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A 500hp EFI


Runs Hard,


Bitchin' and

Idles Like

a Stocker



Probably one of the most exciting aspects of the hard-core aftermarket parts business right now is the availability of enough parts to build an engine completely from aftermarket components. The engine you see here is based on a '69 Ford big-block, but not one part was ordered from the Blue Oval. Every component has been heavily tuned-on by its manufacturer to be stronger, lighter, and produce more power per pound while looking like the parts from the era of Free Love.

Getting these components together and having them look like they were meant to be requires some refinement, but that's where this story comes in. Check out how master craftsman Dan Van Auken, part owner of Wheel to Wheel, the vehicle and drivetrain development company that builds many show and prototype cars for GM (as well as most of the Detroit-based PHR engines), builds this engine for his dream car, a Superformance Cobra.

 Van Auken said, "I have dreamed of owning a Cobra since high school, and last year decided to buy a Superformance Cobra--which comes sans engine from South Africa. In my mind, a Cobra needs a FE-based big-block engine, but I couldn't find used parts I felt were worthy of the prices. So I started researching the aftermarket and found an all-aluminum, electronic fuel-injected, FE-appearing engine could be built that would easily make 500 hp."


The company that really makes building these engines possible is Carroll Shelby Enterprises, in Gardena, California (310-538-2914). Ol' Shel got back into the Cobra business a few years ago, but found the engine supply to be the linchpin in producing complete cars. Never one to be slowed by details, Shelby decided to build an aluminum 427 FE engine. The blocks are machined in-house and they now have their own forged FE pistons and connection rods, and are finishing development on a hardcore CNC porting program. Some of the other hard-to-find items, like the shaft rockers, timing chain cover, valvecovers, and water pump (made by Edelbrock), are also available from Shelby. Federal-Mogul has a huge parts list for these engines, too.


Van Auken likes the Shelby block: "It has a lot of gussets and double-cross-bolted, billet main caps for a lot of strength. The oiling system is more conventional than the original side oiler, which makes it easier to get working right. Two oil galleries that run down the valley carry all the oil through the engine." The block is also capable of running the famous SOHC heads, for traditionalists.


On the cost side, Van Auken says, "I tried to find a good, used 427 block to start with, but everything I looked at was either .030 inch over in the bores, rusty, or just plain used up--and people wanted a lot of money for that junk! It turned out the Shelby stuff was a bargain as I knew it was right from the start."

Since this Cobra is meant for street duty and premium fuel isn't getting any cheaper, the compression ratio of the engine is a mild 9.9:1 to allow the usage of regular-grade, low octane gasoline. Keeping the compression low hurts max power production, but the engine easily makes 1 hp per cubic inch, which means 500 hp in a 2,515-pound car! That power to weight ratio is enough to scare the "you know what" out of even the most jaded person. Although Van Auken isn't going to make big, big horsepowerwith this combination, he wanted to overkill the bottom end in case he stepped up the compression or induction system in the future.

"I always wanted a Cobra engine that had the Weber carburetor-look--you know, the two rows of multiple carbs under the long air cleaner--but one that was actually electronically fuel injected," said Van Auken. I found a company, TWM, in Goleta, California (805-967-9478), that makes aluminum intakes and throttle bodies that look like Weber carbs and ordered some parts up to see if it would all fit under the hood of the Cobra."

"After some measuring, I realized if TWM machined their intake to tip each of the throttle bodies 10 degrees towards the center of the engine, the air cleaners would squeeze under the little scoop in the hood. I then flipped the injectors around so the fuel rails and injectors were located in between the throttle bodies so they looked more like carburetors. This created a real packaging challenge, as there is no space between the bodies, but I needed to fit the fuel rails, fuel pressureregulator, throttle linkage, and custom-built vacuum plenum in there. It all fit, but only after some serious whittling."

The really trick part about this engine is that it looks cool, is very efficient both inside and out, and has a lot of the things Van Auken can apply to any type of engine. It's also very subtle, so take some time to really look over how Van Auken constructed and integrated everything. That's almost as cool as the way it sounds blasting by in Third gear at 100 mph!

Van Auken acquired all the components and is beginning the process of refining them to work in concert with each other. Notice how he designs and builds most of the componentry to perform multiple tasks, allowing him to package systems better than what may seem possible. Also, note how he has built the engine to be high-tech, but look low-tech in every way--a feat not as easy as you might think!



his all-aluminum, 498ci engine just so happens to look like a 427 side oiler Ford engine, but it's different--it's built with all aftermarket parts. The most primary part is this Shelby block, which might seem expensive at first thought. Take a look around for a used block, see how horrible they are, and you might be on the phone to Shelby and friends!



 is a tube chassis, fiberglass-bodied Superformance Cobra (800-29-SNAKE), which is built in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and shipped to the USA in pieces. Experts consider this ride one of the nicest, best performing Cobra replicas available, period. The Superformance record in the One Lap of America competition backs th

Once here, various distributors around the country assemble the components into "roller" chassis for an owner and then they need to buy or build an engine to power their Cobra. Van Auken is obviously building his own engine!






Van Auken wanted a six-speed manual transmission in his Cobra, but fitting a Borg-Warner T56 six-speed in the space designed for a four-speed is a challenge. That was no problem for Van Auken, as he chiseled 2 inches out of the overall length of the clutch bellhousing/trans, converted from the modern "pull-off" clutch to a traditional "push-on" clutch, moved the shifter 3 inches forward from its stock location, and converted the electronic speedo drive to a cable drive with a special Borg Warner housing from Rockland Standard. While most would shudder at the thought of making all these changes, Van Auken is a pro, so he dove right in. We were impressed everything worked perfectly the first time the car was driven.




Held in place by double-cross-bolted mains, the billet-steel 4.375-inch stroker crank from L.A. Enterpises (562-926-0403) swings 6.635-inch steel Oliver connecting rods on big-block Chevyjournals. This is overkill for a 500hp engine, but Van Auken might step it up in the future and wanted to have the bottom end to be able to withstand it.








The dual-kickout, full-length sump aluminum oil pan from Aviad (818-998-8991) holds 8 quarts of oil and uses multiple trap doors in the kickouts to keep the oil near the pickup at all times. This is important on a big hp engine in a car that can achieve high cornering forces.



n Auken had CP Pistons (949-567-9000) build custom examples based on his dimensions on this sheet of paper. He created this drawing by scribing a line with the head bolted to the block, reaching in through the bore to scribe the edge of the bore. Then he measured in from the scribed bore diameter on the head and used those measurements to create a drawing. He added dimensions to the drawing (like the combustion chamber volume, valve angle from bore centerline, etc.) and faxed that to CP for them to create the shape and size of the valve reliefs, attain the 9.9:1 compression ratio, and create a good "quench" area for the combustion to occur.


The Edelbrock heads come with 76cc combustion chambers and valve sizes of 2.090/1.660 for the intake/exhaust, but Van Auken had Wheel to Wheel's Dwayne Welder rework the heads to flow better at mid-to-high lift.







The 427 FE oiling system pumps oil to the top end of the engine through one of the head bolt holes into the rocker shaft. The oil is then distributed to each rocker through the anchor hole for each rocker. Just a heads up, Van Auken discovered the pushrod ends bluing early on in dyno testing, so he extended the groove on the inside diameter of the rocker to get more oil to the pushrod cup on the rocker.




With the piston and rod combo on the crank, you can see the zero deck height of the piston at TDC (top dead center) and the Shelby-provided block studs, but you probably can't tell the steel cylinder liners sit .003-inch over the deck of the block. This is done because sealing the combustion chambers on an all aluminum engine can be difficult--but with the cylinder liners a bit high, extra clamping pressure is applied to the critical cylinder/cylinder head mating surfa


The amazing thing about a well thought out system is how right everything looks and works. Notice the air temperature sensor mounted on the air cleaner base, how the fuel pressure regulator on the lower left fuel rail is tucked under the rail across from it, and how clean the throttle linkage setup looks. This is the result of a lot of work to get the entire system compact, clean, and functional.


To provide one central point for the idle air control (IAC) sensor, manifold air pressure (MAP) sensor and power brake fitting to access the engine vacuum, Van Auken created a vacuum plenum. The plenum was made by machining a depression in a piece of 1.500-inch aluminum and welding a plate over the top of it. Eight hoses, one from each runner, are plumbed in one end of the plenum and the sensors and fitting are located on various surfaces of the plenum. The plenum bolts over the crankcase vent flange opening in the intake to seal it and not interfere with the throttle linkage or fuel rails.



Because it ran into the distributor, Van Auken cut off a section of the fuel rail extrusion, welded on a blockoff plate and welded on a "T" to mount the pressure regulator at a 90-degree angle to the extrusion.


Does this look tight? By hiding the fuel rails, injectors, vacuum plenum, and throttle linkage between the throttle bodies, Van Auken has achieved his goal of creating a vintage look with all the modern amenities. 


With the engine installed in the car, you can see how the air cleaners will just barely fit under the hood by tipping them toward each other at 10 degrees.



To ensure no problems with the ignition system, Van Auken used an MSD billet distributor, coil, 6AL control box, and wires. Since this camshaft is a steel billet, it requires a bronze distributor gear, which takes some work to get correctly positioned on the camshaft for proper tooth engagement and shaft endplay with the distributor gear. Van Auken also made sure the thrust face of the distributor gear slightly lifts the shaft in the distributor housing, while not bottoming it out, so it doesn't inordinately load the distributor shaft top bearing. This is often overlooked on the Ford engine with dire results. To check this, the distributor gear is moved up and down on the shaft while endplay is measured. Van Auken found the total endplay was about .050 inch on this distributor and set the distributor gear in the block to split this distance. The coil mount was whittled out of billet aluminum. Notice how good the ARP fasteners look on this engine--a minor but telling detail that makes this engine look as good as it's going to run.



The normal water heater outlets in the intake manifold were used to hide the EFI engine temperature and fan-actuation sensors. So, Van Auken built this 1-inch thick aluminum spacer to fit between the thermostat mount and the water expansion tank, and then drilled and tapped it for the heater outlet and mechanical temperature gauge sender. The spacer required modification of the expansion tank to create clearance for one of the hoses. To do this, Van Auken put an elbow in the relatively soft brass tank by hitting a tube with a hammer into the tank.



Let's see; custom block, heads, oil pan, etc. Think a factory dipstick will work on this baby? Dan didn't think so either. Van Auken whipped out a custom one in no time by using a 3/8 od chrome-moly tube for the dipstick tube and a Chevy LT1 dipstick cut down to represent the proper oil depth. He attached it to the oil pan using a Swedge Lock fitting. For the top of the tube, Van Auken machined up an end adapter so the handle portion of the dipstick, and especially the O-ring would seat in the tube.




One of the advantages of having a top-flight engine development division in your company is the ability to bolt your latest project on the dyno and make power pulls. Van Auken handed the FE clone over to his engine team of Dave Henninger (shown) and Kurt Urban, who work at Wheel to Wheel, but are also well known engine builders and drag racers in their own right. Van Auken uses many of his personal projects to try new ideas and refine current processes without having heinous deadlines get in the way. This way, when a customer comes in asking for something, he has experience with it and can whip something up with confidence.



The front pulley drive is simple but has plenty of little tricks in it. Van Auken found the Australian maker of this combination harmonic balancer/lower pulley, Romac (, and had the pieces clear powdercoated to prevent them from rusting. He also built the timing pointer from a piece of 1/8-inch sheet aluminum and bolted it to the front cover after coating the bolts with blue Loctite.


The upper pulleys are March underdrive versions (the March alternator pulley is not on yet). The alternator bracketry from Shelby is neat, but required spacers machined from 4130 aluminum to get everything aligned properly. The oil level mark was determined before assembling the engine by filling the oil pan with oil to where it was below the windage tray.



To tune the engine for driveability, many situations are simulated to determine the optimal air/fuel ratios and spark timing. To perform the testing, Van Auken drives down the road at a constant rpm and slightly tips the throttle while Henninger reads the air/fuel ratio and other parameters like temperatures, pressures, etc. Henninger then changes the fuel/spark tables to optimize them based on the readings in these situations. This is done for situations like low-speed cruising (25, 35, 45 mph) and high-speed (70, 80 mph) cruising. Most of the wide open throttle (WOT) parameters are determined on the dyno.




Van Auken hid all the wires needed to send information to the injector control unit in this one bundle that comes out the back of the engine. Inside the sheathing are wires connecting the bank-fire fuel injectors, throttle position sensor, idle air control sensor, MAP sensor, and coolant and air temperature sensor to the controller. Notice the controller cleanly mounted in the background over the passenger footwell. (ARROW)



Since this is a street car, Van Auken designed it to provide a thick torque curve and run on readily available pump gas. We'd say almost 600 lb-ft of torque and 515 hp is enough to motivate a 2,515-pound car, would you?