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.

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.

In 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.

Price 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.

Have 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?
Two: What is my budget?

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.