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

Part 18: The Best Summer Ever

At the office on Monday morning, I fidgeted my way through a lengthy project-review meeting and stumbled through a flock of "urgent" phone calls from various clients while waiting for the West Coast to wake up. You see, Crower Cams is located in Chula Vista, California, and I was anxious to talk with them about the Cobra's camshaft-lobe wipeout.

Finally, my $39 K-Mart Seiko ticked past 11:30 a.m., and I dialed the number at the top of my Crower cam card. The customer service rep I spoke with was sympathetic, but stopped short of admitting that the problem was caused by a defective Crower product. I couldn't fault him. With so many variables involved, how did he know I was telling the truth about the careful break-in or the 100+ trouble-free miles Deb and I had experienced before the cam/lifter failure?

In the interest of getting the Cobra back on the road, I decided the best thing to do was order a new cam -- plus a new set of lifters -- and ask Crower to FedEx the order to my office for next-morning delivery. After I placed the order, the Crower rep suggested that I send the old camshaft and lifers to Crower for examination. If the problem was caused by a manufacturing defect, Crower would refund my money. Sounded like a fair deal to me.

Tuesday morning, FedEx delivered the new parts. To be certain the Cobra would be ready to roll for the upcoming weekend, I decided to sneak out of the office a little early and get in a couple of hours of wrenching before dinner. I also wanted to identify the need for other parts, gaskets, filters, and fluids I'd need to complete the job. That way, if I needed to track-down any hard-to-find items (remember, I'm working on a 30-year-old engine), I'd have plenty of time to round them up and have them delivered before Saturday.

By dinnertime, I had flushed the oil pan of camshaft-and-lifter remnants; cleaned all gasketed surfaces thoroughly; wiped-off and organized all the nuts, bolts, brackets, and miscellaneous widgets; and drafted a shopping list for the next day. I also dusted-off my trusty camshaft degree wheel and companion dial indicator for locating top-dead-center (TDC). Satisfied with my progress, I covered the open engine with blue surgical-equipment packaging material (compliments of Deb's brother, Bob) to protect it from airborne dust and pollen. After all, I was in the midst of a transplant operation!

I spent Wednesday's lunch hour at the local auto parts store gathering the items on my shopping list. In addition to 10 quarts of quality 20W50 motor oil and a name-brand oil filter, Frank -- one of the most knowledgeable auto-parts professionals in the area -- had the correct "valve-grind" gasket set in stock. According to Frank, the gaskets would fit any Ford FE-Series engine, from the 332-cubic-inch model introduced in 1958 to the 428-cubic-inch beast that was popular during the late-1960s. I paid the tab and was back at the office before anyone missed me.
Out in the barn Wednesday evening, Deb and I made good progress installing the new camshaft and solid lifters after we slathered all surfaces with a liberal coating of the break-in lube that Crower provided. FE-Series engines are a bit unique in that the push rods pass through holes in the intake manifold rather than holes in the head as is more typical with overhead-valve engines. That means the intake manifold has to be installed before the push rods.

Not a big deal, but the lifters can't be seen as rocker arms and push rods are installed. Nor are they visible when you're "degreeing" the camshaft.

By 9:00 p.m., Deb and I had things pretty well back together with intake- manifold and rocker-arm-shaft bolts torqued to specification. We replaced the timing chain and sprockets in exactly the same position that Mario used when he built the engine. Because the replacement camshaft was the same brand and grind as the original, it was likely that cam timing would be "right on." Even so, it would be worth bolting on the degree wheel and spending some time to confirm the cam was on the money before buttoning-up everything.

After work on Thursday, Deb and I met for a quick dinner at a local family-style restaurant, taking full advantage of their two-for-one omelet special. At home, we changed into our grubbies and headed for the barn again. As I rigged a fixture to position my dial indicator's probe over number-one cylinder's spark-plug hole, Deb affixed the degree wheel to the crankshaft and fashioned a TDC indicator from a piece of coat-hanger wire.

It's a little tricky to locate top-dead-center accurately when you're sensing piston position through a spark-plug hole, but with patience, it's possible. It required almost an hour of fiddling to locate the elusive TDC on the dial indicator and confirm its accuracy by repeatedly twisting the crankshaft in both directions. With TDC established, Deb bent the coat-hanger wire to make it point at the big "zero" on the degree wheel.

I relocated my dial-indicator apparatus to the top of the cylinder head and set it up to measure the actual "lift" produced by the camshaft as it's rotated. Referencing the "degreeing" procedure and specifications provided by Crower, it didn't take long for Deb and me to determine that camshaft timing was precisely as it should be; no further adjustments would be necessary.

At that point, we still had enough time and energy to install the timing chain cover, water pump, pulleys, alternator, belt, radiator, hoses, coolant expansion tank, distributor, spark plugs, and wires. We also reconnected the throttle linkage, choke cable, and fuel line. We even adjusted valve lash to preliminary settings and installed the rocker covers. Whew!

I suppose we could have hooked-up the battery and fired it up, but it was after 10:00 p.m., and we didn't want to rattle the neighbors. Because we're so darned considerate, we decided to wait until Saturday morning when the racket from the local fleet of lawn tractors would mask the sounds of the Cobra coming to life once again.

The weekend arrived with warm temperatures and crystal-clear skies. As usual, when there's something good to do in the barn, Deb and I were out there and at it by 8:00 a.m. To be sure we had enough electrical juice for the task at hand, I hooked a charger to the Cobra's battery while Deb replaced the coolant and dumped nine quarts of fresh oil into the engine. A careful check for leaks was negative for all fluids.

It didn't take much to top-off the battery, so I disconnected the charger and we pushed the car out of the barn. As we had done just a few weeks before, Deb removed the distributor, and I used a half-inch drill with a special oil-pump driveshaft to reach in and twirl the oil pump. Within seconds, I could sense the resistance of the pump as it filled the new filter and started squirting oil through the maze of passages inside the engine. Deb watched the pressure gauge inside the car and let me know that we were sustaining 80 psi.

I ran the drill for several more minutes, determined to flood every internal part with plenty of lubrication before turning the key. Convinced that oil had been delivered everywhere it belonged, I removed the drill and Deb replaced the distributor, pointing the rotor in the proper direction and aligning the housing with a small mark we made on the intake manifold. She replaced the hold-down clamp and lightly snugged the bolt, knowing that we'd fiddle with the ignition timing when the engine fired.

Everything looked good, so I hooked up the final battery cable, a remote starter switch, and a digital tach-dwell meter. Deb confirmed that the transmission was in neutral and the parking brake was firmly applied. With one hand on the throttle linkage, I pushed the button on the starter switch. The big engine cranked briskly for about 15 seconds as the fuel pump moved gasoline to the carburetor and the oil pump reestablished pressure. I stopped cranking and worked the Holley double-pumper to get some fuel into the engine.

Again, I jabbed the button on the switch. Within a couple of revolutions, the engine fired and ran. Handing the switch to Deb, I rotated the distributor a tad to smooth things out. Within seconds, the engine was running quite smoothly, and I grabbed a screwdriver from my back pocket to temporarily set minimum idle speed at 1500 rpm. So far, so good.

During the next half-hour, Deb kept an eye on the oil pressure, oil temperature, and coolant temperature gauges while I varied engine speed between approximately 1500 and 2200 rpm to break in the new camshaft. Under the hood, I watched for leaks and listened for unusual noises. Nothing. This was very encouraging.

When the 30 minutes were up, we shut down the engine and removed the rocker-arm covers to adjust valve lash while everything was at operating temperature. I was relieved to find that the rocker arm for the number eight exhaust valve had about the same amount of play as all the others. With valve lash set to spec, we replaced the rocker covers and torqued the hold-down bolts carefully to prevent warping and oil leakage between the cover and the machined surface of the head and intake manifold. (On Ford FE-Series engines, the intake manifold actually extends under the rocker-arm covers.)

Next, I hooked up my timing light, started the engine and set ignition timing to ten degrees before top-dead-center (BTDC), and adjusted the carburetor mixture and throttle-position screws to provide the smoothest idle possible at about 900 rpm. Thusly tweaked, the big engine sounded healthy -- very healthy.

Satisfied with the results of our camshaft-transplant procedure, I turned off the engine. Deb and I disconnected all the under-hood instrumentation, checked for leaks one more time, put away all the tools, and tidied-up the service bay in the barn. When that was done, we tidied-up ourselves, applied a liberal dose of sunscreen lotion, and took the Cobra out for a ride in the country.

On the rural roads near our home, the car was its old self. Just as responsive and powerful as it had been before the mechanical problem developed. We drove about 50 "easy" miles that Saturday afternoon without incident, stopping for lunch at a hotdog stand that serves the best natural-casing franks you ever tasted. On the way home, we stopped by Frank's auto parts store to buy more oil and another new filter. Considering what the engine had gone through, we thought it would be smart to change the oil and filter again right away.
Back in the barn, it didn't take long to put the Cobra up on the lift, drain the oil, and change the filter. I made sure the new filter was filled with fresh oil before installing it, so the oil pump wouldn't waste time filling the filter before building pressure. While I had the drain plug out, I replaced its copper washer with a new, neoprene-coated drain-plug washer to improve the seal between the plug and the aluminum oil pan. Back on top, we carefully poured nine quarts of fresh 20W50 oil into the engine and checked to be sure that the dipstick indicated "full."

That evening, we drove the renewed Cobra to Nick's Drive-in Restaurant in Natick, Massachusetts for the first time. Nick's is a Saturday-night hangout for classic cars, and Deb and I knew many of the regulars from previous visits with Deb's '57 T-Bird and my '66 Pontiac GTO. It was a pleasant 45-minute drive on mostly rural roads, and all eyes were on us as we pulled into the parking lot. We selected a spot with plenty of room around it, and I carefully backed the car into the chosen slot. A crowd gathered immediately, waiting for Deb and me to power-down, unbuckle, and disembark.

While we unlatched and raised the hood to show off the mammoth mill beneath, the questions and comments started to fly: "Awesome color!" "Is it real?" "Where did you get it?" "Is that a side-oiler?" "How fast does it go?" "How come you got them twisty wires on the spinners?" "Can you beat a Viper?" "Wow! Look at how wide the rear tires are!" "How come the shifter is backwards?" "How many horsepower?" "Who did the paint?" "How much does one of these cost?" "It's so clean underneath!" "ERA, huh? Would you do it again?"

You bet we would. This little Cobra is the most exciting car I've ever owned or driven. (I even drove one of the original Shelby 427SC Cobras recently, and I like my ERA replica better.) Everywhere Deb and I go with this car, people are intrigued, excited, and interested in every facet of its origin, construction, and performance. It's the ultimate conversation piece!

We enjoyed the Cobra throughout the summer, touring the roads of New England, sampling food and ice cream at every drive-in within range, and attending a few car shows to admire other vehicles and mingle with "car people." The more we drove the Cobra, the more we liked it -- except for the loudness of the sidepipe exhaust system. I decided to call Peter at ERA to find out if he had any suggestions for quieting the racket without ruining the "character" of the car.

On the phone, I told Peter how much fun we were having with ERA #452 and explained our desire to tone-down the exhaust note a bit. He knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I call Stainless Specialties - the company that designs and manufactures sidepipes for ERA Cobras. Peter said they could fabricate a new set of pipes with "more muffler" in them, and they would look very similar to the original stainless steel sidepipes.

After signing off with Peter, I called Stainless Specialties in Sebastian, Florida to find out more about these quiet pipes. The gentleman I spoke with told me they could build a set of sidepipes with a quieter 24-inch muffler built into each. He explained that they would be "quieter" than the stock pipes, but would still sound very Cobra-like. Sold. Here's my MasterCard number; send me a set as soon as you can.

Two weeks later, the quiet pipes arrived, and we spent a Saturday morning doing the swap. The result was perfect. You could see the longer muffler section in the pipes if you compared them side-by-side with the stock units, but once the quieter sidepipes were installed, they looked just as good as the originals. A quick test drive confirmed that the car's exhaust note had been tamed by a few decibels. And the guy at Stainless Specialties was right -- the car still sounded very much like a big-block Cobra.
One highlight of the summer was a Ford and Mustang show Deb and I attended in western Massachusetts. It was a large show, with hundreds of cars. The weather was perfect that day, and the Cobra looked spectacular parked on a sprawling field of new-mown grass under the brilliant mid-summer sun. We spent the day talking with other participants and hundreds of spectators who came to admire all the beautiful cars there.

The sponsors of the show decided to use the popular-vote method to determine which cars would win trophies, so every participant and spectator was given a ballot and asked to vote for their favorite car in each class as they toured the show. When all the ballots were tallied, and it was time for trophies to be awarded, Deb and I were honored to have our Cobra replica voted "Best of Show."

Deb proudly accepted the largest trophy you've ever seen, and we were informed our "Best of Show" status also qualified the Cobra to appear among the top 100 cars of New England at an indoor show to be held near Keene, New Hampshire in early October. It was called the "Super Wheels Showdown" and is sponsored each year by "Cruisin' New England Magazine." Wow. One of the top 100 cars in New England. I guess people really noticed and appreciated all the hard work and attention to detail that we had invested.

Summer departed and October came too soon that year. An early cold snap had put frost on the pumpkins and made it impractical to drive the topless Cobra to the "Super Wheels Showdown" in even-colder New Hampshire. Though we would have much preferred to drive the car, the reality of the chill in the air dictated that we use the trailer to carry the Cobra to the show. The snugness of the cab and warmth of our truck's heater felt good as we headed north at the crack of dawn.
The show was held at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds in Swanzey, New Hampshire, just south of Keene. 100 of the most awesome cars you've ever seen were there. A large building contained all the festivities and kept out the cold. We were directed to a corner spot, with aisles in front and on the driver's side of the Cobra. As other cars filtered in, Deb and I got busy dusting and detailing every nook and cranny of the car. We even had a new sign to display near the front of the car. It would allow bashful spectators to find out more about our car without having to ask questions.

Huge trophies were awarded to every car there that day, and three cars were selected for additional special awards. We didn't get one of those, but even so, it was one of the most enjoyable days ever. Being included with the top cars of New England was an honor we never anticipated.

The sun was setting and the temperature was falling as we headed home with the Cobra securely tied to the trailer. It was almost dark by the time I pulled into the driveway and backed the trailer toward the barn. Deb and I unloaded the car, and I hopped in for the final, brief ride of the season.

Carefully, I backed it into the same bay where it had been born less than six months earlier. After disconnecting the battery cable and lowering the hood, we unfolded its flannel car cover and, without saying a word, ceremoniously draped the Cobra's shiny fiberglass contours. Deb and I both knew it was going to be a long winter.

-- The End --

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