Ever dropped an engine? Into a car, that is. I have, many times, back in the 1960s.
My first engine install was when I was 18 years old. Dad had been an airplane mechanic, and he was a very competent car mechanic. So I grew up with a wrench in my hand. I’d bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop on the cheap, then wrecked it. Went off the road in the early morning hours, through a fence, then end-over-end into a farmer’s field. Flattened the top almost down to the dash. My buddy and I were miraculously not injured, so we walked back to the road where there was a county sheriff waiting for us. He had some questions. Times being what they were, he told us to hop in and then gave us a ride home. “Too bad you wrecked your car, but come by tomorrow and get it out of the field. And get hold of the farmer to see about fixing his fence.”
This is almost exactly the same 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop – even the same colors.
Next day, I got the Chevy home. It was totaled, but the iconic small-block 283 V8 was just fine. Word got out that I was looking for a car to put that engine in, and within days a friend towed over a ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a blown 265 small-block V8 engine. Perfect swap.
I got hold of a couple friends and we pushed the cars under a big oak tree, attached a block and tackle to the engine in the ’55, and started loosening bolts and tearing it out. Took half a day. The shade tree mechanics spent the rest of the day pulling the good 283 from the ’57.
Now came the interesting part – dropping the ’57 engine into the ’55. In our haste to get me back on the road again, we hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what parts went where. It all seemed so straight-forward as we worked away, banging our knuckles into bare metal, mixing blood with engine grease, and ripping everything apart. Piles of parts everywhere. Now we had to put it all back together.
I was not about to learn that dropping an engine into an engine bay was a lot trickier than taking one out. We hoisted the engine and transmission on the block and tackle until it was dangling in mid air, then pushed the ’55 under it. As we started to drop the engine in, we narrowly missed dropping it right through the windshield!
We finally got it in, secured the motor and transmission mounts, and then got to work installing the parts that would make it a whole car. Connected the exhaust headers that had come with the ’55, and started on the drive shaft, wiring, gas line, radiator and cooling, and linkages – including the Hurst floor shifter.
Soon it was back together, and I was ready to turn the key and go for a spin.
It wouldn’t start. It was turning over just fine, but it was just backfiring, which brought my next door neighbor over because it sounded like gunfire. He was a veteran hot-rodder, so I immediately enlisted his expertise to find out why this pig would not grunt. He couldn’t see anything. Then he asked “the question”: did you take out the distributor and reinstall it? Well, we had because when we were dropping the engine in, we’d mashed the distributor against the firewall and had to replace it with the spare distributor from the other engine. He just smiled.
“Are you sure you got the distributor camshaft gear in exactly the right position?”
I thought we had, but there was an excellent chance we hadn’t. So I pulled the distributor out and reinstalled it one notch over. Pumped the gas, hit the key and it fired right up, sounding very sweet through those cherry bomb dual exhausts.
I was back on the road. The ’55 was a mean looking car. It had dark grey primered paint, no front bumper, and the front end was jacked up to give it the drag car look. It sounded like a dragster, and it went like hell. I drove it back and forth to college for about a half a year. Never got a ticket.
Took a little searching, but here is a photo that comes very close to my ’55 Chevy two-door hardtop. Primered paint, no bumper, mags on the front but not the rear. Ruff, ready, and willin’! See trailer at the end for a clip of “Two-Land Blacktop.”
The end came on a back road on the way home from school one afternoon. I was doing about 85 mph when there was a loud bang, the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, and the exhaust turned to black smoke that appeared to mixed with some kind of particles.
I’d blown the engine.
I didn’t have time to swap in another engine, so I sold it cheap to a hot-rodder buddy. He took the engine apart and told me the inside was just a mangled mass of rod bearings and parts of pistons. He dropped in a 327 Corvette engine and raced it at the local drag strip.
I replaced it with a ’58 Chevy two-door hardtop – pretty blue with that venerable 283 V8. Floor shifter, headers and very mellow sounding dual exhausts. It needed a clutch, so I picked it up cheap and installed a clutch in my back yard, scooting around on my back in the dirt.
Here’s an image of the same model ’58 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop as the one I owned, except that the car was solid blue, not two-tone.
Over the next several years, I did a couple more engine swaps. Dropped a 327 into my ’65 Impala Super Sport, swapped a Mercedes OHC six cylinder into my ’62 Mercedes 220S, put a junk yard engine in a ’73 Pinto (why bother, one might ask), and even swapped a English Ford engine into a cute little ’58 English Ford Squire station wagon.
Here’s a couple minutes of one of my all-time favorite films: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” starring songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, actor/director Warren Oates and Laurie Bird. And – a primered out ’55 Chevy!