Birth of a New Machine - Building a Cobra Kit Car
Copyright 1996, Daniel J. Sommers

Part 14: Firing It Up for the First Time

It was 6:15 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, 1996 when I poured my first cup of coffee and reacquainted myself with Mario's neatly typed list of "Starting Instructions" for the engine he had delivered four months earlier. I already knew the first 20 minutes of running were critical when starting a brand-new or rebuilt engine, so I wanted to follow Mario's startup procedure to the letter.

As I walked to the barn, I could sense that it was going to be an unusually warm day for mid-May in New England. I remembered Mario's suggestion that we position a household fan to blow through the front grille opening to maximize cooling during the initial startup. There was a strong floor-stand-type fan up in the loft, so I brought it down and fabricated a new, ground-level stand using the base from an old office chair. I rolled it near the nose of the Cobra and confirmed that the fan could push lots of air into the car's snout.

Debbie joined me and donned a pair of surgical-style latex gloves to protect her hands from the grime and goop that you encounter even when working under the hood of a brand-new car. We connected an automatic charger to the battery to make sure it would be up to the task of cranking the big V8 when the time came, then referred to Mario's list to continue preparation for the big event.

We had already installed a 180-degree thermostat in the engine, and Mario delivered the engine with nine quarts of straight 30-weight motor oil in its belly, so we were all set with that. The new dipstick confirmed that the oil level was correct. Five gallons of fresh, 93-octane unleaded gasoline were dumped into the empty fuel tank through the gigantic filler tube on top of the right-rear fender; we checked under the car at both ends to make sure that nothing was leaking.
Following Mario's instructions, we filled the cooling system with plain water (no antifreeze at this time, according to Mario) and carefully checked for leaks. I used my cooling system test kit to pressurize the cooling system to about 15 PSI, then examined every hose and fitting with a flashlight looking for the slightest sign of moisture. So far, so good.

Next, we removed the rocker-arm covers and all the spark plugs. I used a giant, 3/4-inch-drive ratchet to turn the crankshaft until the #1 piston was at top-dead-center (TDC), then set initial intake valve lash at 24 thousandths and exhaust at 26. Because the initial setting is done with the engine cold, I added a couple of thousandths to the lash specified on the Crower Cam card that Mario had included with the engine documentation. I set initial lash for the remaining valves by turning the crankshaft clockwise in 90-degree increments and simply followed the firing order of the engine to position each piston at TDC.

After setting initial lash for the valves, I sequenced through the firing order again and checked each valve with the appropriate feeler gauge -- just to be absolutely certain that everything was as it should be. This was one phase of the project where mistakes would not be tolerated. There would be no second chance.

Continuing with Mario's explicit instructions, we removed the distributor from the engine and inserted a priming tool through the distributor opening, and into the oil pump. Using a heavy-duty 1/2-inch reversible electric drill, I rotated the priming tool counter-clockwise as Deb watched the oil pressure gauge in the car.

For about five seconds, I could sense only a very light load on the drill. Then, all of a sudden, the oil pump started pumping and the drill really started working hard. Inside the car, Deb reported 80 PSI on the oil pressure gauge. Outside, I could see the flow of clean 30-weight appear at the rocker arms. I kept pumping for a few minutes and scanned the oil filter and cooler lines and fittings for leaks. Dry as a bone.

I stopped the drill and looked under the car for drips. Nothing. So far so good, so we removed the charger from the battery and hooked up the battery cables. I resumed pumping oil with the priming tool as Deb sat in the car and cranked the engine with the starter for the first time. It was awesome to watch each of the rocker arms lift more than half an inch, driven by the very bumpy camshaft beneath. Again, Deb reported good, stable oil pressure indicated on the gauge in the car.

Deb continued cranking for about 30 seconds -- enough time for the fuel pump to move some gasoline from the tank into both bowls of the big, 850-CFM Holley carburetor. I signaled to Deb to stop and I did the same with the electric drill. I confirmed that gas had reached the carb by working the throttle by hand and watching the accelerator pump squirt fuel. With flashlights, Deb and I thoroughly checked for leaks along the entire route from tank, to pump, to carb. Good news; no leaks.

Using the giant ratchet on the crankshaft bolt, I brought things around so that the #1 piston was positioned at about 20-degrees before TDC. Deb double-checked the gap of both sets of points, and we installed the distributor. It took a few attempts to simultaneously align the distributor shaft with the oil-pump driveshaft; get the rotor to point to the #1 position on the distributor cap; and get the #1 plug wire to point to the proper place on the engine.

Next, we replaced the spark plugs (using antiseize compound on the threads); replaced the rocker-arm covers; and installed the spark plug wires for the first time. To set the initial timing, I rotated the distributor clockwise slightly and watched as the first set of points just started to open. With the distributor in that position, I snugged-down the hold-down clamp, making it tight enough to hold its position, but loose enough to allow me to tweak the timing as soon as the engine started.
It was time to move outside and bring the beast to life. Deb and I pushed the light, little car out of the barn with ease. I ran a heavy-duty extension cord from the barn to the front of the car and connected a battery charger to make sure we had enough juice on hand. Deb positioned the fan from the loft in front of the car and confirmed that we could run the car's electric cooling fan manually, using the toggle switch on the dashboard.

To prepare for the big event, I hooked a remote starter switch to the solenoid on the firewall and connected my digital tach-dwell meter to the primary side of the coil so I could accurately monitor RPMs from outside the car. Mario's instructions were very explicit about maintaining revs between 1,000 and 1,500 RPM for the first half-hour of runtime. We placed chock blocks in front of and behind both rear wheels, made sure the transmission was in neutral, and double-checked that the parking brake was fully applied. Then I turned on the battery charger and ran both fans (the one from the loft and the one in the car) to make sure that plenty of air was moving through the radiator and the oil cooler.

Deb clicked the ignition switch to the "on" position. I visually scanned the engine compartment one more time, looking for anything abnormal. Everything looked fine. I yanked on the throttle linkage a couple times to squirt some gas into the intake manifold and mashed the button on the remote starter switch.
The big engine cranked briskly for a few seconds, then roared to life. Quickly, I handed the starter switch to Deb and fiddled with the throttle and the distributor to keep the engine running while monitoring the display on the tach-dwell meter. It didn't take long for the engine to smooth-out and settle-down; it seemed quite happy idling near 1,200 RPM.

Deb kept her eye on the oil pressure, oil temperature, and water temperature gauges inside the car while I varied engine speed between 1,000 and 1,500 RPM per Mario's instructions. As the engine came up to operating temperature, the heavenly scent of freshly baked paint and oil enveloped me. Ahhh ... the sweet smell of success!

Among the ambient audio energy in the air, I could pick out the rapid, rhythmic click of the solid lifters doing their work and had no trouble hearing the loud roar of the low-restriction, stainless-steel sidepipe exhaust system. Man, was it was loud! Loud enough, in fact, to attract one of our neighbors who was interested to see what all the ruckus was about.

fter about 15 minutes of running, water temperature stabilized at 190 degrees while the oil-pressure gauge read 50-60 PSI; oil temp approached 200 degrees toward the end of the 30-minute session. The engine's vital signs looked good, so I hooked up a timing light and locked-in the distributor at 12 degrees before top-dead-center (BTDC). The engine idled, ran, and responded well at this initial setting.

I tweaked the idle mixture screws on the Holley and set the idle speed at 1,000 RPM. The engine sounded very healthy with a nice lope and the characteristic Ford FE sound. We shut it off and let it cool. Once again, we checked for coolant, oil, and gas leaks. Still dry. And so very quiet!

When the engine was cool to the touch, I retorqued the intake manifold bolts and the primary exhaust pipe bolts, then restarted the car to warm it up again for final valve-lash adjustment. While it was warming up, Deb and I couldn't resist taking our first test drive up and down the 400-foot driveway a few times. What a car!

Back in the barn, we removed the rocker-arm covers again and went through the valve-lash adjustment one more time. Once we were satisfied that every valve was adjusted to the hot-lash specs on the cam card, we replaced the rocker covers and put the Cobra up on the lift to change the oil and filter. This was the first time we really got to admire the magnificent work ERA had done on the suspension system and the Jaguar rear end. Outstanding!

As we cleaned up and put tools away, Deb and I talked about the fun we would have with the Cobra during the months ahead. All we needed was to obtain a set of license plates to bolt onto the car and a vehicle inspection sticker to paste on the lower-right corner of the windshield. How difficult could this be?

Next week: Making It Legal