Say Arrivederci to Your Cam Belt Cover!

FIAT owners have long had mixed feelings over the slew of coverings with which the Italian automaker adorned Aurelio Lampredi’s precious and innovative camshaft timing belts. While my position may not exactly make waves, I’d like to set out to treat you with (hopefully) the final word on the subject:

Kill it with fire.

Obviously, I don’t think anyone is a fool for keeping one on their car, but I’m here to change minds and improve lives, man. Roughly in order of importance, here are a myriad of reasons to liberate your overhead cam 1100, 1300, 1438, 1500, 1592, 1608, 1756, or 1995cc FIAT, Pininfarina, Bertone, or Lancia engine of its timing belt cover:

  1. It is unnecessary. That’s the truth. It might look like it protects your motor from debris, but your motor is actually safer without it. We have spoken with thousands of FIAT-family car owners, and have never once heard a credible tale of a properly maintained timing belt breaking on the street. I will elaborate at the close of the article, because this is such an important point, and I know some of us will need convincing.
  2. It hides your most important maintenance items. THIS is the single biggest reason FIAT overhead cam motors die: lack of timing belt and tensioner bearing maintenance. You can (at least partially) blame the timing belt cover for that phenomenon. As they say, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Many new owners don’t even realize they have a timing belt or tensioner because of the scourge that is the obtrusive timing cover.
  3. It makes your most important maintenance item harder to maintain. Anything you can do to lower the barrier to entry of timing belt maintenance is a good thing. Make it easier on yourself by leaving the cover off, and you will care for it more often. Seriously, removing the DOHC timing cover requires breaking the water jacket (opening the cooling system) of your motor — every single time you need to get behind the cover. And we all know how much fun it is to bleed the Lampredi cooling system…

It might look like it protects your motor from debris, but your motor is actually safer without it.

In the immortal words of Macaulay Culkin, “You guys give up, or are you thirsty for more?” Well, here’s even more reasons!

  1. It makes almost everything harder to get to. This is the flip side of point 3. Anything that makes general maintenance harder, without a significant upside, is a significant loss.
  2. It’s ugly. Seriously, why hide the beautiful workings of an advanced Italian engine? Especially if you have a nice set of anodized aluminum pulleys, there’s a lot to love about the front end of a 124 Spider or X1/9 powerplant.
  3. It’s one more thing to maintain. Following up on my last point, have you ever seen one of these that looked really nice after a few years? Sure, you can take it off, clean, and repaint it (both the plastic and aluminum covers pose certain challenges to proper paint adhesion), but what do you get in return for your effort? I’ll tell you what you get: hidden consumables, longer maintenance intervals, unnecessary bulk, and one more thing to worry about breaking if you have to work on it (again). Wouldn’t you much rather put that time into cleaning your carpet, or doing some task that really mattered (like your driveshaft flex joint)?
  4. It’s a freeloader. There’s a saying that dates back at least to the American Great Depression: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Your timing belt cover wants to see the world at your expense. Sure, the heaviest covers still weigh less than five pounds (I haven’t checked one recently, because they’re all in the bin where they belong), but 100,000 or 200,000 miles is a long way to carry something that doesn’t benefit you in any quantifiable way.

What say we stop there and come back to the first — and most important — point: they are unnecessary. Imagine with me for a moment — the inside of your engine bay. Visualize the approach vectors to your timing belt, remembering that only a small area of the leading face of each pulley or idler poses a real threat. Let’s face it: the only way a rock is getting into a meaningful (read: dangerous) position along the route that your belt travels is if it becomes a “magic bullet.” My friend, I hate to tell you this, but if your belt breaks, it’s because there was a shooter on the grassy knoll. End of tragic metaphor.

Rocks and debris almost solely come up from the road surface when they bounce or get lifted by a tire. In order to hit them, you have to be traveling at a significant speed. If you consider that the maximum approach angle of a flying rock will be much less than 45 degrees, there’s really no way a rock is getting in there unless you have much bigger problems.

On a 124 or 131, the determined timing-belt-assassin would have — at the very least — to go through your radiator on it’s merry way to creating camshaft chaos. On an X1/9, well… it would probably have to go through the floor pan, your passenger’s hammies, the spare tire, and the firewall. So yeah, bigger problems.

So, without any more jibber-jabber on my part, I hope we can agree that timing belt covers are not the panacea that we’ve been sold. If anything, they may do much more harm than good, when you consider all the wonderful cars that went to scrapyards — and the FIAT reputation for “unreliability” — owing directly to American owners not realizing that they had a timing belt under that behemoth plastic eyesore.

Honestly, I think there’s a real possibility that the timing belt cover is the worst thing ever to happen to the fledgling Lampredi design, and one that we’ll do well to end in our time.

there’s a real possibility that the timing belt cover is the worst thing ever to happen to the fledgling Lampredi design

As always, thanks for reading,


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This post has 5 comments

  1. Avatar photo

    I raced Kevlar belt Ducati motorcycles for years with no belt covers, no issues and belts ran cooler. Does the blog refer to the front and back side cover or just to the front?

  2. Avatar photo

    Well I don’t completely agree with you with this in mind. Once that timing belt stretches it Can run off the pulley and end up going through the radiator. Also if you are working on the motor while it’s running there is a possibility of getting clothing or something else caught it in causing a injury. So it isn’t just there to look pretty !

    1. Avatar photo

      Hey Melvin! Thanks for your comment, and it’s okay if we agree to disagree. I know it’s a contentious subject, and everyone is welcome to have an opinion. Hopefully, we can help each other toward even more well-informed opinions. I am curious, however: Have you ever seen really compelling evidence of this happening?

      I’d like to think through this idea of a timing belt damaging the radiator… So, the crank pulley prevents the belt from just walking off of the cam pulleys, unless there’s a really major issue elsewhere (like the tensioner bearing running off-axis). But the water neck comes out between the cam gears anyway (inside the belt’s path), and the radiator hoses run right in front of the belt. So even if it did manage to walk off, it lands on the water neck or the radiator hose.

      In order to actually damage the radiator, the belt would have to suddenly load up (elastically deform) and snap (suddenly releasing that stored energy), and the loaded end would have to swing in just the right direction in that final instant. The belt does not weigh much, and so has very little inertia left to act upon the radiator core, even if it did hit just right (missing the fan housing!). Still, the majority of the potential energy is perpendicular to the axis of the belt’s rotation (i.e.: emanating radially), so deflecting it toward the radiator would reduce what little inertia it had to begin with. Even modern front-wheel-drive automobiles, with their long serpentine belts aimed straight at the radiator, almost never spring leaks due a belt coming apart.

      Maybe you or your loved one has experienced radiator damage during a catastrophic belt failure (“Consult your doctor before taking Belterra, as it may interact with other medications”). I truly feel for you if that’s the case. But I think it’s unlikely. Either way, what you are describing is a one-in-a-million possibility that could only occur under a catastrophic failure condition — One that may well require a full engine rebuild. A belt cover will not save your motor if the belt fails, but it will make it more likely that the belt does fail — due to lack of maintenance.

      Bottom line: a radiator is much cheaper than an engine rebuild. Timing belt maintenance is cheaper still. Just my cost/benefit analysis of the worst case scenario.

      Moving on, I actually think that your point on protecting the human element is fairly compelling, and one that I should address. No car is worth losing a finger over — or worse. Period.

      But, if you’ll grant this point, very few modern cars have a dedicated belt cover from the factory. Many have fan shrouds or plastic dress-up bits that make it a little more difficult to hurt yourself, but most manufacturers expect people to exercise caution, or bear their own consequences. Again, if you or someone you love has been injured in an auto maintenance accident, I feel for you. I hate that that is a possibility in this broken world.

      However, car guys and mechanics have always had to learn to respect the rotating mutilation-mill that is an internal combustion engine. Thankfully, the 124 hood opens in reverse, so it’s not possible to lean over the pulleys from the front (with the hood on). Still, we do everything we can without the engine running, and we protect ourselves when setting timing. With all that said, protecting the user is only one isolated reason in favor of the belt cover. It’s a good reason! It’s just not problematic enough to make me install a cover, or to stop me trying to convince others to do away with them.

      Whether you keep the cover or not, work safe! Because you work on cars at your own risk, and there are plenty of ways to hurt yourself.

      Thanks again,

      1. Avatar photo

        Thanks Aron, you certainly have valid points. I have been working on my own cars and trucks for many years. Yes I have had a friend get his shirt caught in a fan belt (not timing belt) . lucky he wasn’t hurt but his shirt did not survive. He never worked on a motor with his shirt unbuttoned again. I’m just one of those guys that says better safe than sorry.

      2. Avatar photo

        I definitely respect that caution. Quite spooky, indeed. Thanks again for commenting and following up!


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