OK fellow Chevy enthusiasts; here is the situation. Suppose you have a muscle car, project car, or even a non-Chevy swap vehicle, with nothing but a big hole where the engine is supposed to be. That’s right, your precious project is lacking the most important part: the powerplant. Sure, you could build your own twin-turbo stroker with nitrous and a blower, but who has money for a dream build like that, right? The next option is, as always, a crate engine. There is a lot to like about a crate engine, after all it arrives clean, assembled, and in a crate, though they often require a few odds and end before they are ready to run. The problem with a crate engine, not unlike that dream build, is expense. Though not on par with a wild, big-power assembly, even a crate engine can set you back a good $6K or more, depending on your choice of engine family, displacement, and internals. The third option, the one guys on a budget go for, is to simply grab something from the local wrecking yard. That’s the route we chose for our old-school, crate engine alternative, but that’s about the only thing that went right!
What’s so great about a junkyard powerplant you ask? Topping the list is that it’s ready to run, has millions of dollars of research and development behind it, and has most everything you need for a great price. Even after you add in the carb, intake, and ignition controller, you are looking at a complete, ready-to-run engine for near $1,300. Of course, there are downsides to the wrecking yard route. The most obvious is that you never really know what you are getting. So it’s a gamble if the bearings are good or there isn’t some sort of hidden trauma from whatever led the car it was in to be scrapped. As in our case, you might not even know the displacement, as the 5.3L we thought we purchased looks identical to the smaller 4.8L we actually purchased. In our defense, even the core support tag on the truck indicated a 5.3L, so either the support, engine or (unlikely) the tag itself had been changed. No matter, we will happily take a running 4.8L LR4 for the paltry sum of $274. That included everything from the oil pan (which we should have checked; ours had a hole in it) to throttle body, including all the sensors and coil packs.
We should have scrutinized this particular engine closer, since not only did we miss the displacement, but also a big hole in the bottom of the oil pan. We didn’t discover this oversight until pouring oil in on the dyno! Luckily, the damage came from the outside in, and not the other way around. A new (meaning used) oil pan (we had laying around) and we were back in business. A compression test indicated good cylinders and even the plugs looked somewhat fresh, but if this thing had seen even one oil change in the last 200,000 miles, it would be a miracle. The sludge buildup was tremendous, almost enough to get us to run a few quarts of tranny fluid through it, but we decided some fresh Lucas 5W-30 synthetic oil and a clean filter would suffice. The drop in displacement also left us hanging on our intake choice, as the Edelbrock Victor Jr. was marginal (i.e., too big), even for a 5.3L. We chose it not for this test, but for what we had planned in the future. The drop in displacement to 4.8L meant the dual-plane Performer RPM would be a much better choice, even for a boosted or nitrous application with wilder cam timing.
Not ones to let self-inflicted misfortunes get us down, we pressed on. The 4.8L was installed on the dyno, where we proceeded to pull the factory, long-runner EFI truck intake. Removal of the truck intake unearthed years of grease and grime, not to mention untold foliage and glass from one or more broken windows. Care was taken with a vacuum, air nozzle, and copious amounts of gasoline, and we finally managed to get the head surfaces and valley cover clean enough to install the Victor Jr. intake manifold. Unlike the truck intake, the Victor Jr. manifold utilized cathedral port O-rings for sealing. The intake was combined with a Holley 650 Brawler carburetor. Chosen for its combination of size, performance, and pricing, the Brawler was one heck of a carb for the price. With the carb supplying fuel, the LS now needed spark. To fire the fuel, we installed an MSD ignition controller, which plugged right into the stock coil packs and crank and cam sensors. The MSD allowed us to dial in any ignition curve we desired, with our stock 4.8L running best with 32 degrees of total timing.
Once we had the induction system in place, all that was left was the exhaust system. We relied on the only set of headers we had handy, meaning 1 7/8-inch Hooker swap headers feeding 3.0-inch collector extensions. If you (like us) think these were the wrong choice for the tiny 4.8L, you would be correct, but that’s all we had. After a couple of jet changes to add fuel, we were rewarded with peak power numbers of the 331 hp at 6,200 rpm and 316 lb-ft of torque at 4,900 rpm. Sure, the little LR4 4.8L wasn’t going to get you on any top 10 list, but it was a complete, running engine for a little over a grand, and it has nothing but potential. Look for us to explore cams, nitrous, and even boost in future testing since we know the 4.8L is capable of making serious power levels with the right combination of aftermarket parts. For now, we are content with our cheap, carbureted, crate engine alternative plucked fresh from the wrecking yard.
Photography by Richard Holdener