Every tuner's nightmare, especially when dealing with high-compression engines. Catastrophic engine failure basically means "all hell breaking loose" within an engine. It can have singular or multiple causes, but usually concludes with the utter destruction of the entire engine and all of its component parts. Occasionally something may be salvageable, but as a whole, the engine is rendered useless. Due to the explosive, high-pressure nature of internal combustion engines, a stray fragment of metal can have devastating consequences. Occasionally, a stray bird can wreck a jet engine. Common causes of engine failure in cars include:

  • Failing to change the oil, or a failure of an oil pump. A decent amount of clean oil is necessary for an engine to function smoothly. If the oil pump seizes, or a neglectful owner decides to blow off an oil change long enough, the engine can seize, reaching temperatures high enough to literally fuse pistons and cylinders into one. Remember those Castrol Syntec commercials? Usually this is rare, and there will probably be warning signs before it happens. Even so, it's a bad idea to be lazy with oil changes, as dirty oil erodes the components of the engine, lowering its compression ratio and fuel efficiency.
  • Radiator failure, or persistent overheating in general. If the radiator is not functioning properly to cool the engine, the oil within the engine can reach temperatures high enough to lose viscosity. The results will be similar to above.
  • Detonation. Detonation occurs when the fuel/air mixture in the cylinder ignites before it is supposed to. In essense, the mixture explodes before the spark plug provides the spark, which smacks the piston around like a $2 whore (sorry, I had to say it). The result is often a "pinging" noise (depending on the severity of the explosion and where the piston is when it occurs), which is the sound of your piston, bearings, and connecting rods resonating from the intense shockwaves of an uncontrolled explosion. If detonation is sufficient to actually dislodge an engine component, you can at least kiss the cylinder (and probably the whole engine) good bye.
Here's a great example of what could probably be referred to as "Catastrophic Engine Failure." While my friend was driving his 1960s Buick down a Washington freeway, doing about 60-70, he noticed something strange. The 340 that powered his lead sled was suddenly not running. Of course this was not the only thing wrong with it, as the engine had quite effectively exploded.

Now the engine was not in the greatest of conditions, probably in need of a port polishing, new piston rings, sparkplugs, and other general maintenance. Whether or not it was any of this, or someone dropping any sort of additive into his fuel tank, we will never know.

What is important is the aftermath. Nothing was good on the engine anymore. Exhaust manifold, cylinder heads, intake manifold, all fried. What he did discover when he took it to the junkyard was that there were three IHOPpancake sized holes in his engine block. Needless to say, the car was considered totaled, and now rests in the form of a 4'x4' paperweight.

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