Do I replace timing belt in my used car, not knowing service history?
September 19, 2019 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I just bought a used car. According to the maintenance schedule, the timing belt should have been replaced by a previous owner, but I don't know if it actually was. Should I get it replaced just to be safe?

I bought a 2002 Volvo with 103K miles. My mechanic noticed that the 105K service is coming up, and told me that the timing belt is supposed to be replaced either at that service or after ten years, whichever comes first. In this case that would have been 2012, but I don't know if this was actually done or not. My mechanic said there was no easy way to tell since the timing belt is hard to get at so it would involve taking apart much of the engine.

The person I bought the car from only had it for a couple of years, so they wouldn't have been the one doing this repair. They didn't know if the previous owner had had it done, but they described that person as "exceptionally diligent"; I asked if they could contact the previous owner but they said they had no way of doing so.

I got a CarFax report on the car which lists service history. The only relevant entry seems to be in 2013: "Vehicle serviced - Recommended maintenance performed - Maintenance inspection completed - 45,000 mile service performed - Tire condition and pressure checked - Exterior lights checked". Recommended maintenance at that point would have included changing the timing belt, so this seems to suggest it was changed, but it doesn't actually say that. The shop listed as having performed the service appears to have gone out of business, so I can't contact them to ask. Also, the car had pretty low mileage (45K) at that point, so maybe the owner didn't think it was necessary.

Also relevant is that I may be moving in a few months and may or may not keep the car, but can't be sure yet. Since this car may not end up being a long term investment I definitely want to avoid expensive unnecessary repairs. But having recently been in a car crash in which injury was only avoided by extreme good luck, I'm very wary of the risk of driving with a possibly worn timing belt which might snap at any point. And I suppose if I do sell it, I might get a better price with a new belt.

Is there any way to find out whether the belt was replaced? Should I replace it in any case? What would you do?
posted by zeri to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
Your mechanic should be able to inspect the belt and tell you if it's in immediate danger of breaking, or if you can safely let it ride for while.
posted by COD at 6:44 PM on September 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

Is it one of the models in this list of cars with interference engines? If so, the engine damage from a broken belt would be "catastrophic." If not (I'd check around to be sure that list is accurate and complete), the damage, if any, would be much more contained.
posted by bricoleur at 6:58 PM on September 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Exact model and engine type would be helpful information in this situation. If you have a 4 cylinder of that vintage, if i recall correctly, the shroud that covers the top of timing belt should be relatively easy to remove assuming you have a basic metric socket set and mechanical aptitude. If you can remove it then you should be able to see if the rubber looks new-ish or 17 years old-ish. Look up "replacing timing belt on 2002 volvo s40 or whatever model you have" and just watch how they remove the cover.
posted by dudemanlives at 6:58 PM on September 19, 2019

It's an S60 T2.4, and it's on the list on vehicles with interference engines.
posted by zeri at 7:11 PM on September 19, 2019

Check out this link.

At about 1:00 the guy removes two screws and pulls off the upper timing belt shroud in about 20 seconds. It looks like they are either hex socket screws or torx screws.

If you see a glossy belt or any cracking on the outer surface of the belt you should replace it. A good belt should have no cracking and a new belt will have a matte surface. Additionally I would run the engine with the cover off for a minute to see all of the belt surface not just the top.

Of course you could just have a mechanic take a look and it shouldn't cost you much, if anything at all, since a mechanic should be able to get it apart in short order. An unscrupulous mechanic though may just say you need a new belt regardless as it would probably be over $1000 to replace it. So just be aware of their motivations going into it.
posted by dudemanlives at 7:30 PM on September 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

here's another link

it's for a v70, but it's pretty much the same process, see 0:50 for a different angle on the shroud removal. On second look they're definitely torx screws, probably T25 or T30.

Volvo modular engines are great units, they'll run for a good long time with proper maintenance.
posted by dudemanlives at 7:49 PM on September 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely confirm if your engine is interference or not. If it is interference, that means the pistons will touch the valves (and bend them, and maybe hole a piston) if the belt breaks. This means you need to be sure the belt does not break. Ideally, you will see (if you check as described above) a non-standard belt (ie not the brand that comes(came) from the factory). Otherwise you are taking a punt on what the belt looks like. I don't think I would do that on an interference engine.

In that case I would either unload the car, or spend the money and get the belt changed.
posted by GeeEmm at 3:19 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

If it's a Volvo it's definitely Torx.

Sometimes mechanics will write the mileage on the shroud when they change the timing belt. This was the case on my 2002 S60.

(At least from that era, the Volvo S60, V70, and XC70 are almost identical mechanically. The XC90 and S80 are quite similar too. S40 is the odd one out since it's a different platform.)
posted by neckro23 at 9:27 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote for have it checked by a trusted mechanic. I don't recall the exact cost, but I am pretty certain having the timing belt replaced on my 2002 S60 T5 was considerably less than $1000 at an independent Volvo mechanic.
posted by coppertop at 10:01 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take the car to the dealer and ask if a *mechanic* (not a service writer) can take a peek and determine for you. Although, as mentioned earlier, they may have motives too.

Usually what shows up on an old timing belt is on the inside of the belt (the under side) will have a few teeth knocked down and look very worn.
posted by iXod at 10:07 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, consider using an original Volvo replacement belt. Valve timing is one of the most critical systems in an engine and aftermarket belts can be out-of-spec which, while it won’t cause valves and pistons to collide, can reduce engine performance. Air filters, light bulbs and tires don’t have to come from the dealer but critical timing elements like this shouldn’t be trusted to Chinese “quality”. IMHO.
posted by iXod at 10:18 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I checked the engine bay for stickers etc. saying the belt was replaced and don't see any, but I haven't opened the shroud.

Just a note for others with similar questions, since I didn't know this was an option: Volvo keeps service records for their cars, so you can call them and ask. I did this and their records don't show the belt being replaced, which of course could mean either that it hasn't been, or that it was replaced but they weren't notified. I'm guessing the former is more likely.
posted by zeri at 3:37 PM on September 20, 2019

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