Mustang MonthlyHow To Engine
Starting an Engine for the First Time
The First Start
So, you just got back from the engine rebuilder, or perhaps that fresh crate engine just landed in your driveway. You have a lot of cash invested in your car's engine, so how do you make sure you don't scatter it all over the garage floor on the first attempt to start it? Here are some tips on keeping everything in place while firing up your newly built friend.
Disclaimer: Everything here is to be considered parallel advice to your engine builder or crate engine builder's recommendations. Always follow their instructions first. If you do as they tell you and you have a problem, you will hopefully fare better when it comes to warranty issues. We also assume that your engine builder is competent and didn't do anything wrong on assembly (and boy, have we seen some doozies).
Installing dress-up items: Intake manifolds, valve covers, and oil pans are leak points. Use extra sealer where gasket surfaces are changing angles.
FE Engines: Experienced FE engine owners will tell you, there just isn't room to get to the spark plugs and exhaust manifold bolts with the engine in the bay. Re-torquing the manifolds is nearly impossible and the spark plugs are very difficult to access.
Oil selection: Use a break-in oil that has refined mineral oil and Zinc Dialkyldithiophosphates (ZDDP). The mineral spirits help with the break-in (especially with flat-tappet camshafts). ZDDP is an anti-wear additive that helps seat new metal components. Don't use diesel oils that have zinc in them—they aren't formulated for break-in procedure. Don't use break-in oil with a catalytic converter, as it can damage the converter.
Mechanical oil pressure gauge: An inexpensive mechanical-style oil pressure gauge eliminates the electric gauge in the dash as the problem if you are not reading oil pressure. When the engine first fires you will be out by the engine, and you can see right away if the engine is making pressure.
Timing marks: The timing marks are almost always on the harmonic balancer and hard to read. Use a paint marker or some correcting fluid to mark both top dead center (TDC) and your recommended initial timing mark.
Finding TDC/initial timing: If you have the valve covers off, set the position on the crank where both valves are closed at TDC on the No. 1 cylinder. If you have the covers on, place your thumb over the No. 1 spark plug hole and rotate the engine. If you feel pressure on your thumb, you are on the compression stroke, if not you are on the exhaust stroke. Set the balancer to your initial timing mark.
Prime the oil pump: An oil pump primer is inexpensive, and some parts stores have them as part of their loan-a-tool programs. Run the pump long enough to fill the oil filter and get to the entire engine—usually a couple of minutes will do.
Setting the distributor: Use a piece of tape or a marker to mark the position of the cylinder No. 1 plug wire while you have the cap off. This will help to set the distributor to mesh with the camshaft and help you get the vacuum advance pointing straight forward and not at an extreme left or right position.
The oil pump driveshaft rarely matches up with the position of the distributor gear. Find the gear mesh that will allow you to set the distributor to your timing mark (the distributor will move with the curve of the gears). Rotate the engine at the crankshaft to bring the distributor hex in alignment with the oil pump driveshaft, and the driveshaft will fall into place.
To set the distributor to the initial timing, remove the spark plug wire from the No. 1 cylinder. Using an extra plug, ground the plug so it can fire (insulate yourself from the plug!). With the balancer set to your timing mark, turn the key to "On" but not "Start." Move the distributor body back and forth to trigger the spark plug. The point where the plug triggers is your initial timing mark. You can pull the distributor if needed and move the position a tooth or two to get the vacuum advance pointing forward.
Carburetor/fuel: There are two things you should never do when starting an engine. Never use starting fluid and never pour raw fluid down the venturis of the carburetor. With carburetors and mechanical fuel pumps, it takes a large number of cranks to get fuel to the fuel pump and into the carburetor bowls, and cranking is bad for the engine. Fox Mustang fuel injection has a Schrader valve that can be helpful in releasing air without cranking the engine. Starting fluid contains ether, which acts like a solvent and can wipe the oils out of your already vulnerable cylinder walls. Raw fuel can wash down the cylinders and cause serious damage.
If you are running a carburetor, you can prime it by pouring a couple of ounces of fuel down the vent tube of the front and rear bowls. This will assure the engine is getting a spray of gasoline instead of pouring it down the venturi.
For most Ford carburetors, the idle mixture screw initial setting is 1 turns out from lightly seating the screws. For some aftermarket carburetors, this setting can be 2 full turns.
Prep to Fire
Get some helpers: Ideally, have three people to fire an engine if possible. One on transmission duty, one to crank the engine, and one on the throttle/oil pressure gauge—all three checking for leaks once the engine is fired.
Transmission fill: If you have a rebuilt automatic transmission, you won't be able to get all the fluid in the transmission until it starts to turn and pump fluid through the system. Have a helper start checking and filling with fluid once the engine is running.
Coolant: If you are not using a pre-mix, use only distilled water with your antifreeze to eliminate mineral and rust buildup.
Avoid excessive cranking: If you followed all the steps cited, the engine should come up and only need minor tweaking to begin break-in. If it requires excessive cranking, something else is wrong (fuel/air/spark).
Infrared thermometer: Use an infrared thermometer to check for the thermostat to open. Don't grab the upper radiator hose or touch the radiator to see if it's hot.
Re-torque the exhaust manifolds: Good luck FE owners.
Check for leaks: Some won't show up until the next day.
Change the oil: Necessary after 500 miles.
Timing and tuning: Recheck your timing marks and reset your choke and idle mixture (carburetor).
Remember, priming the oil pump is key, and by following a few quick tips, you can reduce the potential problems that can occur with a new engine.
Dave Stribling Restorations
JR1 Racing Oil
Lucas Oil Products
Royal Purple Oil
Photography by Dave Stribling