What Is a Crate Engine?Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
A crate engine is an engine sold separately from a vehicle. The name comes from the crates that engines are shipped in.
Crate engines are often replacement engines for vehicles with a non-functioning or damaged engine. They’re also frequently used to upgrade vehicles.
Inserting a modern crate engine into a classic vehicle gives drivers improved power and fuel efficiency. This can also be a way to extend the usable life of a vehicle. For a great car that’s made it 200,000 miles, a crate engine can be a fresh start, and an opportunity to go another 200,000 miles.
Crate engines can be new, but reconditioned, rebuilt, and even used engines are all considered crate engines.
Why Get a Crate Engine?
There are a lot of good reasons to get a crate engine, which explains their continued popularity. These are some of the main reasons why people elect to get a crate engine rather than rebuild their existing one.
Your Engine Doesn’t Work Anymore
When a vehicle’s engine stops working, the owner is tasked with a difficult choice. Engines can be rebuilt, but this process is often cost-prohibitive. It’s often less expensive to buy a crate engine. A busted engine can also be an opportunity to upgrade your existing engine.
You Want Power at a Reasonable Price
Sometimes you find your dream car, but it’s got a six-cylinder instead of a V8. This is frequently the case with classic Mustangs. Sometimes doing a V8 swap is less expensive than trying to find a good condition V8 classic.
High-performance engines may also be restricted to certain special editions that aren’t easy to get. This is certainly the case with the Boss 429 Mustang. Many also love the flat-plane crank sound of the GT350 but aren’t as in love with the price tag. Buying a Voodoo engine gives them high-revving fun in whatever vehicle they desire.
The Combination of Car and Engine You Want Doesn’t Exist
Obviously, vintage cars don’t have modern engines. But sometimes even modern vehicles don’t come with the engine you want. Jeep Wrangler Hemi swaps are great for this reason. If you have your heart set on a Wrangler but also want or need a V8, then you’ll need a crate engine. Thanks to crate engines, you can make your dream vehicle-engine combo. Whether that’s a Fox Body Coyote or a C10 with an LS engine.
Types of Crate Engines
New crate engines come from the manufacturer. Often, these engines are duplicates of production engines. Some engines are replicas of older, historic engines. New crate engines are comprised of all new parts, and will typically include some kind of warranty.
Popular new crate engine picks include the Coyote engine. Coyote Stock is a race category that has sprung up around Coyote crate engines, but people have also Coyote-swapped a wide range of vehicles.
Performance engines are also popular new crate engine picks. Many people opt to find these engines new because they have concerns about how hard a used performance engine has been pushed.
Reconditioned crate engines are like refurbished computers. They’re used, but they’re better than a used engine you pulled yourself. A reconditioned, or remanufactured, engine will have been cleaned, restored, and usually come with some kind of guarantee. Often they will have been tested by the manufacturer to ensure that performance and expectations match up.
This option makes sense for people who have classic vehicles and want to make sure they’re putting a classic engine inside.
Rebuilt engines are engines that have been rebuilt from the oil pan up. Unlike reconditioned engines, which often just need to be cleaned and tested, rebuilt engines have been totally disassembled and typically rebuilt with manufacturer parts.
With rebuilt engines, what you get is going to vary by shop. While some try to create a true stock replacement, others offer ultra-tuned performance engines. These aren’t usually tested to ensure manufacturer standards.
Used engines are exactly what they sound like: Engines pulled from other vehicles. The downside of these is that they will have some mileage on them, and they may have some preexisting issues. Like rebuilt engines, what your experience will be can vary wildly based on the shop you go to. While some only sell engines they know are in good condition, others have a more hands-off approach.
Most of the time, with used engines, there are no guarantees. You might get a good deal, and used is certainly the cheapest option. But it also might stop working in six months.
How To Pick a Crate Engine
How you select your crate engine will depend on what’s important to you. If you’re looking for an exact replacement engine, then you’ll just need to make sure you’re getting the same make and model. There are a few additional considerations for everyone else.
A lot of companies make great crate engines. But if you’re looking for the most straight-forward installation possible, then matching brand to brand makes a lot of sense. People love Coyote swapping Mustangs because it’s a Ford engine in a Ford car. Even older Mustangs will have an easier time connecting to it than an equivalent year Camaro would.
When looking for an engine to swap into a Jeep Wrangler, a Hemi makes a lot of sense because they share brand compatibility.
The notable exceptions to this are General Motors’ LS engines. LS engines are noteworthy for being able to be swapped into just about anything.
Horsepower and torque are important to a lot of drivers. When picking a crate engine it’s easy to aim for the biggest numbers. It’s not the best strategy though. If you upgrade your horsepower substantially, you’ll need to upgrade the rest of your vehicle. You’ll also be changing the vehicle’s weight balance. These are all considerations that will impact performance as much as your horsepower and torque specs.
It’s worth noting that typically more power comes at a higher price. That also means that other parts, like the transmission and driveshaft, will likely be more expensive.
There is a big difference in size between an overhead valve and overhead cam engine. If you’re replacing an ohv with an ohc engine, you’ll want to measure your available space several times before committing. Even within the same style and year range, big block engines are significantly larger than small blocks. You’ll want to make sure your new engine will fit before you get too excited (or spend too much money).
Keep in mind that some parts, like your car’s battery, can often be moved to the trunk to allow for a little bit of additional space.
Setting a budget is an important part of actually completing any car project. There is a huge range in costs on crate engines. By setting your budget early, and checking your desired parts against it, you’ll be able to keep your project from being a money pit.
If you’re doing an engine swap rather than a direct replacement, then you’ll also need to set aside money for the additional parts you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is to set aside at least half-as much as you spent on your crate engine. Other enthusiasts advise they’ve spent as much as the crate engine on associated parts.
Some people include short and long block engines in the crate engine category. There are big differences between short block, long block, and turn-key engines. A short block includes the engine block, the crank, and the pistons. A long block also includes cylinder heads, camshafts, and valve-train components.
Turn-key crate engines are fully assembled and ready to go. They’ll include everything in a long block, but also usually spark plugs, airflow sensors, and all those other bits and pieces that make engines work. This is the most “complete” engine.
Even with a turn-key style crate engine, you’ll likely have other components you need to purchase as well.
What Will You Need for Your Crate Engine?
While considering the budget, it’s good to take a minute and inventory the scope of your project. Only very rarely does someone just need an engine. Having everything you need to correctly install your engine is also important.
Shipping and Storage
Crate engines are heavy. Like anything that weighs hundreds of pounds, there are some obstacles to overcome when it comes to shipping and receiving a crate engine. If you work in a professional garage and have a loading dock, that alleviates some pressure. Otherwise you’ll need a liftgate service.
A liftgate is a hydraulic lift that allows something very heavy (your crate engine) to be safely lowered to the ground. Because of the nature of this service, you’ll most likely need to coordinate with the delivery drivers. Someone will probably need to be at home to physically take delivery of your engine.
In order to physically move your engine around and navigate it into your vehicle, you’ll need an engine hoist. You may also want to get a storage cradle. This makes the work of installing a crate engine significantly easier.
Engine Swap Components
If you’re not just inserting a direct replacement, you’ll most likely need a lot of other components to make your engine fit and work. Some things to consider are the transmission, the driveshaft, and the K-member. Perhaps most importantly, if you’re installing a modern engine you’ll want to find out how to get it to “talk” to your car.
Ford makes this process especially easy for Coyote engines with the engine control pack. This includes everything needed to allow the engine to monitor your vehicle’s activity.
You’ll also need a harness, to make sure the engine is correctly tethered. These usually aren’t included with a crate engine, because what you need can vary from vehicle to vehicle.
Crate Engine Installations
Once you have everything you need for your new crate engine, you’ll get to install everything. This is a very time-consuming process that requires a lot of tools and mechanical know-how. If you’re uncomfortable, it may be best to get a professional shop to do the work. You can also seek assistance from a more mechanically inclined friend.
Once your crate engine is installed and ready to go, make sure to double-check all of your connections before you take off.
A well-installed crate engine can greatly extend the life of a car. If you also upgraded or refreshed other vital parts, like your transmission and brakes, your car is basically as good as new.