Refitting a nearly 40 year old engine

Well, we already posted some stuff about refitting a nearly 40 year old sailing ship and some of you already knew about “Godot Eisenschwein”, which was my most favorite, annoying, little refit project before the journey could finally start. So this is the story of our engine….

Getting to know each other

Well when we bought the ship I knew there was one issue that couldn’t be solved with a bit of cleaner, which was our engine:

What is left of the Perkins 4.108M is a rusty pile of metal

A Perkins 4.108M marine diesel engine build in 1979, obviously a bit rusty and in questionable condition, losing a lot of oil and diesel, dirty, interesting wiring, dead instruments lying in the bilge, but at least working, surprisingly…more or less. After a bit of research ahead of our first visit at the ship I found out that this was indeed one of the most common diesel engines for many machines such as tractors, loaders, fishing and sailing boats until end of the ’80 with something like half a million units sold. These engines easily operate for 40 years, if maintained properly… if… well… I think you get my point. 🙂 However I found out that it is, even today, possible to get almost all spare parts for a good price, almost every mechanic knows these engines and thus the engine can definitely be fixed for a lot less than the cost of buying a new one. Moreover these old engines have an excellent reputation among sailors and especially the Perkins 4.108M is kind of a legendary engine known for robustness and endurance, so I thought it may be worth a try to revive this one… however it turned out to be a bit stubborn.

Taking the heart out of the ship

So the first step was pulling the old engine out of the ship and inspect it, so here is a little collection of my most favourite pictures :

The motor flying out of the ship
Perkins 4.108M on the dry dock
Stop solenoid – a little rusty
Engine mounts in good, used condition
Strange dirty object with unkown function
At least the fuel filter is new

So the main thing, apart from many peripheric components, that for sure needed to be fixed, was a bad compression leading to bad starting behaviour,  and white and black smoke under load. Clearly this means: The engine is worn, most probably the piston rings and valve seats are blown and it needs a complete reconditioning.  So we left this little project in the shipyard at the end of May, I went home ordering a lot of spare parts, send them to Licata and when we came back in August we wanted to start to rebuild this engine.

The guys from an almost ex-european country

Changing the inner parts of the engine like piston rings, piston liners, main crankshaft bearing, valve and all this stuff tends to be a bit tricky. Sometimes one needs spare parts of different sizes and pick the right one depending on the condition of wear of the engine, which you can, of course, only know after disassembly. To avoid all this problems I decided to order a recoditioned engine block including head in the UK, actually from a company selling engine parts on Ebay (, so what can possibly go wrong? 😀 They said the could deliver an engine to Italy directly in something like 3 weeks. Great! Problem solved!

However it turned out it took 3 month where I literally called there daily and after some weeks they had to admit, that they were not able to deliver an engine head, because they had 2 heads in stock and after inspection prior to reconditioning it turned out they both had cracks and were not good for reconditioning anymore. There is a little problem with this I may have to explain: With all old engine there are usually some spare parts that are finally not available anymore and they are the reason why the engines die out in the end. Usually there is always a fitting alternator or even injectors that work somehow with the engine, not even the injection pump is a problem, but for our engine one of these neuralgic parts is definitely the head and I wasn’t really sure if our old head was good enough for reconditioning or if there’s a workshop in Sicily able to do this job.

Ripping off the head

So first thing to do back in Sicily in August was ripping of the engine’s head, checking it for cracks and bringing it to Agrigento to a mechanical workshop to even it, replace the valve guidance, cut new seats and reassemble everything.

The engine looses it’s head
The old head… dirty, but luckily okay

Things are getting serious

So back to Elias workshop with a reconditioned engine head and ready to start the big show! For some strange reason the sicialian mechanic that was supposed to help changed his mind a day before and didn’t show up. At this occasion one really has to admire sicialian working culture and attitude 🙁

However Elia found a new mechanic named Angelo, who helped us. Unfortunately he had to work during the day and thus the works at our engine started at 7 pm and only for some hours every day, so this whole project took a bit longer that intended, but at least there was progress.

Things looked a bit rought in between

Elia, Angelo and I removed all parts of the engine step by step and I spend three days in front of the door grinding, brushing and de-rusting all part of the engine. You know the feeling that you kind of personally connect with things when you disassemble it? 🙂

[Comment by Kristin: We called these evenings “Daniel is going to his play date with Elia again” 😉 ]

Meanwhile on Serenity

There was a small detail left on Serenity when the engine moved out from his cave:

The cave

And here comes the brave cleaning crew. Obviously they have fun doing dirty things….

The cleaning crew

Meanwhile on the workshop

In the meanwhile Angelo started to put a huge collection of my cleaned parts, screws and nut collected in a variety of plastic bottle bottoms back together.

All parts from the old engine block at the left side have to move into the new one at the right side…no problem 🙂
More parts find their way back
I thought Elia was about to freak out after around 2 weeks of working every day till at least 9 pm

A dead fuel pump

Well, these things never go easy and I was already quite paranoid about suspicious looking parts of the engine, so I gave the injection pump to a repair shop on the other side of the street. Surprisingly there was a real expert shop on injection pumps we called “The Pompista” in Licata only 100m away from Elias workshop. Unfortunately the pompista, whose name is actually also Angelo like our mechanic, demonstrated to me on his test bench, that the pump did not deliver any fuel at starting speed. At a bit more speed it delivered some drops so eventually the engine would actually start when the battery is fresh. However this was the second reason why the engine performed to badly. So the pump went into recondtioning and once again it was possible to order all spare parts for a 40 year old pump in 3 days…this time really 3 days. 🙂

And! In the pompista workshop I found an old test bench for inline injection pumps build by Bosch on 1982, actually my year of construction, so I had to make a video of testrun of our new pump:

Actually the comment of the pompista was: “Yes, so I kept the housing of the old pump…”

Coming to an end

It turned out adjusting the injection timing was a bit tricky, even for Angelo, who is a very good and experienced mechanic, so we brought our baby to a different workshop which also does tractor engine and they know the tricks for old Perkins engines, so here is a video of the very first start of the reconditoned engine (still a bit uneven before fine tuning of the injection timing).

After a bit or fresh paint I proudly present the reconditioned Perkins 4.108M, probably better than new and ready to move in:

Shiny new engine

It still had to move into its new cave though, which was a bit of a problem, as the crane was currently under repair… But of course the boatyard managed – Sicilian style.

Alternative crane
Checking the fit

And here it is, freshly moved back to its new, clean home with completely new electric, cable harness, freshly painted and lined with noise absorbing mats:

Freshly moved in

(If somebody wants to complain about the water in the bilge, this is due to our shaftsealing, which is always leaking a bit. This is normal for this type of sealing, no way around it!)

The Perkins engine is back in the ship, running beautifully, so the journey can finally begin. 🙂

My conclusion

It was fun to recondition our engine and I can really say I learned a lot about diesel engines (finally on my old days working as an engineer for Bosch Diesel Systems :D), but it was also a lot of dirty work, oil, rust and quite some of my nerves that went into bringing this project to the end. But hey, whenever there is a problem with this engine I’m quite sure I can fix it.


Last but not least I really have to thank Elia from (Boat Service Licata) for his great support on this project. Without him it would have been impossible for us to revive this engine and he spend his days, nights and weekends with us working on the engine. I’d also like to thank Angelo “The mechanic”, Angelo “The pompista” and Giuseppe “Peppe the electrican” for their help.

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