There’s no denying that the LS engine family is the most popular donor for powerplant swaps going right now. With a combination of affordability, durability, availability, and simplicity that no other modern V8 can match, the LS has found its way into practically every brand of car, from Avanti to Volvo (there aren’t any LS-swapped Wartburgs, Xenias, or Zimmers that we have come across so far) as well as countless boats and even aircraft and helicopters. With all that variety, you’d think that dropping a Gen III or IV into something as humble as a GM pickup would hardly merit any attention, but the reality is that this kind of swap has soared in popularity recently.
Making it Easy
Dropping an LS into an older pickup is so popular, in fact, that there’s a growing list of companies making parts specifically to help facilitate the job. Gibson Exhaust Systems has developed long tube LS swap headers for 1963-1987 C-10 pickups to compliment their exhaust systems, and Holley has gone all-in with everything from oil pans to cast exhaust manifolds and even complete front drive accessory systems for these swaps.
If the S-10 is more of what you had in mind, Muscle Rods has completely sussed out all the hard parts necessary for an LS swap including things like motor and transmission mounts, avoiding the need for any fabrication of critical components. Even if you have a vintage pickup or want to go the complete DIY route, though, the generous engine bay space available makes a truck LS conversion a much easier proposition than some other projects, like third gen or early fourth gen F-bodies.
To explore the world of LS truck swaps, we found three very different projects that prove the variety and scope of what’s possible is only limited by your imagination. One is a perfect example of a true DIY build, the second is an unlikely road racing monster, and the third is a vintage truck professionally built to hunt monsters. All they have in common is a bed out back and an LS under the hood, plus a lot of personality behind each.
Mark Burch – 1987 Chevrolet R10/C10
Frequent readers might not be familiar with his name, but they’ve probably seen Mark Burch’s work before. In the guise of AGearhead4Life on YouTube, he’s produced a ton of great do-it-yourself LS content, some of which we’ve featured here on our own site. Burch’s ’87 Chevy has been the star of many of his videos, and it’s a perfect example of why LS swaps into older pickups are so popular.
The ’87 is actually Burch’s second “Rounded Line” LS swap. The first, an ’84 with the same 5.3/4L80E driveline combo as his current truck, was actually stolen back in 2013. “My wife and I were on a date-night, and went to see a movie. When we came out of the theater, my truck was gone. Then we had to find some way to get home to relieve the babysitter watching our three kids,” Burch recalls. Undaunted, he almost immediately set out on a search for a replacement.
The donor chassis was sourced for $2,500, with a bad transmission but in otherwise good shape. “The paint was one reason why I got it,” Burch explains. “The body was straight so I could just throw my powertrain into it.” That powertrain is a testament to what can be done on a budget, using “pre-owned” parts. The long block is a 5.3 with 165,000 miles on it, with swapped 4.8 flat-top pistons to bring the compression ratio to 10.6:1. Burch ported a pair of 5.3 862 heads himself, and installed used 2-inch LS1 intake valves and .600 lift beehive springs from PAC.
Right now, he’s running a TSP 220R “sleeper” cam, but says the future holds a bigger 228/230 cam from Trick Flow. Also on deck is a switch from stock truck fuel injectors to a set of junkyard 3800 supercharged injectors that Burch says are effectively 42-pound units at the fuel pressure LS engines run. A (used, of course) 4L80E automatic with a stock converter backs the LS, but Burch has a converter with a 3,200 RPM stall waiting in the wings. He estimates the combo is good, in its current form, for 425 crank horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, but admits he hasn’t had the truck on a dyno yet.
That power gets to the ground via the factory 8.5-inch 10-bolt rearend stuffed with a used 3.42 ring and pinion sourced from a ’94 model and an Eaton Detroit Truetrac limited slip differential. That turns a pair of factory 15×8 rally wheels, with matching 15×7 rallys up front for less backspacing. The front suspension uses a combination of 2.5-inch drop spindles and 2-inch drop springs to tuck those factory wheels into the fenders, while out back a flip kit relocates the axle above the leaf springs to even out the stance.
Burch’s resourcefulness in repurposing used parts doesn’t end with the mechanicals, though. Inside, he made custom brackets to mount a 60/40 split bench seat with a folding console out of the ’95-’99 model pickup, and the steering wheel is off a ’95. The finishing interior touch is the rearview mirror, which once graced a 2000 Camaro.
How much did Burch spend? “As little as possible,” he jokes. “I save all my receipts, but I’ve never taken the time to add it all up. There was a lot of bartering and Craigslist, too.” The work-in-progress result is a great daily driver with awesome performance and practicality that serves as a rolling testament to Burch’s aptitude for DIY work.
Mark Bovey – 1971 GMC 1500 Long Bed
The old joke about a flying elephant is that you shouldn’t criticize how well it flies – you should be amazed that it flies at all. That’s an apt analogy for Mark Bovey’s ’71 GMC, but in this case, it actually flies pretty well. It might even be the most well-known LS-swapped pickup in the world, if there is such a thing, thanks to Bovey and co-driver Miles Markovic’s success at the 2014 Targa Newfoundland, where they piloted the big GMC to second place in the Vintage class as well as winning Rookie of the Year honors.
“We ‘plated’ in our first attempt,” Bovey recalls. “That means we did every stage [of the Targa] in a certain time. Most [competitors] take a number of years to achieve this.” While the racing success may have seemed to come overnight, the truth is that the Targa Truck has led a lot of different lives before its present incarnation. “Many, many lives,” Bovey admits. “It’s always evolving.”
The GMC entered 41-year-old Bovey’s life when he was just 14; purchased by his father for a mere $100, the two worked together to restore the then-17-year-old pickup. “When first completed it was stock, with the original 307 and Powerglide,” Bovey recalls. “Next we dumped in a 350 and lowered it… 700R4. Big stereo in, big stereo out. After that it was turned into a period hot rod kinda thing. All vintage speed parts, trying to emulate what it would have been like in the 70’s. Then the 427/T56 came into play. I was drag racing for fun at the time, and went land speed racing. The plan was to twin turbo it and go index drag race and Outlaw stuff. Then my friend dared me to sign up for autocross school and another friend sent me a link that said a truck had never competed in the Targa Newfoundland. That’s when everything changed…”
Before we launch into that story, though, let’s take a closer look at the heart of the Targa Truck. The engine, put together back in 2010, is built around GM’s LSX block with a Callies rotating assembly, topped by AFR heads and fed via a carb-style Edelbrock single plane intake manifold set up for EFI, namely a BigStuff3 engine management system. Bovey claims 630 horsepower for the big LS when set on “kill;” a figure we’d call conservative considering the displacement and the fact it doesn’t start running out of steam until revved past 7k despite a cam chosen for broad torque instead of peak power.
A Spec Stage 3+ clutch connects the LSX to the Tremec T56 gearbox, and out back a leaf-sprung 12-bolt rearend with an Eaton Posi differential handles final drive duties. While high-horsepower leaf-spring cars are making something of a comeback in the world of drag racing, for a handling application you might wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to replace the buggy springs with something more sophisticated.
“Vintage rules in the Targa Newfoundland limit you to stock major suspension components and pivot locations,” Bovey explains. That means that in his words, the suspension is, “Boringly stock. It has lowing springs from Classic Performance Products , a CPP sway bar, CPP drop spindles, and an Early Classic Enterprises shock relocator kit. That’s it, other than shocks. I hooked up with Ron Sutton Race Technology and he curved a set of Ridetech HQ single adjustables for it. Those shocks and my set-up from Scott Murfin at Can-Alignment make this thing do way more than it should.”
Though the interior is race-car serious, this is still a street-driven truck. “The big thing with the full Targa Class is safety equipment, and a cage. I put in a full fire suppression system, though it’s not mandatory,” says Bovey. “Seats and harnesses need to be FIA-spec. For Targa, you need to carry a certain number of tools, jack stands, a jack, and so on, and all of this needs to be tied down, securely. One final thing — all of this can be moved around to put my son’s baby seat in.” To attend the 2015 Holley LS Fest, Bovey made the round trip from his home in Toronto (that’s in Ontario, Canada, for the geographically disadvantaged) to Bowling Green, Kentucky behind the wheel of the Targa Truck.
But as it turns out, you can’t race a truck and go to both Kentucky and Tennessee without being asked a lot of questions about buying guns… – Mark Bovey
Bovey has driven the truck extensively through the U.S., starting way back in 1997 on the Hot Rod Power Tour. “Crossing the border is always entertaining,” says Bovey. “Coming down to LS Fest I ended up doing a guided tour for a couple of border officers. I think they were just curious. I usually cover the details that make it street legal and everyone calms down. Coming back home, the border guard had heard of the truck, as her dad lives on one of the Targa Newfoundland routes. But as it turns out, you can’t race a truck and go to both Kentucky and Tennessee without being asked a lot of questions about buying guns — which I did not buy. They searched the truck anyway. It was a nice night.”
Bovey has a laundry list of events he’d like to add to the Targa Truck’s resume, like Pike’s Peak, La Carrera Panamericana, the Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge, and even the Targa Tasmania in 2017. But in the meantime, it will continue to be his main form of transportation.
“I’m at a point in my life where owning a 600-plus horsepower truck makes zero sense,” he admits. “So, how can I make it fit my life? I live downtown in the fourth largest city in North America. I’m married to a wonderful wife, with a cool three year old son. Up until the Targa Newfoundland, the truck was our family vehicle. I took my wife Liz to the hospital for the birth out our son Wyatt, and when he was about three hours old, I brought him home in this truck. It has been through so much good and bad — including a tornado in Milwaukee — what’s next has to top what it’s already done. The point of all of this is to have fun and keep life interesting.”
Scot E. Dowd – 1949 Chevy Pickup
When we asked Scot E. Dowd what he did, he listed “Geneticist and Car Builder,” so we knew right away that we were in for a bumpy ride. The former occupation puts Dr. Dowd at the helm of Molecular Research LP, a Texas-based genome sequencing company. He’s authored or co-authored more than 130 peer-reviewed journal articles, served as an adjunct professor at Texas Tech, and worked as a microbiologist for the USDA. The latter occupation has him elbow deep in more projects than we can list at Molecular Motors, a West Texas shop specializing in retro-mod work.
The zombie theme came to be because I am a geneticist, and as we know from all the movies it is the geneticists that start the zombie outbreaks. – Scot Dowd
“The Zombie Killer Truck was originally intended to be the tow vehicle for the Black Ops Camaro on trips to the drag strip,” Dowd continues. “Craigslist surfing one day showed me this ugly pumpkin orange 49 Chevy truck. The price was a bit much but I saw immediately what I wanted. We managed to coax her old straight-six to start and drove her to the shop at 30 MPH jumping left and right with every bump. Then began one of the most extreme transformations. We pulled her apart leaving only the frame.”
That frame turned out to be surprisingly straight, but was never intended to handle what Dowd had in store for it. To prepare for what was to come, a full five- by six-foot heavy gauge steel plate was welded in under the cab, the bed area was reinforced with an x-brace made from roll cage tubing (with steel plate reinforcement of the bed for good measure) and ahead of the firewall, the frame was boxed for strength.
“We left a little flex before and after the cabin and aft of the rear axle, but not much,” says Dowd. “You can put a jack under one corner and pick up two wheels at once, the chassis is so stiff.” That strength is completely appropriate; in place of the original wheezy inline six there’s now an LSX376-B8 short-block with an LSA keyed crank, topped by an LSA supercharger that’s been ported and overdriven to deliver 12 pounds of boost. A pair of CNC-ported heads from Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center and a custom COMP Cams bumpstick round out the hardware, delivering what Dowd describes as “750-ish” horsepower.
The rest of the drivetrain consists of a 4L85E automatic with a 3,500 RPM stall converter, with the 12-bolt from a ’68 Firebird holding up the rear, suspended by a Heidts four-link. The truck wears Mickey Thompson radials on the street, and Hoosier slicks for the dragstrip. Up front, the old hot rodder’s standby — a Mustang II independent suspension — keeps things rolling.
Dowd says the build went down in just a month and a half (when you take paint and body work out of the equation by rattle canning the whole thing flat black, you can save a lot of time) but it wasn’t without the occasional hitch. “I took the truck out on one of her first drives, getting her out on the highway, actually heading to get her aligned for the first time, and I heard a couple loud noises,” Dowd recalls.
“Like a rock thown up into the fender well too hard. Everything seems stable, but I pulled off the highway onto the access road. The truck had a slight shudder as I slowed down so I pulled into a parking lot and checked the steering and under the hood, I even checked the wheels. Not noticing anything I pulled back out onto the access road, and as I was only one exit away from the shop where I was getting her aligned I cruised along. The shuddering got a little worse and I heard another “rock” hit the fender. I pulled into another parking lot got out and then noticed only one lug was left on the front passenger wheel! The truck had held onto her wheel and gotten me to a safe spot before the last lug came off in my hand. The studs had literally sheared in half. Needless to say all of our lugs are now ARP, and I gave the old girl an extra can of Torco for keeping me safe.”
Three Of A Kind
While all three of our featured trucks have wildly different specs and “life stories,” they’re all fantastic examples of what creativity and passion can create, based around the reliable, affordable, powerful LS. We’ve only scratched the surface here — each could fill an entire feature article by itself. We hope that we’ve inspired you to consider a project of your own, whether it’s a budget build, track toy, or wild one-off. Whatever you do, take lots of pictures, so that we can tell your LS truck story, too.