One of the most colorful threads woven through the fabric of my early life growing up in Brooklyn was going for Chinese food on special weekends with the family. No matter how ordinary a second look at the same restaurant with adult eyes might seem today, as a child these exotic destinations were always a treat.
One of my favorite components of any trip to the Bamboo Inn or the Hunan Garden was the collaboration required to choose whatever it was we were going to share for dinner that evening. There were columns with various choices to sort through. Depending upon the number of people in your party, you could choose so many items from “Column A,” so many from “Column B,” and so on. It was such an integral part of growing up back then that the late Buddy Hackett, a famous celebrity/comedian from our neighborhood in Brooklyn, did one of his most famous routines on the experience.
While it may have been a fun adventure to choose your dinner menu that way, it’s no way to approach automotive service. And, certainly no way to build an engine! At least, that’s what we tried to tell a young man who kept insisting across the service desk that it was.
It started with a first visit to our shop to unscramble a couple of driveability problems on a 1995 Ford Mustang that had fallen victim to a number of the young owner’s friends; none of whom did what you and I do professionally. The young man who owned the vehicle was and still is a “wannabe” racer and the vehicle arrived at the shop with the following symptoms: a failure to start immediately when asked, intermittent spark and an unwillingness to run more than five or 10 minutes after it did finally start. It arrived complete with a low or no restriction, Cat-Back Exhaust system, MSD Ignition distributor and coil, “power pulleys,” a non-factory fuel pressure regulator, headers and — go figure — a stock intake manifold.
I don’t want you to think that I think all that stuff on a vehicle is necessarily a “bad thing.” It isn’t. I’ve been addicted to linear speed since I was a kid. I was an inveterate street racer and still have a problem resisting the urge to light it up at a light if the right vehicle pulls up alongside my ’81 Corvette. But, a lifetime of working as a professional in this industry has taught me that creating a racing application that works requires the perfect balance of a million different components, each interacting perfectly with another.
It takes the right pistons and the right crank coupled with the right cam and the right intake and air induction system to allow the engine to breathe properly. It takes the right amount of fuel delivered at precisely the right moment in time, accompanied by a long enough and hot enough spark to light it and keep it burning, and an exhaust system that is tuned to accommodate getting all the appropriate waste out.
You know that. I know that. Anyone who has done what you and I do for real; anyone who approaches it as a profession knows it. Unfortunately, however, it seems we may be the only ones! When I first moved to California, everyone learned everything they needed to know about cars from Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. Now, everyone is a 60-minute expert, care of a few minutes a night dedicated to “Rides” or “Monster Garage.”
So, when this kid’s mom got tired of having everyone in the neighborhood tinker with the Mustang, it came to us. We replaced the Hall effect sensor in the distributor, the fuel pump and fuel filter, and our young hero was on the road again. Evidently, we may have tuned it a bit too well because we got the vehicle back again in a few months and just under 5,000 miles with the clutch destroyed… Can you sense a pattern yet?
When they picked up the vehicle the first time, we were confronted with a barrage of questions about high-performance engine alternatives for the Mustang. It was a discussion I’m sure you will find all too familiar…
The Kid: “How much will it cost to build a ‘racing’ engine for the Mustang?”
Us: “How fast do you want go?”
The Kid: “Very fast!”
Us: “Lots! Cost is a function of how fast you want to go: the faster you want to go, the more expensive it will be. There is a corollary between cubic horsepower and cubic dollars. But, first, you need to decide on what it is you are trying to build because everything must be matched to ensure you get the maximum return on your investment.”
The Kid: “I already know what I want…”
Us: “Have you checked to see that everything you want is compatible with what you are trying to accomplish…”
The Kid: “I don’t need to…”
Us: “Yeah, you do…”
The Kid: “How much would it be for you to just pull the old motor out and install the new one?” And, that’s where the conversation ended.
Two months later, the vehicle was towed to the shop accompanied by a plea to “R&R” the old engine and to install its replacement. We created what we felt was a fair (although very high) estimate to cover our costs plus the lost parts sales associated with a customer-supplied engine. We made it clear the estimate was fragile and could be shattered easily depending upon what was delivered to the shop for installation.
We patiently explained that there would be no warranty “expressed, implied or otherwise stated” as the engine wasn’t ours and tried desperately to help both the mother and the son understand that they were headed straight into a nightmare. We warned them that we could not guarantee the way someone else’s racing engine would run and that even if we were successful, it would be illegal to operate the vehicle on the street in California.
No worries! All we had to do was pull the old motor out and get the new one running: nothing more, nothing less. We agreed with only one condition: the engine had to be complete, with all the covers and sheet metal installed, when delivered. We documented everything, received almost the full amount of the estimate as a deposit up front and removed the engine.
It was almost time for the new engine to be delivered when we were asked to remove the old timing chain so that it could be installed on the new engine. We refused and insisted on a new roller chain to accompany the roller rockers he had already purchased. Some time after that, Mom appeared in the driveway with the new engine lying on its side in the back of her brand new BMW X5. It was a sight to behold. The adventure continued when it became apparent the engine was anything but complete.
The aftermarket oil pan would not fit until a new, high-performance oil pick-up was installed. The correct pick-up for the high-performance “racing” pan could not be installed until the old main bearing retaining studs were removed from the old engine and installed on the new one. The flag went down and the meter was running.
The young man had gone into a local speed shop and ordered his engine just like he was ordering Chinese food in Brooklyn 40 years ago: two from Column A, four from Column B, a half dozen from Column C — if it sounded good, he ordered it.
But indigestion occurs if everything you ordered isn’t complimentary.
The new engine had roller rockers. The roller rockers were taller than the original rockers. The old valve covers wouldn’t work on the new rockers. No problem: find some that fit. The new valve covers were tall enough, so tall in fact that the intake would no longer fit. No problem: find a spacer for the intake. The spacer worked fine, but the EGR tube wasn’t long enough… and, none of it would clear the hood. You get the idea.
The control module was missing, as were all kinds of other parts and accessories. We clocked on and off the job with rhythmic precision. Our original arrangement was modified to reflect the owner’s (translate as: Mom’s) commitment to facilitate the repair and control the costs by acquiring all the necessary parts herself. She got very busy, very quickly and stayed that way for quite some time.
Not only did she have to locate and acquire the needed parts and accessories, she had to find a way to return all the parts that had been ordered incorrectly — all the high-performance parts ordered from a company that had a clearly written, no-exception, no-return policy. To complicate things, the gentleman who had built the engine ended his relationship with the company that sold the parts and left the area. That’s right: the person who built the engine didn’t work for the people who sold the parts. Therefore, the company that sold the parts could not be held responsible for assembly or installation. I’m not suggesting it was planned that way, it was just convenient it worked out that way.
But, what do you do if or when there is a problem?
We went as far as we were able to go and did everything we could to get the engine ready to run, and it did, but not for long. But, it did start and run before it stalled and died. Without investing too much more time in this project, we determined that the coil died and that there was a high probability the injectors weren’t appropriate for the application for which they were being used. It would be hard to tell what else would prove to be inappropriate, but thankfully that is no longer our problem.
The vehicle has gone to a Vo-Tech school where the balance of the work will be completed, a high-performance chip will be installed and the engine will be fine-tuned on the dyno. I have no problem with that.
Two from Column A may have worked for dinner in Brooklyn 40 years ago, but it will never work for what we do — at least not here. Too many things depend far too much on too many other things where balance in all things is critical.
The old joke used to be “go for Chinese food and a half hour later you’re hungry again.” Well, it’s been more than a half hour since the vehicle left our shop and I’m not hungry for another course of One from Column A, and Two from Column B. In fact, I’m quite certain I won’t regain my appetite for that kind of a “dining experience” any time soon!