As is customary for any aging car built in Germany, my 2010 Volkswagen GTI has decided to start leaking concerning amounts of oil onto my clean driveway. Normally, my GTI I call Six Iron has healthy oil seepage and minor residue around its various rubber gaskets that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What does bother me are drips on my concrete and smoke from the engine bay, both of which were happening quite suddenly.
Unexpected large oil leaks are always cause for concern, so I sidelined Six Iron until I had time to figure the issue out. Unfortunately, it took weeks to solve. The problem was that this leak was clearly happening up high on the engine, drenching every last bit of aluminum and iron possible in Castrol 5W-40 and making it annoyingly difficult to track the source of the leak. It could have come from any one of three to four sources. All I could do was use the scientific method and work through each problem area.
Luckily, it was burning oil off of the exhaust manifold, so I could narrow my leak down to the very top of the cylinder head near the valve cover. My culprit could be a leaking PCV, a leaking vacuum pump, or the infamous and elusive valve cover and camshaft girdle seal. The first two are easy repairs, but the third is the subject of much forum speculation and misinformation that involves removing the entire timing chain – not strictly true, but we’ll get there later.
First, I had to eliminate the other sources of the leak before doing the worst job. I replaced my PCV because mine was a bit overdue, and my car started exhibiting the classic loss of power and oil burning symptoms. While I was there, I took the time to rethread all the bolt holes because half of them were stripped and not clamping down on the PCV like they should. This could have easily been my leak, but alas.
My last savior is the vacuum pump leak, but that also seemed to be a wash. The easiest way to get the vacuum pump off of a first-generation EA888 is by removing the two T30 bolts holding the high-pressure fuel pump to the vacuum pump housing, fishing the roller-follower out of it, and then removing the long T30 bolts holding the pump to the head and cam girdle. My initial attempts without removing the fuel pump made it unnecessarily difficult.
I had the very first revision of a metal gasket on my car that was a triple layer steel setup, which I initially had no reason to believe would leak. But without any obvious signs of failure, I decided to tackle the big job of removing the cam girdle.
This job, much like the famous Backrooms liminal space, inspires much fear and speculation about its origins and construction. It also seems there is about as much accurate information about it online, solidifying this one as a source of horror for Mk6 GTI owners akin to the timing chain tensioner failure.
Consequently, I had to use my brain for this job, rather than a useful guide or a Youtube video. Forum posts all over the dank, dark, dubber end of the internet contain dire edicts about camshafts popping out of time, valves being bent, and entire timing chains having to be removed to complete this job. The reason for this is that the EA888 does not use a conventional valve cover with a rubber gasket, it uses what’s called a cam girdle sealed with proprietary sealant.
It turns the job of two things into one. Instead of having a valve cover and camshaft caps holding the cams down, the cam girdle fastens the cams to their bearings and seals the top end of the motor. Great for easy production, reducing cost, and saving weight, not so great when it starts leaking. Because of its double duty at holding the cams down, removing it does run the apparent risk of allowing them to jump out of time. Since I am a minor-league idiot, I thought it would be fine as long as I was mildly careful.
With the vacuum pump off, this was a fairly straightforward job. I removed the intake to make some room for myself, removed the PCV again to access the girdle bolts, and removed the upper timing cover (easily the hardest part of the job thanks to two hidden bolts by the engine mount that require a long spanner wrench). Then, it is the task of loosening the T30 bolts that secure the cam girdle to the cylinder head. I decided to use the torque pattern I found online in reverse to ensure maximum safety. It’s not a huge risk with a short engine like this inline-four, but inline-sixes can break cams if loosened or tightening improperly.
I cracked each bolt in reverse order, then steadily removed them with my electric ratchet. At first, the girdle did not lift from the head on its own. Be careful if this happens because it will alarmingly snap upward at the hint of a pry bar thanks to the sealant holding it to the head. Make sure all the bolts are clear of the girdle (which I didn’t do) or else there will be a Volkswagen fastener embedded in your forehead. Ask me how I know.
Once it does pop up, it will not sit flush. Don’t be alarmed, this effect is from the back of the cams sitting proud from the tension of the timing chain. It’s only half an inch or so, but it's notable. Once the cover is off, everything should be kosher. From what I could see, the risk of the timing chain or cams popping out of time is minimal, if not impossible. The amount of chain tensioners and the nature of timing chains means it’s extremely hard for teeth to slip. After all of that forum bleating about death and destruction, this job is honestly extremely tame.
The next oddity is resealing the cam girdle. I purchased a tube of “Sealant, strong” which is VW's own blend (part no. D 154 103 A1 for you DIYers) and several torque-to-yield bolts from my local VW parts counter to the tune of $100, and it is not normal sealant. It is anaerobic, which means it will cure in the absence of oxygen. It will stay gooey until it is fastened and crushed under the aluminum girdle, giving me plenty of time to faff around with the installation.
To prepare both mating surfaces, I used brake cleaner and 70% rubbing alcohol until they were clean to the touch. I used the handy funnel attachment and applied a small bead of sealant only to the cam girdle, following the precut grooves on it where the sealant is designed to cure. It was kind of like icing a very shitty cake.
Finally, I could offer the girdle back to the car, and I carefully placed it without smearing the sealant. Using the new bolts (don’t reuse the old ones, they will snap), I used the torque pattern and an inch-pounds beam-type torque wrench to fasten all the bolts to 8 newton-meters, then a ratchet to spin them another 90 degrees. Once everything is torqued down, you are officially safe.
Of course, everything else is in reverse order, but I’m fairly disappointed by the anticlimax of this job. It was sold to me as fearsome, but it basically was just a hint spicier than a normal valve cover job. This is useful, however, because plenty of modern cars use this cam girdle style of valve cover. It will become the future of prospective wrenchers. Also, it’s just fun debunking forum myths while curing annoying oil leaks.
Remember, we’re all smarter than the bolts.