If you own a daily-driven vintage car from the Big Three, it’s hard to argue against swapping in a Coyote, LS/LT, or Hemi crate V-8. It’s hard to argue against the modern power and drivability of a late-model, fuel-injected engine. Still, there’s just something about seeing a carburetor or two, maybe even three, under the hood of a vintage car, with an engine that looks like it belongs there. Building an engine from the block up is also a rewarding experience and lends its own sense of pride. You’ll be looking for reasons to pop your hood and show off a power plant that looks like it came from the factory, even if it’s packing far more performance.
So where do you start? If don’t mind getting dirty, rebuildable small-blocks are still plentiful in salvage yards and can be found in trucks, vans, and SUVs that are now about 15–20 years old.
These small-blocks are the last vestiges of the muscle car era and benefited from improved manufacturing that led to a more consistent finished product. There was less core shift, bores and decks were more accurately machined, and improved bearings and rings—in conjunction with fuel injection that didn’t wash cylinders down with excess fuel—all teamed up to make longer-lasting engines that hardly show any wear after decades of service and don’t require much machine work to clean up for a rebuild.
In short, just about everything that was done to modernize these engines to make them viable more than 40 years after their introduction also make them worthwhile engines to consider for your project or daily driver.
Ford small-block V-8
Where: Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer had 5.0-liter pushrod power from 1996–2001.
Why: Late 5.0-liter V-8s used cast-iron GT40 and GT40P heads, both good castings for a street car. When combined with headers, a cam, valve springs, and a decent intake, either of those heads can support more than 300 horsepower. Of course, the aftermarket for Ford small-blocks is booming, so there’s an opportunity to add a new set of cylinder heads, a stroker crank...
Identification: If it’s a V-8 in a 1996–2001 Explorer, that’s the 5.0-liter you want. Ford helpfully cast the displacement right on top of the intake manifold. GT40 heads were used until mid-1997, afterwards switching to GT40P. Pull a valve cover and look for either “GT” or “GT40P” cast into the head.
The catch: GT40P heads use a different spark plug placement that can make header fitment difficult. American Muscle has a lot of good information on these heads, as well as aftermarket alternatives. Ford also changed parts quite often on Ford small-blocks, making parts interchange difficult. You won’t be blazing new ground though; the answers are out there.
Chevy small-block V-8
Where: 1996–2000 Chevrolet/GMC Trucks and SUVs, 1996–2002 GM vans.
Why: At its core, the L31 Vortec 5.7-liter is the same Chevy 350 we all know and love. It was installed in hundreds of thousands of Chevy and GMC trucks built on the GMT-400 platform that were gradually replaced beginning in 1999. The SUV versions of the platform carried on one more year until they too received the Gen III V-8, while vans used the Vortec 5.7-liter even longer. The L31 5.7-liter Vortec engine uses the best factory heads ever installed on a Gen-1 Chevy small-block and are capable of producing more than 400 hp in the right hands. They use a one-piece rear main seal for fewer drips on your driveway, and the blocks used in 3/4- and 1-ton trucks often came with four-bolt main bearing caps, which may come in handy if high rpms and lots of power is in the cards for your build.
Identification: The engine displacement is cast on the driver’s side rear of the block, so you can avoid the L30 305-cubic-inch engines and their small bores.
The catch: Vortec heads are drilled with intake manifold bolt holes at a different angle than traditional Gen-1 small-blocks, meaning your Z/28’s high-rise dual plane won’t bolt on. Further, as with all Chevy small-blocks built starting in 1986, Vortec heads use centerbolt valve covers that would ruin your vintage engine disguise unless you run adapters for traditional valve covers. Thankfully, Chevrolet Performance, Edelbrock, Jegs, and numerous other manufacturers offers carbureted intake manifolds that bolt to Vortec heads because they’ve become the go-to parts for budget performance. Because it’s still a Gen-1 small-block, dozens of companies offer cast iron and aluminum heads if the Vortec’s flow numbers aren’t enough, and Chevrolet Performance offers affordable Vortec heads drilled for both perimeter valve covers and early style manifolds that can also handle more valve lift than factory Vortec heads. Finally, Vortec engines have a mechanical fuel pump boss, but it’s not drilled. Your machine shop can handle that if you’d rather not switch to an electric fuel pump.
Mopar Magnum V-8
Where: The 360-cu-in Magnum V-8s can be found most readily in full-size Dodge vans and trucks from 1993–2004, but keep an eye out for the midsize Dakota and Durango as well.
Why: Magnum small-blocks are similar to the earlier LA V-8 family, swapping the LA’s shaft-mounted rockers for stud-mounted rockers and a unique intake bolt pattern. Their heads outflow muscle era small-blocks and make for a potent street engine.
Identification: A top-fed, cast-aluminum “beer keg” intake is a sure sign of a Magnum engine, but to discern a 360 from a 318, look for a stamping corresponding to either of those displacements at the driver’s side rear of the block. Alternatively, if you can find the donor vehicle’s VIN, the eighth digit will be a Z for the 360-cu-in 5.9-liter and Y for the 318-cu-in 5.2-liter.
The catch: Like the Vortec, muscle-car-era intakes won’t bolt to factory Magnum heads. Also, LA heads won’t work on Magnum blocks, as the Magnum’s oiling system isn’t compatible with shaft rockers. The good news is that EngineQuest offers heads that pave the way for great street power and allow LA-style intakes to bolt right on. If you have found a good set of factory Magnum heads, Mopar makes carbureted intake manifolds that will still look the part. Magnum cylinder heads use an eight-bolt valve cover as opposed to the four-bolt covers of the LA; Mopar Performance offers finned aluminum valve covers that look the part. Unfortunately, mechanical fuel pumps are a no-go with a Magnum.