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Top Five Muscle Car Engines

Forget about paint and chrome.
What really counts on a classic muscle car is what's under the hood, and the bigger the better.
So here they are, in chronological order, my list of the top five muscle car engines ever produced.

2) Oldsmobile Rocket 1949-1964

The Olds "Rocket" 303 was introduced in 1949, featuring overhead valves, forged steel crankshaft, aluminum pistons with floating wrist-pins, and a dual-plane intake manifold, producing 135 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. Once the Rocket V8 engine was placed inside Oldsmobile's lighter-bodied 76-series cars, the Rocket 88 series began, marking the first time a larger-than 300ci engine was installed in a mid-size car.

Read: The First Muscle Car

Oldsmobile increased the Rocket's displacement to 324-cubic-inches in 1954, and then to 371 in 1956. The latter engine became standard equipment on all Olds models in 1957, and was produced through 1960. The largest of the Olds Rocket motors was the 394 version, produced from 1959 to 1964.

best muscle car engines

In 1957, Oldsmobile's J-2 Tri-Power option beat Pontiac's Tri-Power option to market by a matter of weeks. With three two-barrel carburetors on the 371 engine, the J-2 engine produced 300+ horsepower at 4,600 rpm, with 415-lb/ft at 3,000 rpm.

2) Pontiac V8 (Small-Journal) 1955-1976

The modern Pontiac V8 was introduced in 1955, displacing 287 cubic-inches. Over the years, V8 displacement increased several times, but external dimensions remained about the same. The most popular of these small main journal V8's was the 389 (1959 to 1966) and the 400 (1967-1979) versions.

top five muscle car engines

Read: Pontiac GTO History

For the new 1964 Pontiac GTO, a 389 4-barrel engine was standard equipment. Optional was a Tri-power option, the same induction system Pontiac had offered on their full-size models since 1957. This was three two-barrel Rochester carburetors on a cast-iron intake manifold, each with it's own small, chrome air filter. Engine output was rated at 348 horsepower. With the GTO weighing around 3,500 pounds, power-to-weight ratio was nearly one-to-one. No car in its price range could match it's performance.

Pontiac GTO history

Pontiac also made several large-journal V8 engines in 421, 428, and 455 displacements. Curiously, two distinct 400 engines (Ram Air III and IV) made more horsepower than any large-journal engine did.

In it's most potent form, the Pontiac 400 put out 370 horsepower, as the 1969-1970 Ram-Air IV engine. These were available in both A-Body (GTO/Judge) and F-body (Firebird/Trans Am) Pontiacs. Production was very low; in 1969, just 1,517 A-bodies, 102 Firebirds and 55 Trans Ams were so equipped. In 1970, only 88 RA-IV motors found their way into Trans Ams. All Pontiac Ram Air engines were equipped with a single (but large) Quadrajet four-barrel.

3) Ford FE Block 1958-1976

Identified by it's 5-bolt valve covers, the Ford FE engine family includes 332/352/360/361/390/391/406/410/427/428 displacements. Many carb/manifold options were offered, the most popular being a single 4-barrel, dual quad (two 4V carburetors), and tri-power (three 2V carburetors). Both CobraJet and Super CobraJet blocks had reinforced main bearing webs for higher RPM reliability.

top five muscle car engines

Read: Muscle Car History

There are plenty of 390 and 428 equipped mid- and full-size Fords and Mercurys, as well as some Mustangs. Factory rated at 370 horsepower, the 428 CobraJet motors would easily put out over 400 horsepower with some modifications. The 428ci engine was successfully campaigned in NASCAR racing, in both Torino and Thunderbird models.

4) Chrysler Hemi 1964-1971

The 426 cubic-inch Hemi was third generation of Chrysler hemi-head engines, debuting on the racetrack in 1964 and offered in street trim in 1966. The hemi-head design was not a new concept, it was previously seen on classic sports cars such as the 1948 Jaguar XK-120.

classic muscle car history

Read: Dodge Charger History

Huge by any standards, the 426 Street Hemi was nicknamed "Elephant Engine" not only for its cubic capacity and power, but for its 800-plus pound weight. With a 4.25 inch bore and 3.75 stroke, the seven-litre OHV V-8 was based on an iron block with four-bolt-main, cross-bolted caps. The crankshaft was made of forged-steel, as were the connecting rods. Compression ratio for the street Hemi was 10.25:1.

top five muscle car engines

For induction, the 426 street Hemi optionally came with an aluminum dual-plane, dual-carb manifold with two Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors mounted in-line. With a solid-lifter camshaft, 425 horsepower was advertised, but actual output was closer to 500. Torque was listed at 490 lb/ft at 4000 rpm.

5) Chevrolet Big Block (1965-1976)

Known for creating awesome amounts of power and torque, the Chevrolet big-block was first offered in 1965 full-size models, Chevelles, and Corvettes. The hottest of the early big-blocks was the Z16, offered only with the SS396 Chevelle. This was a hydraulic-lifter version of the L78 396 Corvette engine. Power output from the single 4-bbl motor was purposely under-rated at 375 horsepower, but most enthusiasts agree it was nearer 450 horsepower. Compression ratio was 11:1.

best muscle car engines

A year later, a 427 big-block was available in 1966 Corvettes, also optional in full-size Chevys from 1967-1969. When the new Camaro debuted in 1967, GM engineers purposely designed an engine compartment that would accommodate Chevy's 396 big-block.

In 1970, the pinnacle year of the muscle car era, Chevrolet increased displacement of the 427 to 454 cubic-inches. Over the next six years, versions of the 454 could be found in full size Chevys, Chevelles, El Caminos, Monte Carlos, Corvettes, and pickup trucks.

1969 Corvette 427 tripower engine

The highest horsepower version of the 454 big-block was a 1970 Chevelle with the LS6 option. This solid lifter motor featured a four-bolt main block, forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods, and 11.25:1 compression pistons. Engine output was factory rated at 450 horsepower with 500 lb/ft of torque. Chevrolet produced about 4,500 LS6 Chevelles.

So there you have it, the top five greatest muscle car engines of all time.
In my humble opinion, of course.
All of these engines are still in very high demand today, so much so that several of them are currently being reproduced. We're talking a lot of horsepower and not at all fuel efficient, but that's what makes a muscle car a muscle car.

In 1951, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded the song "Rocket 88". Aside from being one of the best car songs of all time, many consider it to be the very first rock and roll song ever.

Read: Best Car Songs Of All Time