GoWesty rebuilt engines experience less than a 5% problem rate. The vast majority of these problems are non-critical things, like a minor oil leak. Less than 2% are actual failures that require serious engine repair and/or replacement. Some of these problems are simply human error—which can never be totally eliminated. The real debate about GoWesty engine failures is whether or not there are inherent flaws in the design of the modifications necessary to extract more power out of the waterboxer platform. The purpose of this article is to set the record straight.
Common sense would lead one to assume that the larger the displacement, the more modifications are needed—and, therefore, the propensity for failure would be greater. Although it is true that our larger engines do, in fact, require more modifications (and, thus, command a higher price), our higher displacement engines do not exhibit a statistically higher failure rate. The failures we have experienced have been very predictable: almost every single engine failure has been related to either the piston/cylinder area or the crankshaft.
Piston/cylinder failures are almost always due to overheating. The typical scenario is failure of a component in the cooling system, which causes a total engine overheating situation; another common scenario is detonation caused by poor fuel ("knocking" or "pinging"), which leads to piston overheating and over-stressing. All GoWesty engines have slightly to significantly higher compression ratios (depending on the engine size) than the original design—that is one reason that our engines produce more power and are more efficient. However, this higher compression makes GoWesty engines more susceptible to detonation, which causes the piston temperature to soar. GoWesty engines utilize forged—rather than cast—pistons, which exacerbates the situation. Although stronger, forged pistons expand more than the original cast piston design and, when overheated, grow to a larger size than the cylinder, which eventually leads to the destruction of the piston and cylinder. Without a doubt, an original displacement engine (with original compression ratio and original design cast pistons) is less prone to piston-related failure due to the fact that uncontrolled piston/cylinder contact is much less likely. The problem with the original design is that it provides such little output, which makes driving a Vanagon—especially a much heavier Westy or even heavier Syncro Westy—a somewhat miserable experience. Therein lies the trade-off. For more information about the waterboxer piston design, read this article.
Crankshaft failures are very rare. All GoWesty engines (except the 2200) utilize a modified original crankshaft. Even though we have experienced less than a 1% failure rate, in 2009 we instituted a second, incredibly thorough check process in an attempt to catch all crankshaft flaws. Just before final cleaning and polishing, every crankshaft is tested in a "magna-flux" machine, which employs a combination of a magnetic field and dye that reveals cracks not otherwise visible. When any flaw that could possibly lead to failure is observed, that crankshaft is scrapped. Our crankshaft supplier does not honor warranty returns on these scrapped crankshafts, because they consider our test to be above and beyond reasonable. Thus, GoWesty just eats the cost of these crankshafts in the interest of further reducing the already-unlikely possibility of failure. Luckily, only about 0.5% of crankshafts fail this test.
At GoWesty, we know that—at some point—one of our customers will get an engine that gives them trouble, and it will be our fault. We have had folks accuse us of "using our customers to test our engine designs." Please keep in mind that even huge companies, VW included, continually look to improve their designs and to achieve zero failures. And even though our failures are very low in terms of percentage, of course we are striving for zero failures, as well. We do that with all of our products, not just with our engines!
There are inherent risks in undertaking what is already the complicated task of overhauling a VW waterboxer engine—even in the "stock," original form. VW's own waterboxer overhaul program in Canada ended miserably with an overall failure rate of close to 50%. By contrast, only around 5% of GoWesty-built engines have experienced some sort of issue—which is stellar by comparison. However, when you are talking about total engines built in the thousands, even a relatively small percentage of issues produces some extremely unhappy and loud people, many of whom feel the need to spread the bad news. The other 95% with no engine issues whatsoever are mostly... silent. Such is human nature, right?
Fortunately, another side of human nature is the pursuit of perfection. None of us at GoWesty are under the illusion that we can ever achieve true perfection, but that's not going to stop us from trying each and every day.
"Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable."
~ Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), British statesman