Vintage Engines: Rebuilt To Drive


The culture of classic and vintage cars is diverse. It’s more than muscle cars. Along with the unmistakable rumble of American V8 power, vintage European and Asian brands are also part of the regular landscape, and there are high-end events around the world that showcase some of the most sought-after models from legendary manufacturers. like Pierce-Arrow, LaSalle, Cord, Auburn, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes and Duesenberg – to name a few. As we all know, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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With all these different cars, what’s one thing they all have in common? People are leading them. Sales of trailers are down. Road rallies are on the rise. Insurance companies have developed policies that encourage us to drive. Gone are the days of letting a good car sit to avoid a stone chip or bird droppings. These are cars intended for the road.

Building or rebuilding an engine for a classic car isn’t a new concept, and whether you’re talking about a classic muscle car or an American V8, engine builders are doing it day in and day out – building everything from a formidable daily driver to a top street brawler-horse-steamer. The aspects of this type of work are familiar to most of us, and engine builders can easily speak from experience and read their customers to find out exactly what they are looking for.

As for the parts, if they are not available locally, we are jumping online for the power of the internet and they are usually not available for more than two or three days (obviously that timeline has changed around the time of COVID). The information is there too, if we need it we can easily find a complete reference library at hand.

But what about some of those vintage brands? I had to understand that the process might be a little different for some of them, especially some of the less common ones. I had a few ideas on this, but rather than speculate, I took a first-hand perspective and spoke to R&R Auto Restorations in Mount Kisco, NY. They specialize in European brands from the 50s, 60s and early 70s and the owner, Randy Elber, is passionate about restoring vintage cars.

Rebuilding the engine in one of these classics takes on an identity of its own, but getting a feel for it begins with an overall assessment of the vehicle, the owner’s intentions or goals, the cost, and the financial effect on the vehicle at hand. from a value point of view.

The first step is to assess a car from front to back and then set goals with the customer. When a car arrives, it receives the minimum time investment of an 8 hour day just for inspection. Everything is reviewed including the condition of the body and paintwork, fit of the trim, interior condition, wiring, fuel system, brakes, engine condition – including a compression check and road test whenever possible.

With a full vehicle condition assessment, Elber can then present the vehicle owner with a plan for the project. Some cars benefit from a complete restoration, which does not require any explanation. Others are preservation style cars, where the overall condition is good enough that rebuilding the mechanics results in a reliable, usable car with an originality worth its weight in gold.

Elber focuses first on what the owner wants to do with the car. “Some guys might want to run the show circuit for a year and then do road rallies,” Elber said. Some people don’t care about shows and just go to rallies so the car has to be bulletproof.

Elber does all the disassembly and assembly in-house, but works with other local workshops for machine work, explaining that the majority of them mainly build high horsepower domestic V8s, which is a plus. for what he does.

“The advantage of working with machine shops that have experience with racing cars is that I try to build things that are durable,” Elber explains. “Their experience with this type of performance allows them to understand what works and what doesn’t. “

The goal is to make the engines durable and reliable, as opposed to increases in performance or horsepower. “A lot of European engines have a small displacement, so there isn’t much to work with,” he says. “In many cases, you really don’t have the option of increasing the potency.”

He went on to explain that the compression ratio, combustion chamber and valve size, intake ports, exhaust systems and cam profiles all remain original, but they take advantage of better pistons. and better materials when rebuilding.

Embracing the same passion for cars as their owners, Elber developed another reason for keeping the original engine origin. “It’s the whole car and demonstrates what they originally did, like high revs and high speed cars,” Elber said. “They all have different personalities and that’s what makes it fun.”

Although the general design and specifications remain the same in order to retain the original characteristics of the engine, balancing is one of the main objectives of R&R during a rebuild. Elber explained that the tolerance on many original components of these older engines was as low as 5 grams, and modern tolerances are now half a gram or less. It again relies on the machine shops it works with for balancing without affecting the integrity of the original components.

Crankshafts and connecting rods are generally in good enough condition to be reused and there is much that needs to be done to repair them. If the bearings cannot be found, sometimes they will need to find a nearby shell and have it coated to get the correct tolerance. Elber said that from the late 1950s to the 1960s you can usually find shop manuals that reflect engine specifications and clearances, but this can be difficult on some older vehicles. He draws on other engine shops and their experience to advise him on these types of specifications and tolerances when building an engine.

Piston ring deviations, Elber explained, are calculated according to the rule of thumb and what current technology allows, and the hardening of the camshaft is much better than before, which adds to longevity and durability. engine reliability.

“Sometimes we have to do a lot of head work with the valve guides, including re-soldering the holes and fabricating the guides,” Elber explains. “A lot of exhaust valves didn’t have valve seals in the 1950s, they were just tight-machined, but these days not many people like to see a puff of smoke when starting up. It is common practice to machine custom tops on valve guides so that we can install gaskets to remedy this problem.

If pistons need to be replaced, some can be ordered, but others must be manufactured. “For Mercedes, you can get pistons,” he says. “Other brands like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo or Lancia, we have them manufactured. “

As for gaskets and gaskets, there are a few, but they usually have to make them. Manufacturing custom cylinder head gaskets is part of R&R’s job and the store maintains several relationships with gasket manufacturers. Since they specialize in specific brands, it is common for them to make the same type of engine multiple times. Once a custom seal has been made, it’s easier to get it the next time around.

O-rings were typically standard metric sizes when new, and most are available but not always listed by application. Most of the time they have to measure the gasket and order new ones based on the size for the application.

While they prefer to stick to the original as much as possible, a common upgrade is to use modern oil filters rather than screens, simply because the filtration is so much better.

Engine finish is also an important aspect of vintage brands, and two different approaches are taken. For a restoration, everything is reduced to the rough and with the help of historical photos, documentation or available service information, everything is finished as close as possible to what it was originally. Some parts were bare, some were plated, some parts were painted, some were bolted first, then the engine was painted. They find out what was installed and what was not at the time it was painted, so everything is fine even down to overspray on some parts.

On a preservation style car, some components may retain the original finish or patina, but many factors affect this decision, including the value of the car and the effect it has on value. This would all be determined during the appraisal phase of a project even before the engine was retired.

Service information can be a challenge. “Each manufacturer is a little different depending on how they’ve stored or poorly stored information,” Elber explains. “Italian stuff for example, their information is terrible.” When information is not available, other than vintage photographs or remaining physical evidence of what is there, they have nothing to do but experience.

Every effort is made to keep things as original as possible. Most owners are interested in what makes the most sense for the car. “The originality is where it is,” admits Elber. “It’s always the maximum value. The most original it can be from an investment point of view is where it is located. They are counting on us for advice in this area.

Some older vehicles have very demanding maintenance requirements, including lubrication points in the distributor, as well as regular firing point and timing adjustments. Unlike the upgrade to electronic ignition, these systems are kept original for the sake of value and car character. R&R also performs regular maintenance on these vehicles to ensure that they remain in top working order.

R&R is known for the reliability of its restorations. Over the past summer, Elber attended a road rally where four of his restorations were in attendance. Each car has driven over 1,300 miles in five days, climbed Pikes Peak, and cruised at speeds above 100 mph for extended periods. The cars drove roughly for five days, and each one got through without a hitch.

“Guys are bored with contests,” he says. “These older cars are reliable and durable, and customers have the confidence to drive the cars. They’re really cool to watch, but 1,000 times cooler to drive. THIS


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