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Triumph TR3 - Blowing Blue/White Smoke

Here's my smokey tale of woe...

My '60 TR3A had been running well enough, but with a slight miss and a niggling problem with points pitting (condenser replaced, no change). Last night I decided to clean up the distributor and plugs, as well as check the vacuum advance mechanism. I discovered that the screw mounting the condenser was binding against the lower plate and preventing the vacuum advance from rotating the plates. An extra washer and it was clear. But I digress.

After checking and resetting several valves, cleaning the points and plugs and setting the timing, I went for a test drive. Nothing unusual, but I realized I had forgotten to reattach the vaccum pipe to the distributor advance unit. I returned to the garage, hooked up the pipe, then backed out for another test drive. This time, I noticed loads of white/blue smoke coming from the tailpipe. Back into the garage to observe the smoke. Billowy, I would say.

A little background: Upon pulling the old plugs earlier, I noticed a slight shine to the number-four plug, indicating oil fouling. The other three looked normal. After the smoke appeared, I pulled the number four plug and noticed a considerable stream of white smoke coming from the plug hole. Not good, I'm thinking.

After rechecking the valves this morning, a compression test (engine warm, three plugs in) revealed 185 in #4,170 in #3, 160 in #2, 170 in #1. Rechecking #4 brought a reading of 160. After squirting oil in the cylinder, #4 went back up to 185 again. I'm guessing oil seeping into #4 after engine shutdown brought the initial 185 reading.

There is considerable blue/white smoke upon start up. It then thins out a bit, but remains consistent at idle and on revving the engine.

Any clues as to what I'm experiencing? Any other checks to help with a diagnosis? I'm curious why the smoke appeared all of a sudden, but I suppose when stuff happens, it can happen quickly.

Many thanks in advance for all assistance.

Bill Stagg
1960 TR3A
Bill Stagg

Bill - It's been a long time. I suspect that the valve guides for #4 cylinder must be badly worn and oil is draining down between the guide ID and the valve stem OD. I say this because I think your compression readings seem SUPER - with and without the oil !

Have you ever had the head converted for use with lead-free "petrol" ? If not, then it's time. Pull the head this winter, take it to an engine re-build shop and have them do it. You may be asked to buy 8 new valves for lead-free and 8 new guides (for lead-free) from a TR parts supplier. But let him use his own tooling to cut into the cast iron head because he will have the circular inserts that match his own tooling. Just this week, I heard of another case where a TR3A owner had an insert fall down because it wasn't in tight enough and it hammered his valve as well as the head.

If you need more info, come on back.

Don Elliott - The cancer is still in remission and I'm waiting to be called in for a bone marrow transplant.

Don Elliott

For some reason, I'm thinking head gasket. What does the smoke smell like? If it's blue, I guess it's oil.

Is it running well? Maybe just a good long run will clear things out. Maybe switch #4 plug to a different location to test. Anyway, do some sleuthing before you tear it down too far.

Tom & Bill - I too have given this more thought and I agree that the head gasket might be leaking water (or the antifreeze/water mix) into the #4 cylinder to cause the smoke. But whether it's the head gasket or a valve guide, the head will still have to be removed.

Don Elliott

Don and Tom,

Just got back from a trip to Washington, D.C. W sends regards, but not much else.

Thanks to you both for the guidance. I'm warming up to the idea of the blown head gasket. I did notice some wetness at the tailpipe after restarting the engine following the compression test. I assumed it was oil from the squirt into #4 cylinder. After being gone three days I can now see that it was more likely water with some carbon/soot coloring. That suggests head gasket, I'm thinking.

Soooo...I'm getting for my first head removal (sans guillotine). I could really use your good guidance on this one. A few questions:

1. What's the best bet to use for a replacement head gasket?
2. Given the mileage since the PO's rebuild (12K), are there other items to address, inspect or replace while I'm in there?
3. Will the head studs will need replacement, or can they be inspected for wear or stretch?
4. Other than a head gasket and possibly replacement studs, should any other parts be ordered as a matter of course?

Don, it has been a while, but don't think I haven't been having a blast in the TR. It's been a great summer. I'm so pleased to hear you have the demon at bay. May your transplant number come up soon and at your convenience.

Happily, the PO had the engine converted for unleaded gas. Yippee!

Thanks gents.

Bill Stagg

You could try retorquing, just to see what happens. My old TR books recommend retorquing anyway after a time. Also decoking (cleaning the tops of the pistons and the combustion chambers) occasionally. You'll need the whole head set, the intake and exhaust manifolds will have to come loose. I think FelPro is on top of things gasketwise, don't know if they have a TR set or not. Payen seems to be a good company from the UK, I think. I didn't replace the head studs on either of my rebuilds.

I still think you should give the car a good long run if it's running well. There might just be a residual from your compression test, a ring might have gotten a piece of carbon stuck under it, a bunch of niggling possibilities. #4 plug may not be firing, for instance, for a few different reasons. Not knowing the cars history at all is a big disadvantage for us long distance diagnosers. I hate to jinx it, but the tractor engine has been so trouble free for me, it may just be the car needs to run for a while and it will come back to normal. Watch the fluids and oil pressure and temp, of course. I'd hate for you to go through the work and expense of pulling the head for nothing. If you take a good whiff of the smoke, it will tell you as much as anything about whether it's oil or antifreeze. Also which fluid is disappearing from its sump/reservoir.

I've been driving a TR4 with an unknown engine history for the last 3 years, no engine probs, it just seems to get better as I drive it. I had a TR3 with unknown engine that ran fine for the year I owned it. I have 2 TR3's at the moment that I have worked on the engines, drove for a few years, then stored. They have come to life easily when I decide to run them again.

Don has been much more closely associated with TR experts than I have. He also has a much nicer car than any of mine, and has worked on more (every?) system on the cars. If he can't give you an answer, I'll bet he knows 20 people that can. So keep in touch, you can lick this deal. It is nice not to have to fix it immediately for transportation.

I'm getting ready to change to thin oil for the winter and put the top back on the TR4.

Bill - I have always used the original type head copper sheathed gasket. Some have said recently that they use it dry. But I have always used that dark brown gasket goo on both sides. It's hard to get off but it seems to work.

Use the same studs. You don't need to remove them from the head. Re-torque it down after a certain time/distance as recommended.

I blew lots of head gasgets because my TR was built in Feb. 1958 and it came without the cardboard air deflectors. This caused it to overheat - especially going up Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid, NY. When I did the restoration from 1987 to 1990, I put in an air deflector for the first time. I also made sure the head was flat and not warped. I had a machine shop skim it flat again.

Also I bought higher nuts for the head studs from Ken Gillanders at British Frame and Engine in Temple city, Calif. E-mail : - Ken explained that 1/2" high nuts have 10 full threads while his that the racers use are 3/4" high with 15 threads so they can be torqued to higher than spec. I go with the original spec but have never had it leak in 15 summers (87,000 miles). But they doc me concours points at TRA for the higher nuts.

Don Elliott

Voila! The head is now off the TR3A and, sho 'nuff, the gasket was damaged at the left rear corner of number 4 cylinder. The wash of water and anti-freeze through the cylinder appears to have cleaned up the top of that piston nicely.

I've cleaned up the head and block surfaces by careful scraping and wiping. Now comes the next barrage of questions:

1. Can I clean the carbon off the piston crowns with them in the cylinders? If so, what's the right treatment?

2. Same question for the valve faces and cylinder head. How best to get the carbon off?

3. What is the thread size of the coarse end of the head bolts entering the block? How about the studs for the manifold?

4. What's the right approach on reinstalling the head bolts? Just lube with motor oil or use a threadlocker? It seemed that some type of goo was on my head bolts as they came out.

5. Any other cleaning tips while I have the head on the bench?

The good news is that the cylinder head measures flat across the board. I'm attributing the blown head gasket to several bouts of overheating during the past year. The day before all hell broke loose two weeks ago found me in stop and go traffic for an hour. That may have been the heat that broke the levee, but I kept an eye on the temp gauge and cut in the electric fan to take care of the heat. Maybe number 4 cylinder was not paying attention.

For what it's worth, here's how I got the head off. After taking off the head bolt nuts, I applied penetrant to each bolt until it was no longer absorbed. I then removed all but three of the head bolts. I then loosened the remaining three bolts just a tad to be sure they were no longer binding against the holes in the head. The head then came straight up and out guided on the remaining three head bolts.

Not official procedure, but it seemed to work slick. That head was not moving with ten bolts through it.

Many thanks to Don and Tom for the good guidance on this project.

Bill Stagg

HI Bill-You must lead a charmed life as removing the head can be a major pain because the studs tend to corrode to the head. I would suspect the head came off easily because the PO had removed it in the not too distant past. I like to wire brush the studs and coat the non threaded portion (and the end that screws into the block) with never-seize to make future removal as easy (maybe that is what the PO used). Check theads for stretching by screwing on a nut and ensuring that it doesn't bind. The end of the stud that screws into the block is 1/2"-13 NC and the mainfold studs are 3/8" NC, I believe. When replacing the studs in the block, make sure they are fully seated. Also, as the manual states, don't turn the crank without using a socket or stack of washers to retain the liners from moving. If the seal at the base of the liners is disturbed, coolant will leak into the pan. Don't ask how I know. You might want to check that the liners are about .002" abouve the block using a straight edge and feeler gauge. As you have found out, TR heads can tolerate overheating better than some other British marques. In my youthfull ignorance, I broke a fan belt on the freeway and continued to drive for about 30 miles with the temp gauge pegged and didn't suffer any dire consequences. Try that in a MGB.
Berry Price
BTP Price

Since you are in there, here's a heads up. One engine that I rebuilt had a huge amount of rust/crap built up between the block and sleeve on the far backside of the engine. That (could) be the source of overheating, along with it being the farthest point from the radiator. At least look in there with a strong light before buttoning it all up again.

As Berry says, before you turn that crank at all, you must lock the sleeves in place. I used piston pins as spacers. If you've turned it without locking them already, you might as well pull them all (then you can check for the rust/crap thing). You can leave the pistons in place in the sleeves if you want. Clean everything up good and install new figure 8 seals as per the manual.

As for cleaning the carbon, after you've locked the sleeves down, run each piston up to TDC, put some grease around the edge, and scrape the tops, however you can to not scratch. Maybe some Scotchbrite after all the big stuff is loose. Clean out as well as you can, run the piston down a little, the grease will hold the bad stuff to the cylinder wall, you get the picture. The shop has always done everything on my heads, but they used a cup shaped wire brush on a drill motor.

Glad you didn't take my advice and just drive the heck out of it, hoping it would heal itself..hehe.

Tell us how it goes.

Triumph engines have a reputation of getting the last cylinder too hot. It's even worse on the 6-cylinder TR250/TR6 engines. It is related to the fact that it is at the rear where the air flowing past is hottest. Also, the "cooling" water is no longer cool by the time it gets to cyl #4 (or #6) and add the rust and crud that Tom mentions, you have the potential for what happened to you.

The only correct way to retorque the head (all 10 of the head nuts) is to drain the coolant, remove the heater hose and valve assembly at the rear of the engine to gain full access to that rear corner nut. I know it's a pain and I've been wondering if a 1/2" square drive wrench like half a stub end open end would work on the torque wrench. Maybe you would have to grind it thinner. I suspect that the PO may have re-torqued 9 of the head nuts but left the rear corner one because of the difficulty mentioned above.

You could run the new engine with water alone during the first few 100 miles, then you let out the water to re-torque the head. Then you refill it with the 50/50% mix of water and antifreeze.

Try to get all the crud out the area of #4 before you put it back together again. And check the bores in the valve guides while it's apart.

Don Elliott

This does make me feel like I need to retorque.


At long last, the car went back together and fired up this evening. Let me catch everyone up...

I installed the copper Payen head gasket obtained from one of the majors. It went in over a new set of ARP head bolts secured from Ken Gillanders. The price of the bolts was worth the delightful and informative conversation with Ken. The pistons crowns and head were just about spotless. Using Ken's advice, I sprayed the gasket with Copperkote, waited an hour, then hit it again and immediately installed the gasket. We shall see if it holds.

I did disassemble and clean the rocker assembly; good thing too as an oil hole on one of the rockers was gummed up solid. Got all the gunk out.

Took my time and put everything back together correctly. Comes the big moment to fire it up. Voila! Ignition. Check the tail pipe and see...white smoke. Yikes. Ten more minutes of idling...still white steam/smoke. What the heck? I pull number four plug. A bit of steam smoke emerges, but the plug is dry. Hmm...

I decide to take Tom's earlier advice and drive the car. A quarter mile later I get out to inspect. No smoke! Hmm...back to the gargage. Still no smoke. Drive another mile. No smoke.

I'm guessing there was some residual water/antifreeze somewhere that had to boil out, perhaps under the piston or around the rings? Clearly, there had been water on top of the piston, so it had to go somewhere.

Tomorrow I'll warm it up and change the oil. We'll see how it fires up cold again.

Thanks again to everyone for your very helpful advice and encouragement. We're back on the road!

Bill Stagg
Bill Stagg

You're pretty fast, Bill. Probably just the moist exhaust system drying out. After starting my 3 a year ago, it was smoking quite a bit, not too worried with all the oil I put in the cyls before I actually cranked, but still a niggling doubt. Next day, it ran great, no smoke at all. I'm always like that after I fix something, too. You just almost can't believe it's actually better until you put a few miles on it.

Just a wierd side note, nothing to do with head gaskets: My tenant has a Jeep Cherokee that needs a clutch master kit. Everybody wants to sell him a rebuilt. He showed it to me, and it's a Girling .75 with a reservoir just like my TR4. Maybe the hole for the pipe is bigger, but other than that, the same unit. I have seen them on ebay from Nascar guys, even a VW nut that used them for rear wheel steering brakes, but never thought I'd see one in a Jeep. I even have one on a TR3 for the clutch from a previous owner. The second pipe from the reservoir is soldered shut. Surely that would get me a point at the concours.

Congrats on your fast efficient repair, Bill. Good thing you caught the plugged hole, that's something you'd have a hard time noticing while you're just setting the valves. Did it make any funny (well, funnier than usual) noises from the rockers before? Is it better now? I assume no galling on the shaft.

This thread was discussed between 02/10/2005 and 16/10/2005

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