The Engine Rebuild: A Christmas Story

With the late arrival of our engine parts, any hope of having the engine rebuilt by the end of the day was not going to happen. But, we at least made a start. That morning we had been to the shop and got all of the tools we needed which we didn’t have, we didn’t want to have any more delays trying to borrow equipment. The first thing was to refit the pistons, after honing the block with our newly purchased tool.

The gasket set we had received left a lot to be desired, quite a few of the gaskets were not for this engine, although fortunately the head gaskets were correct. There was also no new circlips with the pistons, and we appeared to have mislaid one as I assumed we would have new ones. Lee went back to the engine shop, where we had been only a matter of days ago when we had been able to find a valve seat washer (this later turned up lodged in the cylinder head). By the time he had returned with a selection of circlips, I was waiting, pistons all installed. A good start. 

The light was now failing, and we decided to take the cylinder heads into the apartment and rebuild them there. Then in the morning, we could torque the heads fit the clutch and we were in business. I hoped to have the engine in the next day, test drive Wednesday and then leave Thursday, Christmas Eve. 

The cylinder heads were a little less smooth. I think I was tired and rushing things at this point as I managed to install the first load of valves without seals and then put on the wrong ones. Fortunately, I realised all my stupid mistakes before it was too late. Making the job a bit longer than necessary, especially after fiddling around with a spring compressor which wasn’t really the right type for this engine. Still, by around 9pm we had the heads back together, correctly. The torque settings ready and loaded for the next day. We left it there until morning, picking at a weird selection of what was in the fridge for dinner. It didn’t matter, the mood in the room had changed, a cautious optimism hung in the air. 

The following day, Lee was on a mission. The rocker cover seals provided were a) for another engine and b) missing the spark plug seals. I was not impressed but there wasn’t much we could do now. We still had the original seals on one side but not the others. This is the problem with rebuilding an engine on the floor under a tree and leaving it there for three weeks. This were dirty and misplaced. A lesson I have now learnt is to keep everything until receiving the new parts, don’t assume anything. So, Lee set out to try and find some seals, while I went about torquing the cylinder heads. 

I hadn’t bothered buying new head bolts, as the engine spec had said they were reusable so I was little uneasy by the big yellow labels on the head gaskets telling me to use new bolts. Still, can’t do anything about it now… I cleaned everything, fitted the new gaskets and began the ridiculous torque sequence. For those that don’t know, when fitting cylinder heads it is necessary to following a specific pattern and tightening sequence, this ensures that the heads do not distort causing the gasket to fail. Normally, this is around 3-4 stages, but our engine had 8 separate steps per bolt. This was all going fine, until I got to the last stage on the last bolts and realised that they were barely hand tight. The centres were torqued down, but the outer bolts were loose. That’s not good. You can’t undo it though as the gasket has already been squashed, after that point it’s not reusable. The torque sequence is also not a torque setting, but an angle so it is not a case of simply tightening the bolts with a torque wrench. I have never had a problem like that before, and after having a miniature breakdown, I made a calculated guess at the correct torque for the two offending bolts. Who knows if that would hold?

The next side I approached a little differently, and I was a little happier with the how it went back on. It still hadn’t been a smooth process, and as an incredibly important part I hoped it would be ok and we wouldn’t be changing head gaskets again in a week or, more accurately, waiting for new ones. 

Lee returned from his mission with no luck, it looked like a lot of gasket seal would be happening instead. Still, at this point we had the heads on and the clutch. The block was back together and ready to go in. We asked Gerado for the axle stands but it turns out that he had returned them to his dad. This meant we had Jaro’s jack to hold up the back of the car, it’s not hydraulic so it can’t fail in that way, but it is not the most stable with it’s tiny little base and we had no stands to make it properly safe. Ruby wobbled ominously, and we debated calling the whole thing off. Can’t celebrate Christmas if you’ve been crushed by your camper.

We still had the trolley jack, but this has an internal leak and therefore constantly sunk. There was also just the two of us, last time we put in an engine with only a jack we had five people. The only advantage now, was that with the sump off the engine was lower and more stable to balance on the jack. More stable, is not the same as stable however.

Getting filthy as per usual

To summarise the next few hours, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the engine and clutch together. The back of the van wobbled precariously in the air, while the trolley jack constantly sank, threatening to damage either the clutch or gearbox as we tried to line them up. We nearly dropped the engine several times it was a very difficult job. In the end we suspended it from ratchet straps and used these to help take the weight, we were both not happy about safety at this point. I’m not someone who is overly cautious about health and safety, happily chopping up sheet metal in my flip flops with the grinder, welding gloves definitely considered optional, but this wasn’t good. We were both incredibly relieved when with a big wiggle, the engine finally aligned with the clutch. We quickly got the bolts in and the engine mount in place. That was the difficult bit done and we could now do the rest without worrying that the camper or the engine was about to crush us. 

The orange ratchet strap holds up the entire engine, while we kick it into place…

We continued to refit hoses and components, until it got dark and we needed to buy more things to complete the job. Very dirty and tired, but not overly unhappy, we called it a night. 

The following morning should have been a relatively simple matter, until I realised that I didn’t torque the clutch pressure plate bolts. The good things is you don’t need to remove the engine, it’s possible with a butchered Allen key, in-situ. But, we did need to remove the engine mount to get access to them. This ensued a lot of faffing around, but eventually we did it. We had got bought new oil, coolant and clips that morning so now nothing stood between us and finishing it off. It was around mid-afternoon by the time we were ready. 

I never like that first turn of the key after an engine rebuild, so much rides on the first few seconds. I watched from the back, dreading it, while Lee turned the key. Ruby turned over a few times and coughed into life. My god, she was loud, but she was running. This means straight away that a lot of things have gone right. The loud noise can be attributed to a lot of new metal surfaces experiencing friction for the first time. Clouds of smoke billowed out of the exhaust, unsurprising as it was pretty much impossible to clean the oil out of the silencers from before. Hopefully that would burn off soon. 

We spent a bit of time trying to bleed the cooling system, it wasn’t quite as co-operative as before. We turned the engine off to let it cool and bleed itself a few times as it’s started to overheat, struggling to push vast quantities of air out of the radiator. After a few attempts, we had a stable engine temperature, which left us with no option but to test drive it. It was very odd to sit back in the front and actually move. We drove some tentative circles around the block, not wanting to go too far away from the safety of the tool kits, or into much traffic, in case we needed to bleed it again. So far, all was well. The engine was quieter, so much so that I panicked on several occasions as I thought it had stalled, but it was just running much quieter on idle. We were happy that the cooling system was bled and everything appeared to be in order, the true test would be tomorrow when we would drive six hours on Christmas Eve to San Miguel de Allende to catch up with the rest of our European convoy. 

I didn’t get much sleep that night either, it seemed to be a trend of the week. I worried about engine, about the head gaskets, about everything. Then, it was early morning and time to get ready. We had to clean the apartment and pack the van. Not wanting to tempt fate, we had held off moving all our stuff back into Ruby in case everything went wrong last minute. We wanted to leave by mid-morning, in order to give ourselves time to get there in the daylight. We had wanted to go to the supermarket too, but it became apparent there wasn’t going to be time. Lee brought everything down to the camper, and I repacked it while he continued to clean the apartment. 

Gina came to say goodbye, as she was going out for a few hours. Then before long it was time to say goodbye to Gerado and Matheus too. We gave him some money, even though he didn’t want it. We had lived from free in their apartment for nearly three weeks, the least we could do was pay for the utilities. We left behind some sourdough starter for Gina, and promised to send instructions later. We really couldn’t thank this pair enough. Outside, we turned the van on, and waved goodbye as we drove away. It was 11.15am on Christmas eve, we had nearly made it. We were so excited we forgot to put the pop top down until we got down the road. As we left Guzman, I wondered how many hours it would be until I felt like I could relax. 

After about 3 hours, we had filled up the van and crossed multiple toll roads. I stopped panicking over every tiny little sound as Ruby continued to run without a fault. The engine had noticeably more power too, pulling up the hills as we climbed higher and higher. 

Our main issue now appeared to be the lack of reverse gear. Always a pain to find, it now appeared to have disappeared entirely. We spent at least 15 minutes parked up in a town, on a detour to find a cash point, trying to find it before I got out and pushed us. This clearly needed attention. The oil light flickered at us occasionally, and sometimes she appeared to struggle to start. A few niggly issues then, but nothing that stopped us as we continued on, only two hours left. 

The sun was low in the sky, as we turned off smaller and smaller roads approaching the campsite. A little way down a dirt road, we spotted our group parked near a set of glamping tents. Unfortunately, we drove past the entrance, so the welcome party that came out to greet us ended up having to give us a push too. But then we had arrived. We pulled in and parked just in time, the sun had set but we had made it, Christmas could begin. 

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