Dave Stribling
July 16, 2019
Contributers: Dave Stribling

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).

 

Pre-installation
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.

Distributor/Timing
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.

Run Time
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.

Post Break-in
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).

Conclusion
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.

Helper Justice Cook (Instagram: @justicexcook) guides this 289 down into the engine bay of a 1965 fastback. Stock manifolds and tri-Y headers like these will go in just fine, but full-length headers are usually installed after the engine is in place.
Whether it's a fresh rebuild or crate engine, follow the instructions of the builder to avoid warranty problems.
If you are installing dress-up items, your biggest leak points are where the gaskets change angle, so use a little extra sealant in these areas.
We always install an inexpensive mechanical oil pressure gauge on all rebuilt/first-time engine startups, not trusting the electric gauges, and we can read it out by the engine while it is running.
Most timing marks are on the balancer and are hard to read. A paint pen or white-out pen works to make your timing marks visible. Mark TDC, the initial timing point, and in the case of this 1965 engine, put a mark on the timing boss coming out of the timing cover.
To avoid having the distributor 180 degrees off on startup, place your thumb over the No. 1 cylinder spark plug hole (cold). Crank the engine over by hand and you should feel pressure on your thumb as the engine comes up on TDC. No pressure (or light pressure) and you are on the exhaust stroke.
FE owners: Ford says to re-torque your exhaust manifolds after breaking in the engine. Good luck with that. It's not much fun on other engines either.
Getting to the middle four spark plugs on an FE requires a swivel socket (13/16) and for some of the wires a good spark plug boot tool.
Use a good-quality break-in oil with ZDDP and refined mineral oil for startup. We use ZR1 Racing break-in oil, a synthetic blend 30w. Royal Purple break-in is a conventional 10W-30, and Lucas sells an additive to add to your choice of engine oils. Run this for your break-in period and then switch to your preferred oil.
We recommend you break in your engine with a good-quality Motorcraft filter. Save the high-dollar repo, high performance, and originals for after the break-in.
The most important thing to do in prepping your engine is to prime the oil pump and get oil into the engine passages. Tape around the top of the shaft to prevent the shaft from sliding down into the engine and into the pan.
Mark the inside of the distributor with a piece of tape or a marker to note where the No. 1 spark plug wire resides. This helps when trying to seat the distributor.
If the distributor won't go all the way down, it's because it is not meshing with the oil pump driveshaft. Set the distributor to fall into place at your mark and then rotate the crankshaft, letting the distributor slide into place when the hex socket matches the driveshaft.
On this fully dressed 351W, it is difficult to get a wrench on the distributor hold-down. Invest in the offset distributor wrench shown. They are inexpensive and a lifesaver.
Double-check your distributor vacuum source. Venturi vacuums and manifold vacuums can be easily confused. The vacuum should be plugged off during startup and timing.
You can find the initial timing point by using an extra plug on the No. 1 wire and grounding it to the engine. With the key on, move the distributor housing back and forth to find the plug trigger.
Never pour gas down the carburetor or use starting fluid to fire up an engine. Pour a couple of ounces down the bowl vent of the carburetor to avoid a dry start.
When setting the timing on an engine, you have initial timing (from your shop manual) and total timing. Total timing is the recommended point from your builder of the timing when the car is at around 3,000 rpm and the distributor is fully engaged. Most newer timing lights allow for setting total timing.
Keep your hands off the hoses and radiator and get an inexpensive infrared thermometer. Check both sides of the thermostat for proper operation.
Before startup we found a leak in the water pump of this 351W. The engine builder tore the gasket on the water pump. Check and recheck for leaks before, during, and after engine break-in!

 

Sources:
Dave Stribling Restorations
(765) 362-1967
davestriblingrestorations.com

JR1 Racing Oil
(765) 483-9371
jr1racingoil.com

K&N Filters
(800) 858-3333
knfilters.com

Lucas Oil Products
(800) 342-2512
lucasoil.com

Royal Purple Oil
(888) 382-6300
royalpurple.com

 

Photography by Dave Stribling