When installing a fresh engine or engine/transmission combo, there can be any number of situations where anything that can go wrong does go wrong. (Mr. Murphy has entered the room.) 11:00 PM Saturday night is no time to discover your engine hoist doesn’t lift high enough to get an engine/transmission package into your car. It’s also not exactly the right time to discover your lift chains are too short.
And that’s just the beginning. For me at least, it’s never enjoyable having 900 pounds of expensive engine and transmission dangling seven feet in the air over pristine sheetmetal. I want to get it cleanly into place before something bad happens. I’m sure many agree.
There are a good number of things to consider before dropping an engine into place or, if the transmission is attached, “stabbing” the combination into place. The height of the car is one thing. You’ll need clearance between the A-arms and the cherry picker to allow the works to roll cleanly under the car. If there is a transmission attached, you’ll almost always need to raise the car to allow for the length of the transmission as it’s angled into place. There’s also the need to move or remove critical components to allow for their preservation, to allow for clearance and to protect the car itself.
What follows are eight tips to make life easier during the engine install (or removal) process.
8 Essential Engine Install & Removal Tips
1. Lift Height & Lift Orientation
Before you even begin, consider the height you’ll need to lift the engine, or even more difficult, the engine and transmission (installed together). Most engine hoists offer a choice of boom lengths. The one shown in the photos here ranges from two tons (really short and not useful for installs in a car) all the way out to a half-ton (really a long reach). In my experience you’ll need the long reach to get everything in place.
1,000 pounds (half a ton) is sufficient for most passenger car gasoline engine and transmission combinations. But there’s a caveat: The longer the boom is extended, the more difficult it is to manage the cherry picker. I always ensure the engine or engine and transmission on the hoist combo is aligned with the centerline of the car. It’s also a good idea to get the hoist caster wheels all on one page—aligned in the direction of travel (back toward the car). Otherwise, the heavily loaded cherry picker will prove difficult to steer. Don’t attempt to jerk the loaded hoist sideways to straighten it out. This can cause the whole works (cherry picker, engine, and transmission) to collapse to one side. Not good.
Orientation is another issue. Some cars have a really long snout. Some Corvettes or even other more pedestrian cars like GM G-bodies have snouts sufficiently long to foul your rearward travel with certain cherry picker configurations (those that don’t have sufficient boom length). With this situation, it’s often easier to slip the engine (alone) into place sideways (passenger fender or driver fender orientation). You’ll likely have to remove one or both front wheels and support the car with axle stands to allow for clearance.
2. Engine Hoist Legs to Lower A-Arm Clearance
This is pretty common. Many engine hoists won’t clear the lower A-arms as you roll the combination into place. This is especially critical on lowered cars and/or those with short diameter front tire. It’s a good idea to test-fit an unloaded cherry picker under the car in question to ensure there’s room. I typically use a chunk of scrap lumber under each from tire to raise the car slightly. Sometimes 3/8 inch is all you’ll need. Keep in mind as the engine is lowered in place, the chassis will sag, but that won’t have much of an effect upon the lower A-arm.
3. Vehicle Height
If you’re installing an engine and transmission together, you’ll need extra room (height) to allow for the length of the transmission as you’re “stabbing” it into place. It’s common to raise either the front of the car or raise the entire car (on axle stands or ramps) to get the job done. Fair enough, but this also tends to make the lift more difficult at the nose of the car. Obviously, the engine will have to be raised more in order to get it into place. Sometimes you’ll run out of lift height at the cherry picker. Plus the added height makes the whole process less manageable). There’s a better way: Simply raise the back end of the car (only). This provides for sufficient room to clear a long transmission, and it also gives you a better angle of attack at the front. When I do this, I still maintain the short sections of scrap lumber under the front tires. The cherry picker still needs clearance to roll under the A-arms.
Once everything is close to being right for the install (engine in the compartment with angles more or less correct, but not on the mounts), it might be easier to drop the back of the car down to ride height. Then you can actually keep the engine hoist in one spot and roll the car back and forth to align the mounts. This works especially well if the cherry picker boom is loaded and the boom is long way out and or if the ground is uneven and you’re having trouble inching the loaded hoist back and forth. I resort to this often, especially during engine removal. The reason is, I regularly do this alone, and the car usually pushes (or pulls) easily—a lot easier than the loaded engine hoist.
5. Shorten Everything Up
When I was installing the BBC/Turbo 400 in my Nova as seen in the pics, I was positive there was sufficient room for the crank pulley to clear the top of the radiator support as it was angled into place. Turns out, I was positively wrong.
Moral of the story is, keep everything as short coupled as possible. You’ll note in the photos, the distributor is out and the carb is off. This makes it easier to fit into place. In some situations, you’ll also be better off removing the valve covers. They can interfere with a wiper motor or brake booster.
6. Tie Up Loose Ends
It’s a really smart idea to get everything out of the way that can get in the way. This usually includes starter wiring, ground straps, throttle linkage, wire harnesses, transmission shifter cable, and so on. These wayward pieces regularly seem to snag at the worst possible time. You don’t have to get fancy wrapping these pieces up. I usually tape them with ordinary masking tape.
7. Extra Protection
It’s a really (really!) good idea to cover up the firewall, radiator support and fenders during an engine install. I usually extend the cover up over the windshield too. It’s not going to stop a transmission tail shaft from piercing the windshield (don’t laugh, other folks have been here before), but for a light glancing blow, it might prevent damage. Several old moving blankets along with conventional fender covers are perfect for the job. I regularly tape the pieces up so that the chance of snagging a blanket is minimized.
8. Engine Levelers Are Your Best Friend
We’ve discussed engine load levelers (tilting devices) in an earlier article—these are great products that allow you to install or remove an engine single handed. A quality leveling tool will not only make the job easier, it will also save time and most important, take a bunch of the drama out of the install. These tools aren’t hugely expensive and even if you don’t yank and replace engines on a regular basis, they’re still worth the price of admission. Just be sure to lubricate the threads on the leveler, and keep them lubed as you’re using the tool.
As it turns out there are a number of steps you can take to make engine installs (and removals) a whole bunch easier.