Many vintage pickups and delivery trucks came with inline-six or early V-8 engines. While they worked well in their eras, they are far outclassed by modern powerplants in either carbureted or fuel-injected versions. Swapping to one of the later V-8s-along with an equally up-to-date manual or automatic transmission with overdrive-can dramatically improve drivability, power, and fuel economy. But there are some fitment hurdles to overcome.
To learn more about typical swapping problems and solutions, we contacted more than a dozen professional builders and suppliers. They told us not only which trucks were the most popular to build (and therefore have the greatest supply of parts available), but also general and specific areas that deserve close attention as a truck owner sets out to make a power change.
No surprise-and brand loyalties aside-all of our experts pointed to Chevrolet as the current favorite among classic truck builders. Whether because the vintage Ford market has been depleted or because so many early Chevrolets remain untouched, the consensus was that build-up parts for the '55-59 and '67-72 Chevys are the hottest sellers presently. However, the '60-66 Chev-rolets and '53-56 Ford models continue to be very popular, and some of the later Blue Oval trucks are also beginning to be recognized for their customizing potential.
Up until '59, most truck frontends were equipped with straight axles, so their engines were nose-mounted and the transmissions used bellhousing mounts. In order to swap in a newer engine, many manufacturers now build separate crossmember engine and transmission mounts to allow later powertrain and drivetrain components to bolt in to these straight-axle trucks. Many companies also supply tower mounts for swaps into trucks that have been further updated with independent front suspensions, such as the popular Mustang II units.
From the '60s up to '72, most trucks used side engine mounts, with some carrying small-block V-8s and others positioning six-cylinders. For a conversion from a six-cylinder truck to a V-8, companies such as No Limit Engineering offer mounts that bolt into the chassis and use OEM rubber side mounts on the block. A variety of suppliers also offer universal Dodge mounts for the 318- or 360ci engines, but there aren't many vintage Dodge trucks being built currently. Even so, the newer 5.7- and 6.1L Hemi engines have sparked engine-swappers' interest.
Chevrolet small-block engines continue to reign as the king in engine swaps. Chevy engines are not only plentiful but are also shorter and narrower than Fords, so they fit well in all truck types. In fact, most of the manufacturers we spoke with offered mounts for any of the Chevy engines. Whether for small-block or big-block, the Chevy engine mounts use basically the same bolt pattern, although there are some variations.
"Everybody ends up installing a Chevy motor because it's cheaper," said Frank Strianese of The Car Shop in Springville, New York. "You can buy crate motors inexpensively with most of the parts to install them. Or if you buy a [donor] car that's already running, it makes the transplant relatively easier, because all the little parts are there. If you simply purchase a stand-alone crate motor, you have to buy your converter and all the engine sensors. But if you get a crate motor complete with the oil pan and the intake and everything, life is much easier. Even with the big-blocks like the 454ci, the H.O. comes with the water pump, balancer, flywheel, valve covers, intake, and oil pan. All you need to add is your carburetion and exhaust system."
Still, Brent Van Dervort of Fatman Fabrications in Charlotte, North Carolina, said a Ford in a Ford has merit. "I don't know why anybody would put anything but a 351 Windsor in anything with a Ford label on it," he said. "You get the inches and the torque without the weight and the hassle. To me, it's just the perfect Ford engine. Of course, we're seeing a lot of 4.6s coming along. When we build a brand-new chassis, we're seeing a lot more up-to-date motors-a lot of Chevy LS1s and 4.6 and 5.4 Ford motors. When you get into a brand-new chassis, you get into a lot more of the electronic motors."
Among the manufacturers we spoke with, the field was rigidly divided as those who advocate carburetors versus proponents of fuel injection. The carburetor fans pointed to their ease of installation and maintenance, while the EFI supporters noted their increased fuel economy, better drivability and increasingly common tuning support.
"We see 60 percent with EFI in our shop," said Rob MacGregor of No Limit Engineering in San Bernardino, California, "but carbureted is probably still the industry standard. You can definitely get more performance out of an EFI motor if you know how to tune it, and most of our customers are pretty tech-savvy. They're not afraid of laptop tuning. We also make gas tanks with fuel pumps in them for the classic pickups, and those are for the EFI guys only. A lot of customers know us for that, and so we might just draw in more of the EFI crowd than other shops."
Mopar fans have undoubtedly noted the absence of Chrysler product to this point. There simply aren't that many vintage Dodge or Plymouth trucks being built. But at least one of our sources believes Mopar trucks may soon be on the rise.
"We see more and more Chrysler stuff every day," said Mark Campbell of Street & Performance in Mena, Arkansas. "Chrysler is putting 220,000 Hemis into new cars this year. A year or two ago, you could hardly find a used Hemi because it was worth so much to rebuild a wrecked truck, but now the trucks are old enough that if they get hit very hard, they're totaled. We've got a mount that will work for a 318, 340 or 360, and it will bolt to the Hemi and bolt right back into the factory 318/360 motor mount."
In fact, Campbell believes the availability of Hemi engines could bring Dodge trucks into the limelight. "There hasn't been a high-dollar Dodge pickup just because there hasn't been a lot available for the Mopar guy," he noted. "Those trucks are the least expensive to buy, and now that you've got the Hemi motor, you're going to have a lot of guys building them. Plus the new 6.1 Hemi puts out 425 hp. With a cam change on a 5.7, you'll pick up 45 hp. I think you're going to see a lot of Dodge pickups."