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

Part 8: Soul Searching

I admit it. I didn't know much about Ford's FE-series engines, even though I had owned cars powered by the 332-, 352-, and 390-cubic-inch versions of that engine family. What I did know was that the 427 side-oiler FE engine was a kissing cousin of the big-block Ford introduced in the 1958 Ford, Edsel, and Thunderbird cars.

To learn more, I bought two excellent books:

"Ford Performance" by Pat Ganahl

"How to Rebuild Ford Big-Block Engines"
by Steve Christ

While Jimmy and the boys at Phaze II Auto Body were busy prepping and painting the Cobra, I decided to spend some time reading about and researching FE-series engines. I scoured the World Wide Web and news groups for any relevant facts, figures, or rumors I could find and read everything I could get my hands on.

In Steve Christ's book, I found out that these engines have competed in almost every type of race, in every type of vehicle. It has been a winner at stock car tracks, drag strips, boat races, tractor and truck pulls, hill climbs, and in sports car and endurance racing like Daytona and LeMans.

I also learned that the 427 model was a very special member of the FE family. In addition to having the largest bore (4.23 in.) of all the big blocks, the 427 was cast from a high-nickle iron and stress relieved by carefully controlling how the block cooled after casting. The 427s were also machined on a special line to make cylinder-wall thickness more consistent. And all 427s use cross-bolted mains and thicker bearing caps.

Early 427s used the same oiling system as Ford's high-performance 390 engine of the early '60s. This system fed oil to the front main bearing, camshaft, and rocker shafts before pushing oil to the main bearings. So, if there was a loss of oil pressure anywhere in the system, one or all of the four rear main bearings could lack adequate lubrication.

To prevent this from happening, Ford designed and cast a new and expensive block. The new casting included an oil gallery along the left side of the block, from front to rear (that's why they called it a "side-oiler"). Drilled passages connect this side gallery with the rest of the oiling system where short galleries within the block connect each camshaft and main bearing. This new system ensured that every main- and cam-bearing bore received pressure directly from the oil pump. The result was a very durable engine, capable of delivering tremendous power.

My trusty ERA Assembly, Operation, and Parts manual includes an excellent section on where to find parts -- including big-block Ford engines -- so that's the first place I looked. In the manual, ERA recommended two sources for engines: Total Performance of Mount Clemens, Michigan and Performance Motors of Valley Springs, South Dakota.

I called both of these companies to ask about the availability of 427 side-oiler engines and was impressed with their big-block Ford experience and knowledge. I was also surprised to learn that a complete 427 side-oiler engine would cost more than $10,000. This project was starting to get expensive!

A little discouraged by the prospect of shelling out "ten large" for an engine, I turned to Hemmings for solace. There, in the November, 1995 issue, in the "Ford '54-Up Parts, Lit, Etc. for Sale" section, I spotted just what I was looking for. It was the smallest ad I've ever seen in Hemmings; I quote: "427 for sale. Serious inquiries only." The ad included a telephone number with a Miami area code.

Who was this man of few words? Did he really have what I was looking for? Was it really a 427 side-oiler? I picked up the phone and dialed the number in the ad. A man answered on the second ring; I introduced myself and explained why I was calling. The man on the other end of the line acknowledged that I had dialed correctly and said his name was Mario.

During the course of our half-hour conversation, Mario explained that he had once raced cars equipped with big-block Fords and was now liquidating some of his excess inventory of parts. He just happened to have one brand-new 427 side-oiler block that had been in storage for almost thirty years. It was a Ford service block that Mario had acquired as a spare. I couldn't believe my ears.

As we continued our conversation, I told Mario that while I would be interested in the new-old-stock (NOS) 427 block, my preference was to buy a complete engine from someone who was an FE-series expert. Without hesitating, Mario assured me that he could do this; in fact, he would thoroughly enjoy building another 427.

When I asked about price, Mario said he could build a complete 427 side-oiler engine -- including the NOS block -- "the right way" for about $6,500. He went on to inform me that it would probably cost a few hundred dollars extra to have the engine shipped from Miami to Boston. I pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

I thanked Mario for his time on the phone and promised to call him after I talked with Debbie about this opportunity.

Convinced that this was worth further investigation, Deb and I decided that a trip to Miami was in order. After all, we couldn't just send Mario a check for $6,500 (plus shipping) and expect a NOS 427 side-oiler to appear on our doorstep a few weeks later.

Coincidentally, Debbie's younger sister, Carol, lives in Miami with her family. Quickly, Deb and I sketched-out a plan that would let us visit Carol and family, plus check-out Mario and his 427 parts and skills during a single weekend in early December.

Immediately, I picked up the phone and called Mario to arrange a mutually convenient time to review his suggestions for building an engine for our Cobra replica. Mario was very receptive to the idea of us getting together and suggested that we meet at his house at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 9, 1995. He gave me his address, and I explained that we wouldn't have trouble finding it because Carol knew her way around Miami.

Deb and I arrived in Miami on the Friday before the Mario meeting and spent some time with Carol and her family. The next day, Carol drove us to Mario's house, where we spotted Mario in his driveway, checking things under the hood of his daily driver -- an older Jeep CJ-5, I believe.
After introductions were made, Mario invited Deb, Carol, and me into his workshop, located in the lower level of the house. It was an amazing place. Pure white countertops and cabinets lined three of the four walls. Pure white peg board mounted between the counters and the cabinets held a collection of spotless tools, all grouped according to use and arranged according to size. This must be some kind of hospital for engines, I thought.

Mario had the 427 block mounted to an engine stand. It was shrouded in some sort of pale-blue, lint-free material -- like the stuff they use in operating rooms and to wrap surgical instruments. Ceremoniously, he unveiled his product. Mario made sure that we noticed the bulge on the left side that proved the block to be a genuine side-oiler -- complete with faint, but readable crayon marks that some Ford foundry worker had applied almost 30 years earlier. Wow.

CC'ing the Head
We went on to discuss how the engine would be used (primarily for cruising on the street; little or no competition) and what Mario could offer. For street use, Mario suggested that we consider building a "stroker" by using a crankshaft from a Ford 428 engine in the 427 block. He said that the longer stroke of the 428 would deliver more low-end torque, which would be better for a street engine. Sounded like a reasonable idea to me, and Mario just happened to have a crankshaft from a 428 Cobra Jet engine ready to go -- complete with world-famous LeMans connecting rods and Jahns pistons.
Next, Mario took us to the other end of the shop, opened a large cabinet and showed us a pair of shiny aluminum heads. He said that they were from a company called Dove Manufacturing located in Columbia Station, Ohio. I had heard about Dove from several people and knew they made excellent high-performance parts for FE engines. Mario suggested that the Dove aluminum heads would be an excellent choice for a Cobra replica because they would save weight and run cooler than stock cast-iron heads. I was sold.

Next, we looked at Mario's collection of intake manifolds, all neatly displayed on a set of shelves. He had one peculiar Ford single-four-barrel manifold where the carburetor mounting flange was positioned about an inch and a half to the left of center. Mario explained that we were looking at an original Ford "side-winder" manifold. It was popular with many Stock and Super Stock drag racers and was offered by Ford with a 780 Holley carb. Excellent; I'll take it.

During the remainder of the tour, we selected a Crower cam, Ford Performance Parts extruded aluminum rocker assemblies, Tony Branda T-sump oil pan, rebuilt Ford dual-point distributor, and Dove high-performance aluminum water pump. All this was to be topped off by chrome pent-roof rocker covers and a Holley 800 CFM double-pumper carb.

Needless to say, we had gone a little beyond our initial concept of a $6,500 engine. But even with all the goodies -- and a genuine NOS 427 side-oiler block -- Mario's price was a very reasonable $7,900 including the labor to build, blueprint, and balance the monster. I didn't hesitate to give Mario a $3,000 deposit so he could get going and deliver the complete engine by mid-February, 1996.

Next day, on the flight back to Boston, I started thinking about all the other parts we still had to find. Like belts, hoses, motor mounts, and such. But Deb convinced me that our Christmas shopping list was the top priority at the moment, so I found myself temporarily distracted, helping Deb decide what to give to whom.

Next week: Details, Details, Details