PSA- Dry cylinders = very low compression and no start

Jan 29, 2014
Hello everyone, I just had a somewhat odd experience and I thought sharing it may be helpful to someone at some point and could save an unnecessary engine rebuild or replacement or even save an otherwise okay car from being scrapped.

Long story short, I bought a 353,000 mile 1997 Honda Civic 1.6 very cheap from a friend's brother because someone he knew severely overheated it, causing the timing cover to melt and jam the belt to the point of jumping several teeth and no longer starting. While he was trying to diagnose the problem, he blew out the ignition coil by cranking the engine with the spark plug wires off and decided he had enough after it sat for over a year and was going to scrap it, so I made an offer expecting to have to rebuild or replace the engine and here we are.

Having quite a bit of Honda experience, I immediately had an idea of what likely happened when I saw the melted timing cover and belt covered in melted plastic, so I checked the timing and found that it was off. Once I reset the timing and replaced the dead ignition coil with a spare I had, I tried starting it. Sounded like it had virtually no compression, it didn't even attempt to fire despite having fuel, proper timing, and spark. Starting fluid didn't help nor did cranking it at wide open throttle with the fuel injectors unplugged to clear any possible flooding.

Somewhat disappointed but not surprised, I got out my compression gauge and tested each cylinder and got 95, 165, 70, 70. That explains why it didn't start. I then added 2 cap fulls of oil to each cylinder, briefly cranked the engine, and retested the compression. This time, I got 120, 215, 90, 130. Feeling pretty confident that would be enough for the engine to run, I put the spark plugs back in, plugged in the fuel injectors, and tried starting it and it fired right up and ran well! I quickly drove it around the block without incident, the compression no longer sounds bad/uneven while cranking, and it starts right up now. I haven't retested compression yet because of the sketchy timing belt though. I ordered a new belt and will retest the compression once the belt arrives and I have a chance to change it and whatever other timing components were damaged.

I always knew that the oil film on the cylinder walls helps seal the rings by filling in the microscopic gaps, but this is the first time I saw an engine lose so much compression it sounded blown and wouldn't even attempt to fire just because someone flooded it months back and washed the oil off the cylinder walls. I had no idea that was even possible and I have been working on cars my whole life.

Anyways, just thought I'd share that odd experience in case anyone else runs across an engine that doesn't have enough compression to start. Thoughts, suggestions, and related experiences are appreciated as always.
My Civic's intermittent overheating episodes are mind boggling. I just had to learn to just drive it, and if she blows, she blows. I admire you for making a successful attempt to start it before just pulling the motor. I can't imagine how the timing cover melted though!
It's called the "car wash syndrome", a known phenomenon. I've experienced it and thought for sure the timing belt had broken because it was spinning over so fast.
I'm still amazed that such a thin oil film would make such a drastic difference to compression. I've flooded plenty of engines, but never to the point of losing so much compression they totally refused to start until the cylinders were manually re oiled. I wonder how many otherwise healthy engines were rebuilt or replaced when a squirt of oil in each cylinder would have got them going again.

Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that this 353K mile fully aluminium D16 still runs great with no apparent damage after overheating so bad it melted the timing covers off! Hard to see on the pictures, but the white plastic cover that goes behind the cam gear completely melted away and ran down the block. Look at the top of that water pump, it has a giant glob of melted plastic on it! I'll post more pictures when I replace that belt.
I remember in shop class our teacher telling us a couple squirts of oil on the spark plug hole can help diagnose an engine that fails a cold soaked compression test. It was amazing to see the difference.

Just my $0.02