I’ve been building cars since I was a teenager, and doing it at a rate that seems to be picking up speed as I age. I’ve probably completed as many projects as I have logged years on this earth, and most of these cars have been autocrossed, rallied or raced—activities that certainly put at least some extra stress and strain on the mechanical components.
All told, I’d have to say I’ve had a good run. My “win” column is far longer than my “loss” one overall, meaning I’ve had far fewer catastrophes than the total car count we've crashed two cars, for example, and neither of them was my own.
One of those crashes involved a new press car, a Honda CRX that a writer put into a tree at a test day back in 1988. (He did about $10,000 worth of damage to that $11,000 CRX, so that was a tough call to make to Honda Public Relations.) The other was a MINI long-term loaner that went into a tire wall pretty hard at Homestead a few years ago, but that was quickly repaired.
Overall we’ve been very lucky, with no further accident damage besides a couple of parking lot scuffs and some minor bashes at vintage racing events.
We've been pretty lucky with mechanical failures as well. There have been very few major incidents, which is more surprising considering all the engine work we’ve done for magazine stories, and all the modifications we’ve made using mostly clapped-out used cars—not to mention all the 7000-rpm dyno runs we have pulled.
Lately, though, it seems our luck has run out. Although we could count on one hand the number of engines we have blown in our nearly 30-year history, two of those happened in the last two months.
The first was the Camry project car we were just finishing up. These 10- to 15-year-old Camrys have a reputation for oiling problems, so we had installed an oil accumulator on ours in what we felt was an abundance of caution. Despite that, our car put a rod through the block after just a few laps testing out some modifications at a track day at The FIRM.
The project was basically complete at that point, so we did what we needed to do to move it down the road and be done with it: We bought another used engine on eBay Motors for $1000, then spent three days pulling the broken one and putting in the new one. As mechanical catastrophes go, this certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but any time you spend an extra three days and $1000 on a $2700 Camry, you’re facing a losing proposition. Sometimes, however, you have no choice but to rely on the FIDO philosophy.
I have to admit that I was less philosophical when we suffered another engine failure—at the same track—less than a month later. In fact, I was positively unamused when our Subaru WRX developed a bad rod knock after just a few short laps. (If you’d like to hear what it sounded like, go to youtu.be/TJhqOfmaDbA.)
Why there? Why now? Our Subaru is a 200,000-mile survivor that we purchased as a donor car for a Factory Five 818 project. We then decided to rescue it instead. it instead. It had been exceeding our expectations in every way. We bought it in Connecticut and drove it home to Florida with absolutely no issues, and had already changed the timing belt, water pump, clutch and flywheel. Sure, you could argue that raising the boost, adding nearly 100 horsepower, and then wailing the crap out of a 200,000- mile car that has never had its engine rebuilt is asking for trouble, but heck, that’s what we do. I stand by my sense of indignation here, if only because an ability to remain in denial is essential to my job.
So why did this happen? As Americans, we tend to blame everyone. Who's to blame here? This has to be someone's fault, doesn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
I wasn’t personally involved with the Toyota, but those 1MZ-FE engines are notorious for sludge buildup. We thought we’d gotten all the sludge out of ours, but clearly we were mistaken. I don't feel too bad about it, though: We knew we were taking a gamble when we decided to try to track this used-car POS, but our deadline-driven schedule made it a necessary gamble.
And that brings us to the Subaru. We knew we had the air/fuel ratio right, but again, we knew we were modifying a car that had a couple of hundred thousand miles on it—and cranking the boost does add stress to an engine. We'd even experienced an odd shutdown on the dyno a few weeks prior, and in retrospect, knowing that these engine computers back down boost when they sense knock, we should have stopped to study the problem. Yet again, though, we had deadlines to meet, so we quickly attributed the shutdown to a fluke and went on about our tuning. As they say, we paid our money and took our chances.
Ironically, the same time constraints that forced us to overlook this symptom also prompted us to save our Moroso deep-sump oil pan with improved pickup for our next Subaru project.
Ever notice that you always remember to shut the door after the horse has left the barn?
So at the end of it all, I think I know who’s to blame. And I’m left wondering what we need to do differently.
First, if you spend a lifetime around cars, you are going to lose a few engines. I still say our track record is pretty good. However, it’s clear we got rushed and careless— which are probably the true causes of most engine failures, no matter which part eventually gives up the ghost.
A lot of people think running a car on a dyno is hard on the engine, but the reality is that the dyno is the best and safest place to test your modifications. If you are going to blow up something, do it strapped to the dyno and not going through Dead Man's Curve on the street. Equally important, if you’re not going to take the time to listen to what the dyno is telling you, then you’re just wasting time and money. Don't skimp on this step: Look, listen and adjust if needed—and then do it all again until you’ve got it right.
Beyond being careful, learn to adotp a belt-and-suspenders attitude. Install all appropriate fail-safes because they will save you time and money in the end. Just about every car and every engine has the gauges, trick oil sumps and other parts available to keep you from blowing a motor.
Do as I say and not as I do, and these tips can save you some money. Better yet, they can keep you from feeling the funk I felt when I heard that Subaru’s death rattle.