I’ve settled on a probational name for her, and she is most definitely a female car*, Princess Shamwow. She’s finicky as a hairless cat, and decided she didn’t like her new shoes so she simultaneously ran out of gas, killed the battery, and sucked a head gasket on the way home last night, like a truly psychotic girlfriend reacting to a poorly chosen birthday present. She does love me though, like junkies love smack – a simultaneous loathing combined with truly needing me to fix her. I ran out of gas coming off the freeway, dropping me and the lady just a mile from the house on for a post party misty walk back to the house — then an annoying cold painfully sober walk back to the car with a can of gas, then halfway back home again after realizing I left the keys in run and killed the battery. Then I got a divine reprieve and saw a tow truck driver taking a roadside break.
Well the devil is in the details and as soon as I got her charged back up and started, she had a nasty miss on the passenger side. I was thinking maybe fouled plugs, but then it got a little ticky, so I was thinking collapsed lifter or low oil, pulled the dipstick and lo and behold we have the gooey brown foam of a blown headgasket. Fuuuuu, etc. I swore her a blue streak for a minute then she hit me and we started to have hate sex and got into another argument and then I just made a pot of coffee, went out to the garage, and started running the numbers on my options. This is gonna get long so unless you’re into cars and numbers and hypotheticals, you can probably “tl;dr-Aaron’s stupid zebra car broke down” the rest of this post.
I could just re-gasket the top end. Doing it up with super overkill Cometic MLS gaskets is still only like $200 (regular type gaskets $45), which has a 70% chance of being “just fine” (meaning it seals and doesn’t knock after the hours I’ll throw at it). Say $200/350 to be safe with all the gaskets and a timing chain like a good boy. This is both very cheap and fairly risky, with zero residual benefits except like… a fresh timing chain to put on the next motor I build and some fancy head gaskets.
Re-gasketing without getting a good measurement on the head and block surfaces is a little bit like sharting into the wind. And deck measurement, well – I’d have to buy some quality surface/depth gauges and a magnet block, which could run me another couple hundred easy. Admittedly, good tools are good karma and pay for themselves in the long run, but bleh. What if I spun bearings? Flattened a cam lobe? Since I’m gonna have it apart anyways it would only make sense to throw a somewhat more modern cam in it, Summit has some RV/Tow cams which will make for a real dependable grocery getter smooth idling ride, even Crane has some sensible sticks that will give me a fat wide torque curve down in the cruising the city streets range, so tack on a couple hundred there between the bumpstick, lifters, springs, retainers, stem seals/valve guides. And if I’m doing a cam it would be kinda irresponsible after having water in the oil NOT to do the cam bearings, which is a machine shop trip unless I wanna “eyeball” the cam bores are OK and also trust myself to drive em’ in straight. Throw in $150 for water pump/timing chain cover gaskets and a timing chain/tensioner. Also it’d suck ass to pull the motor, take it to a shop and trust THEM to check the deck and flatten the surfaces on what amounts to an ancient economotor with small-valve heads with ultra malaisey 7.8-8.1:1 compression. Decked block means machining the intake manifold. Decked block and decked heads requires finding a machinist who has some pretty good triggeronometrical thinkulating, and guessing at WHO to trust is the door to seven types of dealing with bullshit like a fresh motor that can’t keep gaskets in it or has weird vacuum leaks. Plus I’d be $200 into the heads to get bigger valves ground in and it’d still be a shitball malaise head. Aftermarket aluminum heads are out of my budget, admittedly, not FAR out of my budgetary range but 1) I’d rather spend that money on handling and braking than on power, and B) I like shit I can get replacement parts for at the Napautomotivezone, y’all. I give up ponies for “holy shit I’m stuck in New Hicksburg At The Sea” parts availability 9 times out of 10. There’s RHS Magnum heads ($300 a side bare, throw another $300 for springs and retainers, $200 for stock stamped steel rockers and hardware or $375 for roller rockers) which are nice and iron and use parts-counter parts and will bump my compression up and add a nice quench area — if I swap in some KB pistons. Tacking in, another $300 or so, the stockers are so far down in the hole there’s no quench to be had, and if I’m going to modern compression ratios I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be $1500-2000 worth of parts and labor into a non turbocharged rebuilt 318 that detonates unless I’m running high-test. Homey don’t play that. Magnum heads also means new pushrods, another $150 or so. Throw in some new valve cover gaskets (and some fucking nice valve covers, I hate drippy motors), may as well do the oil pump while you’re in there, freeze plugs, main bearings, it’d be stupid to do all this work and not paint it so another $200 for a pro job or halfass with $40 worth of rattle paint. Down this road lies madness, and a $3000 318. I could probably pick up a core 360 to do all this same work on for $125, so it would only really make sense to go down that route instead of reworking the 318. It’ll require a new flexplate and oil pan but big fucking whup. $3000 318 or $3250 360. I waste more than $250 on junk food in a year, it’d be stupid to leave 60 ponies and 70 lb/ft on the table (probably more like 80/100 if I’m buildin’ right). And this motor would need a new carburetor and intake manifold to perform, pitch in another $300-500 for that or cheap out with a $40 rebuild kit for the shitball carb. We’re up into $4000 nose-bleed country and we’re still at stock strokes and shit. That’s fuckin’ silly. It’d purr like a little kitten and be fresh as hell, giving me thousands and thousands of miles of reliable streetable performance, but it’d make me pay through the penis to get there. Proper LA 318 rebuild is basically off the table. Proper LA 360 build is still pretty unappealing at the price point.
Cheapest swap, overall, would be a $225-350 Craigslist 318. They’re pretty readily available, some of them even promise they have low miles. Big gamble with almost no residual benefits except maybe they’ll have a nice aluminum 4bbl intake, add on $150 for a used 4bbl and we’re off to the races (hoping that the head gaskets on this one don’t blow too). Sinking even this small amount money into a slightly different low performance used motor is un-appealing, and I think the price difference between this and the magnum swap is a false economy.
So… magnum swap. There is of course a cheap, an expensive, and a mega expensive route here too.
Cheapest low-effort swap with best residual benefits would be – buy a 5.2 or 5.9 magnum, put in a cheap magnum-drilled 4 barrel intake, and bolt on a carb. I’ve seen magnums for $400-750 pretty consistently (both on craigslist and through car-part.com). Admittedly, they have miles on them, but if forum swap reports and magazines are to be believed the modern moly rings can leave sparkling, straight bores well into early six-digit mileages. Throw $250 in for a timing chain and the gaskets to do the job. Decent carbs that would suit go used for about $150/new for $350, magnum-drilled manifolds go for $150-300. Requires a 360 car style oil pan ($60 for steel vs $300 for milodon – guess which way I’m leaning). ~$1100-1750 ish for a pretty good gamble on a motor that’s 23 years of engineering newer than the old block (including a free swap to a hydraulic roller cam and 1.6 ratio rockers) is WAY more appealing than a $4000 LA. And if I want the thermonuclear overkill build detailed above on a magnum, it’s only 10% more than the LA360 option anyways. If the heads aren’t goofed, it might be CHEAPER. And the motor made 235 horsepower and 300 lb/ft (all in the “seriously streetable” rpm range) with the factory efi and manifolds farting through fuckin’ catalytic converters. Tuned right, a straight carby magnum swap would match that or beat it. And the motor would take all my stock electronic ignition (and benefit exactly the same amount from an HEI swap, which I could build on the engine stand), this would be a “hook up the vacuum lines and choke wire, time it and set some lean best idle” shit. I might be able to do it all on the engine stand and do a one-weekend beers and a buddy engine swap. This is, frankly, the option to beat, and most likely where I’ll start. Lets me resell my LA in parts to recoup some dough, and already comes with a power steering pump (I’d probably have to figure out how to temporarily delete that unless I feel like doing the power steering box at the same time – And I probably don’t. One fucking project at a time and she steers just fine, just sucks to park).
Cheapest high-effort swap would be a factory EFI swap. The magnums on CL come with all the wiring and the computer, and even if they don’t I bet I could find a harness and ecu at the LKQ for a Franklin. The part that will suck about this is wiring. EFI means wires, wires, wires. Wiring is hands down my least favorite thing in all of the automotive hobby, so I tend to do it slowly and with lots of swearing breaks. I’d have to find a good place to mount the stock ECU and figure out the ignition relay wiring to get it really soundly situated. Drill some bigass holes in the firewall, find grommets, but still, this is dirty fucking cheap cash wise, basically just the $550-700 for the engine and wire harness, the standard $250 timing chain and incidentals, and maybe $50 for various connectors, and of course the $60 oil pan, and I’ll have to figure out an EFI pump and hoses(and decide whether to modify a new tank (money)or modify the old one(effort/risk)). Say $1500-1750 for dead nuts Late 90’s OEM style reliability. $175 worth of beer to deal with the headaches from the wiring. Only caveat here is while I know the engine and the transmission will hook up “just fine”(tm) I don’t know how the factory ECU will handle not being able to control the transmission. Probably “just fine” but I’ll probably be leaving ponies and miles per gallon on the table.
Most overkill price AND effort option is Megasquirt. I’ll not dignify the idea of assembling a megasquirt myself from scratch on a deadline car-down engine swap except with a scoffing noise and eyeroll, so we’ll be doing calculations on the complete kits from DIYAutotune. Megasquirt 1 will run me $500 over the price of the OEM efi swap by the time I’m “all in”, and I’m wiring in all my free time for a week of vacation, probably twice the PITA factor of OEM EFI (but ultimately cleaner packaging), and I’ll know for sure that the ECU doesn’t give a fuck about what the tranny is up to inside. Megasquirt 2 is same effort but $130 more expensive (for poorly documented benefits I still don’t quite “get”, I’m still learning about MS). Megasquirt 3 is same effort but $250 more expensive (than the 1) but then it gives you 8-injector sequential firing instead of batch mode. All megasquirt options feature a pretty easy path to go to distributorless ignition/EDIS coilpacks. That much I do know. Also annoying about the MS series is that it doesn’t appear you can “wire once and upgrade later” from a MS1 to 2 or 3, they all have different connectors on the ECU. Stupidgineering there, you guys. Really fuckin’ weird choice for a project based on the idea of being able to tune every parameter and update the source code on demand. There are a ton of success stories out there and a pretty active support forum so I feel confident I could wring every last erg out of the motor with tuning. This has serious appeal, but it is a big financial AND time commitment to get set up right. I don’t think this is the right way to start on the swap.
Right now, the real fight is between the cheapest head gaskets/timing belt and an oil change hail mary out in the yard with a case of beer and the carb’d magnum swap. Lots of motors get shadetree head gaskets this way and work just fine for many more miles, but if I do that and THEN end up finding out the bearings are all fucked out or the valves are bent, I will be many types of angry and out a weekend of stooping over an engine compartment and $300 cash money for nothing and staring down the exact same choices I have right now. With the magnum swap there’s approximately the same risk of swapping in a pre-blown motor or blowing a head gasket pretty soon after I swap, but then I’m already at magnum heads, 1.6 rockers, roller cam, and I can reuse all the sensors and accessories, letting me just freshen a $200 junkyard 5.9 shortblock/longblock to the tune of probably $1200-1500 and have a zero-mile modern motor and a buildable spare core for the same price some people want for a bucket-and-box 340 or, christ forbid, one of those meth fiend listed “4V 318s” which they “know was a drag motor” which look suspiciously like regular old truck blocks that are returning to the elements in a corner of a backyard. This plan runs $1500-2000 less than a fresh mainstream builder magnum motor (which are all seemingly unavailable without rumpity rump car alarm triggering drag cams that would strangle on my fuddy duddy old man manifolds and want a holeshot torque converter), and EIGHT TO FOURTEEN THOUSAND than Ma Mopar wants for her new crate motors, all of which feature single digit potential gas mileage, and create extreme chassis compromises/complications that range from “pretty ridiculous amount of exhaust and suspension fabrication which will cost $3700 to truly fix” to “completely ruins weight distribution and requires offset master cylinder and no more power brakes or power steering ever”, and several interesting combinations of the two. Plus without chassis and drivetrain work they’ll tear the rest of my car apart in weeks.
The nicest part about going for the carb magnum swap is that I can always retain the EFI parts and eventually bench-build a Megasquirt (I could even do it from kit and get in for much cheaper), buy a new gas tank and prep it for an in-tank EFI pump, then when I’m ready bolt it in – after I’m done with some other reliability/driveability projects (suspension bushings/balljoints, new wiring harness/gauges, explorer rear axle swap, subframe connectors, weather stripping, interior jesusgodwhatdidigetmyselfintoohfuckohfuck) – it’s a weekend project. Then resell the carb and intake to somebody else in need, and motor on into the next decade in my EFI updated hot rod Dodge. This is pretty appealing, it’s got good residuals on investment at every step, with plenty to be recouped at the end, and a very high bang to the buck ratio on total investment even if I just take all the spares and throw them away at the end.
Sorry this was crazy long winded, but it’s a complicated problem with a lot of factors. But I think the final cost benefit analysis I’ve presented here is fairly clear. Excepting a bizarro-world gift-of-luck like a free recently rebuilt 318, nothing else comes close. You’ll excuse me, I have to talk to a Vantuckyite about a motor.
Update: Decided to shadetree some gaskets into it and source/build a 5.9 to swap in later. $120 for a full gasket set and roller timing chain, even if it only runs for another ocuple thousand miles that’s a cheap stopgap that will let me “do it once, do it right” on the magnum (with a 5.9 instead of a 5.2). Plus I can probably throw the “freshly head gasketed 318” on craigslist for a couple hundo when I’m done swapping.
* The way I determine a car’s gender is by analyzing the style of its failures. “Boy” cars tend to have stubborn, impossible to track down problems which rarely leave you completely stranded, simply perpetually baffled. To own a male car is to forever be replacing parts, tracing wires, checking sensors, and replacing bulbs to absolutely no avail. It’ll run forever – except for how it sometimes dies at 45 miles per hour and you have to restart it in neutral… which it always does without complaint. My family’s old Honda Accord was a boy – he slowly seeped power steering fluid and gently disappeared engine oil for 200,000 miles, as was my Pontiac 6000 (which I got for free because of the baffling, un-solvable-by-conventional-means stalling) which was remarkable only because it drizzled copious amounts ATF but was 100% reliable to get to work. Boy cars do tend to mark their parking spots. The Datsun’s a bit of a boy, at first glance. Starts up first time every time, gas gauge works, wiring has been fucked with by a team of six specialists in the field of “screwing up wiring” then gently soaked in salt water and let to crystallize. It blows fuses all over the place, but even though nothing ELSE electrical works, the pee wee engine is ready to go every time. It doesn’t overheat or care what type of gas you put into it, it’s always ready to go to the dump or the hardware store (as long as it’s daytime and you don’t need headlights) even though he’s overdue for an oil change. Dependably flawed. Girl cars though, they have attitudes. When you have a problem, she lets you KNOW, immediately, by simply turning off and refusing to start again, making horrible screeches, throwing fan belts, killing batteries, ballast resistors, and voltage regulators – until you coax the problem out of her and fix it — and so help you you better not halfass it. My Corvair was a girl, I swapped to an alternator and she’d drain the battery if you left it hooked up overnight. After a particularly punishing freeway run, I got to experience the gut-wrenching terror of watching her barf raw gasoline onto searing hot exhaust manifolds. Two mechanical fuel pumps later I learned she really wanted an electric fuel pump for her birthday. If you didn’t use just the right belts, she’d throw them off at speed and start to overheat. She knew moving back to Phoenix was a mistake, so she jammed her transmission in reverse 9000 miles from Nowhere’s Butte Crossing, Caliazona, let me pop it right into gear as soon as I got it to Phoenix and dropped it — then immediately jammed in reverse again as soon as I got it back into place. Turns out I forgot our anniversary, and with car-girlfriends a year is “new transmission” instead of paper. Run the wrong brand of gas and she detonates, grab the wrong type of spark plugs and she’s sluggish. Change the tires and a bushing starts to creak. Pay attention to her, give her all of what she needs and a little bit of what she wants (and sometimes a gift from the heart just because), and she’ll treat you right. Forget, ignore, fuck up, or halfass, and she’ll make your life hell. Maddening, but such personality, such charm. This zebra car, after her three way night pukeys? She is a Princess, confirmed.