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Old 12-15-2008, 07:07 AM   #1
MN12Fan
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3.8L and Head Gasket Curiosities

Hi everyone. I have a few general questions about the Essex V6 family and, in particular, Ford's head gasket issue with the 3.8. I'm a car guy, even though my technical knowledge doesn't hold a candle to some of the people in these forums, and what I really like is straight, text-book style facts. When I post in any of the forums I frequent (GMInsideNews is where I go most under the MN12Fan handle) I tend to be as precise as possible. Most recently I've been revising entire, or near entire, automotive articles on Wikipedia to improve the quality of style and details. It's become something of a hobby really because some of those articles are horribly written.

Anyway, the article on the Essex V6 caught my eye because there is what I feel to be a glaring omission: no mention of the 3.8's head gasket issues. Here's a link for reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Es...gine_(Canadian)

I've contributed to that very article myself, but I never chose to add anything about the head gasket issue because I personally don't know enough about it and Wikipedia's heavy on verifiability anyway which means references are needed. This said, what is the deal with the head gasket issue anyway? Some of the common things I've seen are as follows:

1. Fundamental problem is that 3.8's aluminum heads expand and contract at a different rate from the cast iron block and vice versa. Poor head gasket design results in poor control of this situation and failure.

2. Ford issued TSB 98-4-9 about the 3.8, but referred to '88-'95 FWD applications for the engine.

3. Along with the second point, I saw a letter at the Center for Auto Safety website suggesting that any 3.8 used in a '88-'95 Ford vehicle is prone to head gasket failure.

I also gather that really early versions of the 3.8 (pre-'88), post-split port injection versions of the 3.8, and the 4.2 do not have a reputation for head gasket failure.

Aside from the food for thought, I am personally curious because I have a '94 Thunderbird with a 3.8 and the head gasket issue has always been at the back of my mind, even though I've never encountered it. I got the car back in 2002 and am its second owner. It had about 118,000 miles at the time and currently is about to turn 153,000. Modifications under the hood include a new radiator (which I did soon after I got the car since the original had leaky tanks), a lower temperature thermostat, and a transmission cooler (changed fluid to Mercon V too). I had a cold air intake installed for a while but I took it off because I was never that impressed with it. Lastly, I've used Mobil One 10W-30 synthetic since I first got the car.

Given all of this, here are my main questions:

What Essex V6s are truly affected by the head gasket issue?

Is there any preventative maintenance, other than a preemptive replacement of the head gasket, to stop a head gasket failure from happening?

Is there any easy way to tell if a head gasket has already been replaced?

Thanks for reading and I look forward to everyone's responses.

Bonus question: Why no head gasket sticky?
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Old 12-15-2008, 12:42 PM   #2
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I flush the coolant on my 3.8 every year, needed or not, and burp the system according to the tech article. I run a 180* t-stat and have never had any problems with the head gaskets, I use valvoline 10w30 conventional oil, and zerex 50/50 green in the coolant. When I first got it at 80k as a preventative strike I replaced all the hoses, the water pump, radiator, t-stat, and added ground straps to the heater core and radiator. I'm currently around 180k with no troubles. The previous owner said it used to run warm, but after I replaced all those parts it never peeks above 1/4 durring regular driving and 1/2 durring the 100+ days we get out here even thrashing on it.
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Old 12-15-2008, 05:25 PM   #3
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maybe some info...

I frequent the Mustang forums pretty regularly and here is some of the info I have read.

During those years (88-95) The use of asbestos was outlawed and Ford had to make a gasket without asbestos. The use of aluminum heads coupled with an asbestos less gasket lead to the premature failures.

The 96-98 gaskes are supposed to be the improved style although I see a lot of failures on the mustang board.

the 99+ 3.8 and the 97+ 4.2 use a splitport head and Ford uses an MLS gasket for those applications and the failures are very uncommon on these engines.

The advice given on the Mustang board to people with blown 88-95 gaskets is to use the 99+ MLS gaskets and the problem will likely never come back
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Old 12-15-2008, 06:56 PM   #4
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So good cooling system maintenance is a good deterrent for a head gasket failure and newer, splitport versions of the engines tend to be okay. What else? And what's MLS? Also, was there something about the FWD versions of the 3.8 that caused them to be more prone to failure than RWD versions?
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Old 12-16-2008, 12:55 AM   #5
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From http://www.babcox.com/editorial/ar/ar90134.htm:
"Head Gaskets
The holes in head gaskets for the FWD and RWD engines are different because the coolant flow in the heads is revised, depending on the application. Don’t mix them up or the engine will overheat.
These engines tend to blow head gaskets because the gasket is very narrow adjacent to the fire ring on the back cylinders. The problem is aggravated by the coolant that slowly wicks into the edge of the gasket and causes it to deteriorate over time. Rebuilders should use only the head gaskets that have been approved by Ford to help avoid warranty problems."


My 90 3.8 had a blown head gasket on the passenger side, and it looked like something chewed the gasket up from one of the coolant ports all the way to the fire ring. Mine was actually the front cylinder, though.
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Old 12-19-2008, 06:13 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nitemare View Post
From http://www.babcox.com/editorial/ar/ar90134.htm:
"Head Gaskets
The holes in head gaskets for the FWD and RWD engines are different because the coolant flow in the heads is revised, depending on the application. Don’t mix them up or the engine will overheat.
These engines tend to blow head gaskets because the gasket is very narrow adjacent to the fire ring on the back cylinders. The problem is aggravated by the coolant that slowly wicks into the edge of the gasket and causes it to deteriorate over time. Rebuilders should use only the head gaskets that have been approved by Ford to help avoid warranty problems."


My 90 3.8 had a blown head gasket on the passenger side, and it looked like something chewed the gasket up from one of the coolant ports all the way to the fire ring. Mine was actually the front cylinder, though.
I've seen that article before; very interesting read and very comprehensive for someone interested in the history of the 3.8/4.2 Essex V6. However, that bit you put about the head gasket situation is all the article says about head gaskets. About it though, that last sentence, "Rebuilders should use only the head gaskets that have been approved by Ford to help avoid warranty problems" weren't the head gaskets that failed the ones that were "approved by Ford"? I mean, what was the difference between a stock one that failed and its replacement?
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Old 12-19-2008, 11:22 PM   #7
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Why no sticky ? Its such a common problem, it's what alot of SC's and other 3.8's are known for.

Approved by Ford ? Doesnt mean its not going to fail. Made by Ford ? Probably not.

Sometimes it takes years to get all these problems worked out. Ford was replacing head gaskets under warranty.

One theory as to failure - Electrical current through the engine.

I personally believe it has something to do with the cooling system / circulation.

Ive seen alot of HG failures at the rear Passenger side cylinder. Pass side seems to be more common but it happens to both sides. Sometimes it's a cracked head or warped head. The gasket takes alot of abuse from cylinder pressure and head expansion.

I thought the 94/95 SC's got the MLS gaskets. MLS is Multi Layered Steel.
They also had a revised passenger side manifold to improve the flow of the rear-most cylinder .. could be preventative for HG failure.
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Old 12-20-2008, 12:16 AM   #8
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That article says to use Ford approved head gaskets purely for warranty reasons; not because they won't fail.

Also, IMO, that's really all the article needs about head gaskets. It states that there is a problem, and the cause of the failure. It also somewhat answers your question about the FWD/RWD difference. It doesn't say which is more prone to failure, though, only that there is a difference.
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Old 12-20-2008, 05:35 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SCTbird1994 View Post
Why no sticky ? Its such a common problem, it's what alot of SC's and other 3.8's are known for.
No sticky because the problem's too common? That's a little disturbing. I always kind of thought that it was an obscure problem; something that occurs frequently, but not uniformly. A lot of the stories that I've seen involve a head gasket failure at relatively low mileages (under 100,000). I do recall my cousin having two failures (each side I presume) in his '97 Mustang several years ago and he didn't have very high mileage at the time.

But what about me? 153,000 miles on my engine -- only 35,000 of them are mine, but considering the overall total I've had no problems. Is a head gasket failure inevitable on any 3.8 built during the early '90s? Is it likely that my engine was fixed before I got the car? Is there any way to tell?
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Old 12-20-2008, 09:48 AM   #10
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Cool Was Told To Use The Mls Gasket

IT WAS AND UP GRADE FOR 4,2 BUT MUST HAVE HEADS MILLED TO FORD SPECS I HAVE THEM ON A90 SC WITH NO PROBLEMS AFTER 5 YEARS
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Old 12-20-2008, 02:54 PM   #11
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What kind of sticky are you looking for ? General knowledge that the 3.8's are prone to blow HG's ? Or are you looking for a " How-to" fix in the event that it does blow ? There is a write up at SCCOA.com .. a little more involved, but once you get all of the SC stuff off the top, it's the same 3.8 engine.

Mileage doesnt mean anything. Regular maintenance and upkeep helps. You can have two equal mileage engines, but depending how they were taken care of will be a totally different story inside the engine. Ive had transmissions in these Tbirds go for 70k .. another one went 180k original miles, and the " Low Mileage" 55k mile transmission that was in "great condition" "just serviced recently" .. just simply blow up internally. I think we can contribute that to faulty design instead of maintenance and upkeep.

I picked up a 1990 Tbird in IMMACULATE condition a couple years back - owner kept up with this car religiously, it was SO cean. Regular oil changes, coolant, etc etc .. you couldnt find a car more well maintained. 3.8 NA engine blew a head gaskets with 90k miles on a 15 year old car ( at that time ) .. why ? I dont know, Ford piece of junk.

You wont know if your heads gaskets have been replaced until you tear down your engine or if you have maintenance records of some kind ..

There is alot of talk about milling the surface of the heads / block smooth when using MLS gaskets. Most recommend at least cleaning up the surface of the heads - if they are off the car it is a good idea to get them done anyways. I didnt re-surface my block before installing MLS - it was not necessary during the machining of the block.
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Old 12-22-2008, 04:24 AM   #12
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So I guess "an ounce of prevention is equal to a pound of cure" as the saying goes. As for a sticky, I'm not campaigning for one or anything, but I expected there would be one or part of one about the issue given its supposed frequency. My personal interest is one of curiousity for the most part but I also have a 3.8 in my Thunderbird so that adds a little more to it.
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Old 12-23-2008, 03:13 PM   #13
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I wish car message board had a forum for common problems and their resolution.
I know most boards have a "How To" but most of those are for general things, not common issues such as:

Head Gaskets
Front timing cover gasket leaks
Upper control arm replacement

ETC
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Old 12-23-2008, 04:05 PM   #14
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Not until somebody does a write-up taking pictures, and additing it to the website. Problem here is that they dont really update the site - just make stickys in the forum, nothing is updated in the "technical articles" section.

A head gasket isnt really a common issue .. it is a Major Problem - costs alot of $ to fix at a repair shop - not the easiest thing to do for most people.
It's not like we have a sticky in the Transmission forum about how terrible these things are in these cars - even if there was a rebuild how to article or something, it is something that most people would not attempt. Same with a HG job, if you arent mechanically inclined to do it without an article, it may be best to leave the job to somebody who can do it right.

I had 2 Tbirds with 3.8's NA's .. fixed that problem by replacing them with a 4.6.

This 3.8 SC I have is another story though .. keeping the engine all original, but it's been fully rebuilt already so I have no worries for a while.

There was a local guy who had a 90 SC - Head gasket blew so he poured in a bottle of that HG fix in a bottle ( not the autozone off the shelf stuff .. the $100 a bottle, head gasket fix ) .. he went against our advice to do it right and rebuilt it and just poured the stuff in. It works .. so far. I dont recommend it, but that is one possible solution for the HG problem - we'll see how long before his engine blows something else ..

Donkey - .. oh and I just replaced a pair of Upper control arms on a 95 SC .. wasnt too bad .. I wont do the drivers side on an 89-93 SC.
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Old 12-08-2011, 11:45 PM   #15
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My 90 Tbird has 139k miles & the head gaskets have never blown. My cousin is a mechanic (30 yrs) & he told me its just a matter of time. According to him the 1989 & 1990 3.8 was total junk. I did buy the car from the first owner @ 126k miles & he told me he had no engine problems. I guess time will tell but so far so good.
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Old 12-08-2011, 11:58 PM   #16
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Smoothness.....

One thing this thread failed to mention is that if you replace your existing head gaskets and use the newer MLS gaskets, the head and engine surfaces have to be MUCH smoother than when using the non-metal gaskets.

Recommendation is at least 30Ra, preferable 25Ra or smoother. This is a VERY smooth surface! The aluminum head surface should be very shiny! I wish I had some pictures of some well done heads at 25Ra or better. If anybody does, would you please post them up? I will be sure to post if I come across some!
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Old 12-11-2011, 01:41 AM   #17
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One thing this thread failed to mention is that if you replace your existing head gaskets and use the newer MLS gaskets, the head and engine surfaces have to be MUCH smoother than when using the non-metal gaskets.

Recommendation is at least 30Ra, preferable 25Ra or smoother. This is a VERY smooth surface! The aluminum head surface should be very shiny! I wish I had some pictures of some well done heads at 25Ra or better. If anybody does, would you please post them up? I will be sure to post if I come across some!
The additional cost of MLS gaskets ( on top of an Engine overhaul, youre going to be doing the lower end also if youre taking it to a machine shop to deck the surface ) ..

Surface Block @ $250
MLS gaskets @ $150 for both sides
Surace Heads @ $100.
Plus the ARP heaad studs while youre at it @ $85 more.

Im not sure if BlueEyes has the pictures of the heads with the machine finish on his 3.8 rebuild, but the block re-finished and MLS gasket are in his gallery.
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Old 12-12-2011, 03:19 AM   #18
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I have two birds one a 94 LX 3.8 na, the other a 89 SC and I bought my sc with a blown head gasket the lx the gasket blew July 4th of 2010 and now I am going to be helping my buddy do hg's on his SC. So yes it's an issue, the real question here is do love your car enough to fix it anyway?
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Old 12-20-2011, 02:32 AM   #19
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Ours went out at 80k ,read that right around there they fail.but lots of cars blow head gaskets,our 92 300e did it at 119k,so expect one to go aft 100k,100k dealer scheduled maintenance for MB includes head gasket replacement
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