At one time many street rodders did it all, including the buildup of a high-performance mill. In recent years, though, pre-assembled crate engines have grown enormously in popularity. The reasons are obvious: a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) engine build can be time-consuming and laborious, while the mail-order approach offers simplicity, time savings, a warranty, and a minimum of parts scrounging.
Even so, installing a crate engine may not be as easy as the name suggests. You can’t simply drop it in between the framerails and turn the key. Several “preflight” procedures need to be followed before you head down the road in your project car.
Before we dig into those details, let’s first take a look at crate engines in general, which run the gamut from small- to large-displacement blocks and from mild to wild power levels. All major brands are available in either carbureted or fuel-injected models, and in just about any size or type: 350 Chevy, a Ford big block, a 426 Hemi, or even a Viper V-10.
In some cases crate engines are dyno-tested, which usually adds a few hundred dollars to the price. One advantage of this option is that you probably don’t have to do the break-in procedure or worry about leaks. You’ll also receive a dyno sheet that verifies the claimed output of the engine.
Prices for crate engines are often competitive if not lower than a DIY engine built with new components (but usually not as inexpensive as one done with salvage yard parts—unless of course it throws a rod and have to foot the repair bill).
Don’t forget the cost of shipping as well. Also, keep in mind that whether you pick up your crate engine at a drop-off point or have it delivered to your driveway for an extra charge, you’ll need an engine hoist to move it—that’s one heavy box!
Note that while many crate engines arrive as virtually complete, turnkey packages, others are long blocks that require adding accessories such as a carburetor, starter, pulleys, water pump, distributor, plug wires and so forth. (Tech tip: if you install a carburetor from a similar engine but with a smaller displacement, make sure to re-size the jets so the air/fuel mixture is not too lean.)
If the manufacturer recommends a particular carburetor or distributor, it’s better to stick to that recommendation, which is usually based on dyno testing. Altering the combination may yield different horsepower and torque figures.
Some companies, however, sell only crate engines with pre-matched components. Edelbrock, for instance, has a Total Power Package System that eliminates the guesswork of picking the right combination of carb, intake, heads and camshaft. To serve to a wide variety of applications, the company offers seven different power levels of the ever-popular small-block Chevy, with the 400hp version being the most popular.
Before installation of a crate engine, Edelbrock’s instruction sheet advises to clean off any paint from engine-mount bosses and other mounting surfaces. There is no oil in the crankcase when the engine is shipped, and the customer will need to decide which side the dipstick will be installed. (The side not used requires putting in a plug to seal the hole prior to start-up.)
Not all crate engines are created equal, of course. Occasionally we’ve heard that some brands come with a bit of debris in the oil pan, so if it’s not difficult to replace the gasket, it’s not a bad idea to pull the pan and inspect for metal shavings. Whether you clean the pan beforehand or not, replace the oil and filter after the initial break-in (within the first 50 to 100 miles), especially if you plan to run the vehicle in performance setting.
Speaking of oil, in addition to filling the crankcase, pre-fill the filter and pressure-lube the internals prior to that first critical cranking by rotating the oil pump shaft with a drill motor (making sure it’s turning in the same direction as the engine rotation). Do not turn the engine over with the starter motor for oil priming! Edelbrock also recommends using a GM oil additive (#1052367) during startup of its small-block Chevy crate engines.
For an extra measure of care, particularly on an expensive performance engine, you may want to pull the valve covers off to make sure oil is flowing out of the pushrods and onto the rocker arms. Some high-performance engine builders recommend using synthetic oil, or at least a slightly thinner viscosity (5W-30) for the first 1000 miles or so.
Although normally the engine should have been dialed in at the factory before shipping, it wouldn’t hurt to check the static timing and the firing order on the spark plugs at the distributor cap. While you’re at it, make sure your plug wires and other heat-sensitive components aren’t too close to the exhaust headers, and that the ground wire has solid metal-to-metal contact with the frame. (This is particularly important for a street rod with a fiberglass body.) Don’t forget to add a 50/50 coolant mix to the radiator as well.
Before starting up the engine, if your street rod is on the ground, be sure the emergency brake is set, the wheels are chocked, and the transmission cannot fall into gear. Your garage area should be well ventilated, too.
That done, when you turn the ignition key for the first time, it the engine doesn’t fire up right away, don’t keep cranking it. Shut it down and check the fuel delivery system. If the engine does kick off okay, run it to 2000 rpm right away to dissipate the oil on the camshaft.
For proper break-in, vary the revs from 1800 to 2500 rpm for the next 20 minutes, and keep checking the oil pressure and water temperature gauges (an extra pair of eyes helps here). Don’t interrupt this procedure; otherwise the cam will not break in properly.
Before the engine temperature rises, remove the radiator cap and check the coolant flow and for possible leaks. Also, make sure the electrical system is charging the battery. After the engine has been running for 30 minutes, set the ignition timing and carburetor settings, if applicable.
Once you’ve finished running the engine at no load and checked everything out, let it cool down for a few hours and re-torque the head bolts in the sequence recommended by the engine supplier.
That done, you’re now ready to fire up the engine again and head out on the road. Drive your rod at varying speeds and loads on the engine for the first 30 miles, making sure not to use a lot of throttle or high revs (more than 5000 rpm).
After that, run five or six medium-throttle accelerations to about 5,000 rpm (55 to 60 mph), then let off the throttle in gear and coast back down to 20 mph. Drive the next 500 miles normally, without high revving (below 5,000 rpm), hard use, or extended periods of high loading. Don’t forget to change the oil and filter in the first 50 to 100 miles. After you’ve babied your crate engine during this break-in period, it’ll be good and ready to head out on highway for some long-range cruising in your street rod.
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