1991 Toyota Camry – Overheat and Emits Smoke from the Exhaust

Reader Question: I have a 1991 Toyota Camry that has recently been overheating and occasionally emits smoke from the exhaust. This car has about 98,000 miles on it. We just replaced the distributor (which I am not sure it really needed) and spark plugs.

Without looking at the car, a local mechanic told my daughter that if the car has the symptoms mentioned above it will probably only last her another two months. He seemed very definite about it.

I wish it were not so hard to find an honest mechanic! Your advice would be appreciated and if you know someone in the Houston area, we could take the car to that would be even better.

Thank you,


Hey Jud,

Hi Judy,

First off, thanks for taking the time to get am auto insurance quote. I am not sure what your deductible amount was, but you really should think about carrying a US$1,000 deductible.

The savings can be huge and you only pay the deductible amount if your insurance company pays the claim. Therefore, you have to have an accident, and the claim has to be determined to be your fault and paid by your carrier.

I carry $1,000 on all my personal vehicles. You would or should not claim anything less than $1,000 anyway for fear of a rate increase or being dropped altogether.

On to your question. Can you tell what color the smoke is? This is critical, if the smoke is WHITE, then it probably means there is an internal coolant leak inside the engine, which is not good.

Therefore, I really need to know WHEN does it overheat, has someone pressure tested the cooling system recently to find the overheating problem and what color is the exhaust smoke.

White smoke USUALLY indicates there is a “blown” head gasket problem or some other severe problem inside the engine allowing the coolant to get inside where the spark plugs are, which is why there is steam out the tailpipe because the spark plugs are trying to burn that coolant that has leaked inside the cylinder.

There are a few articles I want you to read as well to help you determine what is happening here:

Engine Over Heating Problems

This one about an easy to use additive for head gasket types of problems:

Engine Block Sealer Additive Tips

And this article is about exhaust smoke:

Exhaust Smoke Colors and What They Mean

Get back to me once you get more data and have had a mechanic pressure test the cooling system for leaks.

By the way, two years ago, I sold my family auto repair shop my grandfather started in the Houston Heights in 1937 but the same mechanics are still working there and that is where I take my personal vehicles for repair.

I do not think you need to drive into town just yet though. Get your pressure test first, and maybe try the additive like I recommend on that second link and we can go from

Reader Follow Up


Well, your e-mail was every bit worth the time it took me to get that quote! I know you’re right about the deductible, but initially the finance company required it to be $500 or less.

My son’s truck is still being financed but I could probably raise the deductible on mine. Thanks for mentioning that. I’m usually a pretty thrifty shopper, so the rate I have now is less than all the ones quoted. The first one came pretty close, though!

To answer your question about the color of the smoke, it’s white and there’s apparently quite a bit of it when it happens. I spoke with my daughter in greater detail about the problem last night and she hasn’t been able to figure out a pattern.

She drove to Galveston a few days ago (40 miles) and right after she exited the freeway it started smoking. She mentions an odor too but can’t describe it. The mechanic she described the symptoms to who was convinced her car had two months to live told her to keep adding water to the radiator if she wanted to get even that much out of the car.

A few days ago, the car died on her and wouldn’t restart. She left it where it was and went back the next morning to try and start it again. It was turning over but wouldn’t catch. We had it towed to a shop that did some work on it previously. The mechanic there called and asked if I was “sitting down,” so I knew bad news was coming. He told me it needed a new distributor and spark plugs and said the job would cost us $625.00. I called around and got a couple of other quotes as well as checking out the cost of a distributor and found he was extremely high. Based on the other pricing I’d obtained I asked him to do it for $450.00 and he agreed. For all I know, it just needed a distributor cap or a wire! I also knew the job couldn’t involve that much labor since I didn’t give him the okay until after 4:00 p.m. (he still had to order the part) and the car was ready first thing the next morning.

Thanks again for all the info. I printed out the articles and the sealant one definitely seems worth a try.

How much should I expect to pay for a pressure test on the cooling system?

Austin Davis

My Response


I would expect to pay less than $65 for a cooling system pressure test. Be sure to mention to the mechanic you believe there might be a small internal engine coolant leak and that you are continually adding coolant and you have white smoke coming out of the tailpipe, so they don’t just pressure test it looking for an external leak from a radiator hose or something and slam the hood.

If you are ready to just try something, buy a can of K&W Engine Block Sealer from your local auto parts store and have your mechanic follow MY directions on how to use it.

I have not have success using it the way the can suggests. Using this product WON’T hurt anything, so you really don’t have much to loose, personally I would try it.


Austin Davis

Posted in: Exhaust Smoke

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