What to Look for When Buying Used Engine Parts

Used engine parts can be a great deal, if you know what you are looking for. They can also kill your engine. Here’s what to look for in used engine parts. Most of the places that you’d go engine parts hunting are swap meets. Bring a cheat sheet of engine codes and casting numbers with you, or you might end up with a completely different part than you need.

  • Intake Manifolds: Most factory performance air intakes are fairly easy to identify because there is a casting number and date code on them. Cast iron intakes are virtually indestructible, but are fairly heavy. Aluminum intakes offer better performance, but are more susceptible to problems. Look at the thermostat’s counterbore, as it is common for that area to get rusted and corroded on aluminum intakes only. If it’s not too badly eaten away, any good machinist can repair it. If it’s badly eaten away, look for another one. If you really want it, however, the bad area can be cut out, and a new piece can be welded on and machined to the original shape. It’s common to see other problems, and if it looks like it’s been modified, make sure that it was done well!
  • Pistons: Careful with these. Most new pistons are relatively inexpensive, but you can score a good deal on them at a swap meet if you know what you’re looking for. If there’s a full set of them and they’re still in the box, you’ve got a great deal. Get them if they fit your car. If they are used, be sure to clean off all of the carbon deposits from the tops and inspect them thoroughly. Also, check for ring lands and grooves on them – this means that something was wrong with the engine that they came out of, and that they are damaged. DON’T buy those! If they don’t fit your engine, they make great pencil or screw holders.
  • Connecting Rods: Used connecting rods are very difficult to evaluate without the proper equipment. Yes, it’s easy to bead-blast and hone an old pair, but you need to take them to a good machinist to make sure that they are good to put into your engine.
  • Camshafts: If it’s unused, in it’s original box, and has full documentation from day one, you can definitely consider it. When buying used camshafts, it’s very difficult to tell whether it’s a stock, weak camshaft or a high-performance camshaft. Plus, modern camshaft technology has advanced so much in the past 50 years that it’s worth it to just buy a brand-new camshaft. It’ll be easier to get one that’s essentially tailored for your driving style.
  • Exhaust Manifolds and Headers: Exhaust manifolds are sturdy parts, but can be abused and broken. It’s not uncommon to find a broken stud in an exhaust manifold. Luckily, they are fairly easy to remove. Used headers can be a great deal or a massive head ache. Ask the seller what they fit, rather than, “will they fit on my Challenger?” Check the welds and flanges on the headers – if the flanges are warped, they will not seal against the head, resulting in exhaust leaks. You don’t want to be like Freiburger and Finnegan from Roadkill. Also inspect headers for dents and scratches that could have come from bottoming out or from hammering them into place.
  • Carburetors: Have a carburetor cheat sheet on hand when you go looking for carbs. You can determine it’s original application and CFM rating. The overall appearance of a carburetor is a good indicator of it’s health. Rebuild kits are available for nearly every carburetor under the sun, so it makes it a good deal less risky to buy a used carburetor.
These are aluminum intakes for Chevy big-block V-8s.
These are aluminum intakes for Chevy big-block V-8s.
People will try to sell you pistons in conditions far worse than this. They don't even make good pencil holders!
People will try to sell you pistons in conditions far worse than this. They don’t even make good pencil holders!
These are brand-new connecting rods for a Chevy small-block V-8. You can luck out if you know what you are looking for at a swap meet.
These are brand-new connecting rods for a Chevy small-block V-8. You can luck out if you know what you are looking for at a swap meet.
This guy lucked out and found a camshaft for his Dodge pickup with the Cummins diesel engine at the Pomona swap meet.
This guy lucked out and found a camshaft for his Dodge pickup with the Cummins diesel engine at the Pomona swap meet.
This is what you'll see when you go in search of headers at a swap meet.
This is what you’ll see when you go in search of headers at a swap meet.
This is the sight you'll see when you go to a swap meet to find carburetors.
This is the sight you’ll see when you go to a swap meet to find carburetors.

What to Look for in Collector Cars Part 1

Collector cars are often daily drivers for years that were driven into the ground – literally.  They were often parked for a reason (i.e. the transmission, engine, or something major went out and the owner never got around to fixing it) in a garage or barn, and then never restored to their former glory.  They are sometimes cars that somebody bought to fix up and enjoy, but never was.  Collector cars were once the pride and joy of somebody else, so when you go to buy the car, don’t make jokes about the car or tell stupid stories about a similar car that you once owned.  It’s just a bad idea.  Here’s a quick list of what to look for, should you decide to buy one.

  • Small Animals:  Small animals, remnants of them, or their excrement are not uncommon in collector cars.  Most of the time, the cars were parked in a barn or a garage and not touched for many years.  In barns, rats, mice, and the like often make nests in the engine bay, trunk, or interior.  This is a big, smelly pain to get rid of.  However, don’t be afraid to tackle getting rid of the poop.  All you need is protective eye and mouth wear, a good shop vacuum, and a good few hours or so.  These small critters will often have gnawed their way through the firewall, into the interior, eaten up the seat cushions, and made nests in their.  Don’t worry.  Most of these collector cars are going to need a new interior anyways.  I’ll talk about interiors later.
  • Rust:  Lots of classic cars rust.  It’s a sad fact, but it’s the unavoidable truth.  Even concours-worthy cars have had rust at some point in their life.  Really, don’t be daunted by rust.  There are so many NOS (not original stock), OEM (original equipment manufacturer), and reproduction parts around that you don’t need to look far for new body panels, floorboards, etc.  I’ll do another post on where to find reproduction body panels and parts soon – there are too many to list in a relatively short post like this!
  • Seized Engines:  Most collector cars that were daily drivers were often parked for a reason.  It could be that the engine went boom, the transmission went bang, or something else major.  With a seized engine, don’t worry.  If something, say a piston, went through the valve cover due to a blown crankshaft or connecting rod, you might want to look into getting a modern crate engine.  If the engine had something smaller, like a bad timing chain, any gearhead who has a good repair manual, a couple of friends, some beer, a full tool set, and a replacement part can do that fix in a couple of days.  Do something fun like invite your buddies over for a bratwurst party, or something else fun, and then go out to the garage/workshop/man cave and fix the car.  You’ve probably read a story or three about how a guy invited a couple of friends over to his house to replace a transmission and ended up restoring the car in his garage with his buddies.  Be one of those people.  It gives you creds in the car world, and it’s fun to hang out and work on something that was built to be enjoyed.
  • Failed Transmissions:  Sometimes transmissions fail.  It’s an albeit expensive part of life, but it happens.  Most of the time, it’s better to get a new transmission in a classic car unless it was a custom-built transmission for an old race car or something like that.  Gearstar transmissions (gearstar.net) offers overdrive-equipped transmissions that come in a crate ready to be bolted in.  If you want to add an overdrive to a stock transmission, check out Gear Vendors Overdrives (gearvendors.com).  These transmissions and transmission parts will last you a long time, increase the reliability and efficiency of your pride and joy, and make it more fun to drive.
  • Body Damage:  Don’t worry about body damage.   You can easily find a new replacement body part online (again, I will do a blog post on where to find new body parts) or at a swap meet.  If it’s something simple like a ding, it might be worth it to take it to a body shop and let them fix it for a couple of days.  Or, you can find out how to do it online.  The internet is a great place to go for advice.  Just don’t rely on it for everything.
  • Brakes:  Braking systems wear out over time.  It’s scary and bad when brakes go bad.  Don’t fret.  Classic cars often come with drum brakes, which don’t really stop a car that well.  Most classic cars have manual brakes.  If you want more comfort and driveability in your car, consider going with power brakes.  Master cylinders should be rebuilt, replaced, or fixed if needed.  If a car has been sitting for a long time, think about cleaning out the master cylinder and testing it before you drive the car.  It is worth it to buy a brake bleeder kit.  Should you decide to go for bigger, better brakes in a restomod or pro-touring car, or just want better performance, Wilwood Brakes (wilwood.com) is one of the best in the business.
  • Suspension:  Lots of old cars aren’t exactly known for their handling.  If you have an old muscle car and live in an area where there are a lot of curves, think about getting Koni adjustable shocks (koni-na.com) or Hotchkis Suspension (hotchkis.net).  These suspension systems will greatly improve your car’s performance and driveability, and will make it even more enjoyable for you to drive.  With the Koni shocks, you can adjust the shocks to your liking with a screwdriver!
  • Exhaust:  The exhaust system in a car can fail quite easily.  It can get holes in it, the muffler could have gotten dented beyond repair, and the exhaust pipes could have a leak.  Exhaust leaks can be deadly.  Exhaust from cars contains large amounts of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and many other bad gasses.  Don’t ever hesitate to replace them!  If you have something that needs to be smogged, consider going for a Flowmaster Muffler (flowmastermufflers.com).  It gives a great sound while helping keep your baby on the road.  If you do need to smog it, always tune up the engine before taking it in.  It will be much less of a headache.  If you don’t know what Flowmasters sound like, look them up on YouTube.  They sound far better than stock while looking stock.
  • Wheels:  Wheels take a lot of abuse.  Most of you have probably accidentally scraped the curb with them or gotten them scratched somehow.  Don’t worry – I have too!  There are so many aftermarket wheel manufacturers that they are a 3-piece blog post – at least!  Go for a reputable name!  Cragar Wheels (cragarwheel.com) is a leading manufacturer in wheels.  They are well-known, look great on old muscle cars, and you can find really cool old ones for sale too!
  • Tires:  Think about it.  The only thing keeping your car attached to the road is about four square inches at four corners of the car.  That’s not a lot.  Get good tires.  Don’t get bias-ply tires unless your car is a trailer queen that is only driven to it’s place at the lawn on Pebble Beach.  Coker Tires (cokertire.com) offers vintage-looking radial tires for not too much money, and last a long time.  If your car is built for the drag strip, Firestone makes vintage-looking “cheater slicks,” as well as Mickey Thompson and Goodyear.  All of these tires are good drag slicks, and most are street-legal!  Get good tires that won’t go bald quickly!

I think that’s enough for you to digest right now, so I’ll leave the rest for another time.