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Building An Affordable Big Block Chevy Engine - Budget Rat

How to Build an Affordable Big-Block Chevy Engine

Tony Nausieda Aug 1, 2006

Sticking to a reasonable budget when you're planning out your big-block Chevy can be an exercise in frustration. A trick set of BBC aftermarket heads and a quality rod/piston combination will easily approach three grand. It's numbers like this that send guys running back to the small-block camp, but there's an alternative: Save a ton of green by starting with a good core motor. The better the core, the more stock parts you can recondition--and most of the stock BBC equipment will suffice nicely for a naturally aspirated street mill. The concept with this build is to disassemble, clean, and recondition as many stock parts as possible and use affordable, proven aftermarket parts when the stock ones truly compromise our goal of high performance. Our strategy here is exactly what most of you set out to do: build a reliable combination decent enough to turn respectable times at the track--without requiring a vacuum canister, a car trailer, or a second mortgage.

The Right Core
To keep things on the cheap, we found a 454 that didn't need to be bored; in fact, it still held the original standard-bore cast pistons with discernable cross-hatching on the cylinder walls. Even better, the stamped suffix ID'd it as a '70 390-horse variant out of a Caprice, otherwise known as an RPO LS5. Fitted with closed-chamber, oval-port heads, 10.25:1 compression, and a steel crank, it was well worth the $1,000 asking price, we figured. Days later the original intake, distributor, exhaust manifolds, and smog stuff netted an astounding $734 on eBay, slashing our initial investment to a laughable $266. Really. If you're having trouble locating a musclecar-era BBC, you can build the near-equivalent of this motor using a smog-era 454 Gen IV short-block and a set of closed-chamber, oval-port heads. Any of the large oval-port castings from '65 to '70 will have small, 98-101cc chambers to achieve approximately 9:1 compression with smog-era 454 pistons, and these heads are still quite plentiful and cheap.

With the engine apart, we found the crank had been cut 0.010 inch under on the mains and rods. Scarred main bearings and excessive wear on a few rod bearings told the story of a rebuild gone wrong. With parts in hand, we headed to the experts at Johnson Machine Service (JMS) in Monrovia, California, to formulate a game plan for reconditioning. Owner/operator Mike Johnson gave us mostly good news: The block, pistons, and crank were all usable, and the heads weren't cracked, although everything was a little tired. As expected, the big end of each rod was out-of-round and needed to be resized; one was replaced because it showed evidence of overheating. The JMS advantage became clear when Johnson plucked an identical specimen from a huge barrel of core BBC rods. Years of churning out high-performance big-blocks has created a huge stock of cores, so every-thing is available in-house if you'd rather not put forth the effort to search for the parts yourself.

The Rebirth
While the block baked in the hot tank, Howard Allen polished the stock steel crank journals to create a pristine surface finish, checking them with a mic to ensure proper bearing clearances. After separating and cleaning the stock piston/ rod combo, Robert Hendrix ran the rods through a strengthening shot-peening process and lightly blasted the pistons with glass-bead media. Hendrix resized the toughened rods until the Sunnen bore gauge couldn't discern any out- of-round on their big ends. Will Didier assembled each piston/rod set, using a Carrillo rod heater to expand the pin bore for minimal distortion and galling. Since we essentially reused the entire stock rotating assembly (except for bearings and rings) we didn't balance it, hoping that GM's factory spec would work within the confines of a 5,500-rpm redline.

With the short-block renewed, we tore into the cylinder heads. We caught a lucky break, salvaging the stock iron valve guides after a quick knurling operation. Since we saved some cash on this step, we went ahead and had Pete Hillemeyer machine the guides for Teflon PC-type seals that improve oil control. Hillemeyer went to work on the ever-accurate Serdi machine, cutting the three-angle profile into the seats. Sal Alcaraz fixtured the finished castings and cleaned up the deck surfaces with a 0.020-inch cut. We didn't cc the chambers to check how this changed compression, but the change in compression should be minimal. Finally, the stock 2.06/1.72-inch valves were checked for straightness, and any severely pitted valves were replaced with unscathed candidates from JMS' ample inventory of cores. Hendrix ground each valve's seating surface until it had perfect concentricity with its stem, and your author wrapped up the headwork by hand-lapping the valves to the seats.

We'd had our fill of stock parts, so it was time to order the performance equip-ment that would separate our motor from the stock LS5 tune. A modern cam profile, intake, carb, ignition, and oiling system are all you need to extract tire-frying power from any BBC, especially the 454-cube variant. Crane supplied a hydraulic cam and lifter kit--the Powermax 286 keeps duration mild (226/236 at 0.050 inch) and is designed with a wide lobe sepa- ration (112 degrees) for a smooth idle, but it boasts 0.544/0.556 inch of lift to move plenty of air through the combustion chamber. Crane's Mark Campbell spec'd a mild dual valvespring, installed with 0.050-inch-tall retainers to keep the seat pressure around 110 pounds for longevity. Keep in mind that cutting the valve seats changes the installed height of the valve- springs, so please check this spec when you're assembling the heads. Crane's 3/8-inch hardened pushrods were more than adequate to actuate the stamped steel rocker arms--you read that right--using this mild hydraulic cam, stamped long-slot rocker arms suffice. Just be sure to use factory-style valve covers with welded drippers to keep the pivot balls well oiled. Trans-Dapt offers awesome-looking factory-style, non-dripper BBC valve covers if you opt to run roller rockers.

Induction came courtesy of a World Products Merlin dual-plane intake and a Holley 850 vacuum-secondary carb (the OE carb spec'd for GM 502 crate engines). The venerable MSD Ready-to-Run distributor, 8.5mm Super Conductor wires, and NGK plugs comprise the simple yet robust ignition system. Oil is pumped to all the right places via a complete, tried-and-true Milodon oiling system.


Driving out the 454's freeze plugs revealed a good bit of rust scale in the cylinders--not uncommon in an engine that's been sitting for years. We did our best to scrape the scale from the water jackets before the block and heads hit the cleaning tank.

With decades of racing and engine-building experience under his belt, Howard Allen knows his way around a crankshaft. Our stock steel crank only needed a polish to dress the journals.

Aftermarket valves were beyond the scope of this project. Robert Hendrix marked the hammered sealing surfaces of our stock valves with machinist blue prior to grinding. He ground the valves until a continuous band of metal was machined off the surface, guaranteeing concentricity to the valve stem (and good sealing on the seat).

Using a high-dollar Serdi machine, Pete Hillemeyer masterfully cut the iron seats on our stock oval-port castings. Installing hardened inserts wasn't part of our plan; instead we dropped a lead additive to every fifth tank of gas to prevent seat recession.

Back at home, we scrubbed the oil galleys with diluted Simple Green, using Milodon's tough engine brushes to loosen the stubborn deposits.

Wiping out the bores is especially important if you've honed the block--honing dust can wreak havoc on a set of rings.

Putting It Together
Don't be afraid to assemble the short-block yourself if you've got access to the proper tools and a clean workspace. From cheapest to costliest, you'll need a piston ring expander, engine-cleaning brushes, Simple Green, a dead-blow, plastic-face hammer, and a tapered ring compressor. Optional are ARP's trick aluminum-rod bolt protectors.

Before you clean the bare block, do yourself a favor and run ARP's thread chasing taps through all the holes, espe-cially those that restrain the cylinder heads and are often corroded and packed with dried-out sealant. This step is required for accurate torque readings when you're reassembling the motor. In our case, we cleaned every accessible oil passage in the block using Milodon engine brushes saturated with Simple Green, then blew the passages dry with compressed air. We wiped each bore with a series of ATF-soaked paper towels. Now that the block was really clean, we painted it and began assembly. We used proven Federal-Mogul pregapped moly piston rings and Com-petition-series bearings, which are high-quality and reasonably priced. ARP studs replaced the factory bolts, ensuring the caps stay put and allowing the Milodon louvered windage tray to bolt up. No, we didn't check the alignment of the main saddles after installing ARP's studs--although you probably ought to--but since the crank spun nicely after installation we figured the caps had to be close enough.

Coating each bearing shell and journal with STP helped prime the oil system and guard against galling. We lubed other metal-on-metal sliding surfaces (pistons, rings, and cylinder walls) with 20W-50 oil. Possibly the most critical metal-on-metal contact is the cam lobe and lifter interface, and we used two blister-packs of Crane's gray moly assembly lube on these areas. Before you bolt the heads onto the motor, have a close look at those stock head bolts and decide if you really want to reuse them. We didn't, so we picked up Milodon's engine fastener kit, which includes an assortment of engine bolts and studs, as well as the company's trick head bolts featuring stronger, rolled threads. The entire bolt kit costs less than most quality aftermarket head bolts alone, so it's still appropriate for a budget build. Before we installed the intake and carb, the Holley vacuum-secondary pod was swapped for its ingenious quick-change kit. The quick conversion makes spring changes a simple two-minute affair, perfect for tweaking at the track.

Once the 454 was buttoned up in our '69, we used a homemade oil primer to spin the pump until oil flowed from each rocker arm. BBCs have an oft-noted reputation for cam destruction during the critical break-in time, so it's important to make sure all the oil passages are flowing properly before the combustion starts. To ensure minimal cranking time, fill each of the Holley's float bowls by carefully pouring fuel into each vent tube until it flows from the sight plug. Leave the thermostat out to prevent overheating, and it won't hurt to direct a large household fan into the grille area to initiate airflow through the radiator. Our motor fired right up with 80 psi of oil pressure--just the way we like it--and after checking the timing, we ran it at 2,000-2,200 rpm for 20 minutes. If your headers start to glow a dull red, add a little more ignition lead and check the idle mixture screws. After break-in, we backed down the idle to 750 rpm, where we observed 17 in/Hg of vacuum. Running the car at the track sounded like a lot more fun than strapping it to a chassis dyno, so we don't have real power numbers to post. But given our 106-mph quarter-mile, we think it's delivering around 335 hp to the rear wheels, which should put us solidly in the 12s...eventually.

Track Proven
Halfway through this story, your author relocated to Detroit, where there lies one giant obstacle to street machining: winter. We'd planned to go through the front sus-pension and install slapper bars on the rear, but instead rushed to the track armed only with a pair of 27x10.50 M/T ET Streets and a tired 36-year-old chassis. Wheel hop plagued our 60-foot times and some throttle lift was needed to keep the car straight through the quarter. The good news? This combo still trapped at 106 mph with no changes--jetting, timing, or otherwise, and we drove it 60 miles home after topping off the tank with a few gallons of 93. It's not the fastest and it's certainly not the prettiest, but we're hoping to address the former concern with a few low-buck chassis mods spread out over the long winter months. Pretty can wait.


As installed, our stock piston/rod combo measured 0.015 inch below the deck--not great for quench, but typical for a stock GM-delivered configuration.

Before the Crane dual valvesprings were installed, we lubricated the guides with red assembly lube and pressed the Teflon valve seals over the guides using a deep-well socket. Ask your machine shop for a few extra seals--they're easy to mangle.

For proper installed torque, we coated the under-side of each Milodon head bolt with assembly lube. ARP offers a proper lube for fastener assembly, but conventional moly lube will suffice. Don't forget to coat the threads with a Teflon pipe sealant to prevent coolant from seeping to the surface.

We slathered the Powermax cam with Crane's assembly lube before stabbing it into the block. A quality Crane double-roller timing chain tied it all together.

On the top end, Crane's 3/8-inch one-piece push-rods and long-slot rocker arms comprise the remainder of the valvetrain. Given our conservative choice of cam grind, 110-pound seat pressure, and quality American-made parts, valvetrain durability should rival a factory install.

ARP main studs are admitted overkill for this motor, allowing a two-bolt block to withstand 500-plus horsepower. The textbook Milodon oiling system consists of a high-volume pump and hardened steel drive, plus a low-restriction pickup coupled with an 8-quart pan and windage tray. Together it delivers no less than 30 psi at idle and 70 psi at speed. Most importantly, we observed no appreciable pressure drop during a quarter-mile pass.

Much of our budget was wisely spent on the Holley 850-cfm carb and World Products dual-plane intake, buttoned up with Fel-Pro's composite gaskets. A set of Trans-Dapt valve covers (powdercoated Chevy Orange) lend a period look--and actually fit properly without leaking.

Quick Notes
A freshened 454 dropped into one '69 RS/SS
Bottom Line
We didn't break the bank and it hit bottom 13s in the quarter-mile.
Price (approx)

Best e.t.:
13.16 at 105.7, 2.17 60-foot
Best mph:
13.39 at 106.1, 2.23 60-foot
Idle vacuum:
17 in-Hg at 750 rpm (in Neutral)
Average fuel economy:
11 mpg (street and race use)


Crane Cams
Daytona Beach, FL 32117
World Products
Ronkonkoma, NY 11779
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Johnson Machine Service
Monrovia, CA

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