Drivetrain Torture Test: What Goes Wrong?

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
drivetrain torture test what goes wrong

The sustained high speeds at the Real Hoopties of New Jersey 24 Hours of LeMons proved very effective at encouraging rods to throw, bearings to spin, and transmissions to explode into a billion pieces. So, what fails when cheap, tired cars spend hour after hour with pedal affixed firmly to metal?

If Mitsubishi had anything to do with the car in question, as was the case with this unfortunate Plymouth Laser, you can count on catastrophic transmission failure. Actually, you can also count on catastrophic engine failure, if the transmission happens to hold together for an extra hour or so.

We were all impressed by the Laser’s dramatic transmission failure… until the Scuderia Regurgito Fiat 131 came in on the wrecker. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen with drag race cars making monster power, but this car had 86 horsepower when new.

The Fiat’s driver limped away with nothing worse than a big bruise on his leg and a dramatic racing story to tell. We were all very happy that no sharp parts got launched his way.

Small-block Chevy V8s have a truly miserable longevity record in LeMons racing; I’d say that 80% of them suffer some sort of major breakdown during the course of a 24 Hours of LeMons weekend. This one, installed in a 3rd-gen Firebird, lost a connecting rod, which punched a hole in the oil pan, which spewed all its oil on the track and put a hold on the fun for quite a while.

This ex-dirt-track Monte Carlo had no end of troubles with its small block (allegedly a 305, but come on now!). Among its many mechanical woes were the 16 bent pushrods and the fried crankshaft. With minutes remaining before the checkered flag on Sunday, the Monte returned to the track… where it promptly blew up again.

The Saab B/H engine is another ticking time bomb. Oh, sure, the Saab 900 is pretty quick on a road course… for a while.

Then something like this will happen.

You can go ahead and get a replacement engine… but that just means that this will happen.

Speaking of Saabs, what happens when you bolt a turbocharged Saab H to a Nissan transmission using a homemade adapter plate, to make a Saab-powered 300ZX? Transmission hash!

Team Rust In The Wind did some sort of horrifying Field Expedient Engineering kludge on their transmission, fusing the thing in fourth gear and finishing the race that way. For this, they earned the Heroic Fix trophy.

For reasons nobody understands, the Toyota MR2 is the world’s most efficient engine-bearing-destroying device ever to hit the road. Rod bearings, main bearings, cam bearings; if it’s a bearing and it’s inside a Toyota engine, the MR2 will find a way to spin it. For a while, the prevailing theory was that the combination of Toyota A engine and MR2 cooling system and/or oil pan was causing overheating and oil starvation in turns (the A also fails with depressing regularity when installed in Corollas and Celicas, though nowhere near as often as in the MR2), but then we started seeing various Toyota V6s installed in MR2s and they failed as well. You can read the story of how the Schumacher Taxi Service got screwed by their 3VZ-powered MR2 here. In fact, Toyota engines, including the allegedly bulletproof 20/22R, have fared pretty badly in LeMons racing.

With all this carnage, we had the usual “Here we go again” sinking feeling when we saw the Speedycop Galaxie limp off the track and burst into engine-compartment flames. This car has Ford 302 power, and the Ford Windsor has demonstrated extremely iffy reliability in LeMons racing; it’s not quite as bad as the small-block Chevy, but I’ve seen dozens of 302s and 351s put rods through oil pans over the last few years. Fortunately, this time the 302 in question had just popped a power-steering hose.

Down there with the Chevy in the reliability department, the Honda B engine has but one desire during a grueling endurance race: set my connecting rods free! Actually, the Honda D and H engines are nearly as bad, though the D tends to blow head gaskets more often than it throws rods.

So, what engines don’t blow up in LeMons racing? The Ford Modular 4.6 has been quite a LeMons survivor. The Chrysler Neon engine holds up well under the abuse of a LeMons race. Nissan SR engines have been good. Volkswagen engines? Nein!

If you’ve got 3D glasses, be sure to check out my 3D photo gallery at Cars In Depth, where you’ll see the busted parts coming right at you.

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4 of 26 comments
  • I_Like_Pie I_Like_Pie on Apr 14, 2011
    "“the reliable engines become time bombs, and the unreliable engines become the workhorses.”" I think that the $500 price is coming into play here too. A $500 neon is basically any used neon that is going to the next owner as a daily driver. A $500 Honda Civic or Toyota is going to be a real stinker on its last page of life.
    • Mechimike Mechimike on Apr 14, 2011

      I think you've hit on something. When the power windows crap out and the A/C quits wheezing and the leather seats get a little tattered, no one's going to want to keep that BMW on the road, but I've seen some pretty battered Accords and Camrys and Civics trade hands for a grand or more. It all has to do with resale value. Neons? No one I know would want to DD a Neon, hence decent used ones are pretty cheap. That may explain the uncanny success of Alfas in the series, too.

  • Morea Morea on Apr 14, 2011

    Actually, Alfa has traditionally made tough engines, the unreliable bits lurk elsewhere.

    • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Apr 14, 2011

      No doubt - the Italians taught Lucas Electric everything they know...

  • Redapple2 Why does anyone have to get permission to join? Shouldnt the rules to race in a league be straight forward like. Build the car to the specs. Pay the race entry fee. Set the starting grid base on time trials.?Why all the BS?I cant watch F1 any more. No refuel. Must use 2 different types of tires. Rare passing. Same team wins every week. DRS only is you are this close and on and on with more BS. Add in the skysports announcer that sounds he is yelling for the whole 90 minutes at super fast speed. I m done. IMSA only for me.
  • Redapple2 Barra at evil GM is not worth 20 mill/ yr but dozens (hundreds) of sports players are. Got it. OK.
  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?
  • ToolGuy "At risk of oversimplification, a heat pump takes ambient air, compresses it, and then uses the condenser’s heat to warm up the air it just grabbed from outside."• This description seems fairly dramatically wrong to me.
  • SCE to AUX The UAW may win the battle, but it will lose the war.The mfrs will never agree to job protections, and production outsourcing will match any pay increases won by the union.With most US market cars not produced by Detroit, how many people really care about this strike?