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The Risks of Using Outside Suppliers


Question: I recently had to replace the engine block in my 1988 Ford Aerostar, which has a 3.0 liter V-6 engine. The coating on the inside of the oil pan disintegrated and paint flakes clogged the engine's lubricating system, according to my dealership mechanic. The lack of oil ruined the engine. Ford refused to take responsibility. Why would Ford paint the inside of an oil pan?

-- M.H.


Answer: Ford almost certainly did not make the oil pan, but rather bought it from a supplier. Most likely the outside vendor dip painted the part, meaning it was lowered into a paint bath and coated throughout.

A Ford engineer who I spoke to was astounded to hear that the inside of the oil pan was painted and agreed that it would serve no useful purpose.

It is not clear to me, however, why the oil filter would not have captured the paint flakes, since oil goes directly from the oil pan into the filter. And certainly, the paint did not flake off all at once, but slowly. Possibly, there were other contaminants in the oil.

Nonetheless, the environment inside an oil pan is particularly harsh and it is really not a place for a painted surface. Hot oil constantly drenches the pan. As the oil ages, it becomes acidic. Other hydrocarbon byproducts accumulate in old oil, as does fine metallic powder. It's like a paint-stripping machine inside that oil pan.

In a larger sense, you have hit on one of the critical problems that consumers face because of the auto industry's increasing use of outside suppliers. Ford, among others, gets more than half its parts from outside suppliers, who are under greater cost pressures than ever. The suppliers are also being granted more responsibility for conducting their own inspections.

It's easy to see how the kind of problem you experienced can only grow more frequent in such a system.

There are other surfaces in an engine that also contact oil in an engine, in which one side is painted. Valve covers are an example.

Auto companies seldom are willing to take responsibility for problems once a car is long out of warranty, even if the evidence of a defect is compelling. In this case, however, the paint was like a ticking time bomb that was destined to disintegrate. You should contact the dealer again and ask to speak directly to Ford's factory representative. Detroiters are a tough breed, so hang in there and demand satisfaction.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006 or E-Mail to

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