I’m at the point in our ’68 Nova project where I can finally see the light at the other end of the tunnel. While you’re just now seeing our story on CPP’s power brake vacuum pump kit in this issue, (see p. 54), we’re actually several stories ahead of that, wrapping up the exhaust work at Automotive Excellence, a great little shop out of Huntington Beach, California. If you live in SoCal, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out.
As we wrapped up our exhaust tech, I took the few remaining undercar shots to show off the handiwork, and noticed fresh oil dripping from the headers, oil pan, and trans tailhousing. The light at the other end of the tunnel started looking like the high beams of a bullet train! The leaks in question were power steering fluid, engine oil, and tranny fluid. Great. The trifecta. I wiped it down and shot the photos, same as I’d done with every project car over the past 20 years.
I once had a supercharged 5.0L Mustang that was possessed. Every time I took that car out I thought I was going to need a priest to perform an exorcism. "
Maybe my expectations just aren’t sufficiently low enough, like the guy who buys a lottery ticket every week and acts surprised when he doesn’t win. I’ve been wiping oil off cars for decades in the service of pretty photos, and every time I do it I feel like a fraud. In the back of my mind, I want to leave it, as if to say, “Hey, our junk leaks too!” To wit, you can pretty much assume that any magazine’s undercarriage shot of a project car has been doctored. Mind you, the Nova is no Exxon Valdez, but with a hot rod, even a small leak is a matter of pride.
I’ll never forget the first time I had a car at the SEMA show. It looked like a million bucks, but a few drips of oil spoiled the illusion. I remember listening to a couple guys as they looked at my Camaro, and instead of admiring the paint, commented on the oil under it. Those hushed words were like a dagger. It’s been worse though. I once had a supercharged 5.0L Mustang that was possessed. Every time I took that car out I thought I was going to need a priest to perform an exorcism. Whenever it got into boost, it would shoot the oil dipstick clean out of the tube. Pop the hood and you would’ve sworn Linda Blair had hosed down the engine bay with petroleum-based yak.
In recent years though, I’ve won hard-fought victories against the oil monster. The ’68 Chevelle was a turning point. I kept after it, eradicating leaks in the pan seal, main seal, timing cover, and breather system. I spent way more time and effort—if not money—fixing those leaks than building the engine itself. The ’75 Laguna was nearly the same story. With that one I learned there can be really small mismatches among the cylinder head, gasket, and valve cover. In this case, each part thought the sealing surface should be in a slightly different place. But don’t assume aftermarket parts have the market cornered on oil leaks. Not by a long shot. I remember going into Chevy showrooms in the mid ’80s and seeing oil leaks under nearly every brand-new Monte Carlo, Corvette, and IROC.
Manufacturers have a tough job. When your goal is to contain small, slippery, hot molecules in a confined space under high pressure, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Oil makers are trying to make their product more slippery so that it gets into cracks and crannies and stays there. By definition, that’s oil that leaks wonderfully. Almost diametrically opposed to that, manufacturers engineer tolerances into parts to account for thermal expansion, meaning gaps that are perfect for fluids. And gasket makers are stuck quite literally in the middle. They have to account for dimensional variations in the parts they seal, and balance robustness with flexibility. That said, the end user has to have some insight and intuition, especially when bolting on valve covers, oil pans, breathers, and timing covers. In essence, you have to think like an oil atom!
But you can’t always anticipate problems during assembly. In most cases, you’ll deal with leaks after a few trips to the store, or passes down the track. That’s when you become the “engine whisperer.” That spatter of oil on the fenderwell or that drip on the header—was it blown there by hidden currents that require some kind of aerodynamic calculus? Did oil find its way there gravitationally, or was a high-speed trajectory involved? Does the color or odor tell you anything? How long has it been there? You divine these hidden messages over time through hard-earned experience.
I don’t know if the Nova is going to be a leaker or not, but if the past is any indication, I’ll be chasing down a few gremlins. For the time being, I’m stocked up with oil, shop rags, flashlights, RTV, and a big slice of humble pie!