The idea of ordering a mail-order engine would never occur to some hot rodders, any more than buying a finished hot rod would. For such people, building a car at home-including the engine-from collected parts is the very definition of hot rodding. Anything less is just slacking.
For others, the opportunity to own an expertly-built rod-or the chance to buy a reliable, ready-to-go engine-is their key into the hobby, and the large number and variety of crate engines available from the OEMs and numerous aftermarket manufacturers is the smart way to obtain a powerplant.
There are many advantages to buying a pre-built crate engine and there are many choices in terms of available products, but there are also many things you'll need to know in order to make sure you're buying the right engine and components. In addition, there are many hidden expenses you need to know about to calculate a budget. We talked to some engine builders and some crate engine manufacturers about what you should know before you order an engine-in-a-box. If it all sounds a little overwhelming, it isn't. And it's a lot less trouble and money than ending up with a shop full of expensive engine parts you don't want or can't use.
What Do You Get?When ordering a crate engine from a manufacturer, what you're buying will differ from company to company, but the completeness of the engine will generally fall into one of the following categories:
Short-block: This typically describes a bare engine block, crankshaft, connecting rods, pistons and rings, pins, main bearings, rod bearings, cam bearings, rear main seal, and soft plugs. It might also include a camshaft and drive.
Long-block: This typically describes the short-block components plus cylinder heads, cam and valvetrain components, and an oil pan. It will generally also include the installed timing cover and valve covers. An intake manifold may or may not be included, depending on the manufacturer, or may be optional.
Turnkey: This typically describes a completely built engine, probably including the carburetor, water pump, drives, plugs and wires, and accessories. It may or may not include a distributor.
In any situation, make sure you know exactly what will and won't be included with your crate engine in order to avoid surprises, and make sure you have budgeted for any parts you have to buy that are not part of the package. If it's necessary to buy additional parts, it can be a really good idea to order them through the company that is providing the crate engine.
Advantages Of A Crate EngineIn some people's minds, crate engines still have a bad reputation. There is the image of poorly machined B-level engines rolling off of an assembly line somewhere in the Third World-mass production for mass consumption.
While that scenario may or may not have existed in the past, the crate engines being produced by most established aftermarket manufacturers these days are high-quality, reliable, and competitively priced products, machined well and assembled correctly from the right parts.
The idea of mass production might sound like "cookie cutter" to some rodders, but in reality it translates into consistency. An engine from a reputable manufacturer that has built thousands of engines, and hundreds of one specific combination, is less likely to suffer from human error than your homebuilt engine, or even an engine from a small shop. Specifics like proper clearance, valve size, ring gap, proper carburetor size, cam specs, and other considerations that may slip past an amateur engine builder have been figured out by the engineers who produce engines in high volume. Of course, there are potential advantages of an engine that has been handbuilt by an experienced pro builder, but those advantages may not be applicable to most mild street rod or custom car applications-and the price tag for such an engine is going to be a lot larger than for a crate engine.
Cost AnalysisPrice is one of the biggest advantages of mail-order engines. It may seem that building a small-block in the garage from pieces you've been accumulating for years might be cheaper than the cost of a brand-new engine, but that's only true if you ignore a lot of the unforeseen costs of building your own.
In addition to the hard parts, the homebuilder may end up spending a lot of money on services, such as machining, balancing, polishing, and dyno testing (not a necessity, but a perk offered by many manufacturers), to mention just a few. And don't forget to calculate in the cost of the tools and equipment you'll need to build an engine-not to mention gaskets, nuts and bolts, and other nickel-and-dime items that add up fast. Don't forget to include the cost in time, as well as the cost of phone calls and shipping fees for all the separately purchased parts needed for the project. That's assuming that nobody sells you the wrong parts, which would rack up additional time on the phone, additional freight charges, and additional frustration.
Compare that to talking with a representative at a manufacturer about putting together a complete engine using readily available parts from one source, specifically chosen for that application. The horsepower, the look, the components, can all be specified. Many of the larger manufacturers are able to provide complete turnkey packages designed specifically for your application.
Of course, ordering a crate engine is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong, that the order won't get goofed up, the wrong parts will get shipped, or that for some reason, there will be something wrong with the engine. Crate engines, however, have the benefit of coming with a warranty to cover such situations, and in most cases, some sort of technical support team that can help you solve any problems that come along. If you build a motor at home, and something isn't right, you're out of luck. With a crate engine, you're covered.
What To Ask Before You BuyHave we made it sound as if ordering a crate engine is as simple as ordering a pizza? It isn't. Even with the availability of mail-order factory engines, there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all in hot rodding. There are a lot of questions you should be asking when shopping around for the right engine.
The first questions are the two you need to ask yourself.
One: What is my realistic application for this engine?
In both cases, it's easy to bite off more than you can chew. It'd be fun to have a big racing engine in your hot rod, but if you're building a car to drive on the street, that might not be a smart choice. And the high-dollar show engine might look appealing on a Web site, but will you have money left to finish the car after indulging in something more than you really need?
The first question for a manufacturer should be to determine what is included with an engine package. The components included with short-block and long-block combinations differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Even an engine described as "turnkey" seldom comes in true turnkey condition.
Will your new engine include:* carburetor* starter * distributor * spark plugs and plug wires * exhaust manifolds or headers * alternator * thermostat and housing* oil pump* harmonic balancer* fuel pump* water pump and pulleys* harmonic balancer* dipstick* flexplate * air cleaner
Asking what your new crate engine will include gives you an idea of what components you'll need to buy above and beyond the engine.
Another question you'll need answered is if these "extra" items will work with your car. If it comes with accessory brackets, will they fit? And the same goes for headers. If it comes with an AC compressor, is it compatible with your system? Same question with the power steering pump and the water pump. If you've ordered an EFI engine, will the provided wiring harness be an original factory-style version or a simplified version, and will it work with your specific car? Will the engine swap require other changes, such as replacing a mechanical fan with an electric fan, or possibly upgrading the radiator?
The bottom line is: Are you spending money on parts you can't use, which will require you to spend more money to replace them? Sometimes, a reputable manufacturer will discount the price of an engine package and sell it without some of the drives, pulleys, pumps, brackets, and other components. That is an important question to ask-just as important as finding out about the warranty and the return policy on parts.
Another important area to consider is the realistic horsepower of the engine. High numbers reflect what the engine will run on a dyno minus a complete driveline and accessories, but the number you need to be concerned with is enough rear wheel horsepower to keep your car safely ahead of traffic and out of the way of less concentrated vehicle operators. An engine that has been properly broken in and dyno tested will save many headaches and give an added sense of security of a super reliable powerplant. And since we're talking about brand-new engines, make sure you give the manufacture's warranty serious consideration; this will be one of the greatest advantages over a homebuilt engine that is all on you should anything fail.
A final question would be what kind of shipping select suppliers use, and what the cost of that shipping will be. Some providers charge extra for crating and handling, and bigger outfits should be able to walk you through all the available transportation methods and be able to give you an accurate estimate of the total shipping charges.
You should expect the manufacturer to ask some questions, too. Their job is to sell you the right engine. The only way they can do that is by finding out what you really need. In addition to the basic questions about engine size and component selection, expect to be asked questions about your type of vehicle, how it is used, how often you drive it, desired fuel economy, and the transmission and rearend. If the manufacturer isn't asking these questions, you should be wondering why not.
Hidden CostsWhen you budget for a crate engine, you'll have to leave a little extra money for a few other unexpected expenses. In addition to some of the components that may not be included with the product, there will be other costs that are easy to overlook when planning a buildup.
Commonly overlooked expenses are shipping fees, tax, and insurance. Other costs depend on how complete the motor is. The level of completeness differs from company to company, but items frequently not included with a crate engine are the carburetor, intake manifold, headers, starter, distributor, plugs, plug wires, belts, hoses, fuel pump, harmonic balancer, pulleys, flywheel or flexplate, water pump, air cleaner, valve covers, and battery. If you don't already own these components (or if the parts you already own don't work with the engine), it's recommended that you buy those parts from the same company that sold you the engine. This will reduce the number of companies you're dealing with, will increase the chance that the parts will be compatible, and will ease the process of solving tech problems if they are not compatible.
Avoiding Bait And SwitchThe Internet has made the mail-order engine business a lot bigger and a lot easier, but it has also opened the door for less-than-honest crate engine companies. It's now common to see a low-priced engine advertised, only to find out that the engine advertised doesn't really exist-or if it does, you will be expected to pay for a long list of other parts to get it up and running. Rule of thumb: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Common ErrorsMost of the manufacturers we talked to agree that the biggest mistake hot rodders make when buying a crate engine or components for their project is that they get overambitious.
Everybody wants a big-horsepower engine, when, for many applications (such as the vast majority of street rods), something milder would be a better pick. When comparing horsepower and torque ratings of different engines, don't worry about what they're making at 6,000 rpm where you'll never be. Look at the power they make at midrange rpms where the engine will be spending the most time.
The same rule applies to the level of finish. "Show-quality" versions of turnkey engines are available from many manufacturers. These packages typically include polished or chromed valve covers, air cleaner, oil pan, polished heads, brackets, drives, and pulleys. In the case of an aluminum block, the whole block might be polished. This attention to detail is great, but can add a couple thousand dollars to the cost of the engine. That might be money well spent if you show your car a lot and those details are visible. But if you're building a high-mileage driver, or if those dressy elements won't be noticeable once the engine is dropped into the engine compartment, why not save your money?
If we had to wrap it all up in six easy-to-remember rules, it would be these:1. Only buy from a company that will stand behind the crate engine they sell you.2. Evaluate what you really need (and don't need).3. Have a budget that includes anticipated and unanticipated extra expenses.4. Comparison shop for completeness, not just price.5. Make sure the engine you buy will work with parts you already have.6. Make sure the engine you buy will work with other parts you buy.
Break-In Tips For Crate EnginesCongratulations. You made all the right decisions and are the proud owner of a crate engine that fits your budget, fits your style of hot rodding, and fits into the engine compartment. But before you turn the key and head for the highway, that new crate engine needs to be broken in.
First step is to check the oil level. Never assume that the oil level is correct from the factory. Prime the engine by turning the oil pump drive using an electric drill, while a helper rotates the crankshaft with a socket. Add coolant. A 50/50 ratio of new antifreeze and water is recommended. Connect the electric fan and make sure it is functioning properly. Ben Smeding, of Smeding Performance, even recommends running a large shop electric fan in front of your car (or at least a large one borrowed from your house) to keep the car cool during break-in.
Set the timing to recommended specifications, finding top dead center for the number one piston on the compression stroke. Install the distributor and plug wires if they haven't been added. Check for proper distributor cap placement.
Check the carburetor. The carburetor should follow the cfm and jetting recommendations of the manufacturer of your engine. Running the carb a little rich during the initial startup will help avoid burning a valve. A couple of turns of the idle screw should do it. Add gasoline to the float bowls.
Check that the thermostat and water pump belt are tightened to proper specifications. Make sure the exhaust system is installed. Open pipes will sound impressive, but you need to be able to hear if there are any unusual engine noises that would indicate potential problems.
Chock the wheels and set the emergency brake. Start the engine. Have an assistant start the car so you can control the throttle from under the hood. If it doesn't fire up right away, check that the carburetor is getting adequate fuel. If the engine is backfiring, check the timing and the spark plug wires. Maintain engine rpm at 2,000 to 2,500 until the engine reaches normal operating temperature. Reduce the rpm to idle and check the timing with a timing light. Continue to run the engine at 2,000-2,500 for 20 to 30 minutes to break in the cam and to make sure oil has reached all components. Check for any leaks during this time.
After the initial run period, change the oil and filter while the engine is still warm. Reset the carburetor idle speed and mixture for normal driving conditions. Drive the car under easy driving conditions for 50-100 miles. Load the engine by quickly accelerating from 30 to 50 mph, bringing the engine speed to about 5,000 rpm, then coasting back down to 30 in gear. Repeat this 10 or 12 times to help seat the piston rings.
Change the oil and filter after the initial drive. For the first 500 or 600 miles of normal driving, the valvetrain components will break in. Avoid excessive acceleration and heavy load, and vary your speed when driving on the highway. Change the oil and filter after 600 miles, and again at 1,200 miles. At this point, the engine is well broken in. Following this procedure will increase your chances of long engine life and maximized, reliable performance.
TestimonialsIt would be difficult to find someone opposed to the concept of a fresh crate engine ready to run at a cost below that of a rebuild of a tired old engine that will still need a ton of parts to bring it even close to the hardware included with most crate engines. We're adding the testimonials of two individuals, because together they have personally seen the development and positive aspects of the crate engine concept from the very beginning.
Our first testimonial comes from renowned rod builder Roy Brizio.
R&C: Roy, you've used just about every crate engine available in your projects. What makes them so great?
Roy: Unless we're using an early engine not available in crate form, brand-new factory crate engines are the only way to go.
Roy: From our experience, it's all on the upside. You're able, these days, to pick up the phone and order just about any engine you can dream up. With the crate engine, you have less builder error, and if there ever should be a problem, just make another call to enact your warranty. Try that when you have a "friend" build an engine and you might be losing a friend and still be out one engine.
R&C: Do you think added piece of mind comes with the purchase of a crate engine for your hot rod?
Roy: Yes, definitely. Knowing that your engine is 100-percent brand-new and came down the same assembly line as millions of other brand-new engines adds a feeling that their hot rod will be as reliable as a brand-new car.
R&C: Any one supplier better than another?
Roy: I've worked with them all, and they all have worked out great. If I want something stock I use GM and Ford Performance, and if I need something a little more special, I work with Edelbrock or Roush.
Our next testimonial comes from rodder, racer, and retired GM mechanic Dan Clifton. Currently he enjoys his homebuilt '31 Ford roadster running a GM Performance crate engine and also spins wrenches on the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association's 426 Hemi-powered Speed Sport roadster.
R&C: Tell us about your crate engine.
Dan: Well, it's an aluminum Vortec head equipped 350 with a GM Performance 430hp camshaft I added.
R&C: It's a homebuilt car. Why a crate engine over self-built?
Dan: I worked for GM my whole career. I saw what they did with their engine program and I installed many of the engines in different cars. They simply do a fantastic job!
R&C: Any surprises with your engine?
Dan: Nope. All I had to do was add a carburetor, a little gas, and a battery and I was ready to hit the street.
R&C: So you drive your car?
Dan: All the time! I broke it in on a cross-country trip to Indianapolis for a Goodguys event. Trouble-free all the way!
R&C: Would you recommend a crate engine to your friends?
Dan: I already have many times!