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Chevy Crate Engine Guide - Good Things Can Come In Big Boxes

A Guide To The Latest In Chevy Crate Engine Offerings

Brian Brennan Aug 1, 2000
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Looking right at home under the hood of a vintage Chevelle is this 502-inch big-block, one of the many crate engines available from GM Performance Parts and the rest of the aftermarket. Read on for more crate engine offerings--one of which is probably perfect for your next Bow-Tie project.

There's no question that crate engines have become quite a phenomenon within the world of hot rodding in the past decade or so. And there's good reason for the trend. Crate engines take the guesswork out of selecting the right parts, and eliminate the legwork of hauling an old engine all over town to have it machined and assembled. Instead, you get to peruse the pages of catalogs and brochures, looking for an engine with the combination of horsepower, torque and street manners that you want. Then you order it over the phone and wait for a crate to show up on your doorstep.

Of course, with everyone getting into the crate engine game, the selection has become staggering. You can get everything from GM's stone-stock replacement small-blocks to race-ready, over-the-top big-blocks. So how do you know what's right for your project? Well, like anything else, you'll have to do your homework to figure that out. We'd suggest starting by determining your wants and needs, then talking about your options with several crate engine builders/suppliers. They should be able to suggest an appropriate engine for your particular vehicle and performance desires.

To give you a head start on your crate engine search, we've put together a guide to some of the latest offerings from GM Performance Parts and several other reputable suppliers. We'll be the first to admit that these offerings are only the tip of the iceberg, but they should give you an idea of the wide range of packages available. Take a look and see if there's an engine that you'd like to have in your next Bow-Tie bruiser.

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GM Performance Parts
HT 383
Stroke this or stroke that. Stroker engines are all the rage in the performance world, as the added cubes are a relatively easy way to produce more horsepower and a lot more torque. And we all know torque is what moves a car from intersection to intersection. It's particularly beneficial in a relatively heavy street machine or a vehicle that you use for towing. The HT 383 small-block is intended to develop loads of torque through its 3.80-inch-stroke crank and the Vortec cylinder heads. The engine produces more than 400 ft-lbs of torque from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm (exactly where most of us do our street driving), topping out at a very impressive 415 ft-lb at 3,500rpm. Featuring a torque-oriented roller cam, heavy-duty, forged, powdered metal connecting rods, a forged crank and hypereutectic pistons, the HT 383 produces 325 hp at 4,500 rpm with a very streetable 9.1:1 compression ratio designed for 87-octane gasoline.

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350 HO Deluxe
If you want one-stop shopping, the 350 HO Deluxe delivers. That's because it's truly a complete engine, from the Holley carburetor and HEI distributor right down to the water pump, torsional damper, and flexplate. The engine is based on the standard 350 HO crate engine, so it features a pump-gas-friendly 9.1:1 compression ratio and a street-smart camshaft (.435-inch lift intake, .460 exhaust; 212 and 222 degrees duration). The complete package makes the engine a simple swap into most street machines, allowing you to easily put 330 hp (at 5,000 rpm) and 380 ft-lbs of torque (at 3,800 rpm) under your hood. The streetable compression ratio makes this an ideal everyday engine or cross-country cruiser.

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Fast Burn (FB) 385
Okay, okay, you want horsepower and you want lots of it, but you also want an engine that is very manageable on the street. Well, the Fast Burn 385 just might be of interest to you.

The FB 385 is built on the proven ZZ4 short-block with the addition of GM's aluminum Fast Burn cylinder heads. The combination is good for 385 hp in standard form, but if that's not enough you can boost it up to 430 ponies (at 6,000 rpm) by installing the 350 Hot Cam Kit (which includes a new cam, valve springs, and 1.6:1 self-aligning roller rockers). In "stock" form, the FB 385 uses the same ZZ4 hydraulic roller camshaft that has already proven itself in countless street machine applications. Added to the mix are stamped rocker arms, a forged-steel crankshaft, and forged, powdered metal connecting rods proven to 500 hp. Add in a 12-month/12,000 mile warranty to make the FB 385 another valid choice for your street machine.

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ZZ Small-Block Partial Engine
For the hot rodder who wants to feel more at one (sort of a Zen thing!) with the building of his personal engine, there is the ZZ partial engine. This assembly provides a solid bottom end for any serious street engine, with a four-bolt-main block, a forged-steel crank, forged powdered metal rods, and LT1-design hypereutectic pistons. The combination ensures durability and high-rpm performance potential. The block is designed for a one-piece rear main seal and will accept a roller camshaft. From this solid base, a hot rodder can select the camshaft to suit his own needs, as well as his choice of cylinder heads, induction (carb or EFI), ignition, and other accessories. Based on a compression ratio of 10:1 (dependent upon the cylinder heads and deck height selected), this engine is easily capable of producing upwards of 500 hp.

ZZ4 Small Block
Even though it's not really a new offering, we've included GMPP's ZZ4 350 in this guide simply because it's such a popular choice for a street machine engine. And it's easy to see why. Equipped with four-bolt mains, a roller cam, aluminum heads, a dual-plane intake, and an HEI distributor, the ZZ4 is good for 355 hp (at 5,250 rpm) and 405 ft-lbs of torque (at 3,500 rpm). The power is not only good, but the engine offers that great-sounding musclecar idle that so many Chevy fans are after. The ZZ4 is a great choice for street machines, circle track cars, and drag race vehicles.

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ZZ502 Fully Assembled 502 Big Blocks
Driven by consumer demands, GM Performance Parts has recently made available fully assembled big-block ZZ502 Base and Deluxe crate engines. Previously, the ZZ502s were available only as partially assembled kit engines.

The ZZ502 Base crate engine includes an assembled roller cam long-block with aluminum big-valve cylinder heads, valvetrain, torsional damper, flexplate, and die-cast 502 valve covers. The ZZ502 Deluxe crate engine includes all that plus a dual-plane intake, an 850-cfm Holley carb, an HEI distributor, spark plugs, plug wires and looms, an aluminum water pump, and a starter. With 502 hp and 567 ft-lbs of torque, the ZZ502 fully assembled engines are clearly king-of-the-hill material for the Bow-Tie enthusiast who wants (and needs) the utmost in stump-pulling power and torque.

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It's finally here! Though a handful of hot rodders have learned what it takes to put an LS1 in an older car, GM has made the swap easier for the rest of us with its LS1 engine kit. The kit, which should be available by the time you read this, includes an ECM and wiring harness that allows you to install the LS1 in almost any car that currently has a carbureted V-8. Based on the Camaro/ Firebird version of the LS1, this engine represents nearly 50 years of small-block V-8 technology at its finest, offering a package that is not only potent but also reliable and extremely efficient. The engine features an aluminum block and cylinder heads with a 10.25:1 compression ratio, and is rated at 320 hp at 5,800 rpm, and 330 ft-lbs of torque at 4,400 rpm. The kit will ship complete with fuel injectors, exhaust manifolds, and a flexplate. It's designed for use with a 4L60E four-speed automatic transmission. Aside from the computer, wiring, and possibly the exhaust, little else needs changing when swapping an LS1 in place of an existing small-block powerplant.

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Ram Jet 350 PFI
It's the return of the fuelie small-block! The electronic fuel-injection system on the new Ram Jet 350 not only borrows its name from the mechanical Rochester units of the past, but also takes styling cues from them. But despite its retro look, this fuel injection system uses state-of-the-art components developed by GM to give you all of the benefits of modern electronic engine management. According to GMPP, several key characteristics of the Ram Jet are the excellent cold and hot start capabilities, always ideal air-to-fuel ratios, and exceptional throttle response, power, and driveability. And it's hard to argue with 350 hp (at 5,200 rpm) and 400 ft-lbs of torque (at 3,500 rpm).

Another key benefit with the Ram Jet 350 is its ease of installation. The fuel injection's "brains" are stuffed into the industry-leading, easy-to-install MEFI 3 controller, which literally fits in the palm of your hand (it was originally developed by GM Powertrain for marine applications). Below the fuel injection is a roller-cam 350 with four-bolt mains, 9.4:1 compression, and Vortec cylinder heads. The Ram Jet package includes the engine and fuel injection, wiring harness, MEFI 3 controller, and detailed instructions. Once installed in the vehicle, a user needs only to supply 12-volt power, fuel, and, oh yes, the throttle!

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Ram Jet 502 PFI
You could call it the king Rat of the 21st Century-the port fuel-injected Ram Jet 502. Harold Martin, a fuel-injected race engine builder and GMPP Pro Mod racer, assisted the GMPP engineering staff in the building of this incredible engine. Together they came up with a great-looking (and performing) intake manifold design that offers the best in fuel management technology. Like the Ram Jet 350, this big-block uses the small, easy-to-install MEFI 3 controller.

The Ram Jet 502 makes 510 hp at 5,500 rpm and 550 ft-lbs of torque at 4500rpm, but the real story is the flat torque curve. The engine makes gobs of torque throughout its operating range, a feat made possible by the large intake plenum and runners (which would never be possible on a carbureted application). In fact, the Ram Jet manifold is so efficient that GMPP was able to make all of this horsepower and torque with a production L98 throttle body assembly. And it still offers street-friendly EFI characteristics like easy cold starts, great idle quality, and instant throttle response. For muscle-minded big-block enthusiasts, choosing this beast is a no-brainer!

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The brains of GM's Ram Jet engines are in this engine control unit, the MEFI 3. Small enough to literally fit in your hand, the unit can easily be mounted in the engine compartment (or on the engine itself), eliminating the need to run a huge loom of wiring through the firewall. All you need to attach is a 12-volt power supply.

Order One for Yourself
By the time you read this you will be able to order GM's new crate engines while visiting the GM Performance Parts Web site ( Of course, the telephone will still work (800/577-6888). And you can always get more information at your local GM Performance Parts dealer. If there's not one near you, try contacting one of the many GMPP dealers that specialize in mail-order sales, such as the following:

Burt Greenwald Chevrolet
1490 Wooster Ave., Dept. SC
Akron, OH 44320
(800) 362-9650

Jim Pace GM Parts Warehouse
430 Youngstown-Warren Rd., Dept. SC
Niles, OH 44446
(800) 748-3791

Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center
5901 Spur 327, Dept. SC
Lubbock, TX 79424
(800) 456-0211

Other Great Crates
While the crate engines from GMPP are a sure bet for many enthusiasts, we would be remiss in not telling you about some of the other crate engine builders out there. Many of them have found a market for more specialized crate engines (and built-to-order powerplants) for customers who have specific needs or particular tastes. Whether you're looking for a mild street performer or a radical race-ready assembled long-block or crate engine, it's probably available from one of the following custom engine shops.

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American Speed 396 "Enforcer" Small-Block

American Speed
Readers who remember our High School Hot Rod Malibu project from a few years back should recognize American Speed as the shop responsible for the car's 534hp 383 small-block. What you may not know is the fact that American Speed offers more than 40 different dyno-tested and warranted crate engines. This 485-horse 396 might be of interest, particularly because it's a stroker small-block, not a Rat. With a four-bolt block, JE 9.6:1 pistons, AFR heads, and a Comp Cams roller cam, it's not only strong, but also very street worthy. American Speed Enterprises: 3006 23rd Ave., Dept. SC, Moline, IL 61265; (309) 764-3601.

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Arizona Speed & Marine Direct-Port Vortec 350

Arizona Speed & Marine
Arizona Speed & Marine has long been known for its fuel-injection systems, so it's only logical that the company offers ready-to-install fuel-injected engines. The Signature Series line of engine packages includes a variety of small-block offerings (based on LT4, ZZ4, or Vortec engines) and big-block engines (454 or 502 cid). These fuel-injected engines are designed for optimum power, compatibility, and reliability, and are dyno tested are warranted. Options range from programming to polish. Arizona Speed & Marine: 6313 W. Commonwealth Ave., Dept. SC, Chandler, AZ 85226; (480) 753-0208.

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Beck Racing Engines 468 "Street Kill" Big-Block

Beck Racing Engines
Just because you like the simplicity of buying a crate engine doesn't mean you have to forfeit your desire for a custom powerplant. Beck Racing Engines has 79 different engine packages available, so there's sure to be one to suit your needs. The engines range from mild 350s designed for towing, to stroker small-blocks and monster big-blocks like the 650-horse, 468-inch "Street Kill" shown here. Most are designed to run on pump gas, and all are built by professionals and dyno tested prior to shipping. Beck Racing Engines: 21616 N. Central Ave. Suite 1, Dept. SC, Phoenix, AZ 85024; (623) 780-1001.

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Dallas Export Sales 383 Small-Block

Dallas Export Sales
If it's Texas-sized small-blocks you're looking for, you might want to see the engine packages available from Dallas Export Sales. This company's primary crate engine offering is a 383 small-block producing 425-plus-hp and 460 ft-lbs of torque. The engines are built using a four-bolt block, a Scat crank, Lunati rods and cam, and aluminum AFR cylinder heads. Naturally, the assembled engines are balanced and blueprinted. Additional options are available, as are 500- and 550-plus-hp packages. Dallas Export Sales: 10530 Shady Trail, Dept. SC, Dallas, TX 75220; (214) 350-4979.

Performance Chevy
Performance Chevy has a variety of assembled engines befitting the company name. Among them are 327- or 350-inch performance short-blocks and long-blocks, as well as "Stump Puller" 383 stroker short-blocks and long-blocks. All assembled engines are balanced and blueprinted, and long-blocks are available with a variety of cylinder heads (GM, World Products, Trick Flow, Edelbrock or Dart) and cams. Performance Chevy also offers "restoration" engines using blocks and heads with casting numbers and date codes that are appropriate for your particular vehicle. Performance Chevy: 2995 W. Whitton, Dept. SC, Phoenix, AZ 85017; (800) 203-6624.

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Reggie Jackson 620 Big-Block

Reggie Jackson's Performance Engines
From one of baseball's all-time great sluggers comes an assortment of hard-hitting Bow-Tie street and strip engine offerings built by John Gianoli. These are serious performance engines, ranging from a 550-horse 383 to a monster 632-inch big-block with 18-degree Brodix heads.Then there's the 620-inch, pump-gas Rat, which features a Merlin block, Lunati rotating assembly, roller cam, Brodix heads and intake, and a King Demon carb. A variety of other packages are available, and all assembled engines are dyno tested. Reggie Jackson's Performance Engines: 1137 San Mateo Ave., Dept. SC, San Bruno, CA 94066; (650) 873-7492.

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Shafiroff 540 Big-Block

Shafiroff Race Engines & Components
Drag racers and performance enthusiasts will probably recognize Scott Shafiroff's name from his many years in racing. That racing experience offers a strong foundation for SSRE's line of small- and big-block crate engines. There are two lines of engines- Sportsman and Pro. The Sportsman series is for racers (and serious street guys) seeking an affordable, reliable engine that will produce a certain amount of power. The Pro series uses stronger internal components for a higher level of power and reliability. Shafiroff uses Dart or Brodix heads, depending on the application. Shafiroff Race Engines: 76A Bell St., Dept. SC, West Babylon, NY 11704; (516) 293-2220.

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Sonny's 555 Big-Block

Sonny's Racing Engines
As the name implies, the 555-inch big-blocks built by Sonny's are designed for the rigors of racing, so you know they're stout. The engines are complete from carb to pan, featuring such goodies as a Lunati crank, JE pistons, a Crane roller cam, and Brodix heads. The hydraulic roller cam version cranks out 700 hp, or you can order the 750-plus-hp version with a solid roller cam. The engines are dyno tested and designed to run on 92-octane gas. Sonny's Racing Engines: 352 Training Center Rd., Dept. SC, Lynchburg, VA 24502; (804) 239-1009.

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Speed-O-Motive 383 Street Master Small-Block

Long known for quality engine kits, Speed-O-Motive now offers several assembled short-blocks, long-blocks, and complete engine packages. Street machine fans are sure to like the 383 Street Master, an affordable, pump-gas, 423-horse stroker engine featuring a big-block-like torque curve and plenty of high-quality components (Comp Cams cam, Sportsman II heads, etc.). There's also an 11:1 compression 383 Sportsman engine (with H-beam rods, JE pistons and Dart heads), a supercharged 383 small-block, plus a couple of 540-inch big-block engine packages. Speed-O-Motive: 12061 Slauson Ave., Dept. SC, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; (562) 945-2758.

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Street & Performnace RamJet 350 with Fast-Burn heads

Street & Performance
Street & Performance pioneered the adaptation of EFI to hot rods, and the company applies its expertise to the crate engines it currently sells. S&P's crate engine line essentially consists of the small- and big-block offerings from GM Performance Parts, but you can have those engines dressed up in polished aluminum accessories and topped off with one of S&P's many electronic fuel injection systems. On top of that, S&P can also supply the wiring harnesses you'll need to install one of these EFI-equipped engines in your Bow-Tie. Street & Performance: #1 Hot Rod Ln., Dept. SC, Mena, AR 71953; (501) 394-5711.

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Wheeler Motorsports 383 Small-Block

Wheeler Motorsports
Stroker small-blocks have become prime powerplants for street machines, and Wheeler Motorsports offers an affordable 383 that might be right for yours. The primary offering is a 415-horse version that also cranks out an impressive 460 ft-lbs of torque. This stroker package utilizes a street-friendly 9.5:1 compression ratio, LT-1 pink rods, Keith Black pistons, Vortec heads, a Comp Cams camshaft, Edelbrock intake, and ARP fasteners. Other combinations (and big-blocks) are also available. Wheeler Motorsports: 4851 Rosselle St., Dept. SC, Jacksonville, FL 32254; (888) 389-4414.

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World Castings Merlin 509 Big-Block

World Castings
The engine masters at World Castings want you to think about who's building your crate engine. Is it assembly-line workers using impact wrenches? Not at World, where there are expert engine builders assembling MoTown 409-inch small-blocks (coming soon) and Merlin 509- and 540-inch big-blocks. The monster Rat engines use new Merlin II blocks, forged cranks, Manley I-beam rods, forged pistons, Crane cams, Merlin heads, and other reputable name-brand components. Merlin 509s are available in 540- and 560hp versions, while the 540s come in 580- and 600-horse configurations. All engines are dyno tested and designed for pump gas. World Castings: 35330 Stanley, Dept. SC, Sterling Heights, MI 48312; (810) 939-9628.

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Crate Questions
Technical problems and questions are inevitable with any performance engine. With that in mind, the folks at GMPP answered some frequently asked questions regarding crate engines. As you'll see, most solutions can be traced back to common oversights that occur when installing a new engine.

Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Why doesn't my carbureted crate engine make the power advertised by GM?A. Any GMPP crate engine shipped with a carburetor is jetted rich. This is done to ensure that no matter where the engine is shipped and no matter what the climate or altitude, there is little chance that the engine will run too lean, which can damage pistons. GMPP suggests that you re-jet the carburetor to tune the engine for your specific climate, altitude, exhaust system, air cleaner, and other variables. Engines typically require one- to three-size smaller jets. And each GMPP crate engine will make its advertised power or more when properly tuned and broken in.

Q. Why doesn't my crate engine make power? I set the timing at 10 degrees.A.Ignition timing is critical to the performance of your crate engine, and when set improperly can result in a significant power reduction. Most GM crate engines have ignition timing specified as "total timing" at some rpm level, for example, 36 degrees of total timing at 3,000 rpm. Many crate engine owners set their timing based on initial timing, using 8, 10, or 12 degrees advance at idle. Then, depending on the distributor used, total timing can be off by as much as 10 degrees or more. It is vital that timing be set at the specified rpm level, and that it be set with any mechanical and/or vacuum advance device in operation.

For good street driveability, your distributor's vacuum advance should be connected to "ported vacuum," which is drawn from a source in the carburetor above the throttle plates. This results in increasing vacuum as the throttle is applied. The function of vacuum advance is to provide timing advance in low-rpm acceleration conditions for smoothness and improved driveability. The alternative, manifold vacuum, is taken from a source below the throttle plates, resulting in decreasing vacuum as the throttle is applied. If your distributor is connected to manifold vacuum, full vacuum advance may be applied at idle. Then, as the throttle is applied, vacuum decreases and timing advance is decreased, causing poor engine performance and acceleration at low speeds.

Think about ignition timing: If your engine starts, your initial timing is fine. Ported vacuum gives the best performance around town. Mechanical advance brings you up to desired total timing for midrange and top-end performance.

Q. My crate engine runs hot. What's wrong?A. Most of the time the cooling system-not the engine-causes a hot-running crate engine. Let's dispel some myths.

Myth: Without a thermostat my engine will run cooler.

Truth: Without a thermostat the coolant moves too quickly through the radiator and doesn't pass the heat into the radiator's cooling fins, possibly overheating the engine.

Myth: Electric fans will cool my street engine; after all, they cool race engines.

Truth: Drag cars only run for minutes at a time, and racers try to heat the engine quickly so it will make good power on the pass. A properly selected and installed electric fan must cover the majority of the radiator and be capable of moving enough air for street use. An improperly selected electric fan with inadequate fan speed can actually block airflow at higher speeds.

Myth: If my mechanical fan is close enough to the radiator, I don't need a shroud.

Truth: There are two reasons why we suggest using a fan shroud with a mechanical fan. First, without a proper shroud, your fan's ability to move air is decreased by half. Secondly, without a shroud your fan will not draw air over the entire surface of the radiator. A proper fan shroud should cover the entire cooling surface of the radiator in order to create a low-pressure area on the entire backside of the radiator. This ensures that air will move across all the cooling fins, maximizing the radiator's efficiency. Additionally, a proper shroud should be no further than an inch away from the tips of the blades, and the fan should sit half-in and half-out of the shroud.

Myth: My engine will make more power with a 160-degree thermostat.

Truth: The hotter you can run your engine without failing parts, the more efficient and powerful it will be. A common misconception is that a cooler thermostat equates to cooling the induction charge, resulting in more power. These two things must not be confused. It's true that cool, dense air coming into the induction system will allow you to burn more fuel and make more power. But, it is also true that your engine is a heat-generating devise. The heat it produces is converted to power by using the rapid expansion of the burning combustion gasses to force the piston down. Of the total heat produced by your engine, the more of it that you can use to force the piston down, the more power you will make. So, isn't all the heat used to move the piston? No, some goes out the exhaust system and some is transferred into the cooling system through the combustion chamber, cylinder walls, oiling system, and other components. So, the hotter the cylinder walls, combustion chambers, and other parts are, the less heat they will absorb in a given amount of time. This means that less heat will be transferred to the cooling system, making it available for the production of power. Additionally, a hotter engine pays dividends in the areas of fuel atomization and friction.

Q. How hot is hot?

A. Most people have been led to believe that 180-190 degrees is ideal, so they start to panic at about 200 degrees. Wrong. If we assume that your cooling system can maintain an operating temperature within about a 30-degree range under most driving conditions, then you should select a thermostat that will keep the operating range in the 190- to 220-degree range. Parts failure on a properly maintained engine should not be a consideration until water temperatures reach 250 degrees or higher.

Q. Is 220 degrees too hot? My car boils over.

A. Your radiator cap is designed to maintain cooling system pressure. This increase of pressure keeps the water/coolant mixture from boiling as the temperature rises above the natural boiling point of water. When the pressure in the system is greater than the cap's designed pop-off pressure, coolant will be released. When this happens, pressure in the system is decreased, allowing the coolant to boil, increasing the pressure, causing the cap to release coolant, lowering the pressure...see a trend here? Whenever a new engine is installed, use a new radiator cap. If your system is boiling over at a temperature within the 190- to 220-degree range, try replacing your radiator cap with a new one or one with a higher-rated pressure.

GMPP recommends that a new radiator, preferably a four-row unit, be installed when installing a new crate engine. If possible, a five- or seven-blade mechanical fan with a clutch should be used with a proper fan shroud. If an electric fan is used, construct a shroud that covers the entire radiator. Select electric fans that move the greatest amount of air and have a high fan speed. The thermostat is then used to "tune" the system, and will determine the operating temperature range for your engine.

Q. How much more power will my crate engine make if I add oil additives? And how much longer will it last?

A.GM has not been able to confirm that any oil additives increase power or durability. A quality engine oil supplement, like GM EOS, is recommended during break-in, but no additives are required after that. If you feel a need to improve your engine's performance or longevity, GMPP recommends synthetic oil. Tests have shown that the film strength of synthetics is superior to dinosaur-based oil, which can help protect your engine in a low oil pressure or severe-duty situation.

Q. My engine uses excessive oil.What's wrong?

A. You must use a proper PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) system. This consists of a PCV valve connected to manifold vacuum and a breather open to the atmosphere. This will evacuate pressure from the crankcase so that oil is not forced by the piston rings. Also, if you change your valve covers, be sure to install covers that use internal oil baffles. Otherwise, the PCV system will draw oil into the intake manifold. Covers that don't have baffles should use a PCV grommet/baffle combination.



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