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How Long Can Your Car Run Without Oil or Coolant?

It’s not entirely incorrect to say cars run on carefully-timed explosions. That’s why regular maintenance is so important. But your car’s engine doesn’t just rely on mechanical parts. Without vital fluids like engine oil and coolant, the motor wouldn’t run properly, if it ran at all. And as Carwow recently demonstrated, improper oil and coolant care can lead to destruction.

Why does the engine need oil and coolant?

As ItStillRuns explains, engine oil has a few duties within your car’s engine. The most important is lubrication.

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Even diesel engines’ pistons rotate at several thousand RPM. Then there’s the valves, valve springs, camshafts, and so on. There are a lot of parts inside your engine moving against each other at high speeds, which causes friction. Too much friction, Road & Track explains, and nothing would move. A slippery inner coating of engine oil keeps everything moving smoothly.

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As the oil is pumped throughout the engine, it comes in contact with various metal surfaces, rubber gaskets, and other components. Which is where its secondary duties come into play. Engine oil also helps clean and protect your engine’s internals from things like corrosion or carbon deposits. It also helps regulate engine temperature, by carrying heat away from certain areas.

But it’s the coolant, as the name suggests, that does the bulk of the temperature management, Popular Mechanics explains. And not just by preventing the engine from overheating and causing damage. Coolant also prevents the engine from getting too cold and freezing up. That’s why, Cars.com, it’s also commonly called ‘antifreeze.’

Some classic cars, like Porsche 911s, are air-cooled and don’t have coolant. Some motorcycles are still air-cooled. But modern cars, and most new bikes, have radiators which depend on water and antifreeze to function.

What happens if you run an engine without oil or coolant?

Running a Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Peugeot 206 without engine oil or coolant
Running a Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Peugeot 206 without engine oil or coolant | Carwow via Instagram

Carwow host Mat Watson wanted to see how long a car could run without any engine oil or coolant. So, he gathered 3 cars destined for the scrap heap and drained them of both fluids. The cars chosen were a Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Peugeot 206. And to speed up their demise, all 3 had a rock placed on their accelerator pedals to keep their engines at redline.

After horrible grinding noises, the Focus and 206 caved rather quickly. After about 20 seconds, the Focus’s engine died and refused to fire back up. Soon after, the Peugeot’s engine started smoking; it died after 47 seconds. The Honda, though, proved surprisingly durable.

After about 2 minutes sitting at redline, the Civic’s engine drops to about 4000 RPM. Where it continued to sit for several more minutes. Watson had to get behind the wheel and drive the car to get it to die. Time of death: 6 minutes, 22 seconds.

Even more incredible was what Watson did next. Using Mentos and Coke, he tried to resurrect the Civic. And it did indeed fire back up…briefly.

What does this mean for me?

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To be fair, it’s unlikely most car owners will find themselves in a situation where their vehicle has lost all its engine oil and coolant. However, even on expensive cars like a Rolls-Royce Phantom, coolant leaks and radiator failures aren’t unheard-of. The same is true of oil leaks.

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In addition, Carwow’s demo shows how important these fluids are to keeping your car running properly. Both engine oil and coolant need to be changed periodically because both degrade and become dirtier over time. Especially in high-performance cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, following the recommended service intervals keeps the engine in good shape.

That being said, modern synthetic oils can generally last for 5000 miles—and some even longer. And coolant service intervals, Popular Mechanics reports, are even longer. Though no fluid is truly a ‘lifetime’ fluid.

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