In these uncertain times, enthusiasts are forced to watch every penny. That means maximizing power with a minimal expenditure. In most cases, it is necessary to trade the expense for either knowledge (of the likes you will find in the pages of Super Chevy) or good, old-fashioned, elbow grease. In the case of our Chump Change Challenge, we traded both.
The premise was a simple, albeit popular one. Take one small-block Chevy and select the most cost-effective components in order to achieve our seemingly conflicting goal of power and economy. On the power side, we selected 400 hp as a reasonable output. Building a 350 to produce 400hp is really no big deal, but doing it for chump change is decidedly more difficult.
In this case, chump change meant building our small-block with a ceiling of just $1,000. Given the fact that $1,000 is nearly the cost of a set of most aluminum cylinder heads, reaching 400 hp for a grand total of $1,000 looks pretty impressive-not to mention somewhat difficult. Now let's throw in the fact that the $1,000 price tag must also include not only the cost of the entire engine, but also a set of aluminum cylinder heads. Have we lost our minds?
Naturally, the 400hp motor was not going to be some off-the-shelf crate motor assembly, unless you count the shelf at your local wrecking yard. Remember we said that it might be necessary to trade cost for some elbow grease? In this case, the elbow grease came in the form of some computer legwork through the local Craigslist and Recycler, as well as a few trips to a nearby boneyard. Calling first, we found a few yards that offered complete engines for just $225 (plus a core of $50). Of course, the $225 examples were still installed in the vehicle, so this meant trading elbow grease for the additional cost savings.
Always up for a quickie R&R procedure, we ventured off to our favorite Pick Your Part in search of a low-buck (but hopefully fine-running) engine. Believe us, running engines (even good running ones) are out there for the taking. Given the sheer production numbers, this is especially true of small-block Chevys, though we made every effort to avoid the 305s and instead concentrated on finding a 350. The added displacement and bore size would help us achieve our goal on the limited budget available for performance parts.
Available in both cars and trucks, our only concern was to locate a good-running example with (hopefully) a 4-barrel Q-jet. Though we would be replacing the cast-iron 4-barrel intake manifold, the Q-jet was mandatory to help us achieve the desired power and keep us under the $1,000 mark. As it turned out, the search for the Q-Jet was unnecessary as a suitable candidate fell right in our laps.
Here are a couple of tips that might help you separate a usable small-block from the rest of the junk. First off, make sure that the engine in question has everything present that you will need to install in your vehicle. In most cases (like ours), the cost of the motor included everything from the air cleaner assembly down to the oil pan and from the fan to flex plate-including things like motor mounts, starter, and all of the accessories, though none of these would be run on the engine dyno.
After checking out the major components, it is time to look specifically at the engine to ascertain its health and viability as a candidate for your project. Check the coolant, oil, and spark plugs. The oil and coolant have likely been drained, but check inside the radiator cap or even in one of the radiator hoses for signs of antifreeze. Fresh antifreeze is a good sign, a rusty radiator or thermostat housing is not.
If the oil has been drained, smell the dipstick-does is smell like burnt oil? Even go to the trouble of removing the drain plug on the oil pan. Does the residual oil resemble sludge or is it clean? Don't confuse high mileage for abuse, as dark oil can mean that the motor simply needed an oil change and not a bearing change. Don't be afraid to yank a valve cover to verify the condition of the engine, as going to all the trouble of pulling a V-8 only to find out that it is a junker is huge waste of time and energy.