There is an old joke that you could repair the engine on a Ford Model T and use the parts left over to fix your washing machine. The world of underhood technology has certainly come a long way since then, and it has had dramatic effects on the engine rebuilding industry.
Change has been constant for the hundred-plus years of the automobile. In the early days, such simplicity was welcomed in a world where a broken engine was likely to end up in the hands of a blacksmith. The onslaught of technology in the last decade has been felt keenly by the aftermarket.
Fuel injection, increasingly sophisticated engine management systems, and computer design tools have all helped get engineers and the automakers they work for closer to “the perfect engine,” though the definition of what that is remains elusive.
Possibly the best and most trusted selection of what is getting close, though, is from Ward’s Auto World, an icon of U.S. automotive publishing.
The Ward’s 2004 list of honoured engines marks the 10th anniversary for the Ward’s 10 Best Engines awards, and three of the most notable are good indicators of the current diversity of engine design and innovation.
Mazda Motor Corp.’s all-new Renesis rotary engine and Toyota Motor Corp.’s more powerful hybrid-electric Prius drivetrain are two non-traditional engine systems that were among Ward’s 10 Best Engines winners for 2004.
Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru arm earns its first spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list with its high-performance horizontally opposed boxer 4-cylinder, which powers the Subaru WRX STi. The turbocharged boxer engine delivers one of the highest horsepower-per-litre ratings of any engine available, about 300 ponies out of 2.5 litres, making it unusually powerful in relation to its size.
These three engines are joined by the Audi AG 4.2L DOHC V-8 found in the S4, the BMW AG 3.2L DOHC I-6 from the M3, DaimlerChrysler AG 5.7L Hemi Magnum OHV V-8 from the Dodge Ram, the DaimlerChrysler AG 5.9L Cummins 600 OHV I-6 turbodiesel from the Dodge Ram Heavy Duty, General Motor’s Vortec 4.2L DOHC I-6 found in the GMC Envoy, Honda’s 3L DOHC V-6 from the Accord Coupe, and the Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. 3.5L DOHC V-6 in the Infiniti G35.
That is certainly a diverse selection, but what they all have in common is the challenges they represent for the aftermarket.
“That’s a million dollar question,” says Jim Rickoff, marketing consultant for the AERA-Engine Rebuilders Association, and a veteran of the engine rebuilding business. “The sealing has changed quite a bit. Is that a better opportunity? I don’t know. Engine builders certainly have had to upgrade equipment to get finer finishes.”
In general, he says, the whole design of modern engines has changed the marketplace.
“More and more engines are going to multiple valves per cylinder. That can be an opportunity. There are more seats to deal with. There are some engines with five valves per cylinder.” And, he adds, some of these valves and seats are very small.
“It’s very difficult to deal with. Even the pilots are prone to bending, so you have to go to carbide types. Is that an opportunity? No, because it costs you money.”
“Most [of the new engines] have increased specific output, which puts more stress on the combustion seal, as well as creating more exhaust heat, which requires more sophisticated gaskets and seals in the exhaust system,” says Jerry Rosenquist, chief engineer for aftermarket gaskets at Federal-Mogul Corporation. “Newer engines have traditionally been lighter in weight, so there is more movement between flanges, which always plays havoc with gaskets.” He says that the diesel engine on the Top 10 list, the 5.9L Cummins 600, also raises the same issues.
“The newer diesel engines have higher outputs as well as increased exhaust temps over older engines.”
Temperature, at least when it gets out of hand, generally spells more opportunity for the aftermarket, but those failures are generally the result of another engine system failing–a holed radiator, for example. Much of the unreliability of internal components has been designed out, though there are always exceptions cropping up.
Rickoff says that the dominating trend comes from the reliability of the designs, a sentiment echoed over and over again in the industry. Engine rebuilders aren’t just bleating: the volume of engine rebuilds has dropped so drastically that it has changed the entire production engine-rebuilding marketplace.
“The real growth opportunities continue to be in the performance area,” he says. “The sport compact is hotter than a pistol and the kids have money to spend on them.”
Engine builders are decking blocks, porting heads, and dropping stronger cylinder liners in, all so the engines can live with high boost pressures and nitrous at the dragstrip. It has become a mainstay of many engine builders.
“That has been the hottest thing we have seen in a long time. The Honda VTEC is where it all started, but the Toyota and Nissan are coming on strong. The number of engines being considered has increased greatly.”
Engine builder John Solecki, owner of Scarborough Engines in Toronto, Ont., says that the whole profession has changed.
“Engines are no longer consumable items. Most engines last the life of the car,” he says. It has required an about-face in the business approach to the market.
“It’s an attitude thing. Because there aren’t as many engines being built, the guys who can’t compete are slowly being winnowed out.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot of serious differences in engine technology in the last 10 years, but some of the more mass market manufacturers are catching up to the more exotic guys.”
From basic design to fuel delivery to internal clearances, Solecki says that changes have forced engine builders to tighten up all their processes.
“[Take] the piston-to-cylinder clearances,” he offers by way of example. “I have to be careful on a Monday morning in the winter if we’ve had the heat off in the shop. If we’re not really careful we can have a problem, because they are so tight and so accurately machined. If you could hold your tolerances to a thou a few years ago, you have to hold it to two-tenths of a thou today.
“A lot of it is harping on the same old stuff that I was harping on 10 years ago,” and took heat over, it might be added.
Solecki has been in and out of the performance engine rebuilding business to varying degrees over the years, and admits he’ll probably have to focus on it more strongly again, but says that it is a different animal from the days of old.
“Back in the days when the American V8s were so badly made, you could do anything to them. There are some engines out there that I am convinced make less power than they did before the modifications. I probably spend more time on the computer now than I do in the shop. We have to be sure that the simulations are showing what we need.
“Some of the old stuff still works. You can improve on porting. If you get a really good camshaft, you can raise the torque peak, but it’s not like you’re working against this wall of errors and that anything you change will improve the engine’s performance,” says Solecki.
“The hardest part is getting the tuning right afterward since most [engine management] systems now have so little corrective capability. It’s no longer just about machining. If you’re not thinking like that, you need to take a look at what happened to the blacksmiths.”