Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2003   by Auto Service World

Engine Rebuilding Trends Keep the Pace Tougher Than Ever

Every year automakers foist a new engine on the public. “New and improved” is the message. Lower emissions, better gas mileage, and higher technology are promised. These claims may be true, but what this strategy has done for the automotive aftermarket is nothing short of coronary inducing.

The impact of the proliferation of engine designs has been felt in a number of ways.

Chapter One: Sealing the Deal

“Certainly there has been a shift in head gaskets,” says Rolf Muench, Canadian sales manager, Corteco, and chairman of the Engine Rebuilders Council of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada.

“There has been a shift in materials,” he explains, adding that the multi-layer steel (MLS) gasket is the current favourite of automakers. “It seems that the aftermarket is able to use it, although there was always the fear that they might not be able to get the kind of surface finish required to get it to seal.”

What he is referring to is the requirement for mirror-smooth surfaces between cylinder heads and blocks for most of these OE MLS gaskets, to seal in combustion pressure and gasses, as well as keep those gasses from intermingling with coolant and motor oil as they pass through the gap between block and head.

He says that the glass-like finish that was possible–or at least thought to be possible only at the OE level–caused aftermarket gasket suppliers to seek alternatives that could better integrate into the aftermarket environment at both the repair garage and machine shop levels.

“That is what the OEMs have been going toward. There are a bunch of them already out there of course–both foreign and domestic.”

The quality of the finish on the sealing surfaces is generally referred to as Ra. “[Machine shops] have to be very aware of their surface finish capabilities,” says Rick Pacyna, product manager, Clevite, Dana Canada Inc. He says that the company’s blue-coated MLS gasket will accept a finish from Ra 20 to Ra 60, much more possible to achieve with equipment and processes more commonly found in the aftermarket than the original rubber-coated designs that required a finish of Ra 7 to Ra 14.

“That takes a lot of pressure off the guys doing the machining,” he says, “but you still have to check the straightness and the waviness [of the surface].”

The battle to seal the hard-to-seal has, of course, yielded a number of innovative approaches, including non-MLS gaskets for MLS engines.

“We do have MLS in our line, but we are also experimenting with a bunch of different gasket types,” says Muench, looking into the future a little ways. He says that the realities of the aftermarket require a different way of thinking about the problem sometimes. Even on MLS gasket applications, the OE gasket may not provide the sealing expected when paired with the somewhat coarser aftermarket finish.

“A lot of shops that stay on top of things are doing a fine job,” says Jerry Rosenquist, a veteran engineer with Federal-Mogul Corporation’s Fel-Pro plant in Skokie, Ill. “Little by little it is moving forward, but we do hear of certain problems with OE MLS head gaskets used on aftermarket surface finishes. We’re starting to see more coolant leaks. The OE piece is fine when everything is fresh and new, but that’s a whole different world.”

Non-MLS solutions and special aftermarket coatings on MLS and non-MLS gaskets can provide a better solution, says Muench. “We’re saying that MLS is what the OEMs are using and we are saying that we think it will work in aftermarket.”

Chapter Two: The Fix is In

While high-mileage rebuilds have always been a part of the workflow for engine builders, problem engines have often been a boon. When Ford first began building a 3.8L engine, it worked fine. Then a design change was made affecting cylinder head sealing, and what followed was perhaps one of the most disastrous warranty situations, running over seven model years and many models of Ford vehicle. The fact is, though, that it took a while for Ford to catch on to what the problem really was, and in the interim a lot of engines ended up in machine shops throughout North America.

As automakers get more sensitive to such issues, and more responsive to them, it may have been the last example of its kind.

“That is kind of what we’re seeing,” says Pacyna. “For gaskets, when there was a problem from the factory, such as on the 2.0 L Neon or the 3.8 Ford, we’ve come out with a sealing solution. But then once that problem is fixed, that demand drops out and you don’t hear about it anymore.”

“They’re coming and going quickly,” says Muench. “They’re building them, having a quick warranty problem, then the new vehicles seem to have cured the problem.

“To be honest with you, we can’t make every gasket. To make the new stuff fast, with MLS the investment in tooling can be $200,000, and with a short lifespan of demand, it gets very expensive. It gets right down to the issue of which ones to make and which ones to stock.”

Muench says that identifying demand potential quickly is tough, but the rapid change also requires machine shops to be more agile than ever before. It is forcing shops to be more resourceful than ever.

“If you want to know the truth, you’re going by the seat of your pants if you don’t have access to [the Automotive Engine Rebuilders Association’s PROSIS information system] or a friend at a dealer,” says Andy Siefker, owner of Siefker Automotive & Machine Ltd. in Essex, Ont., in southwestern Ontario. He agrees that the benefits of problem engines to the rebuilding business are more fleeting than ever.

“We get a little bit of it, then [the automakers] come in with the exchange business. We are losing more and more business to things like that all the time. All of a sudden you’re getting the business, then it goes away.”

Chapter Three: Engine Demand Leaves OEs Foaming

Into the mix of all of this is a significant change in the original equipment manufacturers’ collective attitude about engines. While they remain one of the few components actually manufactured “in-house,” the days of engines having lives as long as the venerable small-block Chevrolet powerplant that lasted half a century, are gone.

“The overall units of any particular engine are way down. You don’t have millions and millions of units,” says Rosenquist. Now an engine comes out and all of a sudden there is a new set of issues, he says.

“You don’t have a lot of time to learn it. You don’t have a lot of time to tool up for new stuff. There is always a couple of years’ lag, unless it is a problem engine like the 3.8 Ford, which was a disaster. The Quad 4? Well, we made a ton of money supplying GM with gaskets.”

One of the driving forces behind the move to continually changing engines is the emissions battle and the need to improve fuel mileage to meet, or at least come close to, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements that carry fines in the billions (though those will probably never be paid).

For these, and a general desire to reduce production costs, a lost foam casting technique was developed.

GM says that the aluminum casting technique, which it has used increasingly since 1982, contributes to weight savings, less machining and substantial benefits in overall quality. They don’t say that it can save millions upon millions in energy expenditures alone. Lost foam casting uses almost a quarter less energy and a third less molten metal than conventional casting and enables the joining of several components within a single casting, saving downstream machining and assembly.

In case you think that this is just an automotive trend, Mercury Marine is using the technique to permit an engine block that formerly consisted of 125 assembled pieces to be cast as a single part. The tooling for a lost foam setup costs 25% less than tools for a die casting setup. The machine tools for a lost foam line generally have a virtually infinite useful life, while die casting tools must be replaced after about 200,000 parts.

Lowering costs increases the ability to redesign, something every manufacturer is being pressed t
o do.

Conclusion: A New Day, Old Rules

“The way it was before, as far as rebuilding, we’re never going to go back to the heyday,” says Siefker. “The main business we get is some agricultural business, and older cars and performance.” He says that there are still businesses flogging $850 small-block Chevy rebuilds, but he still ends up with some small-block business.

“We still do a lot of that, but it is mostly in the restoration and performance.” The mileage-driven repowering business seems to have largely ridden off into the sunset–low finance rates on new cars and the longevity of engines mean that an engine can last well into a car’s second decade, barring cooling system or lubrication system failure.

“It is the same as hearing people talk about used cars. Why buy used when you can get some new models at six years interest free? How do you compete with that? I don’t think you can. I think you have to adjust your strategy to suit.

“Last year was our best year ever, and it was because we buckled down and focused on some of these issues.”

He says that a new strategy for his shop meant going after unconventional, non-automotive customers: light industrial, marine, heavy-duty diesel. It sometimes requires a rethink on what customers are willing to pay. An Atomic 4 sailboat motor that recently landed in his shop is a good example.

“The parts alone were over $2,000,” he recalls. He had to swallow hard when he called the customer on this one. “I told him, and he goes ‘Well, I guess you had better fix it then.'”

He says that situations like this can force a business owner and machinist to learn some new skills. New customers require new approaches, as do new machining markets and engines, but it is worth it.

“It used to be that the automakers would introduce a new engine, and you’d have it for 10 years. Today, it may not be around in two years.

“We’re so small, we’ll adapt,” he shrugs. “We will do anything as long as it comes into the building.”

Engine Popularity Shifts

What are your most popular engine jobs? They’re probably not the same as they were just a few years ago.

About four years ago, the Production Engine Remanufacturers Association surveyed its members and came up with a Top 50 list of engines most often seen by these members. They used a weighting process and an average ranking system to determine the winners and losers. How do they stack up for you today? E-mail me at

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