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Pearl build finished

Pearl Build v3.0 Part II – Built Not Bought, Who Cares?

If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll know that at the end of 2015 I made the tough (and possibly misguided) decision to take Pearl my beloved Nissan S15 200SX Silvia to the next level.

What exactly was the “next level” though?

Taking into consideration of what a stock SR20 bottom end could handle, I set a respectable goal of a responsive 300kW at the treads without going full retard on the budget.

Fair thee well ye old faithful T28.

Modifying one’s car is definitely no cheap exercise, not only can aftermarket parts be costly but combine that with labour install costs and it can really start to snowball. To make things worse, most reputable workshops quote top dollar for their work which leaves really only one other option – giving it a go yourself. With that sentiment, it pretty much describes what trak-life is all about: Empowering you to give it a go yourself.

However, this isn’t an article explaining how awesome we are or why you should ditch your mechanic. No, it’s actually the next installment of my journey over the past year building Pearl v3.0  to be what she is today.

This version 3.0 build really put the “Built Not Bought” mantra to the test.

My shed filled up quickly with new shiny parts just as quickly as my bank account balance dwindled. It was an exciting time! I had set a goal, purchased all the parts to hopefully reach that goal safely and just needed to work out the plan of attack.

During the 2015 Christmas break (gosh one whole year ago) I decided it was time to leap into action and burn off those festive calories by kicking off the build. With a honeymoon at the end of January 2016, there were only a few weekends under my belt so taking off the head seemed like a doable venture. After all it really didn’t seem that hard considering it was only a few pages in the FSM.

Let the pain begin…

With the trusty FSM as my bible, removing the intake manifolds and rocker cover didn’t cause any grief. When it came to getting it all Top Dead Centre (TDC) prior to removing all the valvetrain insides though, I had a pretty big derp moment.

Lining it all up
The significance of the timing chain markings and cam sprocket notches somehow didn’t make sense to me at the time despite reading and researching the topic over and over again. Although the pistons were TDC as indicated by the crankshaft pulley marks, I ended up ignoring all the other indicators.

After pulling out the cams I realised the importance of getting all 3 markings to line up and understood I’d stuffed up with the timing chain not being in the right position (it’s actually not that big a deal as I just needed to put everything back on the right way, I didn’t know that then though).

Without understanding the actual timing system itself, I led myself to believe that I had to take the front cover off for visibility and access to the chain itself to fix up the positioning as it was all out of whack.

Yep, was kicking myself for being so careless and creating more work… and more unnecessary stress.

Pearl Build Timing Chain SR20DET
You can see the notch and the dowels are in the wrong place 🙁

After finishing having a sad over my first setback, I was ready for lift off.

Shortcut struggles
Looking at some previous guides on the web, some people have had success taking off the head off with the turbo and manifold still on. For me, it was nopes everywhere and an absolute pain in the ass doing it this way. It did eventually separate itself from the block after removing some of the exhaust manifold studs, copious amounts of swearing and destroying the stock head gasket. Many frustrations for taking an unnecessary shortcut as I needed to take the turbo off eventually anyway…

With the head finally off and sent off for some upgrades, cleaning and skimming, spare time allowed me to try and take off the front cover to fix my non existent timing chain issue… YAY!

Pearl build head off

Pulley’s ain’t cheap
Getting access to the front cover meant removing all the drive belts and the big crankshaft pulley (harmonic balancer/dampener).
For the latter, a trip to the local Supercheap to purchase a $35 jaw puller should do the trick.
The tool worked well enough, just the operator was one himself. The tool was placed on the wrong edges of the pulley, it just kept pulling off chunks of metal (I did end up figuring it out in case you’re wondering). Following that fiasco and $450 later, a replacement was on its way from Japan – that’s how much it costs for a new genuine one. Yep I’m writing a guide about this one.

Pearl Build Crankshaft Pulley

The front cover was now exposed, time to get that lower sump off.

The Epiphany
The lower sump came off easily (oddly) enough and it seemed like things were finally going to plan. That thought ended abruptly enough when I discovered that it was going to be an absolute *{%] of a job to get the front cover off without use of a hoist realizing the main upper oil sump (the big and long one) would also needed to come off.

Lying limp staring upwards through the hole which was my lower sump I then saw it… I could see the timing chain.
I felt like bashing my head against the sump as a flood of realisation washed over me. As all three chain markings were always proportionate of each other, all that was needed was to correctly line them up when I put everything back together! (sheesh). Talk about a wasted effort taking off all the belts and shredding my crankshaft pulley to bits.

Pearl Build Lower timing chain sump

Since the lower sump was off, time to whack that Greddy sump on…

Fat Sump
Nothing hard about installing it, it’s really just a couple of screws. Just my luck of course that my oil filter relocator kit just happened to be in the way as it was bolted onto the subframe…Thanks Murphy! With all that mess out of the way, sump went on easy enough… with me stripping one of the allen key bolts of course (GReddy provides very soft metal bolts). Should be ok, this sump is never coming out again right?  

Time to figure out where else I could put the relocator kit and of course new lines were needed… But that can wait, it was time to take a break and head off overseas for a week or two.

Pearl Build fat sump

The “Could Have Been Worse”
Having returned from my honeymoon I was reinvigorated and ready to roll. My cylinder head was all tanked and shimmed ready to be mated with an immaculate block surface prepped by yours truly. Who doesn’t love a shiny head?

SR20DET Head Removal

With the aid of good ol’ mate Johnny, the head was installed neatly and ready for the ARP Head Studs to lock and keep it down. Trusty torque wrench in hand and Johnny’s cautious reminder to not break anything, I dialed in the correct torque and set to clicking the studs and nuts in stages as per instructions.

On the final round of tightening at 80lbs I was absolutely sweating balls from holding back my massive power and all the suspense.  And then it happened – CRACK.
Johnny and I had the same look on our faces… “Ohhh fuck”.
Turned out the thread was well and truly screwed (forgive the pun).

Pearl Build Threaded block

Suppose it could have been worse with the stud snapping clean in the block. Thankfully a few days later a time-sert was inserted by a pro and all was good again. Doing the final tightening for that thread was one of the most nerve wracking things of the whole build, with all my trembling I’m surprised it even torqued up.

With one of the most horrifying setbacks over, all I just needed to do was pop everything back in. No sweat.

Pre Holiday Blues
I was keen to close the rocker cover before my next holiday which was just a few weeks after my honeymoon. All the drive belts and pulleys were back on and the head was looking populated again with all the valvetrain bits. It was time to position my timing chain correctly so I could put the cams and sprockets back on.

Did I leave it in gear? Surely not. I checked and double checked. The crankshaft pulley simply did not budge in the slightest despite putting all my strength into it. What was going on?
At this point my level of frustration was close to it’s peak. What the hell was wrong with this dinosaur piece of shit now!!?

If the crankshaft doesn’t turn, my motor is essentially useless! I sat limp with an expression that could only be described as pure and utter defeat. I envisaged myself dousing the car with fuel, lighting her up and walking away and never looking back.

In the week that followed, I trawled the Internet and asked anyone that would listen my woes.
Johnny and I concluded that my motor was seized from rust, most likely from me not lubing the cylinder bores with oil and leaving it dry for such a prolonged period. I tried to do a quick crank of the engine to see if that could get a bit of movement to break the rust but that didn’t do anything.

And so I turned to the Internet proven anti rust home brew of acetone and ATF fluid, what did I have to lose? Mixing it up, I poured copious amounts down each spark plug hole and left it for a day to settle.

This was it, time to set my pistons and mind free so I can have a nice, peaceful holiday – nope. With this splinter in my mind, off I went to the wonderful land of Japan. During the flight over I was already thinking about a 2.3L BC stroker, a short block from Mazworx or even an engine conversion.

Wonder what I can find in Japan?

Few days after landing in Nippon, Johnny messaged me saying he could turn the engine. Wait…Say what!?!? Either the anti seize concoction finally worked or Johnny whispered nice things to my SR20, I didn’t care… The engine turns! What a bloody relief… My mind could rest while I stuffed my face with ramen and takoyaki.

No holiday is ever long enough but upon landing back onto Aussie shores, I just wanted to get into it and get Pearl back on the road. It had been 4 months since I’d gone for a brap and it was certainly missed. Furthermore, I wanted to check out the result of Johnny’s magical hand cranking skills!

Being able to hand crank the SR20 again was just joyful, this meant I was one step closer to closing up the head.

Late one night I was unbolting the sprockets from the camshafts whilst on the head to reposition the timing chain and I heard a “tink tink tink clunk”. OMFG.

The bolt holding the sprocket to camshaft comes with a washer in between and unseen to my weary eyes it stuck to the sprocket surface and gravity got the better of it sending it sprawling down my front cover. First thing that came to mind was “What if it’s stuck on the timing chain?”. That would definitely mean the front cover would 100% need to come off (although this does really seem inevitable as you’ll understand soon).

Where’s that tank of gas and lighter again?

Next morning I pried off my newly installed GReddy sump (which had a stripped bolt, forcefully used the next allen key size up) and then the oil baffle plate and lord and behold… The washer showed thyself. Thank god for that! Still a waste of time and sighs 100% though.

Pearl Build washer in the sump

After checking the timing chain markings about 100 times, 100 times again and installing all associated bits, I was happy enough to finally close the rocker cover.

Making Way
In keeping with the stock look, I decided to stick with a low mount turbo setup. Now with the aftermarket manifold and bigger turbo, both these items decided to nudge against the AC line and ABS unit. Minh tried persuading me to the darkside of ABS-less life but I valued the worth of having the only computer aided assistance mechanism in the S15 so it stayed.

After shoving the lines and ABS as far away as possible, the whole setup managed to just squeeze in after many attempts. The turbo ended up sitting very close to the stock position which wasn’t too bad, but not good enough as the front pipe couldn’t sit flush with my cat… Back to sounding like a tractor for a while doh.

Pearl Build ABS and AC
Notice the actuator sitting right next to the AC line and the ABS bent to a side.

With all the engine bits and pieces finally installed after a painstaking 5 months, it looked like the light at the end of the tunnel was in reach. It was just a matter of turning the key and watching her come to life again. Whilst I beamed with excitement at the prospect of joining the 300kW club and burning rubber, there was also a sinister emotion nagging at the back of my mind – concern. Have I done everything right? Is my engine going to go kaboom? Should I order that crate engine now? What is life?

After priming the fuel and oil system it was time for action. Through clenched teeth, I turned her over. After a few whizzes, a few splutters and good deal of trembling; the SR20 roared to life and managed to settle at a rough idle.

With no mushroom cloud in sight, you could say I was pretty happy. I had a look at the undercarriage and all looked fine… But then I saw the slow drip of oil.

The Final Straw
Off came all the drive belts and crankshaft pulley… Again! And no I didn’t break it this time.
After much peering and contemplation, we concluded that the oil leak was coming from the front engine oil seal. Highly possible I didn’t replace it correctly and oil was seeping out. After all, that was the only logical explanation.

Inspecting the rear of the pulley post removal, I noticed the keyway  looked a little mangled.
Looking inside the crank snout I found this:

Pearl build - broken woodruff


What appears to have happened was the crankshaft pulley not being installed 100% flush with the woodruff key in the crankshaft snout. As a result, when we used our massive power to try and unseize (turn) the engine it broke. Seems we’re just too damn strong for our own good. I guess something had to give way and if it wasn’t the pistons or rods it had to be the key.
Suppose it could have been worse but I didn’t think of that, I just couldn’t believe people worked on cars for a living (lol).. Then again they probably aren’t noobs.

Johnny and I stood there sighing at each other for a long time, this really was a big deal. Thankfully Johnny still had a positive outlook and determined the best course of action was to replace the woodruff key, just a few bucks down the road at the Nissan spare parts dealer.

Working with such a small piece in a confined area wasn’t ideal but my man Johnny fitted it in sweet. Inspecting the seal showed no issues so we surmised the oil must have been getting through the keyhole. We were just about to slap it all back on when we noticed the hairline cracks coursing through the front cover (wish we had a pic for ol’ times sake but we were too grief stricken to care)


Obviously the result from the incorrectly fitted pulley, there were only two options: replace or fix.

At wits end we smothered loads of gasket sealant over the cracks in the vain hope that would do – definitely not a wise thing to do considering it was a critical engine component but we were just so over it. Pulleys and belts back on, engine starts but the excruciating drip remained. Whilst only weeping at a slow rate there was no way in hell I was going to leave it like that seeing the car gets pushed very hard at the track.

The finish line was just so close, I could feel it. I wanted a quick win and thought about JB Weld (metal bonding epoxy) as a fix for my cracked front cover.
In the end though, thankfully rational thought prevailed and $400 later my new front cover/oil pump was ordered.

You may recall earlier in this article I had already attempted to remove the front cover with no success. I knew what I was up for, it was going to be a huge uphill battle. With the way I felt too, chances were Pearl build V3.0 would be complete in 2020 if at all.

For those in the know, my resilience is quite high and I always bounce back from setbacks.

But you know what they say about the last straw that breaks the camel’s back? Yup this was that. I packed up all the remainder parts for Pearl including the gearbox and off she went to a workshop recommended by Minh not too far away.

Pearl Build Packed up parts final straw

This was unprecedented. Never have I or Pearl paid for any mechanical work but with trak-life’s first co-organised trackday two weeks away, it needed to get done.

The feeling of dropping my keys off and walking away from Pearl was one I hadn’t felt for a very long time – relief. Not so much that “it’s not my problem” anymore but more so I could concentrate on all the other important aspects of my life again.

Basking in much needed downtime, I was glad I decided to change the whole front cover instead of doing a bandaid fix. The last thing I’d want is the whole thing shattering to pieces and vomiting oil everywhere on the track.

The front cover was knocked off in a day or so which meant all the engine work was now complete, hooray! All that was left was the Z32 gearbox and 3.9 ratio diff gear swap which I optimistically hoped would be complete in a few days leaving us plenty of time for tuning.

Too soon junior.

Driveline Confusion
The Z32 gearbox conversion kit I purchased was advertised as a full bolt on kit which was reflected by the premium price. I began to question this when the workshop called telling me that the clutch fork didn’t quite sit on the pivot ball properly.
Upon further investigation, many discussions and google searches we concluded that the pivot ball was positioned in the wrong place meaning the front gearbox cover was actually from an R32 GTR and not a Z32.

Pearl build Gearbox front cover

Easiest option would be to drill a hole just a few mm next to it but I felt very uneasy about this. I didn’t come this far to do another bodgy shortcut. The seller of the gearbox feigned ignorance not knowing the front gearbox cover was different so off I was to find the correct one. Of course no one had this item in stock despite how many wreckers and shops I called. As a last desperate plea I turned to Facebook groups where one kind soul had one lying around which saved the day.

With that sorted now it was just a matter of making sure the clutch engaged properly… And no of course it didn’t. Pearl perched idly for another few days on the hoist as she waited for the correct S15 dual mass thickness clutch kit to be received and installed.

Pearl Build clutch install

It was all coming down to the wire with Pearl ready for pickup only the night before dyno tuning day, a mere 2 days out from our track day – there could be no more mistakes, everything had to be perfect.

Did everything hold together so that Pearl could pump out the aimed 300kW?

Well… you’ll have to wait for 2017 as that’s in store for the next and final part of my way overdue Pearl Build v3.0 saga.

Built Not Bought Reflections
I have to say, writing this article and reflecting on the struggles throughout this build brought back some depressing memories. The physical exhaustion and the emotional rollercoaster you put yourself through when things don’t quite go right is downright painful and depressing.
In hindsight would I have changed anything? Maybe just a little more care and consulting with others would have gone a long way.

Strong headed I dove into this build solo whereby I could have had good mate Johnny assisting where possible. Foolhardy as it was though, it was a HUGE learning experience. From a novice who didn’t know how different engine components worked with each other I can honestly say I’ve got a good grasp of the wonderful SR20DET engine.

After that’s all said and done though, I can stand back with pride and smile at my end result.
It’s no dig at people who choose to leave it to the pro workshops to build their car, definitely not.
That’s why they exist, so you personally don’t have to go through inevitable dramas that’s involved in building your car… they know what they’re doing as it’s their business to know.
But to those who can relate to my story – tinkering away late at nights, cursing at the car gods, receiving battle scars at every turn and living in their own world until it’s all 100% done, I take my hat off to you. Similar to me, only you will know the smug sense of accomplishment of seeing something through to the end and really know the true value of “Built Not Bought”.

(P.S The last 5% of my build doesn’t count as bought 😛 )


About Flop

Open minded car enthusiast who appreciates most things on four wheels although JDM is where his heart lies. Wannabe racecar driver but having trouble fitting into his bucket seat since he's also a dedicated gym goer.

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