For generations hot rodders have pulled bigger and more powerful engines out of other cars to use in their DIY hot rod projects. Back in the ’50s gearheads would spend hours hunting for Cadillac and Oldsmobile engines to use in their rods. In the ’60s builders started pulling Hemis, Pontiac 455s, Ford Cammers, and of course the big-block Chevys out of cars to power their gassers, T-buckets and other custom powered street machines.
However, most of these engines have become harder to find over the years, as many of them have already been pulled out of the junkyards, used in hot rods or blown up at the strip. This makes finding a suitable engine for a budget build a tough challenge. Thankfully, there are companies like BluePrint, Engine Quest, and others who offer reliable crate and performance engines at a fraction of the cost. But sometimes for the right look, and to stay under a very small budget – a little “dumpster diving” for engines might be a necessity.
Sure, the glory days of the junkyard engine are long gone since there are less classic musclecars found in junkyards these days. If your wallet is stopping you from starting the budget build that’s been sitting in your garage the last few years – here’s your chance to get back in gear! We’ll look at a few options, and also some tips and tricks with years to look out for when scoring your own budget engine for your project.
Chevy engines have always made great donors for a hot rodder on budget. One of the main reasons is Chevy V-8s are highly common which makes them cheaper. Whether you are building a fiberglass T-bucket, a street rod, a drag car or a rat rod – Chevy engines make great affordable and powerful platforms offering a ton of aftermarket support. Some engines like the 454s, 427s, 409s, 396s and others have become more rare, hard to find and expensive. However, there are other Chevy V-8s that are easy to find and will make great power plants for any hot rod.
If you own a 3rd generation F-body, you’re familiar with the 305. While it may not be as powerful as its older sister, it still has potential to be a strong performance donor. 305s are easy to find and available in 3rd gen F-bodies, as well as ’80s EL Caminos, Caprices, Malibus, Monte Carlos, Buick Regals, Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Olds Cutlass. Performance is really easy to make from the 305 since companies like Edelbrock, Comp, Holley, and Crane Cams make performance parts as well as a slew of other companies offering everything from cylinder heads to cam upgrades.
The LT1 is probably one of the best engineered engines to ever come from GM’s production line and is worth mentioning here. Now some of you old school guys may not want to use this motor if you are building a rat rod or a traditional hot rod. Which is fine, we understand and we will have more engines to suit your projects here in a bit. But for those who want modern fuel economy along with great performance but an engine that is simple then the LT1 is for you. The LT1 is a multiport fuel-injected version of the Chevy 350.
Stock the motor puts out 275 horsepower and 330 lb/ft of torque. Making more power is easy since the LT1 has a large aftermarket following and parts that are fairly inexpensive. These motors are commonly found in 4th generation F-bodies but can also be found in ’90s Chevy Caprices, Corvette C4s, ’90s Buick Roadmasters and the ’94-96 Impala SS.
The 327 and 350
If you are building a traditional hot rod or rat rod on a budget then an older power plant like the 327 is the engine for you. The 327 is one of the more affordable and easier to find classic engines. While the displacement is not as big as the 350, hot rodders and drag racers have used 327 engines for years and have made great power with all sorts of fun combinations.
Again, aftermarket performance parts are readily available. To find a 327 quickly and on the cheap you can browse forums, Craigslist, eBay, and of course like the others – your local junkyards. Look for any 1962 through 1967 Chevy (though still available through ’69). The easiest place to find one is in the ’60s Chevy truck, Van or Police car.
We’re sure most of you know plenty about the 350. Chevy 350 crate motors are still a popular choice for builds due to their reliability, ease of use, and availability of performance aftermarket support. Although most 350s have already been robbed from the classic muscle cars, you can still find an affordable 350 in your local junkyard from any 1967 through 1980 Chevy Van, Sedan, Truck, or Police car. We recommend checking the Chevy C-10 or any GM Van. GMCs across the board are a good place to find a donor.
These aren’t the only Chevy or GM motors that make for good and affordable hot rod platforms. Pontiac motors such as the Pontiac 305, the 400, the 301 turbo, and the 455 also make for great donors. For these motors look in late 70s and early 80s Pontiacs.
If you are a Ford guy looking to score a good starter motor for your current project don’t worry, there are plenty of places to get Ford V-8 engines besides Gran Torino’s, Galaxies and classic Mustangs – you just have to know where to look!
289 and 302
The 289 is known for being one of the early Ford Windsor engines and the first power plant of the Mustang. The 289, despite its smaller displacement, is still highly capable of making enough power to run with the big-block engines. Performance parts are super affordable and easy to find for the 289. To find a used 289 check your junkyard for any 1962 Fords or later – Ford Falcons, Fairlanes, the early Mustangs, along with the occassional score out of a Bronco.
The 302 is the more common Ford motor available in droves. Ask anyone who has ever owned a classic F-150 or a classic Mustang 5.0. The owners will swear that these engines are the most reliable and the best engines to make power with. A 302 should be easy to find – look for any classic Ford F-150, Ford Bronco, Ford Mustang (the Fox Bodies should be the easiest place to find one), Mercury Capris, Mercury Cougar, and many others. Just about any mid 60s to early 90s Ford, Lincoln, or Mercury that you can think of had the 302 Windsor as an option.
The 351 Windsor (not to be confused with the Cleveland) is the largest of the Windsor engines. The 351 has a large aftermarket following similar to the Chevy 350, so making power with this engine is easy and affordable. The 351s are some of the most popular engines that are run by many of the Ford guys at the local drag strips for this reason. The 351s will be a bit tougher to find then the 302, but not impossible as they were available in Mustangs, Torinos and several different Mercurys.
We’ve noticed a slight decline in the popularity of the 390 FE over the last few years – but this could be great news for the Ford guys out there looking to do something a bit different, while still working with a small budget.
If you are looking for a 390 Ford FE engine, check your local Junkyard for the early 60s Ford Sedans and late 60s Mercurys like the Cougar and Commet. Ford Fairlanes are another great place to find these motors ready and waiting for the chance at a new life.
The 351 Cleveland is arguably the most powerful small-block motor ever produced by Ford. If you are a Ford guy you have probably heard several different legends and stories that have probably even become myths by now about this engine. This is because the 351 Cleveland is truly a legendary motor, capable of making large amounts of torque and horsepower despite having a smaller displacement (compared to a big-block).
The only drawback to the 351c is that they are pretty hard to find in the junkyards. Your best bet is to find 1978 to 1982 Ford trucks and Broncos or the occasional Ford police cars that you might happen across.
For those out there interested in building a traditional style hot rod, the Y-Block is probably the engine of choice (aside from the Flathead). Since the Lincoln Y-Block was made from 1952 to 1963 and the Ford from 1954 to 1964 they are fairly hard to find and most likely will require a lot of work if you do find one. On eBay or other auction sites, sometime you can find a decent starter Y-Block for cheap. Lincoln and Ford Y-Blocks were found in the 1950s Mercurys or Old T-Birds.
When it comes to Ford there are a lot more engine options out there, but we listed the engines would be the easiest and cheapest to find for those on a small budget. Along with considering which platforms offer the widest range of performance parts selection. There are several more engine options to choose from, including: Ford Flathead V-8s, Ford 390 and 428 FEs, Ford 427s, 429s, 460s and many more if the price is right.
For all of you “Mopar or No Car” guys out there, Mopar certainly has quite a variety of engines to choose from besides the popular Hemis and 440s. There are several different V-8s that can be bought for cheap and get great performance for a garage gearhead on a budget.
Slant Six 225
The Chrysler Slant Six may not be a V-8 engine, but it is definitely possible to build a cool and powerful hot rod around a Slant 225. The 225 will never be the performance engine that the 426 Hemi and the 440 are, but it still has the capability of making great street power and it looks cool to boot.
Unfortunately though, performance parts aren’t very common. However, a few specialized manufacturers offer some upgrades – including an intake manifold for both 2-barrel and 4-barrel carburetors from Aussie Speed and Forged Pistons from Campbell. Hooker headers also has a set of headers available that help open up the Slant quite a bit. With enough effort it’s possible to make a 10-11 second rod that is powered by a 225.
Surprisingly enough, Chrysler’s 318 has been a highly underrated engine in the hot rod world. Its displacement is larger than both the Ford 302 and the Chevy 305 but outside of diehard Mopar circles, the engine seems to get very little respect.
You can build yourself a 318 that would make an excellent performance street engine on a small budget, so we’re left to wonder why these bad boys aren’t seen more in the hot rod world? It would make a great sleeper motor since, as we mentioned, the 318s are underrated. They are very easy to find and can be pulled from Dodge D100/D150 trucks, old Dodge/Chrysler Vans, Dodge Darts, Plymouth Dusters, Belvederes, Plymouth Valiants, old Mopar Station Wagons, Dodge Aspens and more cars.
The 340 was Mopars answer to the Chevy 350 and the Ford 351w motors. The 340 is a lightweight high performance small-block that was developed by Chrysler during the horsepower wars of the 1960s. The 340 has the capability to be quite a powerful motor due to its large port cylinder heads and strong crankshaft. Aftermarket performance parts are affordable and easy to find so the 340 would make for a great street motor or even a good drag racing engine if built right. The best places to find a 340 are in the early 70s Dodge Darts, Demons, Plymouth Dusters, late model Dodge Charger, late model Coronet and Plymouth Roadrunners.
383 RB and 440 RB
The 383 RB is another highly underrated Mopar engine. The 383 is underrated mostly because it was quickly overshadowed by the HEMI and its larger, younger sister the 440 RB. Sadly, the fact that the 383 is underrated leads to one major drawback; only a small performance aftermarket exists for these diamonds in the rough. However, aftermarket parts for the 383 are fairly easy to find since Crane Cams, Edelbrock and Holley make some top end kits and other available upgrades. To find a 383 look in midsize or fullsize 60s to Mid 70s Mopars.
The 440 is the popular Mopar engine and can still be found if you know where to look. Of course the first place to check would be the 70s Dodge Monaco or a 70s Plymouth Fury. Other places to look are the fullsize Mopar sedans such as the Chrysler 300, the New Yorker, the Newport, the Town and Country van, the Dodge B-Series vans, and of course look for one in any Mopar musclecar, but those have all been plucked and leave for slim pickings today.
The Early Hemis
Early 1950s Hemis aren’t going to be any easy find by any means, and performance parts are also just as rare. If you want to go with an early Hemi your best bet is the 57-58 Chrysler 392. Parts are still hard to find for this engine, however Speedway Motors sells an intake manifold, cam bearings and forged pistons while both Crane Cams and Comp Cams make some cam options for the 392s. Crane has the capability of regrinding OEM cams to factory specs or for improved performance. This includes engines dating back into the 1930s. So finding the right bump stick for an early Hemi is not an issue.
These are just a small fraction of the engines that could be used for a budget hot rod project. There are plenty of engines out there just waiting for some gearhead to come along and claim them and give them a second shot at life. Don’t let the budget deter you from doing what you love, get out there, find a cheap starter engine and get to building!