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A great way to keep tabs on your pickup truck’s mechanical health is to, in the words of Gandalf, “always follow your nose.” Smells are usually a great first hint that something funny may be happening to your truck. While not every smell means something bad, usually, a burning smell isn’t great. Here are 10 reasons your truck has a burning smell. 

Guys putting truck fire out.
Firefighters extinguish a truck on fire | AWAD AWAD/AFP via Getty Images

Air conditioner compressor clutch

You might not have known that your air condition compressor could have a clutch, but it surely can. As one writer at Motortrend reports, there are a few different car parts that have friction surfaces that are meant to be eventually worn down. Your truck’s brakes and clutch are two of the most common of these types of parts. Not unlike a transmission’s clutch, air conditioner compressors also have clutches, and they can burn up like anything else.

Fan belt

The fan belt is a common source of a burning smell coming from your car or truck. The engine doesn’t only drive the wheels of the vehicle; it also drives a number of other systems under the hood using belts. The systems include the water pump, alternator, air-injection pump (smog pump), power steering pump, and the aforementioned air conditioning compressor. Any one of these may have a worn belt that slips or a seized part that will shred a belt, often causing a burning rubber smell. 

Clutch Lining 

MotorTrend says that there are five different types of mechanical smells:  friction material, lubricant, rubber, fuel, and coolant. All of these can make a burning smell. As we mentioned previously, there are some surfaces that are made to withstand certain frictions, like the brakes, transmission, clutch linings, and the AC compressor. If you smell burning coming from your truck when you are using your manual transmission clutch on a steep incline, you could very well be smelling your clutch lining. This doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem, but you might be slipping the clutch a touch too much. 

Burning oil

This source of a burning smell coming from your truck is usually found in older vehicles that might leak oil. Leaking oil is never a good thing, but some cases are certainly worse than others. While you may not have ever personally smelled the difference, burning oil has a distinctly different smell profile than that of brake or clutch burning. Oil smoke is often a blue-gray haze emitted from your vehicle. 

Just because you smell the oil burn and see the smoke doesn’t mean there’s a problem though. One of the most common causes of this is a sloppy oil change or some other fluid change that spilled on something like the manifold or block or any other car part that gets hot. 

Brake lining

woman covering her mouth as trucks drive by
A pedestrian covers her nose and mouth in Bangkok as trucks pass by | Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images

This smell is similar to that of a burning clutch lining. However, you will always know your brake smell because it will come after a moment of hard braking. If the brake lining burns well enough, you might catch a whiff of another smell when your brakes stop working.

It’s also worth noting that just because you smell burning brakes, it doesn’t mean it’s coming from your truck. MotorTrend points out that often times semi-truck drivers who own their own tractor will use the trailer’s brakes to save wear and tear on their personal brakes. It is not uncommon to smell those brakes on a long downhill section of interstate. 

Electrical wiring

Poor wiring is always a strong place to fire a burning smell or a full-blown fire. It is not uncommon, especially in garage-built cars, to have a section of spliced wire cause a wee bit of burning. Our cars and trucks are full of powerful electrical currents. If the wrong wire is used in the right place, you’ll eventually (or maybe very quickly) experience a fire. This is particularly common in older cars and trucks

Coolant leak

Hot coolant doesn’t burn or even really smoke, but if it leaks on a hot pipe, it will still emit a distinctive odor that sort of smells like hot butterscotch if it were made by a witch or some other sister creature from which you would never dream of taking butterscotch from. 

This often comes from a busted hose or other pieces of your cooling system. However, coolant goes to most major places in your truck’s mechanical system, which means it could be anything from a mild problem with a hose to a major issue like a blown head gasket. 

What do you do if there’s a Burning smell coming from your car? 

If you ever smell burning from a car or truck, find a safe place to pull over, pop the hood, and see if you can find an obvious cause for the smell. Look for smoke, fluid, or any other signs that something isn’t right. If you can’t find the source and the smell continues, call a tow truck and get it checked out.