As the internal parts of the engine expand from the excessive heat, clearances may be reduced to the point where metal-to-metal contact occurs. Valve stems may gall and stick, and the pistons and camshaft might scuff or seize.
Severe overheating also creates tremendous thermal stress in the head(s) and block. This, in turn, may lead to cracking and/or warpage. This is a common problem with overhead cam engines that have aluminum heads.
The only vehicle that can be "safely" driven when the temperature warning light is on a late model Cadillac with a Northstar V8 engine. Cadillac engineers designed the engine control system to automatically deactivate half of the engine's cylinders if it senses an overheating problem. This reduces the heat (and power) being generated by the engine, and it allows the "dead" cylinders to pump air through the engine for internal cooling. The system is designed to provide a "limp-in" mode so the vehicle can be driven to the nearest service facility or Cadillac dealer for repairs. It is not designed for continuous driving.
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