There’s no doubt there’s been an LS engine takeover in the hot rod scene for the past decade or so. “It’s got an LS in it,” has become an all-too-common phrase, especially when you’re talking about a ’60s or ’70s muscle car. It’s true that LS engines are strong and plentiful, but prices are rising, and a more desirable 6.0 or 6.2L build can run $5,000 or more, even if you’re trying to stay on a budget. Oh, and don’t forget the electronics. Throttle bodies, injectors, and fuel systems aren’t cheap either and can add thousands to the final price.
Of course, there are other options out there. We spent some time checking out some Chevys at the recent Kool April Nites event in Redding, California and saw many cars powered by Chevy’s many other great engines. Here are some of the Chevrolet brand autos whose builders definitely went with the non-LS engine option. You can too!
First-Generation Small-Block Chevy
With more than 65 years of development, the small-block Chevy is perhaps one of the most hot-rodded engines of all time. Even with the LS craze in full swing, parts for small-blocks are usually less expensive, and there are products out there for any power level and budget. Not only are they plentiful, but they’re also strong, compact, and can be adapted to any platform. Sure there’s everything you need to put an LS in a Camaro, but how about a Corvette? Or a Chevy Luv truck? Chances are there’s a header and mounts to make the engine fit without hours of welding or unsightly pie-cuts.
When it comes to building a small-block Chevy, the sky is the limit. You can buy virtually anything, from a $500 junkyard engine with around 200 horsepower to a 1,000 horsepower, all-aluminum Sprint Car engine costing around $50,000, and that’s just naturally aspirated! Sure it’s easy to make 400 to 500 horsepower with an LS engine, but it’s easy with small-block Chevy’s too. In fact, a little shopping revealed you can buy a Blueprint Engines 400 cubic-inch crate engine making 508 horsepower for around $6,600. That’s about $2,000 cheaper than a comparative EFI LS crate engine, and you still need a computer to run the LS model. If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of person, there are cylinder heads of all shapes and flow numbers, rotating assembly kits, and everything else available to build just the exact type of Chevy small-block you’re looking for.
250-292 Cubic-Inch Inline-Six Chevy
Chevy’s 250 and 292 cubic-inch, inline-six engines can make great cruisers, are good on fuel, and have enough torque to get anything moving. Did you know inline-six Chevy engines can make more than 1,000 horsepower with the stock engine block? We didn’t until we did some research on the little six-in-a-row powerplant. If you’re looking for boosted power or ungodly amounts of torque (a mild, naturally aspirated 292 will make almost 300 lb-ft of torque at around 2,000 rpm), then these big-inch sixes might just be worth looking into.
They’re not going to move crazy amounts of air in naturally aspirated form, but there are performance parts out there for inline-sixes. Clifford Performance has been in business for decades and has tons of experience with Chevy Six-Bangers. They offer header kits, carb kits, and a bunch of other parts for the engines, and as anyone who’s dabbled in them can tell you, high-strung, inline-sixes have a sound all their own.
One thing to be aware of if you want to make big power with them, you’ll almost certainly have to be boosted, and more than likely you’ll have to do a lot of the fabrication work yourself. This means the exhaust side for a turbo, as well as the intake, injection system, intercooler, and a ton of other parts likely won’t be available off the shelf. The fact that it’s possible to make four-digit horsepower with these engines is still amazing. If you do decide to go the inline route, you’ll definitely have a performance powerplant that almost no one else has!
Big-Block Chevy Engines Are Always An Option!
Even in stock form, big-block Chevy engines are quite stout engines and always a viable option for powering your ride. The Vortec 7400 found in 1996 and later trucks, cranks out 290 horsepower and 410 lb-ft from the factory, outpacing everything but the 6.0L and 6.2L LS engines in factory form. If you’re looking for the absolute baddest of the bad, a 427 or 454 Chevy with rectangle-port heads, a thumping roller camshaft, and a big induction system can crank out 600 horsepower or more with factory parts.
If you want the big-block Chevy basics — they’re old, they’re strong, they’re heavy, and they make power. They were in almost anything and everything, making them almost as popular as small-blocks in terms of availability. They came in two- and four-bolt versions, with cast and steel cranks, and with oval or rectangular-port heads. As far as performance goes, even the “worst” factory peanut-port castings found on smog engines are still good for 500 horsepower with the right cam and compression.
They’re also stout enough to handle boost, either with turbos or blowers moving the air. Tales of 1,200 horsepower on a stock block are an often-told story. The one downside of the big Chevys is they are big, weighing in at nearly 700 pounds, depending on the configuration. They’re also large dimensionally, so they might not easily fit in that Chevette if you’re planning such a swap.
Chevrolet (Gen-II) LT1
A step between the older small-block Chevy and the new LS engines, the 1992-1997 Chevy LT1 (found mostly in Corvettes) is a forgotten engine if there ever was one. These powerplants were low and sleek and bridged the gap between new and old technology. The good news is that in factory form, most of these engines were rated at 300 horsepower or more, which is comparable to newer LS powerplants. At one time they were also very popular, which means there are a host of aftermarket parts available for the engines.
If you want to go with newer technology and keep everything fuel injected, there are a bunch of shops out there to assist you. If you decide to go the old-school carbureted route, there’s that option as well. These engines can also be found relatively cheap, so that’s another advantage. Many of these engines came with small-chamber, 58cc aluminum heads, which are very efficient, and good on fuel. There are also boosted options available if you decide to go that path.
Keep in mind though, that these engines aren’t exactly the same as the previous small-block Chevys. They have the Opti-Spark ignition system that can be problematic and they have a somewhat complex EFI. But there are aftermarket options out there to address each of those issues. Make sure to do some research before you scoop one up.
Are Chevy LS Engines Bad?
After reading this, you might come away with the opinion that LS engines are a bad platform when this simply isn’t the case. LS engines are great, but they’re also very common, like pop songs. We’re just letting you think about some other options which may be just as good or better, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your build. In the end, whether you go with an LS or not in your ride is up to you.