If there’s one distinctly automotive point of conversation that I’ll badly miss once the days of EVs are here would be around engines. Ah, the constant back and forth of comparing engine sizes, just to see who’s got the biggest crank of the lot. Diving deep into the rabbit hole of forums has never failed to amuse me. Oh, so you have a 9.0-liter V10? That’s cute. Just wait till you see my 3208 cat engine.
I can already sense your confusion through the screen… “A 3208 what?!” As we’re all keenly aware, there is a myriad of vehicles on the planet. Each one, be it by land, sea, or air, needs an engine that keeps it moving. And although they may share a similar principle of ‘suck, squeeze, bang, blow’, they aren’t all the same in design, construction, or function. A boat, for example, may have a V8 engine.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it the same V8 engine in your Corvette. Alike, perhaps, but not the same. But what if I told you, there’s an engine out there that can do more than just that. One prime example is the 3208 cat engine. As beefy of an industrial unit that it is, the 3208 cat engine could just as easily power a fishing boat, as well as it can school buses, freight trucks, or construction vehicles.
- What Is It?
- Are They Good?
- Engine Swap?
- Final Thoughts
What Is The 3208 Cat Engine, Anyway?
So, why not start at the very beginning of the 3208 cat engine’s genesis… What is this, anyway? It was originally a series of heavy-duty engines engineered and built through a collaboration between Ford and Caterpillar. The latter, if you don’t know, is the largest maker of construction vehicles and machinery in the world. Regardless, both brands dabble quite a lot in heavy-duty transportation.
While Caterpillar was making bulldozers and cranes, Ford was producing full-sized pickups that could qualify as mini monster trucks. That’s on top of their line of long-distance haulers, delivery trucks, as well as countless other specialized vehicles. Thus, a marriage between Ford and Caterpillar to build an engine together made sense. This all culminated in 1973, with the 3208 cat diesel engine.
It was so popular, that 3208 cat engines can be found almost anywhere in vehicles dating back to the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Think of semi-trailer trucks, garbage trucks, construction vehicles and machines, in addition to school buses. If you had a lot of weight to move around swiftly and reliably, the 3208 cat engine is what you needed. As we mentioned earlier, they also made their way into boats.
It’s not out of the ordinary to find a 3208 in yachts and leisure boats. They’ve even been found used in some powerplants or industrial generators. In short, it was a performant engine that could keep on cranking for years, with minimal faults. It continually evolved throughout the 80s. Finally, the 90s brought the final nail in the coffin for the 3208 cat engine, as it couldn’t meet emissions regulations.
How Did The 3208 Cat Engine Evolve Over The Years?
The 3208 cat engine line are all eight-cylinder (V8), four-stroke diesel engines. The first of which had just around 225hp (or 636 cubic-inch capacity). Its earlier iterations in 1973 also had turbocharging as an option. Come 1981, and the 3208 cat engine had a massive overhaul and redesign. Some of the most consequential changes included:
- More robust internal rotating components
- Three-ring pistons for optimal operation
- Stronger oil and water pumps
- Bigger heat exchangers for the cooling system
- Seawater pump (for marine-based 3208s) to cool the engine oil
- Modified exhaust manifolds
- Enhanced turbochargers
- Enlarged expansion tank and revised thermostats to keep the cooling in check
- Addition of forged steel crankshafts and steel camshafts (up from cast iron in earlier engines)
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It’s no exaggeration to consider the 3208 to be a highly dependable engine that’ll keep on cranking for years to come. We’ll discuss more of its specifications later on, but for now, just a teaser. A 375hp 3208 cat engine could easily last 10,000 hours or more before it needed a full rebuild. Should you opt for a lower-stress 225hp or 250hp variant instead, it could easily last upwards of 25,000 hours.
There is a heavy price to pay for this, unfortunately. For all its benefits in performance and reliability, the 3208 cat engine is inefficient. It could guzzle through your diesel within a moment’s notice. Thus, it failed to qualify for newly-passed internal combustion exhaust emissions laws that would’ve come to effect by 2000. The 3208 cat engine was subsequently discontinued from production in 1999.
What Were The Applications For The 3208 Cat Engine?
We’ve detailed earlier how the 3208 cat engine is highly ambidextrous, capable of being adopted in a wide variety of vehicles. That’s not exactly the full story, as the 3208 has also been used in other applications besides moving machinery. To show you just how capable of a motor it is, here’s just a quick rundown of where you’d typically find a 3208 cat engine, even today:
- Commercial Vehicles – Garbage trucks, snowplows, delivery trucks, school buses, or semi-trailers.
- Agricultural Machines – Combine harvesters, tractors, sprayers, or heavy-duty forklifts.
- Industrial – Bulldozers, excavators, low-loaders, cranes, mining trucks, or backhoes.
- Energy – Emergency generators, or standby generators for industrial power stations.
- Marine – Yachts, pleasure boats, trawlers, lobster boats, or smaller fishing boats.
- Marine (Auxiliary Engine) – Cruise ships, ferries, container ships, tugboats, or offshore powerboats.
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For those who’re not as well versed in marine equipment, auxiliary engines are secondary sources of energy that complement the primary engine. In a vast 220,000-tonne cargo ship, for example, such auxiliary engines can help run the heat exchangers and cooling system. Or, it may be able to provide power to individual components like the propellers, steering gear, deck cranes, ballast, and so on.
For marine-type vehicles, the 3208 cat engine is widely recommended to be fitted to vessels no larger than around 13-tonnes. A 375hp unit could cruise it along at a steady 35 knots or thereabouts. The most popular watercraft fitted with 3208 cat engines are trawlers, yachts, or leisure boats. They’ve also been modified (with twin turbochargers) for use in sportier race boats, albeit at a higher tune.
What Are The 3208 Cat Engine Technical Data And Specifications
A massive contributor to its versatility is partially due to its performance, as the 3208 cat engine is a decently powerful engine for its class. Here’s a brief summary of its notable performance highlights:
- Engine – 10.4-litre (636 cubic-inch), four-stroke V8 diesel, with naturally-aspirated, turbocharged, and turbocharged-aftercooled variants
- Bore – 114.3-millimetres (4.5-inches)
- Stroke – 127-millimeters (5-inches)
- Weight – 789kg (1,740kg, naturally-aspirated), 816kg (1,800lbs, turbocharged), 853kg (1,880lbs, turbocharged-aftercooled, 375hp unit), or 943kg (2,080lbs, turbocharged-aftercooled, 435hp unit)
- Coolant Capacity – 47.3-litres (12.5-gallons, naturally-aspirated), 52.8-litres (13.9-gallons, turbocharged), or 56.0-litres (14.8-gallons, turbocharged-aftercooled)
- Motor Oil Capacity – 12.0-litres (3.2-gallons, naturally-aspirated, 15.0-liters (4.0-gallons, turbocharged and turbocharged-aftercooled)
- Oil Change Interval – 250 engine hours
- Horsepower – Between 150 to 435hp, based on the variation (more on that later)
- Compression Ratio – 16.5:1 (lower-power versions), or 15.5:1 (high-power 435hp model)
- Alternator – Belt-driven, 51A and 12V (with a 12V electric starter)
- Optional Equipment – Air-fuel ratio control, upgraded alternator (35A, 24V), flexible engine mounts, power take-off (front crankshaft-mounted pulleys), 24V starter, improved cooling, protection for low oil pressure or low coolant, updated exhaust (6-inch water-cooled elbow, 6-inch dry elbow), risers, cruise control, stronger flywheel and flywheel housing, etc.
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As we spoke about horsepower earlier on, the 3208 can be tuned in an array of configurations that’ll suit your needs. That’s especially important for marine-based engines, to be sit varying classes and types of watercraft. These are usually measured in rating classes, from A to E, based on the power as well as load factor. Here’s a more thorough breakdown of the 3208 cat engine’s specifications:
Note, some legends:
- bhp – brake horsepower
- mhp – metric horsepower
- gph – gallon per hour (fuel consumption)
A Rating, Continuous
The engine is needed to run at 100% load without disturbance or significant load cycling. This is good for vessels that often carry varying loads. This spec is good for heavy-duty service in ocean-going displacement-hull vessels.
- Load Factor: 80% to 100% load at 2,400RPM
- Engine Hours/Year: 5,000 to 8,000hrs/year
- Applications: Freighters (auxiliary), tugboats (auxiliary), bottom drag trawlers, deep river towboats, etc.
- Power: 150bhp (152mhp, 7.7gph, naturally-aspirated), 215bhp (218mhp, 11.1gph, turbocharged), and 235bhp (238mhp, 11.9gph, turbocharged-aftercooled)
B Rating, Medium-Duty
Perfect for where there’s frequent slowing and changing of velocity, where engine load and speed are constant, with a bit of load cycling. It’s suitable for displacement-hull vessels in mid-water. That’s especially so where there are ample obstacles to maneuver around, such as locks, sandbars, or curves in the terrain.
- Load Factor: 40% to 80% load at 2,400RPM
- Engine Hours/Year: 3,000 to 5,000hrs/year
- Applications: Midwater trawlers, purse seiners, crew and/or supply boats, ferries, or towboats
- Power: 180bhp (183mhp, 9.3gph, naturally-aspirated), 255bhp (258mhp, 12.9gph, turbocharged), and 275bhp (279mhp, 14.0gph, turbocharged-aftercooled)
C Rating, Intermittent
For vessels where the engine speed and load are cyclical. Or, it can be used for faster commercial and passenger vessels or cruising yachts, albeit with reduced load factors. In other words, primarily suited for planing-hull watercraft where you’ll be traveling at high speeds between two points.
- Load Factor: 20% to 80% load at 2,800RPM (2,600RPM for the 315bhp variant)
- Time At Full Load: 6 hours out of 12
- Applications: Ferries, harbor tugboats, high-speed fishing boats (e.g. lobster, crayfish, tuna, etc.), off-shore service boats, displacement-hull yachts, or short-distance coastal freighters
- Power: 210bhp (213mhp, 11.9gph, naturally-aspirated), 290bhp (294mhp, 15.2gph, turbocharged), and 315bhp (319mhp, 16.7gph, turbocharged-aftercooled)
D Rating, Patrol Craft
Just like C-class engines, D-rated 3208s are best paired with planing-hull vessels.
- Load Factor: Up to 50% load (up to 16% load time at 2,800RPM)
- Engine Hours/Year: 1,000 to 3,000hrs/year
- Time At Full Load: 2 hours out of 12
- Applications: Off-shore patrol boats, customs or police high-speed interceptors, firefighting boats, fishing boats, or used as bow and stern thrusters
- Power: 210bhp (213mhp, 11.9gph, naturally-aspirated), 300bhp (304mhp, 16.7gph, turbocharged), and 340bhp (345mhp, 18.4gph, turbocharged-aftercooled)
E Rating, High Performance
Also tuned specifically for planing-hull vessels, frequenting high speeds.
- Load Factor: Up to 30% load (up to 8% load time at 2,800RPM)
- Time At Full Load: 1 or 2 hours out of 6
- Engine Hours/Year: 250 to 1,000hrs/year
- Applications: Pleasure craft, harbor patrol, speedboats, pilot boats, fishing boats
- Power: 210bhp (213mhp, 11.9gph, naturally-aspirated), 320bhp (325mhp, 17.9gph, turbocharged), 375bhp (380mhp, 21.0gph, turbocharged-aftercooled), and 435bhp (441mhp, 24.0gph, turbocharged-aftercooled)
What Are The Most Common 3208 Cat Engine Problems?
You might’ve noticed our use of the term “throw away” in the title, no? That’s because back in the day when the 3208 cat engine was first unveiled, it was termed the “throwaway engine“. This was a core part of its construction, and a key design criteria set by both Ford and Caterpillar. See, the 3208 cat engine didn’t have any cylinder liners. However, aftermarket tuners and owners got around this.
They would re-bore the engine block and thus install oversize pistons and rings. That’s a preferable solution to simply throwing it away, or scrapping it entirely. Despite this moniker, the 3208 remains with us till this day in many older machinery and vehicles. While it’s no longer in production, it’s still a prevalent workhorse engine that could reliably for thousands of hours to come.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t without its fair share of problems. The engines, following prolonged heavy use or a lack of maintenance, can wear out and develop issues. At which point, your old and tired 3208 cat engine needs a rebuild and a restoration. Here are some of the most common reliability problems that you should look out for:
- Crankshaft failure
- Camshaft failure
- Lifter/roller failure
- Connecting rod failure
- Cracked cylinder heads
- High blow-by
- Oil burning or low oil pressure
- Over-fuelling the ignition
- Scored pistons and liners
- Spun crankshaft bearings
- Dropped valves
Are 3208 Cat Engines Any Good?
But let’s say you’re thinking about getting a boat, tractor, truck, or bus that has a 3208 cat engine in it. Are they any good at all, or is this “throwaway” design going to cost you a pretty penny down the line in maintenance and repairs? Based on the consensus we’ve seen so far in the forums, it looks like the 3208 is a strong contender for one of the best heavy-duty industrial engines of its class.
However, there are some caveats. For starters, you need to look for 3208 cat engines that have been cared for, and weren’t worked all too hard. In particular, try to look for 3208s that haven’t spent their entire life being driven at high RPMs. Remember, the redline for the 3208 is a fairly low 2,800RPM. In short, keeping the 3208s running at high RPMs all the time will greatly diminish their lifespan.
Most folks suggest getting 3208 cat engines that were once fitted and worked on short-haul vehicles. For example, the 3208 was popularly used in many dump trucks. These vehicles typically manage the short drives hither and thither, often at low speed, low loads, and low RPMs. Thus, a 3208 cat engine taken from a dump truck should prove to be quite reliable. The same can’t be said elsewhere.
The 3208 was also quite commonly found on semi-trailers. Having been driven at highway speeds, as well as carrying heavy loads at high RPMs, it puts a lot of strain on the engine. Consequently, this has the effect of nearing the engine to its rebuild-slash-restoration stage. It’s the lengthy periods of high RPM operations (be it by land or sea) that is the biggest flaw with the 3208 and wears it down quickly.
What Have Owners Experienced With 3208 Cat Engines?
We’ve scoured the forums to see what owners past and present think of their 3208 cat engines. And some of them have had these engines for nearly 30 years now! Most owners cherish the 3208s for its durability, low-down torque, and low running costs. However, a few owners have been troubled by the 3208 before. Here’s a summary of what they had to say:
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- Mechanics often changed the rod and main bearings prematurely on 3208s, as a precaution. Bearing failure is among the most common engine-related issues with the 3208.
- A good way to check for possible bearing failure is to gently grab hold of one of the fan blades. See if there’s any end play, and if so, the bearing may have failed.
- Water pumps wear out much quicker on 3208 cat engines than most others. Additionally, they can start leaking if not cared for properly.
- 3208 cat engines are capable of cranking out a whopping 900hp, as tested on some speedboats. Although, they do wear out the engine rapidly with that output.
- With good servicing and diligent attention to oil changes, the 3208 can be quite fuel-efficient.
- The oil pan capacity is quite small, so you’ll be needing to top it up quite frequently. Some suggested giving the 3208s a gallon of oil every morning, just to be certain that it’s thoroughly topped up.
- Since quite a lot of 3208s were made, there are plenty of them on the second-hand market for cheap. Even if it does blow up, an engine replacement isn’t the most expensive ordeal given its size.
- High-pressure fuel lines can trap in air, or wear out quickly, causing eventual leakage. A fix would require bleeding the system, and a fuel pump replacement should also be considered, as it’s sucking in air.
How About Doing A 3208 Cat Engine Swap?
Another popular topic of discussion that we’ve found online was concerning 3208 cat engine swaps on a pickup. The most popular candidate to be surgically implanted a massive 3208 cat engine seems to be the Ford F-250 Super Duty. It is the ideal choice if an engine swap is to be concerned, barring the obvious Ford-Caterpillar connection. The F-250 is large enough that it may accommodate a 3208.
However, many in the forums agree that the engine bay may not be enough to clear a 3208. That’s despite the already gargantuan engine bay of the 3208. A body lift kit may be needed to make the necessary amount of room to fit a 3208 cat engine. That’s especially so with a turbocharged variant of the 3208. In addition, the regular transmission in the F-250 might not be compatible, either.
Folks have suggested the MT653 Allison automatic gearbox. This is a similar unit to the ones used in 3208-powered freight trucks and semi-trailers. The front suspension have may have to be lifted and stiffened to take on the weight of the 3208, though. The top-of-the-line model weighs over 2,000lbs. With a few more tweaks to the transfer case, and you might still preserve four-wheel drive.
The most popular 3208 engine swap we’ve seen is inside a 40-series Land Cruiser. Built by a tuner in West Australia, it has the very same 10.4-litre turbo-diesel V8 3208 cat engine so far. This originally came from a Ford water tanker. Uniquely, and to support the extra weight, this rides on the chassis of a newer 105-series LC. Torque is rated at 640lb-ft, but it has been modified to provide more.
In all, the 3208 cat engine is among the most dependable powerplants in its league. Performance is far from exceptional, with most of its power reserved for low-end grunt. At the top-end, however, its lack of horsepower is noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s also an incredibly modular engine, which can be tuned with ease. Whether it’s a freight truck or a fishing boat, Caterpillar’s 3208 is a great engine.
Besides its versatility, there’s also its enduring reliability that has to be noted. While you do need to pay close attention to its servicing, the 3208 is relatively easy to maintain. Just be mindful of the oil, and make sure you’re prudent about those bearings. The latter, including its water pump, is known to fail. Take good care of these, and the 3208 is a long-lasting engine for 20,000 hours or more.
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Furthermore, 3208s were made in large numbers, and Caterpillar still sells refurbished units. This has two benefits. For starters, the abundance of supplies means that it’s fairly easy to find spare parts or replacements. Moreover, a complete 3208 is quite cheap. Decently run-in crates typically sell for less or around $10,000. Meanwhile, newly reconditioned 3208s may cost you around $15,000.
Overall, that’s not bad for an entire engine that’ll outlast you for quite some time. While this isn’t yet a thoroughly explored territory, engine swaps are possible, too. There have been those who’ve fitted this otherwise monstrous engine into the more petite 70s pickups. Whether it’s for a boat or a truck, there are a few things the 3208 cat engine can’t do. This is no throwaway engine, that’s for sure.
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