My adventure started about four years ago with the initial $16,000 purchase of a flood-damaged Aston Martin DB9 — a vehicle that cost over $165,000 when new in 2006. But that $16,000 figure was what I thought I was paying; in reality, the price would end up much, much dearer. As I would learn after removing the engine three times and spending $500 on bolts, sometimes ambitions are bigger than the budget.
I’ve always wanted an Aston Martin V12, and I’d been scouting Copart for a good amount of time. I ended up missing a few before I finally landed my dream car. I have some experience buying cars from Copart, so I was not a complete stranger, and as such I should have known better. But I learned the hard way that you always pay one way or another for the things you’re passionate about. In my case, I paid with thousands of wrenching hours.
[Ed note: People tell me unbelievable stories about cars all the time and I usually want to publish them, but it’s quite busy around here and so some get back-burnered until I can devote the executive function to properly attend to them. Thankfully, Floren approached me at a recent car show in New York, reminded me who he was, and then started showing me pictures of Aston Martin V12 parts in his dishwasher. I immediately moved it up to the front burners. Please enjoy Floren’s story, his first on the site. – MH]
Like every enthusiast (car hoarder) I had to have some principles, so when the day came and I actually won the auction for the 2006 Aston Martin DB9 for the conspicuously low price of $16,000, I asked a friend to guess what I got. He had three questions:
- Is it smug?
- Is it imported?
- Is it broken?
He got in on the first guess.
After about three weeks, my Aston finally arrived at my door. The shape is a sight to behold and, I might be slightly biased (maybe a lot biased,) but you’ll have to trust me that it somehow looks better in person than in pictures. The idea of having an Aston Martin with a V12 delivered for the price of a used Nissan Sentra amused me so much I may have pasted an Amazon Prime graphic on the side for my own amusement, specially after I checked the original MSRP and it was an eye-watering $165,000.
The Flood Car That Very Much Wasn’t
This is where the journey started for me — with everything looking promising. The first obstacle was getting the vehicle into neutral. It’s a simple job, as you just have to remove the back seat, unscrew some torx screws, lift a handle, and roll the car into the driveway. From there, assuming it was a flooded car, I started fiddling with the electricals, checking things, looking for blown fuses, peeking for signs of corrosion — that type of fun stuff. I got a new battery, and all my hopes were up, thinking to myself: That wasn’t bad at all!
But soon after starting the vehicle, there was this fairly loud clicking noise coming from the engine bay. That did not sound good. I’ve fixed lots of flood cars and, in my opinion, that definitely sounded like more than a flooded car.
If there was a moment of mixed emotions, it was definitely this one. I was so happy to hear that 6.0-liter V12 start, and then I got hit with that gut-wrenching feeling that something was really wrong. Oh boy was it wrong. It doesn’t seem like the car was flooded at all, but it definitely needed work.
I looked around for obvious signs, oil leaks, and smoke until I found the clicking source, buried under the exhaust on the left side:
Yeesh! It looks like one of the connecting rods did some peeking…
And while the dash on my Aston does say “Power, Beauty, Soul” mine was missing the power and therefore missing what I consider the twelve-cylinder soul of the car.
Now some Sherlock might notice that the poking video above is from inside a tent. It is. During my investigation I placed the car on jackstands, and given that the car was built in such a compact way, I had to remove so many things to the point where the vehicle was basically no longer mobile. So I ended up building a tent on top of it where the car sat, and, later on, I slid an entire lift underneath (a lift that I didn’t have when I got the car) while the Aston was still on jack stands (but that might be a story in itself).
After the tent/ lift fiasco and realizing how deep I’d gotten into the project, it was time to take the motor apart.
Sure, Let’s Just Take The Entire Engine Apart. How Hard Could It Be?
The first time I took the engine apart (foreshadowing), I did it the official Aston way: car on the top, drivetrain dropped on the ground. It’s a very involved process that involves disconnecting the steering, disconnecting quite a lot of hoses (including air conditioning), removing brake lines, disconnecting the shocks and springs, then unbolting the lower front subframe from the top one, then the rear one the same way. It gets even more exciting because the exhausts have to come off. Why? Because there are layers of shields and plates trapping the torque tube inside the chassis, and they are all buried under the exhaust.
Once I tore through all of that, I admittedly stopped to take in the mechanical beauty of it all. The engine is a sight to behold — humongous but also delicate and intricate, like a Hublot made by giants. When I moved further back I beheld the transmission which, actually, looked familiar. Aston says its transmission is bespoke to the DB9, but that’s not quite true.
It’s a flavor of the ZF 6HP26 transmission, which is very common in many Jaguar and BMW cars of that era. How common do you think? Apparently ZF made over 7 million of these transmissions between 2001 and 2014. The company still produces a version of the 6HP26 for the Chinese market.
According to ZF, this was the first mass-produced 6-speed automatic transmission, and Aston was brave enough to adopt the technology when the DB9 launched. The 6HP26 was the original model and is rated for up to 600 Nm (442 lb-ft), and this worked well with the DB9’s V12 engine that produces 570 Nm (420 lb-ft) of torque.
Thankfully for my budget, this is a common transmission. I actually used a BMW transmission oil pan when I changed the transmission fluid, as the pan is a consumable part and it comes with built-in oil filter.
What makes the Aston gearbox different is that it has an oil cooler and the rear casing of the gearbox is slightly different to allow bolting a Graziano transaxle all the way in the back.
Apparently the transaxle uses its own oil separate from the gearbox. It is unbelievable how many parts I had to store around the house when I got to this point.
Removing The Engine
After the initial teardown it was time to separate the torque tube first, and then remove the engine from the subframe for the first time. If you wonder why I said first time it’s because the engine came out two more times after that, though the subsequent engine removals were done differently. The next two times I removed the entire nose of the car with the engine bay in it, an idea I got after seeing how the Aston Martin Racing team works on their track cars.
I have a life and a job so by the time I’d made it this far it was winter. Thus, my only way of working on the car was to bring the engine inside. The hardest part was getting it through the door, as my entrance is kind of at an angle. Two jacks and a rolling cart later and I was there.
Once inside I had a different issue: getting the engine on my kitchen table; but I managed. Here’s what that setup looked like:
Luckily, I have a medieval-style kitchen table strong enough that I wasn’t worried about it collapsing under the massive piece of metal.
This is what I discovered once the magic box was open:
One of the connecting rods broke in two pieces, destroyed one piston and now was trying to escape through the sides of the engine block. On one side the piston made it all the way out, on the other side it only pierced the internal liner. You can see what was left of the offending piston.
Apparently, this is not actually that uncommon! What kind of design would result in this kind of issue happening with any frequency? Because of the size of the block, and the fact that it has 12 pistons, apparently the last two can suffer from oil starvation, which seems to be exactly what happened here.
Later on I actually mounted an oil pressure gauge with the sensor in the back of the block and found out it takes between 30 seconds up to a full minute of cranking to build oil pressure. This seems like a big design flaw. In the beginning, when you crank the motor the oil gauge doesn’t move at all.
Funny enough, there is a section in the manual that tells you how to crank without the engine starting after the car has been sitting, however during my tests, it looks like even after the engine has been running, you’d still have to do the same procedure for like 30 seconds to build pressure (basically floor the pedal, and that stops all the injectors while cranking). I don’t know what would be a good solution for that — some electrical actuated dry sump system? Maybe an in-between solution like an Accusump? I might try that route when I get there.
At this point, I was super deep, so I went to eBay to investigate and I ended up buying a used engine block, then luckily I found the Ford cross reference parts for pistons, connection rods, bolts, bearings, and bolts. I was trying to save some money, and despite my best efforts I still ended up spending a lot on many specialized tools and many little things that added up, sometimes just by the sheer number. For example, I had to get new bolts for the block, I might have saved some by finding the Ford cross reference, however, I still ended up paying like $500 because I had to get two sets. I have never spent that much money on bolts alone.
Back In Business, Sort Of
I had to take the intakes out, check the compression, and it just confirmed what the computer said: three out of six on one side had like 60 psi instead of 120psi of compression. What is still weird to me is that the left side was spot-on across the board.
That fiasco led to me taking an engine out for the second time, thinking that I had a head gasket problem
During this long journey I got acquainted with British parts suppliers, and developed a lot of patience. Many times you order stuff and it can take up to a month to get it. This time around I replaced the gasket on the offending side, took the head to the machine shop, and then the block to straighten the contact surface.
As it turns out, that’s not the end of the story. After all that work and putting it back together I still had misfires despite the fact that all valves were new, and I had resurfaced the head and the block. I took the intakes out, checked compression again, and weirdly enough, the same cylinders had compression issues like before, so out it came for the damn third time.
Hopefully, I thought, this attempt would bring some charm with it. When I took it out the third time, I decided to also do a leak test on the valves. See, I am not exactly new to rebuilding engines, but I guess that is exactly why I screwed up. I got a little bit too cocky. It turns out that whatever aftermarket valves I got had developed some sort of stem warping; it was not obvious to the naked eye, but putting them against a piece of glass revealed that some stems bowed ever so slightly. The same ones that had a bow were not keeping vacuum.
I decided to go back to the original valves, took them to a machine shop, resurfaced them, put them back, grounded (more like polished) in and leak-tested them.
At the moment it is kinda together, misfiring on only one cylinder. Next up is replacing all the coils (I have made the mistake of replacing only some of them on my previous attempts thinking they were the cause for the misfire)
This is how it sounds now:
It doesn’t want to stay on by itself for too long, but it is much improved from where it started All in all, this project caused me to buy like a ton of tools (including a lift) and it is safe to say that it went a little bit over my head and over my budget.
I should have known better.