Import Introspective - Engine Builder Magazine

Import Introspective

For those of you who dedicate your engine business to domestics, could you ever see yourself building a V6 that makes 2,000+ hp? Does that interest you? Do you think its possible? Have you looked into the large import platforms like Audi R8, Lamborghinis or the Nissan GT-R? If you don’t work on imports, do you have a reason? Are you not interested or is it too much hassle to consider putting time into a different platform? I can tell you from experience and personal dealings that you’d be amazed at what import engines can achieve and how remarkable they can be if you put what you knew and know of the domestic world into an import.

It’s absolutely stunning to see a 4.1L aluminum V6 twin-turbo engine make 2,600 hp and run 6 seconds in the quarter mile. It’s equally, if not more, impressive to see a ’90s-era 3.0L Nissan V6 iron block run a 6.2-second quarter mile. We are talking really fast times on significantly less displacement.

It’s impressive and I urge anyone reading who isn’t currently into imports to just give it a try or poke around some of the popular stuff to see what you could achieve. How cool is it to be exposed to so many engines that you can learn from? We truly have a badass job if you ask me.

I’m the owner of Engineered Performance, a Dallas/Fort Worth-area engine shop specializing in import engine work. I’ll take in the occasional domestic job, but my passion is the import sector of race engine machining/building and design. I focus on the Nissan/Datsun platform developing parts from the vintage U20 4 cylinder all the way up to the new VK56 and VR38 engine platforms.

This is a Nissan VG30 engine. It used to be that an 11 or 12-second quarter-mile car was really fast. These days, if you’re not 9 seconds or faster, you’re getting your doors blown off by the rest of the crowd.

I pretty much learned my way around an engine based off a 1992 Nissan 300ZX platform. Yes, I know, the dreaded VG30 – hard to work on, complex and the engine bay of nightmares – but I managed to pull through. I quickly started soaking up the essence of what embodied race engine machining and that drew me in hard. It was the ability to take something of great engineering and massage it into something that sang like an orchestra when running.

I love what I do and it’s important that readers here get the sense of the passion I put into my work. What I want to discuss with you is a Rolodex of concerns, perspectives and thoughts on the import market. I want to offer some perspective on the import race engine market and see if I can’t convey the trends and the path this market is heading towards.

Good, Better, Best

No matter what business you start, your first few years will always be a little tough. Starting out fresh trying to make a name for yourself, trying to distinguish your work/offerings from others, the list grows long. But one thing that never changes is the importance of how you perceive the market. The import race engine market has an uncanny resemblance to extreme trends. Don’t make the mistake of saying it’s a fad because fads come and go, but trends stick around for a while.

What I mean by this is that there are great shops, good shops and bad shops. We all know the bad shops come and go and unfortunately do some terrible things along the way. The trend that sets the pace are the good and great shops picking up the pieces and fixing clients’ issues as best they can. The flip side of that coin is that the import customer base has been hit so hard with terrible work and spent so much money they grow tired of investing more into a platform they feel has let them down. But it’s not the platform, it’s the bad shops working on the platform that put the bad taste in people’s mouths. 

Personally, I fix a lot of other shops’ mistakes and issues. I’ve had engines come in with oil rings in the top ring land, which makes the engine huff oil and fill catch cans up, and I’ve had assemblies come in with so little clearance that I’m amazed the engine ever operated. Bad tunes can also kill really expensive builds as can owners who choose the cheapest fix to remedy an issue and it grenades the project.

Import cars like this Datsun can now carry stunning amounts of horsepower using the right engine components and building techniques.

I often get builds that come in with two main failures – burned pistons due to detonation and rod bearing failure/oil starvation. When I receive an engine that has a bad rod bearing, I immediately go into oil delivery systems analysis. Why did this system fail? How was it setup to run and what was done (if anything at all) to try and solve the issue? Nine out of 10 times I see a new crank and bearings as a “solution” when the individuals or shops “assembling” these engines never dove into reasons why the rod bearings failed.

Most import engines retain a cross-drilled crankshaft for low speed usage. In the race engine world we don’t use cross-drilled crankshafts for significant reasons, but mainly due to the pinwheeling affect it has on oil being supplied. It’s a huge problem and for some reason the import market has a hard time grasping why a straight shot or high speed oiling system is an improvement over the low speed setup. 

Nissan incorporated the high speed oiling system in the new VR38DETT, which was so refreshing to see. But many applications today are still cross-drilled and it’s the No. 1 cause of rod bearing failures in import engines. 

The fix can be as simple as going in and redirecting the oil within the crankshaft or investing in a better-made crank. Oiling systems are a massive hurdle for a lot of engine platforms and dedicating some time to designing or upgrading this system can have massive gains in efficiency. 

For those of us who take this job seriously and want the absolute best for our clients, we strive for excellence with everything. No corner cutting and no skimping on parts. We can’t let something leave our shop second best. Most, if not all good race engine machine shops do it right or not at all. There is a lot riding on doing jobs correctly.

In many ways, some shops’ neglect or carelessness in the import market has kept many of us gainfully employed. The downside to that is the amount of work out there and not enough of us to take in all those projects. It’s truly a fine line to straddle. Overall, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had really good success in the import market.

Driving Force

In the import market, some platforms demand and require more work than others. No platform in existence ever succeeded without investment from the engine building community. Platforms will never move forward without true enthusiasts putting in the time, money and effort to push the envelope and advance the technology. People have to be really passionate about getting things done. It’s the only way any platform in this market can get ahead or truly survive. 

This is a Honda F20B engine. Honda platforms are some of the most popular import engines around and are capable of some staggering performance numbers.

The two import platforms this applies to most are the Honda market and Toyota Supra market. Look at the achievements those two platforms have accomplished because people invested their time and kept pushing the boundaries. Other markets should really pay attention to how these two operate.

A huge following in the Honda world constantly sees strides in efficiency, and the Toyota Supra market keeps getting faster, despite its advanced age. Platforms such as the Supra are now called classic or vintage platforms and are becoming very popular. Today’s import market shares a lot of commonalities between assemblies. Many manufactures are putting their twist on certain systems that they feel work better – some definitely don’t, but generally they are all pretty close to each other.

I see more and more shops building Nissan, Toyota and Subaru engines than anything else. The flat-4 crowd, as different as they are, have a massive influence on the import world. They are purists to a fault, but are very quick to latch onto things that work well and rightfully so. I think that’s good and bad because it defers attention away from those who go against the grain and keeps people going mainstream who seem to get wrapped up in more hype than actual performance oriented success.

The Toyota crowd is actually bigger than I ever expected. My eyes were opened to realize how big the 1ZZ and 2ZZ markets were and how much the owners love their 1.8L 4-cylinder assemblies. It’s fascinating to see how much buzz a small engine gets. But I have to remember that the Honda crowd is the same as well. Passionate people willing to push the boundaries to get everything they can out of their super sport compact. 

Then there’s the Nissan crowd. This one rings close to my heart because I’m a diehard Nissan guy. The biggest drawback though is willingness from the enthusiast community. The bigger platforms like the RB and VR get used for performance. However, many people want a lot, but refuse to invest into it, which makes the job sometimes difficult. On the other hand, there are those who want more no matter what and they are the ones we love because they give us liberty and freedom to make things a reality.

Import Parts

Out of all the engines I build or work on, they all seem to share the same failures, which result in having to rebuild with better quality parts. Pistons and rods are vital, but I can’t stress enough the importance on engine bearings. There is simply no other part on the market as important as your engine bearings. It is the workhorse (in many builder’s eyes) that needs the most attention. After all, if your bearings go, it’s an extreme acceleration of catastrophic failure elsewhere in the engine. 

Other pitfalls I see are incorrect ring solutions. When I pull engines down to do our inspection process its always important to write a story on the particular engine so you are able to revert back to some key notes about how things were so you can remedy the issue going forward with a new assembly. Pistons can benefit from this greatly. 

Some piston manufacturers take the time to incorporate key features to help in durability, efficiency and stability with things such as 3D radius milling, dual oiling on the pin bores and radial skirt bottoms for better oil drain back to the sump.

Many engine bearing companies have tons of upgraded features as well. It’s important to consult the manufacturers so you know you are getting exactly what you need to combat the issues you are trying to solve. It’s important to know these details and discuss with the manufacturer what you need and what you’re seeing fail so you both can come up with a solution that will fix or get you to a total solution to a problem.

Future Outlook

The import world has made big strides over the years, and it continues to surprise me at every turn. Just 10-12 years ago, if you were running an 11-12 second quarter-mile time, you were considered insanely fast. Fast forward to today’s standards and if you own a GT-R and aren’t making 1,000-1,200 hp and not running 9 seconds as a daily driver, you’re considered slow. This is crazy to comprehend sometimes.

While the times are changing and the import market is implementing new directions and approaches to making power, we always revert back to what the domestic scene is doing to generate power and it never fails. My hats off to the folks who focus on the big Chevy, Ford and Hemi stuff. You all are the reason the import world can do what we do.

In the next 10-15 years, import engines will see a massive revamp. What I mean by this is more platforms will begin to focus on actual solutions versus throwing parts at it until it somehow sticks. Big problems like cross-drilled crankshafts will start to fall to the wayside. Bearing choices will be better thought out in terms of power goals and usage. Piston designs to support better fuel burn will be implemented and not just made to facilitate a need, but to improve efficiency.

Cylinder heads will undoubtedly be a significant, if not the most crucial development. Without the cylinder head there is no power. Along with that will be camshaft designs such as asymmetrical, valve train advancements and better materials. The list goes on and on. 

The import market can be just as big, if not bigger, than the domestic side of things as long as the people who buy and feed the market continue to invest into it. None of this is a reality if people do not strive for more in terms of better parts and solutions. It’s the fuel that consistently feeds the fire for innovation. 

Speaking of pushing the import market to new levels, I’d love to see more sanctioned racing. I’d like to see import drag racing similar to what Pro Stock racing is. I’d also like to see Road Course racing dedicated to specific platforms that emulates a real racing setup rather than a weekend event for fun. I want to see more import shops and companies doing engine development using an engine dyno and not just chassis dynos. I want to see build offs of similar assemblies as a fair gesture to other shops to show what they can do.

The opportunities are endless, but until the market gets really serious, all of what I’ve stated will never happen. There needs to be a huge import culture shift. Will you be part of it?

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