Listed in chronological order, these are some of the classic car engines that I have rebuilt:
Triumph Bonneville. During my junior year at the University of Michigan in 1969, I started to reassemble and upgrade this 1967 Triumph Bonneville. I paid $800 for it in parts then bought a new frame because the original was cut and welded with extreme rake by a guy at Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant. I worked there on the Monday and Friday afternoon shifts for a year with three more U of M engineering students. We were the quick learners they needed to cover for absent full timers on the Galaxy line. We joined the UAW and Ford paid us $3.85 an hour. Tuition was less than $300 per semester. I married the coed who hand-painted “Triumph” on my custom black tank. We are still married and still live in Ann Arbor.
Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. In 1971 that coed noticed a local job listed in the Ann Arbor News. Commuting to Ford Motor Company’s Pilot Plant in Dearborn, where I was transferred, was dangerous on the bike and could have destroyed my rusting VW convertible because I-94 was full of potholes in Wayne County. I was hired because I used to work on my Triumph TR3 in high school and recently built the Bonneville. It was a mechanical restoration shop called the Enthusiast Garage in Dixboro, Michigan just next door to Ann Arbor. Job #1 for me and another guy was rebuilding Leonard Parker Pool’s Springfield RR Silver Ghost 40/50hp engine and chassis. Wally Donoghue owned the business and supervised us. He used to be a GM engineer because he was probably difficult to manage, also owned an avionics repair shop at Willow Run Airport, whistled Bach fugues incessantly, and he was a Roll Royce and Bentley collector/enthusiast and leading authority on many relevant mechanical subjects.
Cadillac V16. In 1972, Wally assigned me to rebuild the engine in Leonard Pool’s 1930 Cadillac OHV V-16 convertible coupe. He let me take it home for a long weekend to learn it’s behavior. That engine was amazing — just about electric. With three speeds and reverse via a floor shifted gearbox, it was possible (without complaint from that engine) to shift into third while completing a left turn and then leave it there. It was as effortless and comfortable to drive as a small modern RV with an automatic drivetrain. That engine looked like nothing under the hood of a truck or almost any cars. No only was it’s architecture and valve train revolutionary for 1930, Harley Earl, GM’s recently hired chief of styling, actually designed how it looks. He created a hidden sculpture just like Ettore Bugatti always did.
Volkswagen Bug. In the summer of 1972, I had to rebuild my yellow 1968 VW convertible’s 1500cc engine because I cross threaded a spark plug a while ago and suddenly it started to leak compression audibly — bad and embarrassing! Lucky I had my Triumph bike for the short runs to work in Dixboro. I upgraded that boxer motor to 1600cc, swapped in dual port heads, a Holly two-venturi carburetor an external oil cooler and I extended the engine cover hinges to scoop in a lot more air, better suited for a couple of long slogs on I-80 to Wyoming and back. Oh, I also added the most amazing sound system, an exhaust by Abarth. It replaced the much more common, noisy and hot extractor I used to run as pictured in a borrowed photo above.
Rolls Royce V12. In 1972 and 1973, we (the two employees of the Enthusiast Garage) also rebuilt two RR P3 V12s, again supervised by Wally. This design was almost aviation grade mechanics. They share almost everything except displacement with the famous Merlin used in Spitfires and Mustangs with wings. It was my only experience with the added complications presented by fork and blade connecting rods. Then I got fired by Wally for not doing as told, I don’t remember what (his constant whistling of Bach’s Fugues probably had something to do with that) plus I got married that summer and moved to Germany. We thought we would live there a few years but my BS degree wasn’t accepted to study for a master of geology in Cologne, and the American University in Beirut didn’t even have a graduate architecture program for my wife. We were very naive, no internet of course.
Rolls Royce Springfield Ghost. Conveniently, also that summer, Leonard took his Silver Ghost to Europe, in one of the ship’s elevators on the QE2, to the British National Motor Museum Beaulieu. There it garnered the highest honor, 99 points and first place out of nearly 50 Silver Ghosts. One point was deducted for a few squeaky spokes while turning circles for pass and review. I wanted to have those “Buffalo” wheels re-laced but Terry Patton insisted that blasting and painting them was good enough after filling rust pits with primer putty followed by tedious sanding and more priming! But they did hold up. Because from Beaulieu the car competed without fault or maintenance to Vienna, Austria, for the 1973 Grand Alpine Commemorative Rally, traversing 17 mountain passes. I remember spending a lot of time carefully riveting and contouring those asbestos-laced brake linings because they were only fitted to the rear axle (thankfully, my lungs are OK). The long-handled emergency brake activated a third set of shoes in a smaller drum on the driveshaft.
Packards. We returned to the U.S. destitute, but Leonard Pool instigated my transfer to Clark-Patton (because Clark Sr. had moved to Arizona) to continue working on his cars. There I finished Bill Clark’s build of Bobby Cohe’s Packard 734 boat-tail speedster’s I-8 flathead. Then four of us did a beautiful restoration of Leonard’s 1931 840 Packard Victoria convertible by Dietrich. We finished it just months before Leonard suddenly died at the end of 1975.
Duesenberg. My wife and I were taking turns working as the other went to school for our master degrees. In 1975 I helped finish Charles Letts’ Duesenberg Murphy Dual Cowl Phaeton number J175 at Clark Patton. I was responsible for the cylinder head, carburetor and ignition. That was when I got accepted by the Rachham School of Graduate Studies to start in the fall. Sadly, my father also died suddenly that fall which triggered my mother’s decision to move back to Germany later in 1976.
MG-TC. Clark Patton had an abandoned MG-TC project on the premises. I bought it in 1975 and searched for, then bought, it’s original engine. I rebuilt that XPAG engine in the basement workshop of our first house in Ann Arbor in 1979. After thirty years and 10k miles of strong performance, comparable to a healthy 1500 MG-TF, I unfortunately started to notice a little loss of power. There isn’t any to spare. This I traced to reduced lift from a few cam lobes — in spite of running it on Redline synthetic oil. I subsequently learned a valuable trick from Manley Ford, a very successful MG-T racer. When we replaced the camshaft and “flat” tappets, he marked the new tappets with “Whiteout” correcting fluid, then ran the engine without the tappet cover to observe the tappets rotating. We noted those that didn’t rotate and swapped them with ones that rotated fastest. A couple of iterations of this, accomplished by raising the rocker shaft just enough to allow lifting the pushrods out of the way, finally got all the tappets rotating. Oil splash was only a minor problem. This is an obscure little chestnut of valuable knowledge for setting up an XPAG engine with today’s replacement parts and oil. It might well apply to other flat tappet engines. In a technical article on my website, I explain in detail the modern valve overhaul procedure I also had to do after a fast run to Ohio for a vintage race. I had to limp it home for the last 10 miles. The culprit? Carbon fouling! An old disease from the low compression days and Italian tune ups.
Jaguars, Lamborghini, and Ferrarri. Between 2003 and 2008 I participated in the rebuilding of two of my own Jaguar XKE 4.2L engines with Stuart Plant who would visit for 10 week stretches from Devon, England. I also casually participated in the disassembly, inspection and reassembly of a Ferrari 512 boxer engine on Webers and a V12 out of a Countach P400. This work happened in an enthusiast’s parking and storage warehouse we developed in Ypsilanti, Michigan that I christened the “Points and Condenser Preservation Society.”
Alfa Romeo. In 2015 and 2016, I built and tested this 1600 cc Alfa Romeo engine. I purchased it as a collection of parts from an abandoned 1964 Sprint Speciale and other Alfa projects. That white table in the photo was my family’s kitchen table brought from Germany, ca. 1956. In a previous blog is a video recording this engine’s first breath. It’s been a long time since I’ve given birth to an engine I built by myself. It feels good to bring another one back to life. It’s an art that is not practiced much anymore.