The super Chevys of the world would be a lot less interesting without all the great engines that power them. Before 1955, few in the hot-rod community gave Chevys more than a passing nod, thanks to their reliable, but unremarkable, Stovebolt Six engines.
Everything changed in the fall of 1954, when Ed Cole’s lightweight, groundbreaking V-8 arrived wrapped in a breathtaking ’55 design that was all new from the tires up. It wouldn’t be long before more powerful versions were offered. Once speed-crazed enthusiasts discovered the wonders of this compact powerhouse, it soon replaced the flathead Ford as the darling of the performance world.
Three years later, a new, larger engine would be introduced, the 348, to be followed by the 409. Immortalized in song, the 409 gave way in ’65 to the 396. Then came the 427, and 454. The ’90s gave rise to the LS engines, which are writing a new chapter in the legacy of high performance Chevys.
Here, in chronological order, Super Chevy Platinum presents its picks for the Top 15 Chevy engines of all time.
1) 265 V-8
(3.750 X 3.00)
Brand new for model year 1955, it powered over one-half of all new Chevys sold. Ditto in ’56. Its actual production run ended in mid-’57 when availability ended. It was used on early-model two-barrel/ manual transmission orders. Trucks and select cars had iron blocks with thicker cylinder walls. This allowed for 0.125-inch (1/8-inch) boring (18 more cubic inches) for 283 cid. Surprisingly, the fabled ’55 small-block V-8 engine commenced a 50-year-plus history. The very first 265 assembled at the Flint Engine Plant on July 9, 1954, was put aside for perpetual display in a sealed enclosure. In all, well over 1.5 million 265-powered Chevrolets were sold.
2) 283 V-8
(3.875 X 3.00)
It was a passenger car option from model year 1957 through 1967. You name it and it did it—including make 1 horsepower per cubic inch in ’57, thanks in part to a “Duntov” camshaft and Rochester fuel-injection. Hot-rodders then bored its cylinder walls 0.060-inch for 292 cid, as well as 0.125-inch for 301 cid, then installed 1.94-intake valve heads (1960-up) and 2.02-intake valve heads (1964-up), a ’57-’61 245 or 270hp dual WCFB carb setup, or a ’62-up aluminum high-rise four-barrel intake with 500-600 cfm Carter AFB or Holley after 1965. These 283s, 292s, and 301s ruled the streets in every town in America (when linked to a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed and high numerical rear gears). The 283 also powered millions of the USA’s work trucks. In all, millions sold.
3) L65 327/365HP V-8
(4.00 X 3.25)
From 1958 through 1964, Chevys grew bigger and heavier, so factory engineers bored and stroked the 283 to 327 cubes. The highest factory horsepower rating for a 327 was 375 in 1964-’65 (Corvette with Rochester fuel injection). But the best bang for the buck was the 365hp version sporting a 600-cfm Holley carb on an aluminum high-rise intake manifold. Both of these engines were internally identical (11.0:1 compression, big ports, and 2.02-intake valve heads and a radical “30-30” solid lifter camshaft). The 375 and 365hp engine’s power curve was 2,700 rpm to 7,200 rpm and powered on in a blink. Many of these engines were purchased by enthusiasts from GM parts departments, over-the-counter. Some were then equipped with a new 750-cfm, dual-inlet Holley 3310 carb for even more power. Thousands of previously 301-powered Chevy IIs and Malibus became ultimate performance monsters on the street and strip with the factory 365hp 327.
4) 348 & 409 “W” Motors
(4.125 X 3.25 & 4.3125 X 3.50)
The 348 was originally designed to be a heavy-duty truck engine capable of pulling tons of weight. Yet when stuffed into a ’58 Impala with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, it wasn’t so great. But with more compression, a high-lift camshaft, tri-power induction, manual transmission and gearing, it became a certified high-performance torque monster capable of making over 300 horsepower to about 5,500 rpm— through factory stock exhaust. The 315, 320, 335, and 350hp 348s in 1960-’61 continually put Chevys in the winner’s circle from coast-to-coast. The 1961-’65 high-performance 409 was a bored and stroked 348 with larger head ports and valves. Despite heavy pistons due to cylinder head and combustion chamber design, this engine was highly competitive in everything except NASCAR long-track competition. (Imagine eight two- pound piston assemblies revving 6,400 rpm for many hours.) Short tracks—no problem. The overwhelming majority of the USA’s best drag racers ran a 409 in 1962-’63. Regional and low-buck racers ran B and C/Stock 409s in the mid-’60s with much success. Top 409 big-name racers in ’62 were Dyno Don Nicholson, Hayden Proffitt, Dave Strickler/Bill Jenkins, Dick Harrell, Ronnie Sox, and Butch Leal. We could easily name 30 more national, regional, and local 409 racers in 1962 who seldom lost. Additionally, the Beach Boys became even more famous because of their hit song, “409.”
6) L78 396/425HP
(4.094 X 3.76)
Its “daddy” was first seen at Daytona in 1963. Designed to make Chevrolets competitive on the NASCAR high banks, the “Mystery Motor 427” blistered the field in qualifying runs. During the race, minor things such as water pump failure forced all entries to the pits. But the cat was out of the bag. Over another year of engineering saw its external dimensions increase about 1 inch—to where none of the Mystery Motor internals were interchangeable. In February 1965, two Turbo Jet 396 “big-block” engines replaced the pair of 409s: RPO L35, a 325hp torque engine featuring high-velocity, oval-port heads and an 800-cfm Rochester Quadrajet carb; and RPO L78, a 425hp, ultra-high-performance engine featuring rectangle-port heads, 11.0:1 compression, and an aluminum high-rise intake manifold with 800-cfm Holley carb. Either engine could be ordered in any fullsize model. Production: L35 55,454. L78 1,838. The L78 also saw its way into 2,157 Corvettes for an extra cost of $292.70. In ’65, the 425hp 396 was the quickest and fastest RPO Chevrolet ever produced. But that wouldn’t last long.
7) L72 427/425HP
(4.250 X 3.76)
Designated RPO L72, it was offered in 1966 Corvettes and 1966, 1968, and 1969 fullsize passenger cars. Rated the same as the ’65 L78 396, it actually produced 450 hp and was advertised as such early in model year ’66. Then, due to owner insurance cost flap (and theoretical potential loss of sales), its rating was quickly reduced to 425. Since new, this engine has proven to be a winner on all fronts and is the basis for all other solid-lifter big-blocks offered through 1969. Total 1966 L72 passenger car sales were 1,856. Big car L72 sales in 1968 and 1969 were 568 and 546, respectively. These late-’60s cars were huge. Performance fans chose Chevelles, Novas, and Camaros instead.
8) 427/430HP L88
(4.250 X 3.76)
The 1967-’69 RPO L88 race engine was rated at only 430 hp for obvious reasons—the first of which was the given rpm-reading: a mere 5,200. Why tell the world your 12.5:1-compression, mega-cam, rectangle-port 427 actually snorts out over 550 hp at 7,400 rpm? It was only available from the factory in the Corvette, or over the parts counter. This engine put out so much power and heat that it was very difficult to keep cool on the street.
Actually, there was a factory center console plate on Vettes so equipped stating, “Not For Street Use.” As it was indeed a road-racing terror, L88 Corvette sales in 1967-1969 were 20, 80, and 116, respectively. The L88 solid-lifter camshaft was Chevy’s best sounding cam to date, and thousands were sold to owners of solid-lifter 396 Chevelles, Camaros, and Novas who sought a max-power setup with an awesome-sounding rough idle.
9) 427/430HP ZL1
(4.250 X 3.76)
Developed initially for the 1969 Camaro Super Stock competition, it was only available through “Central Office Production Order 9560.” A ZL1 Camaro was a legal, factory-built Super Stock/B drag car. With an aluminum 427 producing over 550 hp, Chevrolet Engineering execs originally thought the bottom-line cost would be very racer-affordable. But when the corporate bean-counters became involved, no cost breaks were given. The engine ($4,160) cost more than the base price of the V-8 Camaro ($2,727). With sales tax, license cost, and shipping, out-the- door was just over $7,000. The ZL1 engine internally was much like the iron-block 427 L88. But the ZL1 had open-chamber heads for better high-rpm power production, plus floating wrist pins and a few other minor updates. Original Camaro production: 69. All 69 ZL1 I.D. numbers went unknown until the early 1980s. All were then were published in Super Chevy via then editor and co-author Doug Marion— thanks to Chevy’s legendary Product Promotion Department guru, Vince Piggins. Depending on who you believe, there were definitely two, and perhaps three, ZL1 Corvettes built and sold to the public.
10) 454/450HP LS6
(4.250 X 4.00)
It was a one-year/one-model super engine (1970 Chevelle SS) with sales totaling 4,475. Thousands more short- and long-blocks were sold for many years afterwards. Try four-bolt main bearing caps, 11.0:1 compression ratio, special high-lift camshaft, huge rectangle-port heads, and an 800-cfm dual-inlet Holley carburetor on a flat, aluminum intake manifold. Most LS6s also had the extra-cost cowl-induction hood option for cooler incoming air. Some of the non-cowl-induction-hood LS6 cars had a factory or aftermarket aluminum high-rise intake manifold. Wise owners thought it was more of a power-producer than the cowl hood, and they were right. With this high-rise intake manifold, a set of tubular headers and a super-tune, LS6s produced over 500 hp and ran in the high 11s at over 115 mph—with slicks and 4.10- 4.56:1 gears. Not bad for a 4,000-plus-pound street car. Today, the 450hp ’70 LS6 is to many the granddaddy of all the big-inch crate engines GM offers. There wasn’t a street tire made in 1970 that could handle the torque and horsepower of an LS6. When the Holley carb’s secondaries began to open, the rear tires broke loose.
11) LT5 350/375-405HP
(3.90 X 3.66)
Back in the late ’80s, the Corvette was the hot ticket with its 240-250-horse Tuned Port injected, pushrod small-block. It topped out at over 150 mph and ran 13s in the quarter-mile, but then rumors started flowing about a Corvette supercar (known to insiders as the King of the Hill). The rumors turned out to be true. In development with newly-acquired Lotus, Chevy developed the ZR-1, a 180-mph supercar that could blow away the Ferraris of the day. It was powered by the all-new and all-alloy LT5 V-8, which made 375 horsepower thanks to its dual-overhead cam, 32-valve, 350-cid engine. The ZR1 option added a staggering $27,016 to the price of a $31,979 base Vette, but in the supercar realm it was a bargain. Quarter-mile times were in the 12.8-13.0 range at 110 mph. While its 375 horsepower in ’90 doesn’t sound like much at a time when the base Corvette makes 430 horsepower, it offered a 50-percent increase in power over the base Vette in ’90. The LT5’s crowning achievement was setting a 24-hour endurance speed average of 175.8 mph—including fuel stops. King of the Hill, indeed!
12) LS1 346/345HP
(3.898 X 3.62)
GM had introduced the Gen II small-block, the LT1, in the ’92 Corvette, so it was a bit of a shock when the 1997 Corvette was introduced with a totally new engine. The LS1 shared the traditional small-block’s 4.4-inch bore spacing, but precious little else. The all-aluminum block had a deep-skirt design, and not only did it feature four-bolt main caps, but also two cross-bolts for additional durability. The cylinder heads were also aluminum and in a radical departure did not have the Siamese center intake ports small-block Chevys had been know for since ’55. The benefit here is vastly improved port geometry and race-like cylinder head flow. The LS1 heads flow 245 cfm from the factory. The cam bores were larger and located higher in the block. Fully assembled, it weighs 100 pounds less than a Gen I SBC. While it was replaced a few years later by the even better Gen IV LS2 small-block, the LS1 started a performance revolution in 1997, one which is still growing in 2011.
13) LS6 346/385-405HP
(3.898 X 3.62)
While it shared the LS1’s bore and stroke, the LS6 engine was a different animal from the block up and, installed only in the new- for-2002 Corvette ZO6, picked up the supercar mantle missing in the Corvette lineup since the discontinuation of the ZR-1 in 1995—at a fraction of that car’s price. It had a new intake and exhaust manifolds, a higher-lift cam, and high-flowing cylinder heads to produce 385 horsepower. In the lightweight ZO6, this was enough to propel them to 11-second quarter-mile times in factory trim, far eclipsing the performance of the ZR-1 in every way except top speed (which was approximately 171 mph). A year later, the LS6 got a host of upgrades, including a freer flowing exhaust, a higher-lift cam, lighter (hollow) intake and (liquid-filled) exhaust valves to bring the power total to 405 (though reports are this was intentionally underrated by the factory). The ZO6 engines of 2001-2004 had a completely different feel than the standard LS1s and even today’s ZO6, more like that of a tamed race engine than a high-output street motor.
14) LS7 427.5/505HP
(4.125 X 4.00)
The most powerful naturally-aspirated engine in Chevy’s history comes in an all-aluminum package and hosts a number of innovations— including dry-sump oiling in a production vehicle and press-fit iron cylinder liners instead of cast-iron sleeves. A forged-steel crank, titanium rods, hypereutectic pistons, and doweled steel main caps make up the bulk of the bottom end. The cam has nearly 0.600 inch of lift, with 211/230 @ 0.050 duration. The 12-degree heads are CNC-ported at the factory and use 2.20/1.61- inch valves. The engine revs freely to 7,000rpm, and in the lightweight package it comes in (2006-present Corvette ZO6) can run mid-to-low 11-second quarter-mile times off the showroom floor, with a top speed of 198 mph. It’s a Hall of Famer in any book.
15) LS9 376/638HP
(4.065 X 3.622)
For the ultimate small-block performer, Chevy added a Roots-style supercharger to a 6.2-liter engine to create the LS9. The block is cast from 319-T7 aluminum for added strength and features larger bulkheads than the standard LS7 block. Inside are titanium rods, a steel crank, and forged 9.1:1 pistons. Instead of using the expensive and more exotic ZO6 heads, the ZR1 uses casts that are similar to that of the LS3 but made from A-356-T6 aluminum. Up top, a 2.3-liter Eaton supercharger puts 10.5 psi of boost through a dual-core intercooler. It makes enough grunt to propel the ZR1 to 205 mph. If you have the means, GM Performance Parts will sell you an LS9 crate engine for about $22,000.