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When is an oil leak serious?

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably spotted a dark mark under your car and are wondering if you can get away with ignoring the potential of a leak and for how long. Unfortunately, leaks don’t fix themselves, and even if not immediately serious, they can only worsen with time, not improve. But not all leaks are created equal. Some may need emergency attention, while others can wait til pay day. 

Before jumping to conclusions, it may be helpful to get an idea of what could be leaking. The best way to do this is to stick a piece of white paper underneath your car at the point of the leak and let it drip onto the paper. Then take a look at the below for some guidance on what you find:


Colour: Clear
Texture: Thin
Level of concern: Low

Air-cons, especially when they’re working overtime in South African summers, need somewhere to dump the moisture pulled from the outside air before circulating that wonderfully cool air in the cabin. Water leaks are usually not a cause for concern, but keep an eye on the water level.


Colour: Amber to dark brown/black (depending on how well you maintain your car)
Texture: Thin and syrupy
Level of concern: Moderate

There are a myriad of reasons why your car may be leaking oil, some of the most common are a broken gasket (timing cover / oil pan / valve cover); a worn-out oil filter; a broken or damaged oil seal; and camshaft seals. Since engine oil provides the necessary lubrication to keep all the moving parts running smoothly, you should have an oil leak checked out by a mechanic fairly soon. Pay close attention to your oil level – too little oil and you could seize the engine, which will then require a major, expensive fix.

Transmission fluid

Colour: Commonly translucent red to dark brown-red
Texture: Oily, slightly thick and viscous
Level of concern: Fairly high

Typically found near the middle of the car, a transmission fluid leak can be serious and should get attention as soon as possible. A sign that your transmission needs servicing is if the leak is darker in colour and smells burnt.


Colour: Green, pink or yellow
Texture: Sticky, thick
Level of concern: High

This is a serious issue that should be dealt with as soon as possible, since antifreeze is essential to preventing your engine from overheating (or freezing in winter). Even a short drive could be enough to cause overheating and engine failure (read: expensive fix).

Power steering fluid

Colour: Red or brown
Texture: Thin
Level of concern: High

Typically found near the front of the car, a power steering fluid leak is another issue that should be attended to immediately. The most obvious sign of a leak other than the leak itself is difficulty turning your wheels, squealing or whining noises whenever the wheels turn, and a vibrating and jerky steering wheel in the middle of driving.

Brake fluid is unlikely to leave a noticeable puddle underneath your car, but it is very serious and you should not drive your car if you suspect a brake fluid leak. It is clear to amber in colour and has a strong smell like fish oil.