Crate Engines: A Smart Solution

Crate Engines: A Smart Solution

Remanufactured engines, or “crate” engines as they are often called because they usually arrive in a shipping crate or on a wooden pallet, have become a popular alternative to overhauling engines that have reached the end of the road.

Piston rings and valve guides and bearings don’t last forever. Valves and valve seats erode and wear away, oil pumps wear out, timing chains stretch and camshafts wear down. Internal engine parts can also bend, stretch, warp, twist, crack and break. As the miles add up, so does the wear and tear on all of the parts that make the engine work. And if the vehicle owner neglects routine maintenance (things like regular oil and filter changes), the wear process accelerates even faster.
As an engine ages, it eventually starts to exhibit symptoms that indicate its days are numbered. Blue smoke in the exhaust means the valve guides and/or piston rings are worn and the engine is burning oil. A loss of compression may make the engine hard to start, or cause it to misfire, waste gas and lose power. There may be new noises such as piston slap, rod knock, wrist pin, valvetrain or timing chain noises. Oil pressure may be lower than normal, causing the oil pressure warning light to flicker or come on. The engine may run hot and overheat.

A motorist will often ignore these signs and keep flogging the old vehicle until eventually, it dies. A critical part breaks, something seizes or locks up and that’s all she wrote. Then a choice has to be made: Is it worth spending the money to overhaul or replace the engine, or is it time to call the salvage yard and have the vehicle towed away?

In days gone by, many motorists opted to have their old engine overhauled because engine failures were more common at lower mileages. But today, it’s a different story. Engines are built better and last longer, even when they don’t receive the best maintenance. By the time they die, the vehicle may be 10 or more years old, and not worth very much on the used car market. It hardly makes sense to spend $3,000 to $6,000 or more to rebuild or replace an engine in a vehicle that may only be worth $2,000. Some people do, but many decide it’s cheaper in the long run to get another vehicle. That’s why the engine rebuilding market has been in a slump in recent years, and many machine shops have closed their doors forever.

To make matters worse, the high cost of labor and a shortage of skilled machinists (not to mention local machine shops) makes overhauling an engine today a very expensive proposition. That’s why remanufactured crate engines have become so popular. They typically cost 20 to 25 percent less than what it would normally cost to have an old engine disassembled, cleaned, inspected, machined and rebuilt. The savings are made possible by rebuilding the engines on a high-volume production line.

Production engine rebuilders (PERs) essentially remanufacture used engines on assembly lines in large runs to minimize costs. They remachine parts to identical specifications (which saves machine setup time and labor), and save money on parts because they buy in such large volume. Small, custom engine rebuilders and machine shops don’t have such cost advantages, making it difficult to compete against the price of many crate engines.

PERs also test their engines at the end of the assembly line to make sure the engines develop normal compression and oil pressure. Many small machine shops don’t have the equipment to test their engines. Nor can the smaller shops compete with the warranties that many of the larger PERs offer, which may range from one to three years and/or 12,000 to 60,000 miles or more with free roadside assistance.

Another advantage with crate engines is that there is no waiting for the shop to disassemble, clean, inspect, remachine and rebuild the old engine (a process that often takes up to a week or more depending on the workload in the shop). The only delay with a crate engine is the time it takes the WD or engine rebuilder to ship the engine to the installer or customer. There is, however, the added cost of shipping (typically $150 to $300 depending on distance).

Many create engines are sold outright with no exchange needed. This makes the engines easier to sell, and eliminates the handling and shipping of old, greasy engine cores back to the rebuilder.
Crate engines are available for most popular applications today, from a smallblock Chevy or Ford to a big block Chevy or even late-model Chrysler Hemis. You can get four, six, eight and even 10-cylinder crate engines, as well as engines for Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, VWs and other imports. Coverage for popular Chevy and Ford V8s goes back to the 1960s, as well as for the newer Chevy LS1 and Ford 4.6 and 5.4L “modular” V8s.

The typical stock replacement crate engine is essentially a “long block” that includes an assembled “short block” (engine block, crankshaft, rods and pistons, camshaft and timing chain) with the cylinder heads installed. The engine may or may not include the oil pan, valve covers or timing cover.

This means the customer has to swap many of the parts from his old engine to the new engine, which creates numerous additional sales opportunities that should not be overlooked. Primary among these would be a new oil pump and water pump (if not included with the replacement engine). Your engine customer will also need gaskets for the intake and exhaust manifolds, new spark plugs, oil, oil filter, antifreeze, a new thermostat (highly recommended) and maybe new plug wires, radiator and heater hoses, clamps, drive belt(s) and motor mounts. If the vehicle has a manual transmission, now would also be a good time to inspect and replace the clutch if it is worn, and to replace or resurface the flywheel if needed.

Crate engines have also become a quick and cost-effective way to upgrade vehicle performance by replacing the original engine with one that has been modified and dyno tested to produce more horsepower and torque. Options here run the gamut from mild street performance engines to professionally built all-out racing engines for virtually any kind of motorsport.

The sky is the limit as to how much a customer can spend on a performance crate engine. The price of a performance crate engine typically starts a little higher than that of a stock replacement engine, and goes up exponentially depending on how many cubic inches and how much horsepower and torque you want. If a customer wants a 603 cubic-inch Chevy big block V8 that makes 850 plus horsepower, it’s only a matter of writing a bigger number on the check. The large displacement, high-horsepower, custom-built crate engines typically start around $9,000 and go up from there. But most of the Ford and Chevy factory-built performance crate engines are in the $5,000 to $8,000 range.

A popular upgrade for a stock 350 Chevy V8 is a 383 stroker motor that includes a longer stroke crankshaft that produces 340 to 400 or more horsepower depending on the cylinder heads, camshaft and compression ratio. The cost may range from $3,000 for a “budget” version of the engine up to $7,000 or more for a ready-to-race motor built with top-quality, name-brand aftermarket racing parts.

An important point to keep in mind with respect to performance engines is that durability and reliability are just as important as cubic inches and raw horsepower. Forged pistons, rods and steel crankshafts cost much more than their cast iron counterparts, but are often necessary to provide the durability demanded in a racing environment, or even a street engine that may be used occasionally on a drag strip.

Other factors that affect the selling price of a performance crate engine include the labor that goes into blueprinting and machining the cylinder heads (cc’ing the combustion chambers, porting, flow testing, etc.), special work done on the block (grinding to increase clearances for a stroker crank, replacing pressed-in oil plugs with threaded plugs), balancing (which includes adding heavy metal on a stroker crank), line boring, milling, stress relieving or other special procedures that would not usually be done to a stock engine. The more time and effort that goes into prepping and building the engine, the higher its price, and the better its performance and durability (hopefully!).

Many (but not all) performance crate engines are dyno tested after they have been assembled. Dyno testing allows the engine builder to make sure everything was put together correctly and the engine has proper compression and oil pressure. It also allows them to control the critical engine break-in process (which reduces warranty problems) and also allows them to verify the engine’s power output. The dyno sheet that comes with the engine shows its actual torque and horsepower curves, which is much more credible than advertising claims in a sales brochure.

As with stock replacement engines, performance crate engines may be nothing more than a long block, or they may be a complete engine with intake manifold, carburetor or fuel injection, ignition system and oil pan and valve covers. So like stock engines, there are also plenty of add-on sales opportunities such as exhaust headers, chrome and aluminum dress-up covers and accessories, performance ignition parts, cold air intake systems, etc.

A customer who opts for a performance crate engine should also be encouraged to use synthetic oil in the engine, and to consider beefing up the drivetrain with a stronger, performance clutch, or a higher stall speed torque converter if the transmission is an automatic.

Though stock replacement crate engines are essentially the exact same engines as the original, they are not simple drop-in replacements. As we said earlier, a lot of parts from the old engine have to be removed and installed on the new engine when it goes into the vehicle. Critical parts such as the oil pump, water pump and thermostat (if not included) should be carefully inspected and replaced unless they are in perfect condition. The same advice goes for the spark plugs, plug wires, filters and all the other parts in the fuel, ignition and emission control systems.

It’s not unusual for a replacement engine to fail for the exact same reason as the original engine if a problem that caused the old engine to fail still exists. For example, if the radiator is plugged up with gunk and can’t keep the engine cool, the new engine may overheat and fail just like the old engine. Or, if the fuel injectors are dirty or the fuel pump is weak, causing the engine to run lean, the new engine may experience lean misfire or detonation the same as the old engine.

The important point here is that any problem that may have contributed to the failure of the previous engine should be identified and repaired before the new engine goes into the vehicle. Most professional installers know what to look for and will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure a new engine is installed correctly. They may flush the radiator, replace the injectors, install a new PCV and/or EGR valve, new plug wires, or replace other parts as deemed necessary. Many do-it-yourselfers, on the other hand, will scrimp and cut corners to get by as cheaply as possible. They may reuse old spark plugs, the old water pump or thermostat, old coolant, you-name-it to save a buck – then wonder why the new crate engine doesn’t run right or has problems down the road.

When the newly installed engine is finally in place and is ready to start, there are a couple of steps that are necessary to make sure everything goes right.

The first step is to prime the oil system before the engine is cranked. On engines with a distributor-driven oil pump, the distributor can be pulled out so the oil pump can be rotated with a long screwdriver bit in an electric drill. The idea here is to run the pump until oil is circulating throughout the filter, oil galleys, bearings and upper valvetrain to avoid a dry start (which can damage the new engine). If the engine has no distributor, the oil system can be primed by attaching a pressurized can of oil to the fitting for the oil pressure sending unit.

The next step is to make sure there is oil in the crankcase, the radiator is full of coolant, the spark plug wires are routed in the correct firing order (if the engine has a distributor), the fuel lines are attached (and there is fuel in the tank) and the throttle return spring is in place. If all systems are ready, make sure the vehicle is parked outdoors or the garage door is open, then it can be cranked.
As soon as the engine starts, the engine needs to be run at 1,800 to 2,500 rpm for the next 20 minutes. This is necessary to break in the camshaft(s) and lifters. You also need to make sure the engine has good oil pressure and that there are no coolant, oil or fuel leaks.

After the initial break-in, any final adjustments to ignition timing, idle mixture and idle speed (if applicable) can be made before test driving the vehicle. Most engine rebuilders recommend varying the engine speed the first 30 to 50 miles rather than driving at a steady speed to help seat the piston rings. Go easy on the throttle and keep engine speed below 5,000 rpm.

Over the next couple hundred miles of driving, advise customers to keep engine speed and load light and vary the speed frequently. Then change the oil and oil filter when the engine reaches 100 to 500 miles.

Some engine rebuilders recommend using a lighter viscosity conventional oil such as 5W-30 for the initial break-in before switching to a heavier viscosity oil (like 10W-30) or a synthetic oil. Others say the oil makes no difference and to use the type and viscosity of oil you would normally use in the engine.

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