts. It is best if check if you do not already know whether your car is equipped with a timing chain or timing belt.

Timing Belt Replacement Cost

When it comes to timing belt replacement is never going to be cheap. It depends on many factors from labor costs to the model of the car you drive. Often the cost is between $500 to $1000. Though, it can easily add up to several thousand dollars.

Generally, the cost is going to depend on the car you drive. The more common your car is and the abundance of parts in the market is going to dictate the replacement cost. The average cost of a belt kit is usually between $50 and $100. So, if you pick up a belt kit for a cheap price do not mistake it for a steal. Belt kits are cheaper, but the cost adds up when it comes to labor.

For example, if you own a 2003 Honda Accord with a 3.0-liter engine, you will have to pay around $100 for an original factory-made belt kit. If you were to purchase a Dayco belt it is going to cost about $19. If you own a 2002 Toyota Tacoma with a 3.4-liter engine, the belt kit will cost $56 for a factory replacement.

Parts And Labor

This is where the cost adds up. Labor cost differs from region to region. It varies from $70 to $150 per hour. That being said, the average price for a mechanic per hour is $90.

Depending on the car you own, labor time varies as well. Generally, getting a timing belt replaced is going to take anywhere between 2 to upwards of  6 hours.

For a 2005 Volkswagen Passat with a 2.8-liter engine, the estimated labor time is around 4.6 hours. Multiplied with the $90 per hour labor cost, you would end up with a bill of $414 for labor alone.

If you were to drive a 2005 Dodge Neon with a 2.0-liter engine, the estimated labor time is around 2.7 hours. In this case, the labor time is much less but it is still going to add up to $243.

All said and done, even though the cost seems scary, getting a problematic timing belt will end up doing a lot more damage to your engine. If you can spot the symptoms of a faulty timing belt, you will be able to avoid it breaking before it happens. If your timing belt breaks while driving it is best to park it at a safe spot as soon as possible and call a mechanic or towing company and get your timing belt replaced.

FAQs On Timing Belt Broke While Driving

If you’re still curious to learn more about timing belt broke while driving, our FAQs here might help…

What Is A Timing Belt

A timing belt (aka the cambelt, as it’s sometimes called) is a literal reinforced rubber belt that works to synchronize the movement of the camshaft and the crankshaft. This is necessary to ensure that the intake and exhaust valves (which feed the combustion chamber with air and fuel, as well as exhaust out by-product fumes) are timed properly with the movement of the pistons. For example, when the crankshaft is forcing the pistons in its downward cycle (i.e. to move downward), the camshaft needs to open the intake valves and allow air and fuel to enter the combustion chamber to be ignited in the following cycle. This movement is synchronized using the timing belt (or sometimes a timing chain).

How Much Is A Timing Belt

As important as it is for the smooth and reliable running of an engine, a timing belt replacement cost isn’t going to be cheap. In general, replacing a timing belt could be in the range of $500 to $1,000. For the most part, the timing belt itself is pretty cheap, as even OEM ones would cost you around $100. Or, you can even walk away with a new belt for less than $20, if you buy a third-party one. However, the bulk of the cost here comes down to labor. A mechanic will generally require between 2 to 6 hours to replace your timing belt. Then, they’ll have to ensure that the timing is set properly. This alone will raise the total replacement cost by another $200 to $400 or more.

What Is An Interference Engine

An interference engine varies from a non-interference engine in how the pistons as well as intake and exhaust valves co-exist within the engine. With a non-interference engine, the pistons and valves do not cross paths when they move respectively… In other words, the intake and exhaust valves opening, as well as the pistons move up and down. Thus, an interference engine is the opposite, whereby the (intake and exhaust) valves travel far enough within a cylinder into where the pistons normally travel. As such, if a timing belt or chain has failed, and isn’t able to properly synchronize the movement of either the valves or the pistons, it’s possible that both would strike and damage each other.

What Happens When Timing Belt Breaks

Usually, when the timing belt or chain in your car breaks (while the engine is still running), you’ll first hear and experience a loud clattering from the motor. Immediately in the aftermath, the engine would stop running altogether. This is because the timing belt is necessary to synchronize the rotation of the camshaft and crankshaft. Therefore, its role also includes timing the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves, as well as the up and down movement of the pistons. If the belt were to fail, the camshaft’s movement is stopped, while the crankshaft will continue rotating at high RPMs. With that, the pistons could strike the valves, causing very severe internal damage.

What Happens To A Car When The Serpentine Belt Breaks

Some might assume that the serpentine belt isn’t as crucial to a car, given that its main role is to power your car’s accessories. However, you start to realize how vital it is when you consider that the serpentine belt also powers the water pump, power steering pump, and alternator (among others). Therefore, if the serpentine belt breaks, it will cause the water pump to stop working, which means no more coolant circulation. Hence, leading to overheating. Moreover, the seizure of the power steering pump would then deprive you of any power steering, which can be deadly. Moreover, without the alternator, your battery isn’t being charged, leading your car to eventually die.

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