Van Nuys Auto Repair & Service Center

My Car is Smoking Under the Hood. What Should I Do Now?

By Jack Bulko, AutoAid

A customer called our shop the other morning. “I can’t believe it! I just drove to the corner of my street, and I noticed smoke coming out from under the hood. What should I do now?

It’s difficult to assess what is going on under the hood unless I can see, hear and smell it. I told him that if he hadn’t already pulled off the side of the road, to do so now. I wanted to make sure he was safe. I then asked him if any lights on the dashboard indicated a problem? For example, did the temperature light or gauge indicate the engine was hot? Or was the oil icon indicating a leak? I also wanted him to note what it smelled like—different smells are associated with various issues. In addition, I asked him to tell me how dense the smoke is, how far away he was from the car at the time, and if he had an auto club membership.

It turned out that he did have a membership with a road service company that included towing, so I suggested he call them for a lift over to our shop. If he didn't have a towing service, we could have sent one out to him.

White Smoke or Steam

Smoke under the hood of a car will most likely be white. White smoke or steam can be caused by multiple possibilities, all of which would require immediate pull over and engine stop. White steam can be caused by ruptured cooling system hose, cracked radiator, or overheating due to cylinder head or gasket failure. White smoke, which will have a different density and odor, will typically be the result of engine oil, transmission fluid, steering fluid or brake fluid leaking onto a hot exhaust pipe and potentially ignite a fire. This is in contrast to exhaust pipe smoke color and odor which may be white, black or bluish indicating fuel, oil and or water consumption.

Our Diagnostic Process

After he and the car arrived at our shop, we cautiously opened the hood just in case hot steam or fluid was erupting. Then, we performed a visual inspection of the area to see if a leak could be identified and whether it was from the coolant, oil, brake fluid or steering fluid. I had a pretty good idea of what was wrong, as he mentioned the temperature gauge was in the hot range, and I recognized a sweet smell, but I wanted to run some diagnostics to confirm my hunch.

I completed the visual inspection and did some diagnostic testing. After a thorough examination, I was able to confirm my theory. His car’s coolant was too low. He probably had several warning signs, including white smoke from the tailpipe, which he chose to ignore. By the time he called me and had his car brought in, his coolant was almost non-existent.

I explained to him the importance of checking the levels of your coolant, oil and transmission fluid to avoid problems like this, and suggested he consider allowing us to set up a standard maintenance program for him to avoid such issues in the future. I told him that each time he brought his car in for a “healthy checkup,” we perform a courtesy check. He was lucky this time and avoided costly and time-intensive repair.

AutoAid has had the privilege of helping the San Fernando Valley community stay safe on the road since 1979. Located in Van Nuys, we offer first-in-class service for a variety of car brands, including domestic, Asian and European models. AAA has awarded our dedication to quality service over the last 35+ years with its Approved Auto Repair and Customer Service Award. Whether you need an oil change or you notice your car is smoking under the hood, bring your vehicle in so that technicians can do what they do best: diagnose what’s wrong and fix it in the most efficient and effective manner Contact us today at 818-305-6632 or make an appointment online. We are here to serve you.


AutoAid is committed to ensuring effective communication and digital accessibility to all users. We are continually improving the user experience for everyone, and apply the relevant accessibility standards to achieve these goals. We welcome your feedback. Please call AutoAid (818) 901-1113 if you have any issues in accessing any area of our website.