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Rebuilding The Last Great American Motors V-8

Posted in How To on July 2, 2013
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Photographers: Alex Kreidl

Step into the right machine shop, and it's like a step back in time to when power was more important than fuel economy. There is an unmistakable combination of solvent, grease, and oil in the air, master machinists who needn't concern themselves with what "business casual" means, and manually operated equipment with analog readouts that first started duty well before this author was born.

For me, this is Valley Head Service—an engine shop that has been in business since Larry Ofria opened it in 1965. I'm guessing the shop looks largely the same today as it did 30 years ago, except with a little more history added each passing year. The walls of the shop are littered with evidence of Valley Head's accomplishments and triumphs. Old hoods and fenders from past race cars, plaques, trophies, newspaper and magazine articles, and countless signed old photos show evidence of working with some of the greatest men (and women) that auto racing has ever known.

It was only "too cool" of an experience for me—if you'll excuse the appropriately dated vernacular—to build an engine with a shop like this. Engine shops that have survived the economy shifts and the trend toward large-scale engine remanufacturing have evolved to become even more niche than they were 20 years ago. There are few, if any, stock rebuild jobs for everyday stock motors. Now customers are almost exclusively looking for custom engine work and machining on blocks 60 or 70 years out of production. These are jobs that only specialty engine shops can handle.

When it came to building the last great American Motors V-8, the venerable AMC 401, there was no other shop I could imagine doing a better job. Larry, the shop's owner and founder, helped AMC redesign its V-8 heads and came up with the dogleg port design that makes those AMC V-8 heads unmistakable.

This AMC 401 V-8 engine build was spurned by necessity. When the stock 360ci engine in my ’79 Cherokee blew speed holes out the side of the block and broke the camshaft in half, an entirely new engine was necessary. Starting with a 401 was a stroke of good luck, as we were searching for a stock 360ci replacement when a 401 popped up on Craigslist first. The pros of starting with an AMC 401? While it has the same architecture (as a 304ci or a 360ci), the 401 came with a high-nickel-content block, a forged crankshaft, forged connecting rods, and larger 2.248-inch journal bearings.

Larry is still there every day. You can head to Northridge, California, this afternoon and probably find him in the shop, along with Rueben, Spike, and Alex, machining and rebuilding some of the best engines ever put on a track or street.

This is the second part (Part 1 was in the March 2013 issue) of a 401ci V-8 rebuild that Valley Head produced for my mid-restoration '79 Cherokee project ($3K ThrillRide, March 2011)—a vehicle that I've dumped thousands into that I know I will never get back out. In the end, my restored, AMC 401-adorned, flawless Cherokee will maybe be worth a third of what I've put into it. But, I knew what I was getting into, and did so because it's what I wanted—and that's reason enough. Besides, when the heck has anyone in their right mind ever built a custom car to make money?!

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