12 pistons and 3 cranks: With a little help from my friends.

Last May, during a photo shoot for an Automobile Collectible Classic story, my lovely little VW Scirocco 16V requested a new engine. It did this in subtle ways, such as pouring a six-foot puddle of oil out onto the street in front our photographer’s pristine mid-century modern home. (The street needed to be repaved to clean up the mess. Whoops, um, sorry.) Slightly more than slightly embarrassed, I figured it was about time to oblige, and I promptly called a friend at Volkswagen of America.  “I don’t care if I have to mortgage my house to pay for it, please find me me a new block. This will be the fifth engine I’ve put in the car, and I’ve just about had it with used blocks and I’m hoping this will be the last.”


No can do, he tells me: Volkswagen likes to support its past models about as much as Susan Sarandon wants to talk about the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Read my lips: No New Parts. A couple of months later, my VW friend redeemed his company’s disinterest in my predicament by sending me a link to an ad on, where someone was selling a freshly rebuilt 2.0-liter 16V block. Only problem was that it was in Connecticut, and I’m in California. For Karmic reasons, East Coast bureau chief Jamie Kitman graciously offered to pick it up for me, and he did – by throwing it in the back of some poor press car. He drove it to his favorite repair shop, Domenick’s European Car Repair in White Plains, NY, and placed it in a corner of the shop figuring I’d eventually find some way to get the block home from there.

I didn’t have to do anything, thanks to the unbelievable generosity of a friend at Mazda North America. See, a few weeks later, he called to tell me about the perfect condition 7300-mile yellow 1978 Mazda GLC he had just purchased on eBay — yellow plaid seats and all. (You might have seen it on And after we done laughing at how incredibly awful/awesome the car was, we started talking about the orphan block in White Plains. Turns out, the GLC was only an hour’s drive away. I somehow roped senior editor Joe Lorio into picking the block up from Domenick’s and driving it down to Mazda’s distribution center in New Jersey and plunking it into the trunk of the GLC. And a few weeks later, the block (and GLC) arrived at Mazda’s R&D Center in Irvine, CA… and I bet even with the extra engine in the trunk, the GLC weighed a third less than any other car it shared the transporter with.

It took me a few months to come and get it, but a few days before Christmas, I finally had a spare day–and so I flew down to L.A. My friend Eric picked me up in his E46 325i coupe and drove me down to Irvine. It had now been 5 months since I had driven my Volkswagen, and I couldn’t wait to get this engine in the car. When I finally laid eyes on the clean, oil-free block, I was so excited I could barely see straight. And yet I still managed to see a huge score in one of the cylinder walls. A score that somehow the guy I bought it from didn’t notice before he honed the cylinders and threw the engine together. I about threw up.

(For the record, I purchased the block from Allen at And no, I didn’t get my money back. Allen stopped responding to me when I sent photos of the block, which clearly showed hone marks over the scratch. I’d think long and hard before doing business with him.)

The score was deep enough that I feared it rendered the engine completely useless and me completely ripped off. But I still needed to get the engine out of Mazda’s basement. We chucked the lump into Eric’s trunk and drove to his house, where my friend Shad from GM was waiting with a shiny black Chevy Volt. The future is electric, the Volt is the 2011 Automobile of the Year, and its trunk easily fits another engine, woohoo! Shad and I headed north in the world’s only twin-engine, triple powertrain Chevy Volt. And thanks to great conversation and a whole lot of really bad singing, I was actually in a good mood by the time we arrived in the Bay Area. (It might have helped that I hit the Volt’s 101-mph speed limiter about 101 times and still managed to get over 35 mpg.)

Once I got home, I carted the Connecticut engine around town in the back of a Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid to the two best machine shops in town–and they both agreed the gouge in the cylinder wall was far too deep. Even second-oversize pistons wouldn’t get it out, so the block turned out to be completely useless.  It wasn’t a Merry Christmas for my VW, that’s for sure.

A few weeks later, I found myself at a junkyard pulling parts for my BMW when I turned around and saw a shiny red Passat. Under its hood? A perfect 2.0-liter 16V engine. Out it came, and into the back of the poor, unsuspecting Scion TC I was driving that week. The world’s only twin-engine 2011 Scion TC, kids! Since the engine looked great inside and out (and only had 153k miles on it) I was tempted to just throw it into my car, but my friend (multiple-time Targa Newfoundland winner) Bill Arnold about hit me with a torque wrench when he found out. I had no choice, he said, but to buy 1st-oversize pistons for the thing, bore it out, and start over from scratch with new everything.

He was right and I knew it. I somehow found new-old-stock 83.0-mm pistons and threw the whole lot into the back of my old BMW. And by whole lot I mean the one good block, 3 crankshafts, and 12 connecting rods. I had the machine shop bore and hone the new engine to match the pistons and then measure all of my cranks and rods to see which ones were the best.

A month later, I picked everything up in an Audi Q7 TDI and drove it home.

And stared at it all.

It took another full month before I gathered the courage to put it all back together. And in fact, the only way I was able to motivate myself was to drag all the parts to my friend Nate’s shop and force him (by threat of that very same torque wrench) to watch every move I made. Nate’s one of the best mechanics I’ve ever met, so I figured I couldn’t screw anything up under his watch. That, of course, meant I needed to throw the engine-in-pieces into the back of another press car – this time an unsuspecting MINI Cooper S Countryman.

It’s amazing how much space an engine takes up when it’s down to individual parts. By this time, my old head was mostly back together, but just the block alone was hundreds of parts and dozens of boxes. Eh, it all fit just fine in the Mini.

And four days later, in one piece, it fit just fine in the back of a Nissan Quest. Granted, the whole thing again weighed enough that I couldn’t lift it on my own, but that’s easily taken care of with an engine hoist and a couple of Rubbermaids. I still maintain that minivans make the best all-around crap haulers in the world, even though I was disappointed that the Quest doesn’t have heavy-duty tie-down cleats. Needless to say, I drove home, to use a quote from Richard Hammond, like a Christian, lest I become splattered by an unrestrained 300-lb lump of iron and aluminum in the back.

A day and a half later, the clock struck Easter Sunday and while my Catholic friends were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I was celebrating a far more unlikely revival- that of my little old Scirocco. It started for the first time at 3:07am on Sunday morning. And so far I’ve managed to put 360 miles on it with no problems. Gently breaking in a new engine sucks when you have a lead foot.

But what doesn’t suck is all the help I received from my friends. And it doesn’t suck that I have a job where I get to borrow from an endless supply of press cars. It took 11 different cars (and one car carrier) to haul parts around the country and from Connecticut to California to build me a new Volkswagen engine. One series hybrid, one parallel hybrid, one diesel; one supercharged engine, one turbo; two straight sixes, a couple of V-6s; and a bunch of four-bangers. That’s a whole lot of cars to help one little old Volkswagen.

Most of all, though, it took the help of a lot of friends. Thank you, guys!

This is the pristine beauty in which my engine block was smuggled from Connecticut to California - thanks to a dear friend at Mazda. Hope he's enjoying those black-and-yellow plaid seats.




12/29/2010: A Touareg Hybrid takes the rebuilt VW 16V block to the machine shop for a final post-mortem.




4/18/2011: A whole engine, in a million parts, in the back of a Mini Cooper S Countryman.



It took almost a year, but there's an engine in the front of that Scirocco 16V again. And I'm sore.


Click here to see video of the new engine starting for the very first time.