Rebuilding a Ford 351 Cleveland

Part 10: Lessons Learned and Reflections

Rebuilding my engine was an 8-month long learning experience, to say the least. Here are some "lessons learned" and general reflections on the project:

- To make this project budget-friendly, I purchased most of the parts from November through April. I allocated a "351C budget" each month for parts purchases. If you look at the parts list you'll quickly see that I spent well over $4,000 on this project. But spread across 6 months it was manageable.

- I kept a spreadsheet listing every part I thought I needed and every part I bought. This helped me keep track of what I had and what I needed to buy. I stored everything in a common area in my house so that pieces didn't get misplaced.

- During teardown of the old engine, I put everything in bags and labeled all of them. When there was an item that had a confusing orientation or something unsual about it, I wrote a note on the bag telling how to install it (such as "install pointed end up" or something like that). This helped tremendously during re-assembly! Taking digital photos of the teardown also helped immensely with re-assembly since I could review the teardown photos to see how it looked before it came apart.

- Paint the exterior of the block and heads as soon as you get them back from the machine shop. I didn't - and they sat for a couple months and got rusty. Then I had to sand off a bunch of rust, and that took forever. Luckily I had coated the internal surfaces with oil, so they didn't rust.

- The Keith Black piston instructions asked for a top ring gap greater than the gap specified by the ring manufacturer. Follow the Keith Black instructions. The larger gap is required on the KB hypereutectic pistons because their shape concentrates more heat on that ring.

- CompCams took 2 months to machine my billet cam. They originally quoted a lead time of 1 week. If you're ordering a custom grind, order it early!

- Sorry to bad-mouth CompCams again - but they'll probably tell you that you don't need a billet core on a street roller camshaft. I'm not fully convinced of this because I have some background in metallurgy and friction wear and I don't care what kind of surface treatment you put on a cast core, it's still not as good as billet. It was about $40 extra to upgrade to billet, which is a fairly small expense in my opinion on a $300+ camshaft (and a $4000+ rebuild). Long story short: if you're going with a roller cam, spend the extra few dollars and get a billet core cam.

- Check the distributor drive gear clearance with the block before you install the timing set.

- Don't forget that a billet camshaft requires a bronze disributor gear.  There are some composite gears available out there; however these should be used with caution.  CompCams, for example, does not recommend composite gears with high-volume oil pumps.  I spoke to them about this and they said that sometimes the composite gears will crack with a high-volume oil pump.  Given this, I chose not to risk it and chose the classic bronze gear. 

- The stock Ford pushrod guide plates interfered with the CompCams pushrods, causing binding in the pushrods and rockers. Be sure to buy the offset CompCams guideplates if you use a CompCams valvetrain.  In general, it is a good idea to buy all your valvetrain components from one manufacturer.  Don't mix-and-match parts from multiple manufacturers unless you have a lot of experience with this,

- There was conflicting information in CompCams' instructions regarding hydraulic roller lifter preload; specifically, how many turns to tighten the stud nuts that hold the rocker arms in place.  The CompCams hydraulic roller lifter instruction sheet that came with my rollers said to set preload at 0-to-1/8 turn of the stud nut.  The camshaft instruction sheet said to set preload at 1/2 turn of the stud nut.  I initially set the preload to 1/8 turn.  However, later I had frequent problems with the rockers coming loose and causing a lot of noise.  I later went back and re-set the lifter preload to 1/2 turn on all the rockers.  This helped eliminate the problem with the rockers coming loose.  UPDATE:  As of 2012, CompCams has revised their hydaulic roller lifter instructions to recommend a preload of 1 full turn of the stud nut.  I have not done this yet, but if you experience problems with your rocker arms coming loose this might be the solution.

- When you install the distributor, make sure the #1 piston is at TDC on the compression stroke, not the exhaust stroke. Do this before you put the engine in the car.

- If you install the distributor in the engine before you put the engine in the car, be sure to leave the cap and rotor off until the engine is in the car. These pieces will easily hit the roof when you are hoisting the engine into place. This is definitely a Pantera-specific problem, so if you're using a Mustang-based "how to" guide book, it won't mention this!

- Along those same lines, prime the oil pump before you put the engine in the car. It will be very difficult (maybe impossible) to get a drill in there once it's inside a Pantera. Again, this is not a problem on a front-engined platform like a Mustang or Torino.

- Install the oil dipstick tube in the block before the engine is in the car. It's much easier this way.

- Install the carburator last, after the engine is in the car. It will interfere with the hoist rigging and it will get in the way of everything during installation.

- Some folks say you can hoist an engine from the carburator studs on the intake. I wouldn't do that. Attach the hoist chains to the heads using Grade 8 bolts.

- Beware that most of the "how to" rebuild books are written for the 289/302/351W engine family. The Cleveland is close, but by no means identical to those engines. Make sure you have at least one book with instructions and diagrams specific to the Cleveland.

- This is a good example of the item I just listed above: the Cleveland firing order is different than other Ford small-blocks. Make sure you get it right. It's 1-3-7-2-6-5-4-8.

- I should have bought an aftermarket harmonic balancer with more timing marks at the higher advance numbers. The stock Ford one stops at 30 degrees BTDC...which makes checking total advance (~36 degrees) somewhat ambiguous. At a minimum, put a distinguishing colored mark at TDC and 16 degrees BTDC to help with setting the initial static advance.

- I should have put a new distributor in at the time I did this rebuild.  The old Ford one works OK with the Pertronix module, but now that I've got the car together and running I wish I had a nice billet distributor from MSD.  That will be a future project...

- Despite what your buddies will tell you, bigger is not better when it comes to carburators. I've got an Edelbrock 750cfm 4bbl with mechanical secondaries and it's too big, especially for mile-high altitude. A 600cfm or 650cfm carb is more appropriate and will give better throttle response, better high-altitude performance, and better fuel economy. Yes, you might lose a little power at wide open throttle with the smaller carb, but if you're building a street engine you're probably not going to be running at WOT and 7000 rpm too often.

- Check, double check, and maybe even triple check everything. Take your time. If something doesn't look right, stop and re-think it. Use the "how to" books, your shop manual, the internet, and buddies as resources if you're not sure about something. Remember the old saying from your high school shop teacher: "Measure twice, cut once."

All for now,

- Matt Hannes

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