The doctor is in and he has the cure for what ails you. What you need, Sonny, is a big-block Chevy engine where that puny small-block now resides. This magic pill is sure to get you off the couch quickly and back in the driver seat feeling much better.
So what is this mysterious disease that would cause a sane person to pull a perfectly good engine from his or her Corvette and replace it with a powerplant that comes in a box? The simple answer is more power. Frank Beck at Beck Racing Engines put it best when he said, "It is an addiction. Once you have a little taste, you want more power. It starts when we sell a guy a 400 or 500hp package. A couple of years down the road, that same guy is calling me back and saying the engine is running great but he wants more power. Once you're bitten y the bug, you're done."
So what is a crate engine? What started as a factory replacement engine for the consumer who blew up his or her engine has drastically changed. The auto manufacturers sold long-blocks (a block with pistons and crankshaft, no cylinder heads or manifolds) and the customer took all the ancillary parts off the old engine and reinstalled them on the new block. Today, "crate engine" can mean anything from the replacement long-block to a ready-to-run, dyno'd, high-performance killer race engine.
A number of high-performance engine builders realized early on they couldn't buy all the new engine components individually (such as the block, crank, rods, and pistons) as cheaply as they could a complete short- or long-block from the OEMs. They began buying Detroit's crate engines and adding their own cylinder heads, carburetors, and headers.
The next step in the evolution of the high-performance crate engine was to design an engine, usually a stroker, using all high-performance parts. The larger engine building companies developed signature engines that would be driveable on the street and produce reliable horsepower and torque numbers. These companies then built a lot of them and the price became reasonable. Instead of buying the components for one engine at a time and paying top dollar, these builders bought the components to build multiple engines. These became custom "crate engines."
These engines are not built in an assembly-line process, but there is uniformity in each engine, which means they can be built for less money. One of the benefits of these engines is that the builder already knows the horsepower and torque numbers for each package before each customer's engine is built. The greatest advantage to most crate engines is that they come with a warranty, although most vary by builder. This takes the gamble out of buying an engine.
Mark Campbell at Street & Performance adds, "With the knowledge we have, we can send the customer the engine so it is a bolt-in deal. Plus, when you add in the warranty, we can compare extremely well to the local guys that build complete engines. You can't build an engine anymore for what a crate engine costs."
Some car dealerships understand the profits available from taking the OE crate engine and customizing it. One of the best is Sallee Chevrolet in Oregon. Tom Sallee explained, "We specialize in taking a crate engine and customizing it for the customer. We have many engine possibilities on our Web site, so the customer has something to choose from. Those combinations are tried and tested, and we know what we are selling. We will not build an engine from the ground up for somebody. We don't have the time for that. We are not a custom builder. We have proven packages. Many of the GM dealers just sell crate engines and don't make any of the modifications to them. We are one of the few dealers doing this.
"Every crate engine is not designed for every vehicle. If a guy calls up and says he has a Corvette, he may have a tachometer drive distributor or he is going to need a short water-pump application. Therefore, we will have to modify it for his specific vehicle. The crate engine is only a starting point. We can do whatever they want. If the customer wants it broken in, the carburetor set up, and all ready to go, we will dyno-test them for an extra charge. We have an engine dyno and do all of our machining in-house; we don't sublet anything. What you get in a custom crate engine is impossible to duplicate for the price. You are getting the best bang for the buck."
Some of the big engine builders have taken the approach of building bolt-in, custom high-performance engine packages, and the only thing "crate" about them is they come in a box. Bill Mitchell is one. He's using name-brand, premium-grade components, all selected for their durability and contribution to the overall performance of the engine.
"Each engine is individually assembled by experienced professional engine builders, then dyno-tested and certified to meet or exceed advertised performance levels," says Mitchell. "The advantage to a dyno'd engine is the customer knows it runs and all the valves are adjusted, the carburetor is adjusted, and the ignition is timed. All of the systems are checked for water, fuel, or oil leaks under running conditions. Everything is adjusted to maximize performance. He just needs to drop it into his car." Mitchell backs all of his engines with a two-year, 24,000-mile limited warranty.
Frank Beck at Beck Racing Engines has over 100 dyno-proven small- and big-block Chevrolet packages, including 52 big-block crate-engine packages. Says Beck, "Our claim to fame is we specialize in Chevrolet engines that are pushing the envelope and running on pump gas but still maintain the reliability. Each one is handcrafted and precision-machined. We hand-select the best parts; we are not tied with or obligated to use any particular brand. We can pick what we want.
"One of the things that sets us apart is the initial time we take with the customer. We fill out a full-page questionnaire with them that lists the type of vehicle, the year, the model, how much horsepower they're looking for, and their budget. We ask them what their application expectations are. We want to know their current engine, transmission, stall speed on the converter, whether they are going to use headers, run nitrous, or supercharge the engine. We need to know the gear ratio, tire diameter, and exhaust system they will be using. It can prevent problems down the road. From this, we determine what is best for their wants, needs, budget, and application. We mail them a couple of choices we believe would be best for them. Everything is very detailed. Every single component is itemized on the parts list, all name brands and every single machining operation are broken down and itemized. There is a set price and a dyno sheet that's representative of the package. It takes all the guesswork out of it."
George Johnson of Speed-O-Motive also has many Chevy big-block packages. He explained, "The differences in our engines are in our machining, the way the blocks are machined with the CNC machine, and the diamond hone we use. The blueprinting of the block is critical to having everything right. We bore the cylinders on center as opposed to just the minimal cut to get them to set up. Even the GM crate engines we get in, we have to go back and refinish them. Our machine work is that much better. These custom-built crate engines are priced competitively.