The old saying, "There's no replacement for displacement," is dead-on accurate. Sure, you can stuff a big, nasty camshaft into a smaller engine, or spin that same engine into the rpm stratosphere and make more power, but extra cubes yields something that real performance junkies find more beneficial: torque. When it comes to going fast, torque is king and it's one reason why old-school big-block Chevy engines still command respect. Of course, the down side to all that big-block goodness is weight. It's a give-and-take deal; at least it used to be. Today it's possible to get crazy displacement even in the diminutive small-block package. For example, GM's line of lightweight aluminum LS engines started out at around 350 cubic inches. As time passed, that displacement steadily grew to 364, 376, and eventually topped out at 427 glorious inches in the LS7. But the power-mad masses clamored for more. The problem was that the iron-sleeved aluminum blocks could only be punched out so far before getting dangerously thin in the cylinder wall department. Of course there was the stroke side of the displacement calculation, but the factory sleeves were only so long. The solution turned out to be ditching the GM sleeves and going aftermarket.
Now, this isn't something you're going to be able to do yourself using common hand tools in your garage. It involves very specialized and expensive equipment, but more importantly it requires someone with the skill and experience to pull off the surgery. That's where Steve Demirjian, of Race Engine Development, comes in. He's been in the racing engine business since 1972, and that equates to a lot of knowledge of what works and what doesn't. In regards to sleeves, he's been working with Darton for quite some time and is even one of the patent holders for their Modular Integrated Deck (MID) sleeve system. In other words, he was the perfect guy to help us up the displacement of our LS engine. The MID system was developed by Darton to address the factory blocks design weakness of cylinder stability due to the poor support at the upper deck area. GM's "cast in sleeves" makes the factory engines affordable, and they are great to a certain power level, but lacking when it comes to high power, boosted, or, as in our case, larger bore sizes. When the Darton sleeves are siamesed and nested they create a solid deck of sleeve flanges held in tension. This reinforces the upper deck area and provides for individual replacement with what Darton calls Modular Integrated Deck (MID). Also, this design enhances water flow from block to head and promotes stability of cooling since all the sleeves are of the "wet" design. Unlike factory sleeves, water flows all the way around the cylinders, which promotes cooling and helps control detonation. You can find more tasty tidbits about Darton's MID sleeves by hitting up their website.
The Reader's Digest version is that the iron GM sleeves are cut out of the block and replaced with stronger sleeves capable of being bored out to sizes that are impossible with the factory offerings. The three ingredients for this are a donor block, a set of Darton MID sleeves, and someone with the skill to meld them together. Two-thirds of our recipe was handled leaving us needing to source a block. The good news is that since it was going to be heavily machined, we didn't need a new one. In fact, used is better since it's cheaper, and that helps offset the cost of the sleeves and labor. We found an old LS2 block with scored cylinders, but according to Steve, various LS blocks would be suitable candidates. As he explained, "I like the LS1 block because it has solid main webs with no cast-in breather holes. I will install the large bore, 4.200-inch sleeves, in the LS1 blocks but not the LS6. The LS6 blocks have the cast-in breather holes, making them too weak in my opinion, to bore out for the larger bore sleeves. Now, the Gen IV blocks also have breather holes, but on these blocks the floor of the coolant section has been raised leaving more material for the sleeves to sit on with much less chance of cracks developing than on the LS6 block. My preference in order on the Gen IV blocks is LS2, LS7, and then the L92/LS3/LSA/LS9 blocks, which are all the same in terms of sleeving. The LS7 sleeves are not cast into the block but pressed in at the factory, so they machine out, leaving sufficient parent aluminum to machine for the liners. The remaining blocks have cast-in liners with a larger outside diameter than on the LS2 blocks, which in itself isn't a problem. The problem is the lousy placement of the sleeves at the factory when the blocks are cast. Sleeves are not at 4.400-inch centers, or are shifted slightly to the front or rear or side to side, in the block, which gives me headaches during machining. I usually end up juggling the bores slightly away from the crank centerline axis to get the old sleeve completely machined out to the parent aluminum of the casting. This is especially important with MID where I need a nice smooth surface for the O-rings to seal against, or else coolant will leak into the crank case."
The process of installing sleeves is an exercise in uber-tight tolerances. Bore centers must be held to within +/- .0005 inch. The bores themselves, for sleeve fitment, must be held to +/- .00025 inch, or a quarter of a thousandth of an inch! This is why having the right tools and skills are imperative. The CNC mill needs to be regularly qualified to make sure the backlash tolerances are within specification. Steve also opined on the importance of using a machine with flood coolant since the heat associated with the machining can screw up a block beyond repair. According to Steve, "Our shop is air conditioned, which I use in the summer to keep the temperature constant when machining. Otherwise, that twenty or so degree rise in temp from morning to afternoon will cause the block to expand in length and height. I've had blocks in here from shops doing the installs dry that were six-thousandths out of spec. In these cases the block can't be saved and the only option is to pull the sleeves and install them in a correctly machined block. I have done this for close to a dozen folks over the past few years. These shops did a pretty good job of screwing up the MID name when we first came out with the design for the LS blocks. I gave up my time fixing these screw ups for free to show people that when the work is done correctly there are very few issues with the MID blocks."
If all of this sounds labor intensive, that's because it is. The basic charge to machine, stress relieve, install the sleeves, and deck the block is $1,175. Add in $100 to bore the block to within honing range and another $75 if you want the notches cut for rod clearance. The sleeves retail right around $1,300, so if you add it all up, you're at $2,650 for parts and labor. Well, plus a block. But good used donors can be found for $400 give or take. That means the total for a big-bore aluminum small-block would be in the three-grand neighborhood. Not cheap but very competitive to the aftermarket LS blocks currently on the market and less than two-grand more than a comparatively small 4.065-inch bore stock LS3 block from GM.
By Dave Clinton,
President of Darton Sleeves
Basically there is no standard chemistry for ductile iron, instead there is an ASTM 536-84 SAE developed standard for "mechanical properties." This means that any foundry can, and does, cast material with various concoctions of chemistry to equal a particular mechanical property. Mechanical properties describe the basic strength and resilience of a material in engineering terms such as tensile, yield, elongation, and hardness. From an engineering standpoint, these callouts basically determine how a material will work in a given environment or operational circumstance. For instance, gun barrels are made of high-strength steel or stainless steel and usually contain high levels of chromium to combat the heat and prevent wear.
Cast iron typically has tensile strength in the area of 30,000 psi, hardness of 210BHN(Brinell), and no elongation to speak of. Ductile iron typically will be 100,000 psi tensile, 70,000 yield, and have three percent elongation. Ductile, or nodular iron was invented by GM in the '40s primarily for suspension parts. The use of ductile has grown exponentially, and in the '60s foundries began centrifugal casting of ductile for round parts such as cylinder liners.
Darton began intensive research into the chemistry of ductile in the late '80s when we were selected to manufacture cylinders for a certified aircraft engine by Orenda Aerospace. This challenge involved making a sleeve that would withstand 75-percent horsepower for 1,500 hours on an engine test stand on a continuous basis. In the end, the engines were disassembled and all the parts were expected to still have service life. The testing lasted for 18 months and 20 engines were involved. The engines were certified by the FAA and the Canadian Department of Transport.
The chemistry aspect of ductile is akin to "mom's" apple pie; it is not just the ingredients but when and how the ingredients are added and mixed in. In the case of Darton ductile DDI 2007A material, our process has resulted in the strongest, and most dense ductile iron ever produced without induction hardening. Typically, ductile iron density under a microscope at 100x will reveal 175-200 nodules per sq millimeter. Darton DDI 2007A is 500-600, which represents a superior wear surface. For instance, the majority of Top Fuel Teams use Darton sleeves and, we're now providing a sleeve, which routinely will last 5-7 runs-an unheard of prospect just two years ago.