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Building Your First Engine on a Budget

If you mess around with cars, sooner or later you're going to find yourself in the position of needing to freshen an engine - here's how to do it cheap

Photography by Marko Radielovic

If you mess around with cars, sooner or later you're going to find yourself in the position of needing to freshen an engine. It doesn't matter what kind of car it is, or how old it is, because if you're reading this magazine, chances are good that you run the equipment a little on the aggressive side. This increases the likelihood that your engine will, at some point during your ownership, be left with its tongue hanging out.

When that day comes, you'll be faced with the decision to replace or rebuild. Replacing the tired engine with a brand-new one might be the simplest solution, but also the most costly. Swapping in a used unit is a popular choice, as it's usually the most economical alternative and the simplest to accomplish, but you're rolling the dice and hoping that you're not picking up where the last guy left off-a few beatings shy of your previous engine. That leaves rebuilding, which to rookie car crafters can be a daunting proposition.

There's no shame in it. Everyone has to have a first time, and you're wise to approach an engine rebuild with caution. An uninformed foray into the precision-machined world of internal combustion engines can quickly result in an expensive lesson-and a pile of worthless scrap metal. We were there once too, and we're going to give you some pointers, like a dopey older brother, in the hopes that your first engine build goes more smoothly and successfully than some of our early efforts did. In fact, while preparing this story, we reconditioned an engine of our own and used it as an example of a typical basic performance build. If you're already a seasoned wrench, some of this information will seem elementary, but those preparing for their first venture into engine building should find it helpful.

Research is Key

We hate to make this sound like homework, but you'd be wise to hit the books before spinning the first wrench. You may already know your way around a toolbox and an engine bay, but even though you may have been tinkering with your car for some time, there are many small details involved in the complete teardown and assembly of any specific engine that you may not be aware of. Research the motor beyond its manufacturer and engine family, down to the model, year, displacement, power rating, and any other specifics particular to that engine. Don't rely solely on a generalized repair manual for all of the information. Even an engine as common, popular, and seemingly simple as the small-block Chevy holds a few trade secrets that could drive you nuts if overlooked. Trust us, you don't want to pull the engine back out of the car and tear it apart just because you left out one 25-cent oil plug.

These days, even obscure engines have volumes of published data readily available, and finding it is a lot easier now that the Internet exists. Make an attempt to find a factory manual-many are reprinted or can be photocopied at large libraries-and follow it up with a good performance-building guide, if one is available.

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Not sure why people do not read this first before embarking on a engine project.

Car Craft