When you look around the automotive world, it's clear to see that hot rodding and V-8 engines are distinctly American creations. Sure, you can find a smattering of V-8s and/or hot rodders in pockets around the globe, but the United States is the home office for both. Where you find bent eights, you'll find hot rodders, and vice versa. The two enable each other.
It was the wide availability of low-cost, high-potential V-8s that democratized horsepower, placing it in the hands of the many.
There was hot rodding in America before the V-8 arrived, sure, but with inline-fours and sixes the movement barely lifted off the ground. It was the wide availability of low-cost, high-potential V-8s that democratized horsepower, placing it in the hands of the many. Hot rodders created a sport, an industry, a way of life around the American V-8-for just one example, check out the Engine Masters Challenge coverage in this issue. Here are 10 engines that helped to build this thing we call hot rodding.
In the summer of 1929, Henry Ford handpicked a small group of engineers and machinists from the main engineering building on Oakwood Avenue and moved them into the Edison laboratory in Greenfield Village. There, in secrecy, they developed the '32 Ford L-head V-8. The first engines developed 65 hp from 221 ci, and soon improved to 85 hp with a twin-throat carburetor and dual-plane intake manifold replacing the original one-barrel.
Contrary to current belief, the Ford flathead wasn't the first American V-8. But it was the first affordable one, and the first with real performance potential. Millions were produced between 1932 and 1953, giving racers unlimited raw material and bootstrapping the sport of hot rodding on the streets, the dirt tracks, and the dry lakes.
Chrysler First-Gen Hemi
...big valves and straight, round ports produced an engine with breathing capacity like few others...
When the Chrysler Hemi V-8 was introduced in 1951, its displacement was 331 ci, identical to the Cadillac. Coincidence, or a shot across Cadillac's bow? Chrysler's engineering staff went Cadillac one better in the compression wars, devising a hemispherical combustion chamber that could run on regular gasoline.
Meanwhile, big valves and straight, round ports produced an engine with breathing capacity like few others, and the stout bottom end could withstand big blower boost and massive loads of nitromethane. Dodge and DeSoto offered their own versions of the Hemi, and Chrysler products finally slipped their reputations as old man's cars, that of being well engineered but stodgy. The hot rodding world had taken notice.
One important technological spinoff from World War II that's often overlooked today: low-cost, high-octane gasoline. New refinery processes developed for aviation fuel made higher compression ratios possible. After the war, Cadillac recognized the potential for passenger cars and introduced the first overhead-valve, high-compression OHV V-8 in mass production, with sister GM division Oldsmobile trailing a half step behind.
Sports car racer Briggs Cunningham took two brand-new Cadillac V-8s to Le Mans, creating an international splash. Engine-swapping hot rodders seized onto the 331ci V-8 and built Caddy-powered Fords, known as Fordillacs, and Cadillac/Studebaker mash-ups they called Studillacs. Hot rodding's overhead-valve era had begun.
GM started the OHV V-8 revolution with the '49 Cadillac, then took it to the next level with the '55 Chevrolet. Cheaper and lighter yet demonstrably superior to the Caddy, the Chevy used a novel green-sand casting process that required only nine block cores to the Cadillac's 22. The method was created by John Dolza, an Italian immigrant and mechanical genius who was also the mind behind the Corvette's Rochester fuel injection.
The small-block, as it became known, also featured a cheap, stamped rocker arm setup that didn't look like it could even hold together, but it was actually light and strong, allowing the Chevy to rev to new heights for a pushrod V-8. Today, no longer cutting edge but still first in the hearts of enthusiasts, the small-block Chevy V-8 remains the most popular engine in hot rodding-by far.
Introduced in 1958 in a dinky 332ci version, the Ford FE V-8 eventually grew to 352, 390, 406, and 427 ci, serving as the flagship engine in Ford's global "Total Performance" program of the 1960s. There it saw successful duty around the world in NASCAR, drag racing, and even in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it humiliated the exotic four-cam V-12 Ferraris in 1966 and 1967.
Ford even developed an overhead-cam, Hemi version of the FE, the legendary 427 SOHC. When NASCAR turned thumbs-down on the SOHC program, Ford transplanted the engine to drag racing, where it won in FX, Funny Cars, and even Top Fuel. SOHC fuelers were campaigned by luminaries including Don Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta, and the team of Ed Pink and Tom McEwen, shown here.
Chrysler Second-Gen Hemi
With the 426 Hemi in 1964, Tom Hoover and his Chrysler engineering team made lightning strike twice in the same place. Casting around for a competitive edge in NASCAR and drag racing, they decided to take the cylinder head configuration of the original '51-58 Chrysler Hemi and adapt it to the then-current B/RB V-8 short-block assembly. The port and chamber layouts had to be tipped inward several degrees to make the mammoth engine fit in a passenger car chassis, but to Hoover's surprise, on the dyno the engine didn't seem to care.
The 426 Hemi clubbed the field in the '64 Daytona 500, stinking up the show so badly that the engine was banned from NASCAR for a time, and it ruled the early years of NHRA Pro Stock in similar fashion. Even now, nearly a half-century after its introduction, every engine in Top Fuel and Funny Car owes its basic architecture to the Chrysler 426 Hemi.
...the engine was cutting edge in every other way, employing the latest valvetrain gear and thin-wall casting techniques.
Originally known within Ford as the 90-degree V-8, the Windsor was introduced in 1962 with the new Ford Fairlane intermediate. Its initial displacement was 221 ci, a callback to the original flathead Ford V-8 of 1932, but the engine was cutting edge in every other way, employing the latest valvetrain gear and thin-wall casting techniques. To demonstrate its advanced design, Ford handed the compact mill over to car builder Colin Chapman, who nearly stole the '63 Indy 500 with driver Jimmy Clark, finishing Second in their first attempt. Shown here is an early test engine from that project with upswept exhaust stacks.
Decades later the Windsor V-8 found new life in the Mustang 5.0 GT. Fun, cheap, and fast, Fox-bodied Mustangs were ubiquitous on dragstrips in the '90s, generating a movement the speed equipment industry would love to duplicate. The same basic engine was more than competitive in NASCAR well into the 21st century, winning Sprint Cup races until a few years ago.
The big-block Chevy V-8 first popped into view at Daytona in early 1963. Then, when GM suddenly pulled out of racing almost simultaneously, the 427ci, canted-valve engine popped back out of view so quickly it became known as the "mystery motor." When the production version eventually appeared in 1965, the engine lost a bit of its mystique but none of its mojo. Passenger car versions displaced 396, 427, and ultimately 454 ci as big-block Chevrolets carved out a major chunk of muscle car-era glory.
Chevy big-block V-8s ruled the original Can-Am road racing series, and their basic architecture continues to dominate NHRA Pro Stock and other big-inch drag racing applications to this day. You can't buy a big-block V-8 in a GM passenger car anymore, but Chevrolet Performance can still deal you the mother of all factory crate engines, the 572ci, 720hp monster pictured here. Swipe the card, turn the key, smoke the tires.
If the original 265ci Chevrolet small-block defined the game for production pushrod V-8s, the Chevrolet LS series redefined it. The one pushrod V-8 clearly capable of competing on the world stage with the latest four-valve DOHC engines, the light, compact LS V-8 helped to make the C5/C6 Corvette package a true world-class sports car.
So sound, so well engineered, so advanced in every way-for a pushrod V-8 anyway-the LS series has set a new standard for performance potential in hot rodding. In production form, the current top dogs in the LS family include the 7.0L LS7 (shown here), the 550hp LSA, and 638hp LS9-supercharged engines. In modified form, the sky might be the limit.
The first volume-production overhead-cam V-8 produced by the Detroit Three, the Ford Modular V-8 was introduced in 1991. The varieties are dizzying: two, three, and four valves per cylinder; single- and double-overhead camshafts; aluminum and iron blocks; supercharged and normally aspirated. The most recent variants, the 5.0L Coyote and Boss 302, are so thoroughly evolved there is some question about their family origins, however, they do share the same bore centers and knowledge base, it can be said.
These latest V-8s can do better than 100 percent volumetric efficiency in production form...
These latest V-8s can do better than 100 percent volumetric efficiency in production form, and they came off the drawing board fully protected for direct fuel injection and boost applications. They have the potential to be around for some years to come. Meanwhile, current modular motors like the 5.4L-supercharged V-8 used in the Cobra Jet Mustang drag package cars (shown here) continue to race and win-for example, at the inaugural Factory Stock Showdown at the 2012 U.S. Nationals.