There’s always a cheaper way to do most anything. That’s especially true of LS engine swaps to classic Chevy muscle. If you go all out it’s pretty easy to spend $15,000-$20,000 on a complete “high-end” engine and trans swap. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By picking your battles you can do it for far less and still have a good looking, solid performing LS mill under your hood.
Given all of that, we decided to tackle a budget-friendly LS swap using as few electronics as possible. Yeah, there’s a way to ditch the coils and add a distributor, but in the end the cost outweighs the benefits. A carburetor is one piece of vintage tech that still works great and makes an LS install a lot easier, both in terms of effort and cost. So we’re going to mix in a little old to a little new and come up with solid compromise between looks, performance, and cost.
The main player in our project is a rebuilt 6.0L LQ4 LS truck engine. It’s a great example of how the LS platform can make great power for not a lot of coin. These engines are plentiful and ours, with a mild cam and a carb, made 465 hp. Without all the bells and whistles this engine could be duplicated for well under $4,000. Want to spend even less? Then check out the 5.3L variant. These engines are relatively dirt cheap since GM has churned out hundreds of thousands of them. We commonly get over 400 hp with a small cam and very little effort. There are all sorts of ways to get an LS under your hood without going broke. Heck, you can even bolt a TH350 or Powerglide to one with a couple of spacers. We opted to split the difference and go with a 700-R4 from Performance Automatic. This way we get the benefits of an overdrive transmission without the hassles and expense of more computers. In short, the exercise can be as inexpensive, or expensive, as you want it to be.
As we said, the carburetor is one of the ways this exercise is made easier. It lets you skip all the computers and wiring needed for an EFI system. But you’ll need an MSD ignition box to track the cam/crank and fire the coils. Many gearheads prefer carbs since they are already used to tuning them and let’s face it, cars have been running on them for decades. While EFI does have benefits, there’s nothing wrong with a properly tuned carburetor.
Our project is a ’67 Camaro with a tired 350 small-block and a non-overdrive TH350 transmission. The owner, Mike Recchia, wanted better highway cruising manners and, of course, more power. He also wanted it nice, but didn’t want to donate an arm and most of a leg to medical science to pay for it. So follow along as we take a reasonable approach to dropping an LS mill into a vintage Chevy.
1. Our starting point was this rather shoddy looking engine bay. The 350 small-block ran, but it was pretty anemic.
2. The old small-block and TH350 were pulled and then we spent a few days scrubbing the engine bay and detailing it with some fresh black paint.
3. The engine we’re dropping in is this refreshed LQ4 LS engine. It’s pretty much a low-compression iron 6.0L LS with a cam upgrade. On the dyno it made 464 hp and 437 lb-ft of torque, quite a bit more than our tired small-block. This engine would set you back just under $5,000 without the Holley LS Swap Headers, but with the sweet Holley LS swap oil pan (PN 302-2) and the intake/carb setup. As always, you can save cash by running factory exhaust manifolds, stock valve covers, or by finding a used GM LS1 F-body oil pan.
4. Another place you can spend a lot of money is on a front drive system. We’re not planning on A/C right now so the perfect option was a wallet-friendly used drive system from an early (1998-’02) Camaro or Firebird. It’s compact and the accessories are relatively inexpensive. For a tensioner, we used a solid one from Comp that we had at the shop.
5. For engine mounts we went with Hooker brackets (PN 12618HKR). These mate to clamshell style mounts on the frame and situate the engine perfectly for the oil pan and headers to clear. For the clamshells you can go buy stockers or Hooker sells the clamshells (PN 71221004HKR) and polyurethane inserts (PN 71221014HKR).
6. Oil pressure for the Camaro’s existing AutoMeter gauges was picked up at the back of the engine, just behind the valley cover. You can also spot the cam sensor plug that will be used for our MSD coil controller box.
7. We were then able to easily lower the carbureted LS engine into the Camaro’s refreshed engine bay. We chose to do the engine by itself and then install the new Performance Automatic 700-R4 four-speed trans from the bottom.
8. The aforementioned Performance Automatic 700-R4 is a great option since it doesn’t require a computer, yet still gives us an overdrive gear. The PA 700-R4 (PN PA70104) came with a lockup converter (2,200-2,400 rpm) and was internally upgraded with Alto Racing clutches, shift package, and their high-performance band/servo package. It came fully dyno tested with a lifetime warranty and was rated for up to 500 hp, perfect for our budget LS engine. If your wallet is a bit on the light side you could find a stock 700-R4 or even keep your TH350 three-speed.
9. Like we said, the PA 700-R4 came with a 2,400-stall lockup torque converter. The lockup function did require hooking up two simple wires (per the instructions) and should help the Camaro knock down considerably better gas mileage. The trans cooling lines (with the red caps) were in roughly the same spot as they were on the old TH350 so hooking everything up was easy.
10. The coated Hooker Blackheart swap headers cleared everything, even the sometimes problematic steering box. The headers are available in a variety of materials from 1 3/4-inch painted steel for $548 (PN 70101507HKR) to 1 7/8-inch stainless for right around $1,000. So they fit the car and they have a header to fit your budget. Mid-length headers or exhaust manifolds could save you even more cash.
11. Since our old Gen I small-block had long-tube headers, mating to the existing exhaust system was very easy. We were also able to reuse the Camaro’s transmission crossmember, along with a polyurethane mount from Energy Suspension, by just opening up a few of the holes. We also had to have the Camaro’s driveshaft shortened a few inches at Inland Empire Driveline.
12. We needed to grab water temperature for our electric fan controller so we opted for the top of the water pump. It just required drilling a 1/8-inch hole and using a pipe thread tap. This is also a good spot to tap in your steam return line, if you decided to run one.
13. The Camaro’s existing water temperature gauge was ran to a sensor on the back of the passenger-side head. To mount the 1/8-inch pipe fitting to the head we used a special 12mm adapter offered by AutoMeter.
14. The Camaro’s existing aluminum radiator leaked so we swapped to a three-row core replacement from Mishimoto (PN MMRAD-FIR-67X). It was an affordable option with features like billet aluminum fill neck, all aluminum construction, increased coolant capacity, magnetic drain plug, and internal transmission cooler. The radiator was paired with their aluminum fan shroud, which included a 1,850-cfm 16-inch fan (PN MMFS-FIR-67).
15. Even with the increased fluid capacity, the Mishimoto radiator bolted up to the factory core support.
16. We were then able to run the overflow hose and plumb it to the PA 700-R4 transmission using some Earl’s fittings and push-lock hose.
17. We ended up taking some radiator hose mock-ups (made with welding rod) to our local auto parts store and found hoses that would work for our Camaro/LS engine combination. The upper hose was from a 1970 C10 Chevy truck.
18. Holley was able to get us the right linkage to mount our 670-cfm Ultra Street Avenger (PN 86670HP) and get it tied into our throttle and the 700-R4’s TVS cable.
19. The engine is carbureted so the fuel system was as easy as hooking up a Holley Red electric fuel pump.
20. The LS engine’s ignition system is controlled by an MSD 6LS box (PN 6010). It reads the signal from the engine’s 24x crank sensor and 1x cam sensor to properly fire the coils. It’s also programmable and can map a timing curve as well as setting a vacuum advance curve and it has a two-step rev limiter.
21. We mounted a small breather tank from Summit Racing to the firewall and plumped it to the Holley valve covers. We also hooked up the CPP vacuum brake booster to the Holley intake manifold.
22. OK, the engine bay was looking so good we decided to splurge on some eye candy in the form of billet hood hinges from Eddie Motorsports. We also added their billet fender braces. Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound.
23. And with that, our LS swap was done.
24. With the Summit Racing air cleaner added you almost forget it’s an LS engine under the hood. If you wanted to carry the illusion further then it’s a pretty straightforward operation to hide the coil packs. Personally, we like the mix of retro and tech and think our engine bay looks immeasurably better than it did when we started.
25. Of course, the real reason we installed the budget LS in our 1967 Camaro was performance. So we drove the Chevy over to Westech Performance for some chassis dyno tuning using MSD’s Pro-Data+ software. When all was said and done the modded LQ4 put down 365 horsepower and 384 lb-ft of torque to the tires.
Photos by Steven Rupp