Smooth paint and shiny wheels are nice, but the engine is the heart of any car. It’s the reason old cars are fun to drive. It’s the first thing you look at when you walk up to a car at a car show. It’s the one piece of optional equipment that drastically changes the value of any old car. And it’s the first thing that hot rodders turn their attention to. Through the years, there have been lots of fan favorites when it comes to engines. Here, we’ll take a look at just a few of the most popular. What’s under your hood?
In the hot rod world, the venerable Chevy small block V8 is the undisputed king. It looks just as at home in a Corvette as it does in a ’32 Ford. Of course, the first iteration of this engine came along in 1955 as a 265-c.i. marvel of cheap, simple power. Through the years, the same basic design changed cubic inches, intakes, and horsepower ratings. But even the latest V8s from the bowtie brigade can trace their origins back to 1955. It has the best aftermarket support. It is popular in short track auto racing. It is just the go-to engine. Of course, these days, it takes some heat because some people call it a bellybutton engine. But there’s a reason everyone has one—it’s just that good.
Another engine that really seems to be regaining its popularity is the Ford Flathead V8. Introduced in 1932, it was one of the first V8 engines that was cheap enough for the common man to own. And before the Chevy small block came along, this was the top choice for hot rodders. Look through any photo album of early land speed record meets, drag races, stock cars, or hot rods, and you are going to see a bunch of hopped-up Flatties. Pretty much all of the early aftermarket crank, head, valve, intake, and exhaust pioneers cut their teeth on this engine. Plus, they just look cool. This engine was replaced in 1954 by an overhead-valve design, but the old Ford Flathead still holds a special place in automotive history.
The Chevy small block wasn’t the first General Motors V8 that appealed to the performance crowd. Six years earlier, in 1949, sister division Oldsmobile debuted the 303-c.i. “Rocket” V8. This was the first mass-produced overhead-valve V8, and it was an immediate success. Olds V8s were being shoehorned into every kind of car there was. The early hot rod movement was underway, and this engine was fueling the fire. It was immortalized in popular magazines, movies, and even music. And it didn’t hurt that it was tearing up the NASCAR circuit. Many people consider the Chevrolet-sized 1949 Oldsmobile 88 with this engine the first muscle car. After the lackluster demise of Oldsmobile in 2004, many younger people may not realize just what this brand used to stand for. But rest-assured, thanks in part to this engine, an Oldsmobile used to be the big thing.
Of course, no engine retrospective would be complete without the Chrysler Hemi V8. The earliest versions appeared on the scene in 1951, and they were named after their hemispherical combustion chambers. The earliest versions were known as the “Chrysler FirePower” engine, and that was not just marketing hype. They did make power, and a lot of it. Chrysler’s basic design came about in World War II fighter planes, so it was already somewhat proven when it made it to the road. Over the years, these power plants have been adapted to everything from marine applications to explosive top fuel drag cars. Of course, Chrysler still uses the term “Hemi” today, although many of the best V8s now use a similar design. The big elephant engine will always be a part of hot rodding lore.
Of course, there are hundreds of other great engines out there, but I’ve always considered these four to be sort of the “Hot Rodding 101” crash course. How do I know there are more? Because I was able to put together 693 cool engine photos in the slideshow below. Look for Stovebolts, steam engines, and everything in-between. Yes, there are 5.0-liter fords. Yes, there are Chevy big blocks. Yes, there are Ford 289s and 428s. So before you start yelling at me, check the slideshow. The only thing that kept this slideshow from getting even bigger was that my right click/save fingers were getting tired. As usual, for a better version of this slideshow, click this link.