All Rebuilt Engines are NOT Created Equal!
Since the days of the Model T, fellows with a few tools and a little mechanical ability have been rebuilding car engines in their barns, garages, and back yards with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the rebuilt engine ran as good as new, and other times it never ran again. As the backyard rebuilds were often performed under a large tree that could support a block & tackle to help with the heavy lifting, the less than complimentary term “shade tree mechanic” was born. The TRactor engines in our Triumphs are seemingly simple designs, but judging from all of the engines that were supposedly “rebuilt” by someone else and then come to our shop to be rebuilt again, there must be some degree of difficulty (or carelessness) that affects a lot of amateurs and professionals alike.
We’ve seen an engine that was rebuilt by a professional racing engine builder where the cam bearings were installed wrong and the rocker shaft self-destructed from a lack of oil in 100 miles, and engines supposedly rebuilt by the owner that amounted to little more than a new set of rings and a couple of gaskets. We’ve discovered a plastic bag with new wrist pin snap rings laying in inside the oil pan of a freshly rebuilt engine, and missing lock tabs on connecting rod and camshaft bolts. We’ve seen cylinder heads where the inner valve springs were left out, and the outer springs, spring retainers, and tops of the valves were free to move around in directions they shouldn’t have. We’ve also witnessed many questionable parts that should have been replaced, and discovered recommended procedures that were never performed. When a rebuild doesn’t turn out as well as expected, the choices are to spend more time and money to have it redone correctly, or throw in the towel and sell the car.
How many times have you browsed through the Cars-for-Sale ads and seen “Rebuilt Engine” listed among a car’s various features? It’s a fairly common claim, and if you’re even remotely interested in the advertised model you may jump to the conclusion that “this would be a good one to buy because I won’t have to do anything to the engine!” Unfortunately, sellers’ claims of engines that have been “rebuilt” could either be a blessing or a curse to your new acquisition, and there’s a better than 50/50 chance that it’s going to be the latter. Even if you’re not in the market for a new car, you’re not exempt from the smoke and mirrors surrounding the “rebuilt” label if you have a car that needs one.
The word “rebuilt” when applied to an automobile engine is one of those terms that will mean something different to everyone who hears it. If you ask 1000 folks what is included in a rebuild, you’ll probably get 1000 different answers. Unscrupulous used car dealers used to steam clean and paint an engine and call it “rebuilt”, and I have personally seen one Triumph engine that had the carbon scraped off of the tops of the pistons and a new head gasket installed that was proudly advertised as “rebuilt”. So, in the case of a car-for-sale, how are you going to know if it’s a quality rebuild or not? The last thing you want to do is pay a premium price for a car with a “rebuilt” engine, and then have to pay more to have it rebuilt again. And should you need to have an engine rebuilt, how do you choose the folks to do the job for you? Let’s start with the car-for-sale that already has a “rebuilt” engine, and then we’ll get to selecting a competent shop to rebuild (or re-rebuild) your engine.
In the case of a seller offering a car with a “rebuilt” engine, talk is cheap so you should ask to see the receipts. Without receipts, you must consider the engine to be untouched! When receipts are produced, I always check the dates first, because I've been told that the engine was rebuilt “a couple of years ago”, and the receipts were over 10 years old! I’m also suspicious of a “rebuild” that is “fresh” or too recent, because either the “rebuild” was necessary to sell the car (and only the bare minimum was done), or something didn’t turn out as well as expected.
Next, you need to review the parts list. While there’s no guarantee that all of the listed parts were actually installed, you should be looking for what’s missing from the parts list just as much as what’s on it. On our Triumph engines, I want to see an extensive parts list, and a single receipt that says engine overhaul $x,xxx is meaningless. Look past the obvious parts on the list like rings and crankshaft bearings (mains and rods) and see if the camshaft bearings and gudgeon (wrist) pin bushings (which are harder to change) are on the list. Same too with valve guides and springs, and I want to see shims for the crankshaft sprocket, which tells me that someone at least checked the timing gear alignment. I want to see an oil pump rotor and vane at the very least, and an oil pump drive bushing is icing on the cake. Get out a Moss catalog and look at the exploded drawings of the engine, and see what wasn’t replaced. If moving parts that could be expected to wear are not replaced, along with new lock tabs for the rods and cam sprocket bolts, the engine did not receive a quality rebuild and you may have to do it again soon! Try to determine if the “rebuild” was performed in the car, or if the block was removed and hot tanked to clean it inside. Cylinder liners that were removed without thoroughly cleaning the block will dislodge plenty of gunk that will plug radiators and oil passages, and not removing the liners at all leaves crud inside that can cause overheating and quickly score your new bearings.
The third and perhaps most important factor to determine the quality of an engine overhaul is “who did the work?” If you are buying, it doesn’t matter how proud the seller is of his engine rebuilder, don’t pay a penny extra for the “rebuilt” engine if the work was performed by someone that you’ve never heard of. If you’ve ever watched any of the collector car auctions on TV, you might have noticed that cars restored by well known marque specialists always bring a premium price, because the specialist’s reputation gives added confidence that everything was done correctly. A TR engine that was rebuilt by a nationally known Triumph specialist like Macy’s Garage will actually add value to any car you’re trying to buy or sell. Special tools and tricks learned from experience are going to be utilized on every engine rebuilt in a specialist’s shop, and while your local ‘Bob the Engine Builder’ may have been in business for 50 years, it’s probably been a very long time since he’s seen a TR engine. Chances are also very good that his total number of TR rebuilds over the last 50 years can probably be counted without taking off your socks!
You could have someone in your local club that has rebuilt most of the member’s engines and will do a great job for you, but without national recognition and a well deserved reputation for quality, a buyer on the other side of the country isn’t going to have much confidence if you ever need to sell your car. If you are well versed in all things automotive, you can also rebuild your engine yourself. Owner rebuilds can be done to a very high level of quality, but they are also at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to reassuring potential buyers as to the quality of the rebuild, and they won’t add the value you’d hoped to gain by having rebuilt the engine.
At Macy’s Garage, we go the extra mile to inject quality into every engine we rebuild. Just a few examples of our dedication to this goal are mentioned here. We routinely turn crankshafts to eliminate ovality of the journals, which is a problem that polishing alone will never repair. We also balance the rotating assemblies to assure the ultimate in smoothness. Connecting rods are always reconditioned by resizing the big ends and installing new gudgeon pin bushes in the little ones. We always install new valve guides in the head to minimize oil consumption and valve springs which have been compressed billions of times over the life of the engine are always replaced to guard against future failure from metal fatigue. We also ‘degree’ new camshafts to guarantee precise valve timing and convert rear crankshaft seals to slow the loss of oil. And the coup de grace of all our efforts is that every engine is mounted on our test stand and run before shipment or installation in your car.
For peace of mind as to the quality of your rebuild, and to add maximum value to your TR, consider sending your engine to Macy’s Garage for the ultimate overhaul you deserve. Do it once and do it right, and you’ll never regret your decision.
But wait, there's more!
Update, July, 2011:
Just to prove that we've never seen it all, we just received this photo from a "Professional Engine Builder" who was rebuilding a TR3 engine for a well known East coast British car shop. The engine builder was upset that the Revington rear seal conversion that we had sold to the British car shop would not fit.
After listening to how many of these the engine builder had done, and how much he knew about these conversions, and what a piece of junk I had sold to the British car shop, I finally got him to send me a photo so that I could better understand his problem.
Before the thumbnail had finished downloading on my computer, I was able to determine the problem in an instant. The "expert" from the East coast had installed the Revington seal holder BACKWARDS! You can see in the photo that the seal is already on the crankshaft, with nothing to hold it in place because the black seal holder is installed outside of the engine. It also appears that he's already managed to scratch the new main bearing as well. I feel sorry for the poor unsuspecting owner of this TR3, for they are not going to receive a quality rebuild from this guy!
Update, February 19, 2013:
Dan bought a TR4 last year with a "rebuilt" engine, but it smoked and he brought it here to us. We found that his engine had one of those accessory oil feed lines to bring oil up to the rocker shaft, which generally supplies too much oil which almost always leaks down through the valve guides causing plenty of blue smoke. But why would someone need to install this "band-aid" on a freshly rebuilt engine? The only things I could think of were that they installed the cam bearings wrong and blocked an oil feed hole, or they didn't clean the inside of the engine well, and an oil passage was blocked.
When we got the engine disassembled, we got to the bottom of the mystery in short order. Someone obviously did not have a proper cam bearing installation tool, so they cut slots in each of the bearings so that they could be slipped into the block by hand. While these bearings are prohibited from spinning by retainer bolts, the slits provided an easy path for oil to escape, which meant there wasn't enough pressure or volume to supply the rocker shaft at the top of the engine. Thus the need for the auxiliary feed line which caused the smoke which ultimately led to the discovery of this cobbled engine rebuild. Another example of why I'm suspicious of cars for sale with "rebuilt" engines.
Update, February 4, 2016:
I just received the following e-mail from Dale in SD. Dale doesn't mention it, but I know him from TRA. If you own a TR2-4A and don't belong to the Triumph Register of America, you need to join Right Now!
I have, so to speak, a 1959 TR3A that I foolishly took to a 'local shop' in October of 2012 for an engine overhaul. I have given my self many-a-verbal-
spanking since then. but I would like some information about the 8mm, or so I'm told, banjo fitting on the block that supplies the oil pressure to the line
that goes to the dash gauge.
I should note I've not seen what he's up against, since his shop is some 60 miles from where we live, as I understand it, and it doesn't surprise me,
the fitting was sealed with JB Weld, which I found in numerous other places to seal fittings and hold things in place. The fitting, as I understand it, doesn't
fit straight in the threaded hole in the block.
What I think I'm getting at is, where can this fitting be found. It's not noted in the catalogs from Moss, TRF or Vickie-Brit. It's not shown in the parts
breakdown or in the 'exploded parts view' I'm not sure I care about originality at the present time. I'd just like to get my car back and be able to securely
drive it. Is the fitting, indeed, 8mm thread or 5/16 inch thread, or perhaps some British thread? From what I've seen in the view of the block in the different catalogs,
there are two other plugs in the block, if indeed this is where this fitting is, could one of these be used for the installation of the oil fitting?
I've been waiting over three years for the garage I foolishly took it to, to get the car done and back to me, so I'm not in a grand rush for an answer.
Really? Over three years to overhaul a TR3 engine, and still not finished? We could have done a complete frame-up, nut and bolt restoration on Dale's car in that amount of time. Twice! It's not a good sign to have selected a mechanic who uses JB Weld on an engine, and does not know enough about TR's to hook up an oil gauge line! I'm pretty sure that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and there will be more problems once the car is up and running again, if it ever makes it that far.
I talk to a lot of people about their TR's, but because I know Dale I do remember having a dialog with him several years ago about having his engine rebuilt here. For whatever reason, cost or distance or some other silly reason that sounded good at the time, he opted to have the work done by someone else. I remember telling Dale that I hoped it would work out for him, but obviously it has not. I'm usually very sympathetic and try to help when someone doesn't do their research and gets into this kind of predicament because they didn't know about us, but when they make a conscious decision to bypass our shop in favor of another option, then I can't be the "go-to guy" that will provide the answers they need to get out of trouble!