Tire Tracks

The price of admission

LS1Piggy
When the time came to build my engine I thought I was ready. I was wrong! In recent posts I spoke of the virtues of the new aged powerplants and how easy and reliable they were. In many ways that is true, yet there was one glaring aspect I forgot to mention – THE COST!

I know many of you might argue that building an engine is expensive period. I wholeheartedly agree with you. There are also those who work on oddball engines and the parts are scarce. I feel your pain. Then there is the big block crowd who leaves it all out on the line for the quest for never-ending torque. Money seems to be eaten up faster than Kobayashi can take down hotdogs. I completely understand how expensive these endeavors can be.

I am basing my cost analysis on the tried and true small block Chevy (SBC) since it has always tended to be the standard for cost to power ratio in the hot-rodding community. I am well aware there are other brand alternatives out there, but for our purposes I want to stick with the SBC. This is not an endorsement for GM in any way. My daily driver is a Dodge Magnum RT, and I absolutely love my HEMI. Let’s face it, there still are a ridiculous amount SBC engines out there.

The SBC has been around since 1955 and really did not get a true overhaul until 1997. Yes the nomenclature changed with the LT1 (the ’92-’97 variant) to SBCII, but in reality is was not too far off from the original SBC aside from better flowing heads, reverse cooling, and the much-maligned Opi-spark distributor. The days of carburetors were numbered and the Big 3 were starting to look for new ways to make power under tightening emissions requirements. The 90s were an era of reinvigorated engine development and advancement. Along came the GM GenIII power plant. I know the Ford crowd will bring up the modular engines and DOHC arrangements, but I will stick with the SBC family line in this article. The debates can be kept on the Internet forums.

The newly designed GenIII featured 6 bolt mains, 15 degree angled heads, better flowing and lighter composite air intakes, better oiling, different firing order, and a slew of other redesigns to the original SBC. This was a robust improvement with its blank sheet design philosophy and huge power making potential. The only SBC aspect retained was the bore spacing. The new GenIII was also packaged in a small block footprint that could fit in just about anything. The last part is what has made swapping in a new gen engine so enticing. The proverbial having the cake and eating it too comes to mind. One might ask, “why aren’t everyone and their grandma choosing this swap?”

After coming down from the sugary induced euphoria from the GenIII promises, the cold hard facts will sober you up. Cue the dark clouds heading towards our parade. Although these engines have been out for close to 19 years, the cost to rebuild them is not in line with that of the good ol’ SBC. Yes the prices have dropped in the last ten years, but the aftermarket has been playing catch up to the four decades lead the original SBC has enjoyed. There are more aftermarket parts and manufacturers offered for the SBC than there are for the new gen powerplants. That gap is shrinking on a daily basis and costs will probably equalize in the future. Unfortunately, the current discrepancy in cost warrants consideration when swapping in new gen engines.

The second blow to your checkbook comes from the unforeseen costs associated with dropping a new engine into your old chassis. On my own project I started out with a rough estimate of what it would cost to do the swap into my ’69 Camaro. Needless to say, I grossly underestimated the little things that add up in such an undertaking. There are many “how to” books and online articles on accomplishing the feat, but they tend to glaze over the small stuff. They sell you on the belief that you can simply go to your favorite junkyard and score an engine and transmission and drop it under the hood and be on your merry way. That might work for a short time until the added stress of increased power combined with the years of abuse and decay weighs on your old car; leaving you stranded on the side of the road. While starting your project you have to be preemptive in your thinking and build accordingly.

That being said, it is always a wrestling match between the added costs of piece of mind versus the potential for mechanical failure. Can I get by reusing a piece or should I be pro-active with preventative spending? Before you know it the project starts to balloon and your checkbook is bathed in red. Frustration sets in. The saying always goes something to the extent of, “ if you are spending (fill in amount) you shouldn’t risk it for only (fill in amount).” It gets out of control in a hurry. I ran into this many times rebuilding my LS1 engine. One such instance was when I was torn between whether I should buy new lifters or stick with the ones I had. Aside from total engine meltdown these are pretty rugged pieces. I cleaned and disassembled them while checking the needle bearings before I reassembled them to look good as new. That little voice in my head tortured me for days with doubt and worry until I finally gave in and bought a new set. I constantly asked myself, “When would it ever end?” The days of a $500 backyard rebuild are over!

This is not even taking into account the custom motor mounts, the exhaust, the hoses, the electrical, the ECU, and on and on. It doesn’t take long before you realize it is more of a daunting task than replacing your familiar SBC with another SBC. In the past, I have been turned off to crate engines due to sticker shock. After taking on my rebuild I did an about face, for I can see how the price is not that out of line. If it weren’t for my need to get my hands dirty and learn about these engines, I probably would have been open to the lure of a finished engine dropped off at my front door. At least I know who to yell at if something goes wrong.

My intentions are not to sway any of you to stick with your original engine or put in a new gen engine. I merely wanted to pass along my experiences up to this point in the swap process. I am sure the challenges are similar to those who are undertaking similar transplants from other automotive brands. It is a huge undertaking either way you choose to go. In the end it is up to each of us individually to decide what extent of commitment (physically and financially) we put into our cars. Taking on a swap project is not for the faint of heart. I guess that is what separates us car guys and gals from the rest of the world.

Keep wrenching!

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