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It’s only an engine!

Tire Tracks

I had planned, purchased, and prayed. The time came for me to build my first engine. I had been anxiously awaiting this bucket list project for quite some time. I had thought I would ease into engine building with the simple and well-documented SBC, but as you might have learned from my previous posts that idea went out the window in favor of an LS1.

For years I had been collecting books and learning from online videos on the “how to” build a SBC engine and it seemed pretty straightforward. From what I gathered, some guys slap these things together in about an hour with a few hand tools and a 20-watt bulb dangling above their head while working in a dark, cluttered, and filthy garage. Others approached the project with surgical precision while maintaining a work area that rivals a state-of-the-art operating room. What I took from all of my research is that the more attention to detail you have the healthier your engine will be. I understand how easy it is to get a garage out of sorts while working on projects, but it doesn’t take that long to tidy up. If I ever have the misfortune of going under a surgeon’s knife I sure want a clean, well-lit operating room. Like I said…attention to detail.

I was ready to tear into the old small-block 350 that I pulled from a well-worn 1978 Chevy truck I had bought for $450. I purchased it to haul materials while building one of my garages. I had no intention to stick any money into it. The truck has long since been hauled away. The story behind this truck’s demise is somewhat amusing. One night I was on my way home from buying a mattress. I was running behind and had not intended to drive the dilapidated heap at night. I was pulled over on the highway about two miles from my house for faulty taillights. I spoke to the officer and informed him that I had a dead battery and was using a portable jumper to get home, and I could not stop the vehicle, for if I did it would have to be towed. After a few disapproving looks, he agreed to follow me to my house. Once I parked the truck, the officer took a good look at the rusted-out Chevy and gave me two options. The first option was to accept a ticket for operating a vehicle with no taillights. The second was to let me go with a warning under the the assurance that the heap of junk would never see public roads again. I laughed and obliged with the latter only after scavenging anything that wasn’t broken or crumbling apart from the carcass. This was to be the building block for my Camaro. Or so I thought.

The SBC went out the door when the LS1 came along. I paid a seemingly fair price for the engine. I was told that it was a ’99 LS1 left over from an old project that was abandoned. The guy was forthcoming and mentioned that it had some sludge and needed a good going over and possibly a re-ring. It came with a 4l60e transmission and a re-worked wiring harness/ecm labeled ’99 on the box. Everything was telling me that this was a slam-dunk. Caveat Emptor! Once again, my good sense was overcome by good intentions; I rolled the dice.

I was like a child on Christmas morning when I hoisted the engine out of my trailer. I was figuring this would be a quick and painless experience. I could get away relatively cheap on the swap. Time to do some research work and see what is needed. This is still a Chevy engine…it can’t be much different than building the SBC; can it? A few mouse clicks on the net it became apparent how different it was.

Seeing this was an aluminum block it had cast-in cylinder liners. The old school small-block was able to be bored safely to at least .060 over. The aluminum block was stretching its limits with a minuscule .005 hone job. To make matters worse I did some checking of cast numbers, and found I had an early ’98 block — the worst when it came to cylinder integrity. The oil galley in the back of the block was not as efficient as the redesigned ’99-and-later blocks. Regardless, the design was arguably still an upgrade to the other engine I had sitting on a stand a few feet away.

I did due diligence and it was time to see what I got myself into. I proceeded to the initial teardown of the engine. This is where my resolve was put to the test. As soon as I popped the intake off I saw everything had a black coating. This was not the ordinary black sludge that you see in older engines. It looked like the whole engine was powder-coated in burnt oil. After a few choice words, that I am not too proud of having said, I soldiered on and finished disassembling the top end of the engine. I sat looking at the pile of parts and wondered if the last guy ever changed the oil on the engine or if his pcv system was shot. I could only speculate on how this engine got so nasty. I came to the realization that this was not as cut-and-dry as I once hoped. The panic started to set in and I dreaded moving on to the lower end. Knowing that the cylinders could not be bored out concerned me. I might have just bought a boat anchor. I was relieved to see the bottom end held up to the abuse. For being so trashed up top the bottom was still salvageable. This speaks volumes for this engine’s durability.

My next quandary was how to clean the baked-on mess. The block and heads are made of aluminum and the traditional caustic concoctions builders have used over the years would ruin the block. Here is a list of failed cleaners I used: spray can degreaser; kerosene; diesel; brake cleaner; mineral spirits; Simple Green (washed off immediately – this will eat aluminum if kept on undiluted); dish soap; and even gasoline. This stuff was tough! I used a pressure washer and got most of the stickier gunk off, but the passages were still black as night. The only solvent that cut through was heavy-duty carb cleaner (the stuff in the gallon can). When used as a soaking bath it worked wonders on the nuts and bolts but wasn’t practical for the engine block and heads.

At this point I had to call in the cavalry. I had to admit defeat and leave it to the professionals. I packed up the pieces and dropped them off at the machine shop. A few days later I received a call from a perplexed shop owner who claimed in his 30 years of business he has never seen such a baked-on mess. Only after soaking for a week and numerous power-washings in the cabinet could the block be serviceable.

After my block was cleaned up with a light hone, crank reground/polished, and cam bearing installed, I was ready to do one last cleaning and put it together. I had to order new pistons due to the hone and decided to go with new rods as well. One thing leads to another and I had all forged pieces and fasteners in my block. I gave it a go at porting the heads and intake myself, but that is a story for another day. As the block progressed the bill grew. Granted, some of the costs were do to specialized tools and replacement parts — a result of my own boneheaded mistakes.

In the end I was happy with my first build and wanted to keep building. After getting hands on with the process I gained a better appreciation for the design, manufacturing and engineering of these engines. I have always been fascinated with the interworking of the internal combustion engine. The transfer of energy states in such a compact package is awe-inspiring. It literally harnesses the power of explosions. I felt a little bit like a mad scientist while building the engine. The smell of assembly lube and mineral spirits will forever bring a smile to my face. I recommend that everyone build an engine or two sometime in his or her life.

I look at that truck engine on the stand in my garage. Hopefully, I can work on it with my kids someday. The measly few bucks I can get for scrap makes keeping it worthwhile. Hopefully, the sight of it will entice my kids to the hobby. It is a hard sell getting younger people interested in cars these days. With all the talk of autonomous cars on the horizon it scares me. I feel it is my duty to share the joy of car building with any kids willing to listen. If only I could sway their enthusiasm from the newest generation of smartphone to the allure of horsepower. They can’t sit beside that special someone sharing the timeless freedom of the open road riding an Iphone. If that changes we truly are in trouble.

Keep wrenching!

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