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Why I Am Against V8 Swaps

October 17, 2012 by Matt

Chevrolet Chevy Corvette LS6 Engine Motor

I’ll say it: The American pushrod V8, and specifically the small-block Chevy (including its later incarnations, the Chevy LS- and LT-series) is the best all-around engine ever made. Period. The performance potential, the popular tuning expertise, the power-to-weight ratio of the latest iteration… Put it all together and you have the best engine ever. This position can be backed up by any number of car enthusiasts; venture to contest it and I’ll wager at least a half-dozen SBC buffs will produce numbers and stats reasserting its superiority.

This declaration may come as a mild surprise to some of you acquainted with my enthusiasm for imports and weird engine tech in general. But a clarification is in order: There’s more than one way to appreciate a powerplant, and the distinction to be made here rests on the difference between two of those ways: Respect and interest.

That said, do I respect the small-block Chevy V8 and its virtues? Absolutely. But does the engine actually interest me? Not in the least.

Put two vehicles side-by-side, say a Corvette Z06 with the factory performance catalog added and a Miata with a homebrew turbo system scavenged from various cars and run with a owner-programmed standalone EMS, and I’ll invariably be drawn to the latter. The Corvette may annihilate the Miata in every way, but how many times have the standard parts (cam, headers, etc) been added to an SBC in the pursuit of power? Yes, it may make a noise that amounts to catnip for most car buffs and spin the tires through third gear, and I have nothing but respect for that. It’s power and that’s always a draw. But let’s do something different. That’s where the interest lies.

I extend that lack of interest in the American pushrod V8 to swap projects involving the engine as well. There seems to be this especially virulent idea in many corners of the automotive world that dropping a pushrod V8 into any car will invariably make it better. Credit the late Carroll Shelby, perhaps, for the genesis of the notion; after all, he was the first to popularize it with his fusion of American muscle and British bodywork into the original Shelby Cobra. And to reiterate my earlier point: In most cases, I can’t argue the numbers—the V8 swap very often makes the resultant car more powerful, more reliable, cheaper to maintain and frequently even lighter and more economical. But is there anything more mind-numbingly boring than, say, a Jaguar XJ6 with an American pushrod V8 swap? Yes, it’s orders of magnitude more reliable, but the car’s distinctive character is gone, its engine note is completely out of sync with the car’s ethos and the whole idea is just so obvious that it loses all appeal.

Respect touches on those qualities I admire in a car: Power, handling and the like. Interest, on the other hand, has to do with qualities I’m drawn to in a scope wider than just the automotive realm: Innovation, creativity, new solutions to old problems that may at first be inferior to their elders but could potentially, with enough development, eclipse the traditional “best way” to do something.

I have a hunch more enthusiasts than just me view their automotive passion this way. If nothing else, maybe it will explain why a lot of car buffs persist in focusing on engine types and swap projects that seem inferior in so many ways to the tried-and-true-and-effective. It’s a matter of interest.

Filed under: Technical

20 Comments

  1. Michael B. says:

    That’s why people want to swap M70 V12’s into things. It is not actually that good of a motor, but it’s character makes it interesting.

    I totally agree with your article. The Chevy V8 is a great motor, but it is so uninteresting I do not desire one.

    Plus, what is more enjoyable, a beautiful engine note or gobs of power you can’t use on a daily basis?

  2. John D says:

    I agree with you about the American pushrod V8 being a fairly uninteresting engine. It’s been around forever, it’s a known quantity with no surprises, shows up everywhere you look and in all sorts of completely bland and uninteresting vehicles. Being fascinated by it is like being fascinated by noses. Everyone’s got one, some look better than others, but they all work pretty much the same with a few unique exceptions. And, even though I’ve always been a bit of a muscle-head, swapping one of these engines into a car is simply a means to an end and not suitable for just any vehicle.

    I’m a fan of a swap into a car that could be great, if it but had some power…and that is it’s one weakness. I like a swap into a car that you love, but the current engine detracts from that love of the car. In these cases a swap allows one to enjoy the other aspects of their car without having to constantly ‘fuss’ over it or have that knot in the pit of one’s stomach while you wait for it to choke again.

    I am not a fan of a swap into a car where putting this engine in it destroys or detracts from the car’s other unique traits and signature intricacies. It’s a fine line to walk, and one that is changing from person to person. But simply putting a V8 with MORE POWER into any old thing is completely unimaginative and does not, by definition, make it better.

    Now these are very vague criteria and cannot be ascribed by a third party. Personally, I would never swap a v8 into an RX7. That’s just wrong. But would I put one in a 280Z? In a heartbeat. Why one and not the other? I couldn’t tell you, but it would seem to make the Z car even ‘more’ of what it already is, while robs the RX7 of an inherent trait that makes it special.

    Conversely, would I remove a V8 from a classic muscle car and install an exotic engine with more power? Probably not, and for the same reason. It would be made interesting, but at the expense of it’s identity and soul.

    Now are there often time engines that are better suited to an application than your standard pushrod v8? Absolutely. But this is America and more is always better. And it’s hard to get much more bang for your buck than the American pushrod V8.

    • Matt says:

      There’s a lot of subjectivity; it’s true. I happen to think that the Nissan L-series in the early Z is pretty integral to the car’s character, but… V8 swaps have been performed from the very earliest days of the 240Z, so that procedure is pretty intertwined with the car’s history, which legitimizes it somewhat.

      I just happen to think American pushrod V8s belong where they were originally installed. Excellent engine, but muscle car + Corvette engine, period.

  3. Phillip says:

    This has been brough to my attention so many times, a lot of guys have called me names and the such because of my Ranger. Yes I own a 2004 3.0 v6 ranger and in my thirst for power I have added a custom fabed turbo system. First reason why I have been scrutinzed is because of the engine… the 3.0. Its an old reliable work horse that at best only makes about 113hp and about 120ish ft/lbs to the rear wheels. The turbos set up has completely changed how the truck sounds especailly with the spool of the garrett turbo. Many guys opt for the popular Ford 302 or 5.0l since Ford had used the motor in later Exploders and Mountaineers. With that kind of swap its simple its been done and in the end you still get the deep rumble from the tail pipes and you cant really add more power since the whole engine bay has now been taken up by this massive v8 engine, as mentioned you can upgrade cams, rockers, heads but that will only net you but so much. With the turbo set up I get all sorts of cool noises, the spool of the garrett turbo, the blow off valve and the pissed off bumble bee note out the back. I still have room to upgrade in the engine compartment if I want to add meth injection or change out the turbo. There are lots of pros and cons to each but since adding the turbo I cant stop driving the truck with a smile… my poor 540i sits in the garage until the curves come calling.

    • Matt says:

      Good for you! Definitely in the spirit of the post. No need to justify your decision in terms of power and/or cost numbers either; it’s interesting and different, and that in and of itself is cool. Well done.

  4. jason says:

    Not sure if everyone is aware but GM has obtained an EO # in california making there new LS3 engine a legal replacment for all vehicals 95′ and older. Now everybody can have a V8 in what ever they want. The engine is refered to as the LS3 E-Rod and comes complete from air filter to cats. Even has its own ecm. Not that I approve of putting a V8 in everything but being able to legaly put a 430hp engine in any 95 or older sure dose open a lot of doors. FOOD 4 THOUGHT not that you’d want to eat it!

    • Matt says:

      Very interesting! Of course you could just move out of Cali and not (really) have to worry about CAFE breathing down your neck anyway. :) Life is good for those of us who don’t have smog testing (or even annual inspections down in FL).

  5. E361JZsingleT70 says:

    I totally agree. I love the GM LS series motors but I do share your views on the subject. I have (briefly) considered this v8 swap in my BMW but went with a more stock-ish 2.5 straight 6cly engine /trans and computer from a Japanese Toyota Supra twin turbo. im a toyota technician too so that helps. With minor turbo and fuel upgrades,reliable and adjustable 300-400+hp with a twist of boost controller in a 2900lb car with excellent handling for less than $12k is awesome. No inspection or emissions testing in Florida is definitely a plus. I had to sell my CBR and send my GST Eclipse back to Miami when I lived in San Diego, they’re not into car customization at all so I feel for you guys on the west coast, but now that you can put the new GM crate motor kit in ANY pre 95 car (obd1) you’re going to see a lot more imports like 300z 240s RX7’s

    • Matt says:

      Good for you! Love the 1JZ; it’s a fantastic engine and a great, underrated swap candidate.

      I’m starting to see what you mean about the proliferation of GM V8 swaps. Their commonness combined with modern (mostly) plug-and-play standalone engine management makes the swap very accessible for many folks, even if it is obvious and boring.

  6. Joe says:

    I was considering fixing up an ’84 Maserati Biturbo convertible that needs a lot of TLC but the engine is toast. One head is warped and the block is cracked. The car itself looks nice. I can get it for around $2500. I was thinking of pulling and saving the engine and seeing if I could shoehorn a mildly built 302 Ford Windsor V8 with a T5 from a Mustang into it. Would that be a sin against all that is holy? From the outside it would look original. I promise to not F-up the front suspension and brackets so someday if this Maser is ever worth anything I could spend the time and money to restore it.

    • Matt says:

      Tough call. Normally I would be against it, but the consensus seems to be that the Biturbo’s engine is such a pile of crap that I might actually consider it.

  7. BSA71 says:

    People swap xj6 engines for GM V8s for one simple reason, well, two actually; they get tired of pushing and they get tired of spending alot good money after bad trying to keep an xj6 running. Let’s face it, although beautiful, these are not high dollar collector cars, so swapping engines really doesn’t hurt the already low value. Add in a 150,000 or more miles on a 70s or 80s 4 door model Jag and, really, does anyone cry over it being “defiled” with a Chevy 350 and a 700R transmission? To me, it sounds like the opportunity for alot of fun! To each his own!

    • Matt says:

      “To each his own.” <—— Exactly. I'm sure V8 swaps actually interest some folks, and that's fine for them. Not me (and many of my fellow enthusiasts), though. All your points about the XJ6 are valid, and there are many perfectly good reasons why there's a small cottage industry built around swapping V8s into them. But the counter-reasons are equally valid. Hell, some may call it masochism, but many Jag enthusiasts would contend the pain of the XK6 engine is part of the "Jaguar experience." :)

  8. Grenade says:

    I have a Maserati Biturbo. I live in America. I too, am completely bored by the Chevy V8. Bored to tears. So I put a Lexus DOHC V8 in my Biturbo Maserati. That’s right. A Toyota based Lexus in my Maserati Biturbo. Feel free to look me up.

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