What Happens When An Engine Has No Oil?

The engine is the lifeblood of the modern motor vehicle. Engines are responsible for converting gasoline (or petrol) into motion through a process called combustion.

In order for your engine to run smoothly and efficiently, it needs a bit of help. Engine oil is a vital service component that helps to keep the inner parts of the engine lubricated. It also helps to prevent your engine from overheating.

Many drivers don’t realise that they are driving with a low oil level until it’s too late. But what happens when you run an engine with no engine oil at all? Can the damage be reversed? Let’s explore that.

Note: It’s never a good idea to run an engine with no oil at all. You can put yourself and other road users in danger. Always be sure to check your engine oil frequently and top it up when necessary!

What happens when an engine runs with no oil?

An engine with no oil will overheat quickly. The lack of any lubrication inside the engine will mean that parts will begin hitting each other. The engine will get louder, and you will hear knocking noises. Eventually, the engine will either seize or explode.

Engine oil is designed to keep an engine running sweetly. When there’s no oil to lubricate the inner workings of the engine, it will quickly overheat as a result of good old-fashioned friction.

You can’t really predict how an engine with no oil will fail. But you can be sure that it will fail. It will either become too hot to function, or it will explode in a spectacular fashion. I have even heard tales of pistons flying out of engine blocks!

How long can an engine run with no oil?

It depends. An engine with no oil will either destroy itself in a matter of seconds or carry on working for 20 minutes. Either way – it’s not a risk you want to take!

In a YouTube video from the good guys at Car Throttle, Alex subjects his Mercedes C180 to several laps with no oil in its engine. The car miraculously managed to last for 17 minutes before exploding:

Even if a car with no oil manages to survive and live another day, the damage caused to the engine would be irreparable. At this point, you would have no choice but to replace the engine entirely.

It goes without saying, but remember to check your engine oil on a regular basis! It can save you a lot of headaches and a lot of cash.

Can you fix a car that has run out of oil?

Once an engine runs with no oil, irreparable damage is caused. It might be minor or major – but it will severely undermine the reliability of your engine going forward. If not immediate, it will likely cause issues further down the line.

An engine that has been run with no oil will likely exhibit one of the following symptoms:

  • It’s running louder than usual
  • There is a knocking sound
  • The engine is sluggish or slow
  • It consumes more fuel
  • There is an engine management light (EML)

Most of these symptoms are a direct result of a lack of lubrication in the engine. This causes parts (like pistons and cylinders) with small tolerances to collide and damage each other. This can cause a whole host of problems for your engine.

As the engine is perhaps the most complex part of any vehicle, repairs will not be cheap. That’s why it is often a good idea to just replace the entire unit in the event of a problem.

How to prevent low engine oil

The best way to avoid your engine running out of oil is to check the engine oil level often and service your car on a regular basis. If your oil level is low, top it up with a manufacturer-recommended product.

Preventative maintenance is the best kind of maintenance. That means identifying and preventing problems from happening before it becomes too late. I have always said this – preventative maintenance is good for your wallet and your peace of mind.

So grab your owner’s manual and check the recommended service interval. Set a schedule for regular checks of your engine oil level. If your engine oil hasn’t been changed in a while, go get it changed! 

Over time, engine oil can break down and become less great at its job. On older vehicles, oil can even be inadvertently burned off through the combustion process. Of course, leaks are also a common cause of disappearing engine oil.

If you notice your engine oil level becoming low regularly, it’s best to get it checked out. You could have a leak, or there could be something wrong with the inner workings of your engine. It’s better to be safe than sorry.


An engine needs oil to run properly. Without oil, an engine will overheat and eventually seize – or explode.

But here’s the good news. With regular oil changes, your car can enjoy thousands more miles on the road. A regular supply of fresh oil helps to keep it running smoothly and efficiently.

If there’s only one type of servicing you do on your car, make sure it’s changing the engine oil.

Do you have any first-hand experience of running an engine with low oil? Let us know below!

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