You don’t have to drop $5000 or more on a crate motor to get decent horsepower. To most budget builders, getting the project on the road is more important than a few extra horsepower. This article is not about picking the most powerful engines available, it’s about ease of build and availability of parts while staying within a budget.

Chrysler, Ford, and GM all built great small block V8s in the late 80’s and 90’s. These widely available and easily modified motors can be found in running condition for just a few hundred bucks if you shop around a bit on craigslist and in the junkyards. All three have reputations for running for several hundred thousand miles.

GM and Chrysler each had a line of small block V8s and a related V6.  For GM it was the 4.3 V6, 5.0, and 5.7 V8 Vortec series. For Chrysler it was the 3.9 V6, 5.2, and 5.9 V8 Magnum engines.

Ford did not offer a V6 version of the venerable Windsor because of the legendary 4.9 inline six. The 5.0 was upgraded to a roller block and cam in 87 and was available as late as 2002 in the Explorers and Mountaineers. I bought this 104K mile 99 Explorer 5.0 complete engine for $450 from a junkyard for my build project.99-explorer-302-1The 5.8 got a roller cam in 94 and could still be found in the Econoline Vans and F series trucks as late as 1996 before it was replaced with the modular series of engines. Ford’s modular series of engines replaced the Windsor, and the big inline six and the Cologne V6. The modular line includes the 4.2 V6, the 4.6 V8, and the 5.4 V8. These engines share many components, and can be found in junkyards, but have no distributor hole for installation of a DUI distributor for a “dumb” build.

All of these motors also have bell housing bolt patterns that allow the use of commonly found modern overdrive transmissions which makes any ride more streetable and greatly improves fuel efficiency. The days of keeping a 3 speed just to handle the power are over. The newer Ford AOD, GM 700R4, and Chrysler Torqueflight 46RH have no problems handling up to 350 HP without modifications. You can see in this picture that the AOD is almost the same length as the C4, but has a larger diameter than the old blue C4. Some vehicles may need a new trans crossmember and the floor and/or trans tunnel “adjusted” to handle the bigger case.c4-and-aod-1

The GM and Ford fuel injected, computer controlled motors can be made “dumb” for a low tech build requiring no controllers, or ignition boxes just by swapping to a DUI distributor that only requires 1 wire from the ignition switch. hei-dizzyThe Mopars will require an ignition box, but after that, with all 3 brands, throw in a carburetor and intake and that late 90’s small block is now roaring in your custom ride.

Many mods can even be done to the 4.3 Vortec and 3.9 Magnum V6s if space and weight are more of a concern than power in your build.

We’ll just focus on the V8s for now. No matter what displacement or brand you settle on, all of these V8 motors come from the factory making 220 to 260 hp and close to, or over, 300 lb-ft. of torque with an average factory truck cam. This is usually a nice increase in power and a big increase in torque over a stock 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s car motor. There is great aftermarket support for all 6 of these engines and your budget and imagination are the only limiting factors.

In a recent search of craigslist within 100 miles of my house, I found dozens of these motors for sale for under $500 in vehicles that were wrecked or badly rusted or had a lost title or a bad transmission. I prefer buying a parts car where you can hear your motor run and do a compression check before buying, but my local U-Pull junkyard only charges $199 for a complete engine with no accessories if I can’t find the right motor for sale by an individual.

Installation of the newer motors involves high level auto electric wiring skills to match the wiring harness of the engine to the transmission and the chassis and that can exclude entry-level to mid-level builders. Unless you buy an expensive swap harness like this LS swap harness from Painless that cost over $

Don’t get me wrong, I have no disrespect intended for the new stuff. The newer small block engines from all 3 manufacturers like the LS, the Modular, and the new Hemi are a generational improvement over the Windsor, Vortec, and Magnums. They are better for many reasons, but lack distributor holes in the blocks and cannot be “dumbed down” with a DUI dizzy and a 4-barrel carb for a simpler, lower budget build. Prices for the newer generations of engines are generally much higher too.

Keep building!

See you on the road!


Wiring harness pic from 4Wheel Parts catalog, all other photos by David Wilhite.