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LS Performance on a Shoestring Budget Thanks to the Right Aftermarket Parts

Cheap Motivation

Richard Holdener Jan 29, 2019
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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.

002 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 2/16

OK, so we thought it was a 5.3L, but it turned out to be a 4.8L. Even the smaller engine is a great deal at just $274 complete. If you’re short on cash and not risk-averse, then going this route may be right for you.

003 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 3/16

We installed the crusty, high-mileage engine up on the dyno. Buying a junkyard engine isn’t for the faint of heart since you have no idea how it’s going to go. But if you just don’t have the cash for something new and warrantied, then it’s better than watching your favorite Chevy sit idle. The good news is that the aftermarket is full of parts to get it running, and even bump up the power.

004 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 4/16

Make sure if you are buying the complete engine that it comes equipped with things like sensors and coil packs. Having to source and replace these missing items is both time-consuming and expensive.

005 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 5/16

Closely inspect any used engine you’re looking to buy, lest you miss obvious things like a big hole in the bottom of the oil pan. We found this one after oil started running out on the dyno room floor.

006 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 6/16

A low-mileage, cream puff this 4.8L was not. In fact, we suspect this to be the original oil. It was nasty, but it ran!

007 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 7/16

To provide spark to our carbureted LS, we relied on this MSD ignition controller. The MSD ignition allowed us to dial in the desired timing curve. We were using the older 6010 box, which is just for Gen III engines. However, the newer MSD unit (PN 6014) will work for both Gen III and Gen IV (24x and 58x) LS engines.

008 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 8/16

The MSD ignition featured a harness that plugged right into the factory coil packs as well as the cam and crank sensors.

009 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 9/16

After removal of the factory truck intake, we found what looked like a toxic waste dump. A lot of elbow grease went into making this decent enough to install the new intake.

010 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 10/16

The after shot shows what can be accomplished when you combine the power of a shop vac, air nozzle, and a quart or so of gasoline.

011 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 11/16

With the head ports clean, we installed the single-plane Victor Jr. intake. For the stock 4.8L, a dual-plane would be a better option, but we’re just looking for a baseline number.

012 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 12/16

Topping the Edelbrock intake was a 650 Brawler carb from Holley (PN BR-67212). This 650 Brawler was the hot ticket for this small-displacement application and offered an impressive combination of power and affordability.

013 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 13/16

To ensure the 650 offered plenty of airflow we zip-tied the choke open, though the electric choke can also be adjusted manually. We are all about quick and easy on the dyno.

014 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 14/16

Minor jetting was required to provide enough fuel for the combination of minimal displacement and reduced signal from the single-plane intake.

015 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 15/16

Big-ass long-tube headers? Yep, we got those, too. On our little 4.8L, we installed 1 7/8-inch Hooker headers just to be sure we had everything possible go wrong on our test. My kingdom for a set of Hooker 1 5/8-inch, long-tube headers.

016 LR4 LS Junkyard Used Engine Dyno Brawler MSD 6010 6014 Coil 16/16

The best words to describe this carbureted 4.8L are simple and effective. Compared to a new crate engine, the combination of a junkyard engine with the right aftermarket parts was considerably less expensive. If you pick a 5.3L and opt for the dual-plane intake, the torque and power curves would improve dramatically, but don’t count out the little 4.8L. Equipped with the carbureted induction system, our little LS (actually LR4) produced 331 hp and 316 lb-ft of torque. Look for a cam, nitrous, and even some boost in the future. But for now that’s solid performance considering the small price tag. Now, where is that bottle of engine degreaser?

Photography by Richard Holdener


Torrance, CA 90503
El Paso,



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