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car radiator smoke coming from engine

Car Radiator Smells Like It’s Burning? 4 Possible Causes

Have you ever put your pedal to the metal only to realise that your car radiator smells like it’s burning? We have all been there. This is a widespread problem that can be seen in several cars everywhere around the world. Unfortunately, it is usually caused by bad driving habits or improper maintenance. Luckily for you, the problems can be solved easily if they are caught on early.

If your car radiator smells like it’s burning, the cause may not be associated with the radiator actually. But instead, the reason can be a slipping timing belt, worn-out brakes/clutch plates, or even an oil leak. These can easily be solved by replacing the concerned part. Otherwise, there may be some quick fixes as well. Let us take a deeper look into each of these.

It is important to note that you may see smoke or smell something burning in other parts of your car. However, this post will concern itself with the front part of the car, near the radiator. Of course, this means we are considering a front-wheel drive, but the same analogy can be applied to a rear-wheel-drive as well. As mentioned before, while the cause may seem to be the radiator, the problem is usually associated with other parts.

Oil Leak

engine oil cap
Engine Oil Cap | Image Credits: Pixabay

One of the most common reasons that your car radiator smells like it’s burning is if you have an oil leak. The engine operates at extremely elevated temperatures. The engine oil itself can measure about 120 degrees Celsius or more depending on how you are driving the car. Hence, the metallic engine surface is way hotter than this. The temperatures of the exhaust easily cross 500 degrees Celsius.

Therefore, if some drops of the oil leak onto the hot metallic parts of the engine, then it burns easily. This generally leads to dense smoke near your engine bay, and it may seem like your radiator is burning. It also generates that tell-tale smell of something burning in your car.

Oil leaks frequently occur from a few common places. These are usually the sensors attached to the engine (like a cam or crank position sensor). Alternatively, it could be from the oil pan plug or even the inlet for oil. Very rarely does an oil leak occur due to a leak in some gasket.

The simple solution is to then track down this leak and tighten the concerning part. Sometimes, you may even have to replace it if the threads are worn out. If you are unable to find a leak, maybe your local mechanic would be able to help you out.

Worn Clutch Plate

car clutch plate
Clutch Plate | Image Credits: Pixabay

Clutches help separate the engine and the transmission. It is also what makes driving manual transmission so annoying, especially in traffic. Good clutch control is no less than art. Thus, some people tend to wear out their clutch very easily.

This high wear usually happens if you have a bad driving style where you do not engage or disengage the clutch properly. Or, you might have tried to climb a steep slope from a standstill condition and worn your clutch out.

In either case, the wear leads to loss of friction leading to slip. This slip generates heat and consequently the burning smell you get from the front of your car. You might see some smoke too in severe cases.

To know if this is the problem, try flooring the pedal on an open road. If the car doesn’t speed up as fast as your rev counter, then there is a clutch issue. Fortunately, the problem is easy to solve – just replace the clutch plate! While this may seem like an easy task, it is best to let a mechanic handle it unless you are confident you have the tools and skills.

Worn Brake Pads

worn out brake pads
Smoke from overheated brakes | Image Credits: Pixabay

On a similar note, another problem that might occur is wearing your brake pads out. Since these also work on the principle of friction, wear them out and your car radiator smells like it’s burning. Just like the clutch, this is often caused due to a bad driving style. If you are constantly jamming your brakes and somehow trying to accelerate too, you might end up wearing your brake pads out.

Alternatively, you might forget that your parking brake is not completely disengaged. Trust me, it happens far more often than any of us would care to admit. This would allow us to drive normally at slow speeds but wear the brakes out.

If you feel like your car is now taking a longer distance to brake, then this is probably the case. Just like the clutch, you can simply replace these brakes and be done with your problems. These are a tad bit simpler to replace too.

Slipping Timing Belt

timing belt
Photo by Envato Elements

Continuing with the trend of friction, the timing belt is another part that works on it. It is responsible for moving all the auxiliary parts of the engine like the AC compressor or the water pump. If for some reason, this belt starts to slip on their respective pulleys, then the same thing as above happens. Fortunately, in this case, it is not the driver’s fault.

The most common reason for this belt to slip is generally that the tension is low in the belt. Old cars required the tension of this belt to be reset manually every time it was serviced. However, new ones have an auto-tensioner. Thus, if the auto-tensioner is working incorrectly, then the slipping might lead to a burning smell.

Now, when you have this problem, you will generally hear a sharp high-pitched noise when the car suddenly changes its speed. This is when the rubber belt rubs against the plastic to produce this sound. To repair this, sometimes the tensioner can just be repaired and you may have to replace just the belt. Other times, it becomes important to switch not only the belt but get a new auto-tensioner too. Luckily, since this is one of the peripherals, it is really easy to DIY.

Final Thoughts

As you can see the reason your car radiator smells like it’s burning is that there is actually something burning near there. It is okay to confuse the source with the radiator. Hopefully, this article helps you understand some of the ways you can use to pinpoint the problem. Once the problem is identified, it is only a matter of time before it is fixed. Since you would be dealing with some very hot substances here, remember to be cautious. Otherwise, a mechanic would be able to help you solve the problem in a jiffy. We hope that your car is fixed ASAP and that you don’t need to roast marshmallows over it anytime soon!


Abheek is an Engineering student with a background in Automotive Engineering and Sustainable Energy Engineering. He has worked in Engine Development for a couple of years but is quite interested in Electric Vehicles too! In his free time, he likes to use his knowledge to help others with their car problems. Other times, he can be found following the sport of Formula 1.

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