In order to keep the parts of your car moving, you need engine oil. It’s essential. Engine oil, also known as motor oil, is necessary for lubricating all the parts within the engine and preventing friction buildup. Friction would be the death of your engine otherwise. Unfortunately, some cars run out of oil before their owner notices, and you may get that car on a used lot. So how do you tell if your engine is damaged from having no oil previously? What kind of signs should you look out for?

Damage can show up in a number of ways—grinding, seizing, or even a burning smell—so you need to know what to look for.

**Note** – A quick hello to anyone reading this, I’m Alastair and this is my site Synthetic I started this site to help people with their oil questions, and hopefully what you’re about to read will help answer your questions. This page may include affiliate links to the likes of Amazon, which if you make a purchase I qualify to earn a (typically small) commission. Don’t worry as this won’t cost you anything, the likes of Amazon pay any commissions. Thank you in advance for your support as this helps bring you more (hopefully) helpful content.

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How to Tell If Your Engine is Damaged From Having No Oil

Having your vehicle running on zero oil is never a grand idea. Why? Because it is a surefire way of ruining the engine. While the signs may not be obvious, here are some of the ones that you may experience should your engine be damaged:

Reduced Performance and MPG

One of the first signs of damage you may notice is that your vehicle is sluggish. Maybe it gets bogged down during long drives, and you see the gas tank level descend to E more rapidly. Reduced performance can point to many issues, but you should never take it lightly. As soon as you can, check the current oil level in your vehicle, consider an oil change if it’s nearing that time, and also look for any metal shavings in the oil when you do change it.

Grinding, Knocking, or Clunking

Strange sounds resonating from the engine can mean a couple of things, but ticking, crunching, grinding, clunking, and knocking should fill you with dread. These sounds mean your engine may have been damaged from low or no oil.

As mentioned earlier, engine oil is the lubrication that keeps metal-on-metal action from happening. All that grinding and scraping wears down the moving parts in the motor prematurely.

Burnt Oil Smell

Do you smell the acrid odor of burning oil inside the car while you are driving it? Stop everything. Pull over. Turn your car off. Wait for about 20-30 minutes before checking the oil levels. That gives the engine some time to cool. If the oil is low, you know that you have been driving too long with low oil and could have caused some damage.

Burning oil is also a sign that you may have an oil leak somewhere.

Regardless, it is best to call a tow truck or top off the oil and get to the nearest auto body shop available. Your car is probably going to need some work done.

Smoking After Oil Change

Usually coupled with an overheating engine is smoking under the hood. If you see smoke, stop the car and turn off the engine. Smoke coming from the engine generally means there is a fire.

Do try to be diligent and not let the vehicle reach this point. Smoking indicates that there is already heavy damage done to the engine. If your vehicle is pushed any further, you may end up seizing the engine, which is, frankly, the end of your ride.

You may also see smoke after changing the oil, which may sometimes be the result of engine damage, such as a blown head gasket. Overfilling the oil tank, using the wrong kind of oil, or spilling oil may also cause smoking.

Engine Won’t Turn Over

Is your engine no longer starting up? A seized engine is usually the result of overheating or a lack of engine oil for lubrication. Essentially, when an engine seizes, it is the same as a bodily seizure, where everything locks up. The electronics may still work, but the engine? That’s done. Most of the time, repairing an engine that won’t turn over or respond is expensive and usually costs way more than the vehicle it is in.

This is the worst-case scenario when it comes to damages from having no oil.

Metal Shavings in Engine Oil

Here is some good news: metal shavings are usually present in motor oil at microscopic levels. That is why engine oil filters are required—to help clear out contaminants that would damage the engine. Now for the bad news: larger metal shavings may indicate accelerated wear on various surfaces within the engine. When there is any overheating or friction in the engine, the metal parts wear at one another, chipping away pieces that end up in the oil. As the pieces move through the system, usually carried through the oil, the metal shavings can cause even more damage.

Even worse, once the damage has been done, you will see metal shavings in every single oil change you do. It will not go away.

Newly Formed Oil Leaks

Did you accidentally let your car go too long without an oil change and now found yourself with a newly sprung leak? You may be thinking that a couple of loose droplets here and there are not a big deal, right? Sadly, no. Even a tiny oil leak is problematic.

Now, bear in mind that an oil leak does not always mean your engine has been irreversibly damaged by driving around with no oil. It could mean that you overfilled the oil tank, have a damaged oil filter, a poor filler cap, a cracked oil pan gasket, or a broken valve cover gasket. Unfortunately, leaks may also mean cracks in the engine. Once oil leaks, it will continue to damage the engine by degrading various seals, hoses, radiator, and HVAC system elements.

How Long Can My Engine Run Without Oil?

Here is a number that will probably blow your mind: 30 minutes is all it takes to damage an engine with no oil.

Yes, 30 minutes. That’s it.

Now, there is no ticking clock on the engine that lets it know when to start breaking down. However, 30 minutes tends to be around the time when the final bits of oil run dry and your engine starts to degrade rapidly. The heat builds, mounting stress on an engine that is already overworked.

Of course, how long an engine lasts without oil also depends on the quality of the motor. A high-end vehicle may be able to make it a little longer, enabling you to get to a mechanic before it seizes. A car with over 150,000 miles? It may take 5 minutes.

All the more reason to stay on top of those oil changes!


You now know how to tell if your engine is damaged from having no oil. Some engines may develop strange noises, reduce fuel economy and performance, new oil leaks, or maybe so damaged that they don’t turn over at all. If your car’s engine has been damaged from previously driving around with no oil, be sure to not let it happen again. The damage already done has consequences. The next time, your car may not survive.


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