Engine swaps have been around since man built the automobile, but they only became popular in the hot rod era when racing was becoming a common pastime. What better way to increase the performance of your old Deuce coupe than to swap a big, burly V8 into it?
Relatively speaking, not much has changed. Engine swaps are just as popular as they were back then, but these days, things are a little more complex. With so much focus being placed emissions standards for automobiles, the days of dropping any motor into your modern road-going hot rod are in jeopardy, especially in California.
Most states in the continental U.S. have rather sensible smog laws, some requiring tailpipe emissions tests, while others do not. For those of you living in those areas, count your blessings and consider yourself lucky because if you’re like me living in the Golden State, owning, modifying, and legally registering an engine-swapped car is about as easy as winning the lottery.
The problem is this: In California, not only do you have to pass an emissions and visual test every two years but the engine (with some exceptions) also has to be from the same year or newer vehicle. That means I can swap a KA24DE from a ’95 Nissan 240SX into my ’91 240SX but not an SR20DET because it was never offered stateside in a 240SX. Oh, and all emissions control components must be present and functioning properly. There’s so much confusion with the California engine swap law that I still don’t fully understand it. Despite being one of the largest modified automobile hotbeds in the world, California does everything in its power to make it a long and tedious process to own an engine-swapped, legally registered vehicle.
To further add complexity to the legislation, an engine swap cannot have any aftermarket parts on it unless they have been CARB (California Air Resources Board) approved. The law also states that the conversion engine must meet or exceed the emissions standards of the donor vehicle and the engine must be from the same type or family of vehicle based on gross vehicle weight. This is why a GM LS3 V8 can be swapped into a 240SX.
I’ve talked to individuals who have gone through the CARB process with older GM LS1 and LS2 engines, and while it can be done, you’d better do your homework and ensure you use all the right parts because it just takes one wrong part to fail the entire process.
Thanks to GM, though, the procedure is as straightforward as it can be. General Motors has taken the time (and money) to CARB approve its LS3 engine package, taking all the guesswork out of what is needed to get proper CARB approval.
Called the E-Rod kit, the setup includes a brand-new 420hp LS3 crate motor, catalytic converters, exhaust manifolds, a wiring harness and ECU, an evap canister, and all the sensors needed to get the engine running.
If you’ve been following along with Project LS13, you’ll see that I’ve followed GM’s instructions to a T and used all the necessary parts when swapping this engine into the S13.
However, no matter how good a job I did, a California state referee needed to ensure I followed all the rules, and only after that would he provide me with the proper paperwork and sticker to drive this car legally.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I’ve poured more than half a year of my blood, sweat, and tears into building the car all by myself. With the exception of some wiring, this entire swap was done by yours truly.
Setting up an appointment with a referee proved rather easy, and within a few days of making the phone call, I was at a referee station. Of course, the moment I broke out my camera to take some photos, I was immediately halted and told I in no way was allowed to take any photographs of the process without permission from the state of California. So, unfortunately, you’ll have to visualize the process, because I don’t have any photos to go with the ordeal.
I was met by a rather quiet and professional referee who explained to me that he would first inspect the car to see if it had all the emissions components in place before moving onto the sniffer test. I stood and tried to ask some questions, but he was short with his answers, focusing on the car. I could tell he didn’t want to say too much because he knew I was from a magazine. With his flashlight searching both under the car and inside the deep pockets of the engine bay, it looked like everything was being checked off the list quite quickly. I did notice that in a few instances the ref pointed his flashlight at the adjustable fuel pressure regulator I had used. I thought nothing of it, but little did I know this would be the cause of all my soon-to-be headaches.
After some more poking, prodding, and plugging in his OBD computer, the ref came over and said the catalytic converters were in a good spot. I had feared their placement would make or break the swap because there was no specific information as to how to place them other than as close as you can to the exhaust manifolds. He told me the car passed the OBD test and everything else checked out . . . except the adjustable fuel pressure regulator.
He said he would have to call his boss and double-check, but having an adjustable fuel pressure regulator on any California emissions–equipped car is illegal. Puzzled, I looked at him and pulled out the GM installation manual and pointed out where it said to set fuel pressure to constant 60 psi. How was I supposed to do that without having an adjustable regulator? He didn’t have much of an answer but said he would call his boss to confirm.
Ten minutes later he returned with the answer I expected: It was illegal and he couldn’t pass the car with it installed. At this point I was frustrated, angry, and disheartened. The regulator is set to a constant pressure and therefore the engine runs exactly like it was meant to be when CARB did the testing on it. The ref rebutted by stating that I could change the pressure as soon as I drove out of here. Right, because that’s what I would want to do after spending all this time to get the engine to run properly. I’d change the fuel pressure so it would run worse. I replied that I could go pull the cats tomorrow and straight pipe it without him knowing, but my attempt to justify it was futile. His boss gave him the orders, and while he felt for me, there was nothing he could do.
After some quick thinking I told him I would come back the next day with the regulator screw welded on so it would technically be nonadjustable. He shook his head and said that wouldn’t fly and that I would need to figure out a different way to make it work. He told me to call CARB and see what fuel pressure regulator they used during testing.
Even more defeated and aggravated, I drove back to the office thinking how ridiculous the process was. Instead of doing what 95 percent of people do when they swap engines (drive them illegally), I tried to go the proper way only to get screwed by a technicality that in no way affected the engine’s output in the real world. My welded regulator screw idea should have been sufficient. Instead, I would have to redo my entire fuel system.
After cooling off for a day, I called CARB to try to find out what fuel pressure regulator they used and recommended for this installation. I was quickly reminded why government bodies are so damn difficult to deal with. My first attempt resulted in a bewildered woman who knew nothing about what I was asking. She pawned me off to another woman who began explaining to me the CARB process. I told her I just need information on what regulator was used during testing of the E-Rod kit. More pointless conversation ensued without any clear answer.
I called twice more trying to get a hold of engineers who do the actual testing, but they weren’t available, and more runaround answers were provided.
I finally called the GM Parts Help Center and spoke to someone who knew what he was talking about. It’s simply amazing that GM offers a hotline for anyone who wants to inquire or has technical questions about the performance parts. Within 20 minutes I had the answer I was looking for. I needed to use the GM C5 Corvette fuel filter/regulator. It would provide me with the necessary 60 psi the engine called for, and it wasn’t adjustable so CARB would have to approve it.
And that’s where the story ends for now. In the coming months you’ll see how I redid the fuel system and the unexpected life situation that threw yet another curveball into the mix.
I’ll close by saying that this whole experience really soured my opinion of CARB and its ability to let us do what we love to do. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t follow the rules, but for me it goes far beyond that. With the aftermarket industry generating a good chunk of jobs and revenue for the state, why not have laws in place that cater to enthusiasts while ensuring they abide by emissions rules? By that I mean, why not allow engine swaps of any kind so long as they pass the sniffer test? Who cares if the motor is 2 or 20 years old? If it blows clean, allow it on the road. I’ll bet there would be many more 240SX owners running around with catted cars if their SR20 or V8 swaps were legal. Instead, what incentive does a swapped SR owner have to run a cat if his engine is illegal? Tailpipe emissions are the least of his worries. The same goes for K-swapped Hondas, 2J-, and 1J-swapped Toyotas, and this list goes on and on. California, if you’re listening, give us some more freedom and we’ll show you we can abide by the rules if you just make them reasonable.