Our Cars : A new lease of life

Alexander Boucke

Car ownership involves certain plights – at least if the word automobile has a certain importance for you. Of course, we all know that servicing car is essential to remain mobile. When a timing belt slips into the equation, this often means a significant expenditure, in particular when a big V6 fills the engine bay to the brim. Instead of having an even larger unplanned bill for the replacement of an engine, it is probably wise to plan the replacement of the belt.

When I bought my 3-litre V6 24-valve Citroën XM, the last owner told me that the timing belt would not have to be changed for another 50,000kms. That took about 2 1/2 year to achieve – somehow quicker than I thought. Being used to simpler cars like ADO16, Maxi or Maestro, the task at hand did not look very promising – in fact, to say the least, it looked daunting. This, combined with timing difficulties between my favourite Citroën garage and me, an accident involving our Rover Tourer before Christmas and all that just on top of normal daily life, meant that the replacement was postponed a couple of times – until now.

A weekend was set aside together with my friends from the RetroGarage in Stolberg, when they had a vacant lift. Expecting the worst, we started to strip off all the things in need of replacement – or simply blocking access. Starting with the added stuff from the LPG kit, we kept stripping off things until we had the old belt and all pulleys off – nicely filling a large desk as can be seen in the picture above.

Half-time, it took a good few hours to search for all the screws that needed undoing – but, all in all, it was just rather laborious, and not really demanding. Actually, it was quite easy, access was reasonable and there were no hidden issues – if the Citroën Workshop Manual had been a bit more detailed, that would have saved some time looking for screwheads. It was not going unnoticed, that the old belt and all pulleys still looked and felt like new, unlike the waterpump – which did show a small drip – and the auxiliary belt, which was full of cracks despite being less than two years old.

While at it, the crank shaft oil seal was also replaced. The idea of skipping a spare worth just under €15, but needing several hours of work to get at, did not seem appealing.

The engine has a nice layout, with all four cams having a vernier wheel to get absolutly exact timing, but also helping fitment of the belt. The old style and rather complex hydraulic tensioner was replaced by the simple, yet effective spring loaded unit as it is also in use on Rover’s K-Series. No special tools were needed – a simple 8mm pin is used to block the crank shaft and four long 8mm steel bolts screw into the cylinder heads to block each of the four cams.

The belt went on easy enough, setting the tension and re-checking the cam adjustment was straightforward. A few hours of refitting all those pieces later, after running the engine until the cooling system was properly bled and no funny noises were discovered, we were left with the nice feeling of a good achievement. Looking back at the whole job, it was actually not that bad to do. The sticker was added – next belt due at 410,000kms.

Here we are – ready for the next 120,000kms (75,000 miles)…

Alexander Boucke


  1. Alexander, this puts me in mind of two incidents. A Christmas or so back, on Christmas Eve to be exact, our beloved V6 3ltr Alfa 916 Spider broke its cam belt. We were doing about 20mph approaching a roundabout.
    These things don’t tend to phase Annie and me – ‘we’ll sort it’ we said confidently. So, we got it towed home and had all the ‘experts’ round – and on the phone; e mails the lot!
    The bad news came in a series, a bit like a soap opera building on the drama of the story, week by week.
    “It’s only nuts and bolts” we said, “let’s get the heads off”.
    “Ah,” they said, “but you’ll have to tip the engine away from the bulkhead to get number two head off”.
    “OK” we said “no probs”.
    “Ah” they said, “but not only will all 24 of those little mushroom shaped darlings will be bent, in addition, (over and above what happens to the 2ltr Twin Spark engine) – the bottom end will be wrecked as well. It’s just one of those things with the V6 Alfa.”
    Undeterred, Annie and I said ‘”OK – we have a crane – we’ll whip the engine out.”
    “Ah” they said but the engine has to come out from under the car”
    “Bugger” Annie said. (I of course said something like – “I say, how dashed inconvenient, what, what!”)
    Anyhow, with no shame whatsoever, I can tell you we sold the car for a pittance to a very good friend. He had the heads off, found no damage whatsoever and fitted a new cam belt – it was back on the road as a sweet as a nut within days!
    “Buggier” Annie said. (I of course……..)
    The other incident was when my youngest son decided to replace the alternator on his Fiat Coupe. For those not familiar, this the ‘slashed wheel arch’ design from the brilliant Mr Bangle (before he had a breakdown of some kind and designed the ugly BMW 5 Series). Anyhow, he and his mate (my son’s, not Mr Bangles) started around tea time and thought they might be finished in time for the 9 o’clock news. They came in from the garage just before 2 in the morning! I can’t tell you how they described this simple little job. The language! I think it all the fault of these modern cars. Never had these troubles in 30’s don’t you know! What, what.

  2. Yes,

    when the timing belt breaks, the situation becomes a “wrong side failure” , valves, pistons even camshafts can be ruined.
    Why the manufacturers do not design the engine to fail “right side” after a timing belt failure by providing a duplicate or auxiliary belt or cog mechanism to keep the camshafts turning in sync with the crankshaft to allowing a safe damage-free shutdown of the engine I cannot understand.
    I suppose the engine designers are too busy writing defeat-device ECU software to cheat around diesel emissions certification to bother with such trivialities as a wrecked engine.

  3. So you bought a V6 XM with 240k km on the clock, and have done another 50k. Brave man.
    I have only had one timing belt failure, which occurred at idle on my parents’ parking area in a Vauxhall Firenza with the “hay baler” 2-litre slant four, which was a “safe” engine with a low compression ratio of 8.5:1; and a vigorous thirst for petrol.
    Did you notice a benefit in engine smoothness? When I changed the belt on my Mitsubishi Colt, the car was definitely smoother afterwards; especially on upward gear changes, as the engine decelerated in a more disciplined fashion. All part of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear – an expression which I sincerely hope does not translate to anything vulgar in German!

  4. Back in the mid 90’s when I worked in press and PR for Lancashire Constabulary I was on my way to a community forum in Rossendale – a good 80 miles there and back from Ormskirk, but at 40p per mile, well worth attending…

    My daily driver was a silver FIAT 132 which I bought from the classifieds in the Manchester Evening News – Friday night was ‘motors’ night – and I loved it to death.

    Well, the engine died by the Stanley Gate pub in Bickerstaffe on the main A570; a snapped cambelt on the DOHC engine wasn’t to prove terminal as I first feared. A few weeks earlier I’d met a home mechanic from a hamlet called Bispham Green (the place, not the spannerman) and phoned him the day after to get the parts, etc. – all in it cost c£270 to repair the engine which had 60,000 miles on it.

    The car ran for another year or so before I sold it out of the MEN; it was used in a ram raid in Manchester which got me into all sorts of trouble.

    A Monday morning interview with an Assistant Chief Constable saw me marked as ‘one to keep tabs on’ but I was exonerated for any involvement.

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