What to know before machining a numbers-matching engine block
For many classic car buyers, originality is of utmost importance.
Lots of the value of a rare muscle car, for example, comes from its just-right combination of options that sets it apart from its similar but less exciting brethren. There are dozens of ways to help determine if a car that appears to be a rare, potent version of a muscle car is what it claims to be, and the focus of many of those tests comes down to establishing whether or not the engine is the original one installed by the factory.
A rare car without its factory-installed engine can lose a significant chunk of its value, so plenty of collectors prefer that any factory evidence of the vehicle’s authenticity remains intact.
If you do have the correct, original engine in your car but mileage or a part failure means that a rebuild is necessary, keeping the original engine and its identifying marks are likely a big priority. Many manufacturers stamped identification numbers on the oil pan rail, or on a separate boss machined specifically for the purpose, but Chevrolet often used the deck surface as it was readily available.
The problem with that is that besides boring the cylinders for new pistons and align-boring the crank journals, milling the deck surfaces to be parallel to the crankshaft centerline is one of the major processes a machine shop will take to prep for a rebuild.
Factory tolerances weren’t perfect in the ’60s and ’70s, and even when they were solid, decades of heat cycling can cause blocks to get a little wonky. Milling the deck ensures the heads have a flat surface to mount to and helps ensure every cylinder operates with the same compression ratio and valvetrain clearance. However, removing even a few thousandths of an inch off the deck surface could mean erasing any evidence of those valuable identifying marks.
This video from Jim’s Automotive Machine Shop Inc. goes over the intricacies of decking a numbers-matching block to preserve the stampings, starting by cutting the shorter of the two decks as little as possible to achieve a flat and true surface and then cutting the other deck to match. When machining a deck without stampings, the mill can be left to feed across the entire surface, but to preserve the numbers, the process is stopped short and the block is traversed so that the large cutting head passes over the entire gasket surface. That ensures an even clamping surface for the gasket while leaving the numbers intact.
“This is a process that not everyone needs to worry about, but when it matters, it matters,” said Hagerty’s master engine builder Davin Reckow. “Since keeping that stamping is extra work, be sure to discuss this with your machine shop before handing over the block for machining to ensure that it doesn’t accidentally get cut off before you can say something.”
So, as Davin noted, before you have any machine work done, know where the important stampings are on your engine and make sure your machine shop does too. Odds are your machinist can keep everything intact with just a bit of extra care and effort.
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