Detonation: Building an Engine

Detonation

John Lehenbauer
Aug 28, 2018
Photographers: John Lehenbauer
Getting a truck (or any other vehicle for that matter) to move down the road or track takes a specific collection of components, mechanisms, and electronics working cohesively. The engine under the hood is the main ingredient in the mix; it creates the power and torque that propels the truck. All the supporting drivetrain components make it possible for the power to reach the ground. For proper cohesiveness, everything must be in good order and work in conjunction with one another. If one of the many intricate parts fails to do its job, a problem will occur.
Normally, the factory-installed diesel engine in most vehicles (I say “most” because OEMs have made some questionable attempts through the years) is likely to give you years of great service if it is well taken care of. Since nothing is perfect, there is always going to be a need to make minor repairs and adjustments along the way. The electronics (computers, sensors, switches, and such) and supporting mechanical pieces on many newer oil-burners can be the cause of headaches when they malfunction.
Whether your truck is new or a littler older, if you keep it long enough and use it regularly, the engine will eventually wear out—and rebuilding a diesel is not a cheap endeavor. Redoing a powerplant with quality internal pieces can be pricey. Add the cost of labor (if you’re not tackling the rebuild yourself), and the amount goes up quickly. Then there are any supporting electronic and mechanical parts that are due for replacement from age and wear.
If you are like a good majority of motorheads and returning an engine to stock specifications just will not do, the price can continue to rise considerably. Honestly, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be spent on one. Just look at the dollars being thrown at diesel drag racing and sled-pulling engines. It is really more about what you want and what the budget will allow and, in some cases, what you are able to do while dealing with local emissions laws.
Photo 2/2   |   The task of assembling an engine takes time and patience. Everything must be precisely measured so the correct components are ordered and the proper machine work is done. All the tolerances and clearances must be checked during assembly, as well as following proper torque sequences and specifications.
No matter if you are planning a stock rebuild or the creation of a fire-breathing beast, building an engine right is important. A well-built powerplant, whether for race or pleasure, should have a good lifespan relevant to its use. It shouldn’t scatter all over the road the first time it is taken out because something wasn’t done right during assembly. I understand they don’t always stay together, especially when being built for race purposes and when trying new ideas. A grenaded bottom end or windowed block can be the high price of trying to gain more performance.
Building an engine (especially for high performance) in any configuration (gas, diesel, two-stroke, four-stroke, V, inline, rotary, and more) is an art form. It takes time, patience, and precision to put something together that has all the torque, tolerance, and clearance values correct. There must also be an understanding of how an engine works and how environmental changes—no matter how minor—affect it.
No two powerplants are the same; each has its own nuances that must be addressed during assembly in order to truly build the engine correctly. A clearance here, a notch there, or some extra machine work can make a world of difference. That is why many really good builders become specialized in a certain type or brand. The “tricks” and innovations used to construct a really good engine of one make or another are not learned on the first or even the tenth assembly. It takes time and even occasionally a mistake to learn what works and what doesn’t.
I have tried my hand at engine construction on more than one occasion. I can say with certainty I can put together a diesel that will run. To say I can build a high-horsepower unit that will hold together under extreme pressures and forces may be a stretch. I truly respect many of the engine builders I have met through the years and how easy they make it look. The time and patience they put into their craft is amazing.
Great builders have gained the knowledge, done the research, and learned the tricks. Many started by apprenticing under others and taking that wisdom forward. If you are having an engine built or rebuilt, do your research first. Make sure the person you go with knows the intricacies of the type of engine he or she is assembling. If you are going to take on the task yourself, learn the ins and outs of how to build properly. Do the research into the type of powerplant you are building to make sure you cover all your bases. Who knows, you may find you have a knack for it.

John

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