With new cars costing a small fortune — average sales/transaction prices are now above $20,000 for the typical midsize family sedan, according to AAA — keeping an older car running for as long as possible gets more and more attractive.
It’s even more true today, since the cars of the recent past are so well built.
It’s not uncommon to get 150,000 miles out of a car these days — and the body will last almost forever, thanks to the superb corrosion protection methods adopted by most automakers.
But when the engine begins to smoke badly or just plain dies, does it make sense to replace it with a new one? Sometimes, but you should be aware that a new engine tied to old accessories and a worn transmission does not mean you’ve got a car that’s "as good as new."
Complications of surgery
An engine swap is much more complicated than simply pulling the old mill and dropping in a fresh one. If your old engine had 150,000 miles, then your power steering, air conditioner, radiator, charging system, starter, transmission and other parts have racked up that many miles, too. Odds are they all need to be replaced as well.
For example, it’s not a good idea to bolt a new engine to a worn transmission. The added strain will likely cause it to fail in short order.
Likewise the other accessories, assuming they too are high-mileage items.
Unless you replace or rebuild the "engine infrastructure," there’s no guarantee you won’t be facing constant repair bills — notwithstanding your "new" engine. In fact, the odds are pretty good that's exactly what will happen.
Therefore, you should always factor in the cost of repairing and replacing these engine-related components to the costs of rebuilding or replacing the engine itself — plus the cost of installation. Typically, the final tab to have the transmission and accessories brought up to "like new" condition will be equal to or greater than the cost of the new engine itself.
For example, a rebuilt Chevy 305 or 350 V-8 will sell for about $800-$1000, less installation. A new/rebuilt automatic transmission will set you back another $500-$800 (again, less installation). The cost to replace the power steering pump, alternator and water pump will be in the neighborhood of $300 (parts and labor).
Then you need to factor in such "incidentals" as the rubber mounts that hold the engine in place, new radiator hoses and fan belts, the fuel system (carburetor, fuel injectors, etc.). All of these will add another few bills to the tab. With labor, a proper drivetrain rebopp that includes all the above will run you about $3000, give or take – and sometimes much, much more.
Good as new?
On the other hand, if you have a car with an excellent, rust-free body and a suspension/brake system that have been recently rebuilt, ponying up that kind of dough can make a lot of sense — because you will have a car that is mechanically "new" for a fraction of the cost of a showroom model.
What makes this option especially enticing is that most of the popular engines for GM, Ford and now even Chrysler cars are readily available in "long-block" form (that is, a fully assembled, brand-new — not rebuilt — engine with cylinder heads installed) directly from the automakers themselves. They come with excellent warranties and are a much safer bet, usually, than the rebuilds you can buy at auto parts stores.
Chevrolet, for example, offers a line of replacement engines ranging from "stock" four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines built during the last 20 years all the way up to high performance (for "off-road use only") 454 big block V-8s.
Dodge dealers will sell you complete replacement motors for everything from the 1970 426 Hemi ‘Cuda to latter-day Neons. There's a whole line of "Magnum" 360 V-8s there for the asking. Same thing at Ford, which sells fully assembled 4.6-liter, 5.0-liter and 5.4-liter V-8s "over the counter" to anyone who wants one.
These engines typically sell for between $1000 (stock replacement) to upwards of $4500 (for the high performance V-8s). Installation, natch, is extra.
There are, of course, other sources for engines — but you should be extremely careful about buying a "budget" rebuild from a mail order catalog or the corner gas n' go. Though the cheap purchase price may be attractive, it won’t be so much fun when the motor fails after just 30,000 miles (or less).
Then there’s the junkyard — where you can find late model wrecks with perfectly good engines available for just a few hundred bucks in some cases.
But only those who really know their way around should try this approach. The novice is sure to get burned. If you don't know how to test compression or recognize the sound of bad rod bearings, it's best to forget about this idea.
But done with forethought to the right car, an engine swap can revitalize a machine otherwise headed for the crusher. And that can save you a whole lot of green.