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...

  • Wjtinfwb Over the years I've owned 3, one LH (a Concorde) a Gen 1 300 and a Gen 2 300C "John Varvatos". The Concorde was a very nice car for the time with immense room inside and decent power from the DOHC 3.5L. But quality was awful, it spent more time in the shop than the driveway. It gave way to a Gen 1 300, OK but the V6 was underwhelming in this car compared to the Concorde but did it's job. The Gen 1's letdown was the awful interior with acres of plastic, leather that did it's best imitation of vinyl and a featureless dashboard that looked lifted from a cheaper car. My last one was a '14 300C John Varvatos with the Pentastar. Great car, sufficient power and exceptional highway mileage. The interior was much better than the original as well. It was felled by a defective instrument cluster that took over 90 days to fix and was ultimately lemon law' d back to FCA. I'd love one of the 392 powered final edition 300s but understand they're already sold out and if I had an extra 60k available, would likely choose a CPO BMW 540i for comparable money.
  • Dukeisduke Thanks Cary. Folks need to make sure they buy the correct antifreeze, since there are some many OEM-specific ones out there (Dex-Cool, Ford gold, Toyota red and pink, etc.).And sorry to hear about your family situation - my wife and I have been dealing with her 88-yo mom, moving her into independent senior living, selling her house, etc. It's a lot to deal with.
  • FreedMike Always lusted after that first-gen 300 - particularly the "Heritage Edition," which had special 300 badging and a translucent plastic steering wheel (ala the '50s and '60s "letter cars").
  • Dave M. Although the effective takeover by Daimler is pooped upon, this is one they got right. I wasn't a fan of the LHs, mostly due to reported mechanical, NVH and build quality issues, but I though Chrysler hit it out of the park with the LXs. The other hyped release that year was the Ford Five Hundred, which, while a well-built car with superior interior space, couldn't hold a candle to the 300.
  • Art Vandelay I always liked those last FWD 300's. Been ages since I've seen one on the road though. Lots of time in the RWD ones as rentals. No complaints whatsoever.