Top 5 Muscle Car Engines

These top 5 ​muscle car engines of all time represent an opinion based on the following criteria. They built the engine in large enough numbers so the average collector can get their hands on one. The power plant could produce more horsepower than its physical displacement, either from the factory or with small modifications. The 427 Chevy is a good example since it displaces 427 cubic inches yet produces 430 HP. The motor also made the list if they were so respected they helped elevate sales of the cars that carried them. It also helped if someone wrote a song about it. 

01
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The 409 Chevy Big Block

409 Chevy Big Block
409 Chevy Big Block. Photo by Mark Gittelman

They built the Chevrolet 409 from 1961 through 1965. General Motors called this first-generation big block the W series. They rated the early 1960s version with a single four-barrel carburetor at 340 HP. With the muscle car wars fast approaching GM redesigned the engine with a high lift camshaft and solid lifters.

They also increased the compression ratio to 11.25:1 and bolted on a pair of large Carter AFB four barrel square bore carburetors. The engine was conservatively rated at 425 HP in 1963. This could push big cars like the 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS fast enough to inspire the Beach Boy's to write a song about it. The engine was replaced by the second generation of big blocks called the Mark IV series. This included the 396 and eventually the 454.

02
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The 440 Big Block Mopar V8

440 Cubic Inch Mopar V8
440 Cubic Inch Mopar V8. Photo by Mark Gittelman

It all started with the 413 CID big block built in the late 50s. Chrysler called it the B series wedge engine. They built it from 1961 through 1964. With 2 four barrel carburetor's it pumped out 380 HP. They increased the displacement in 1965 and the 440 was born. They built this motor from 1965 through 1978 making it the longest run of any big block produced from the big three. Not only is the engine readily available because of the sheer numbers produced, the number of performance parts available is mind blowing.

The Mopar parts division provides engine rebuilding kits that include recipes to take the 440 well over the 450 HP rating. A few years after the 440 debuted emission standards increased, fuel prices increased, octane ratings decreased with the removal of lead from gasoline. Chrysler started reducing the compression ratio which was the easiest way to deal with all these problems. This continually knocked horsepower down year over year. Muscle car fans can reverse this by increasing the compression ratios with modification.

03
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The Epic 426 Hemi

1964 426 Hemi Ramcharger
1964 426 Hemi Ramcharger. Mark Gittelman

When it comes to Mopar V8's the first engine that comes to mind is the 426 Hemi. Built from 1964 through 1971 the engine was conservatively rated at 425 HP for insurance reasons.  Automobiles carrying the motor are considered rare and hard to find. One of the main reasons for this is because of the 440 V-8 mentioned above.

The Hemi option cost a couple hundred dollars extra. This upgrade had a reputation for bringing a troublesome and inefficient operation to your driveway. The 440 provided a larger displacement, proven reliability and efficient delivery of almost the same amount of horsepower. When Dodge fans made their way to local dealerships to buy a second-generation Dodge charger with a big engine most went for the 440. All of this added to the collectability of an automobile that came from the factory with a 426 Hemi.

04
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350 Small Block Chevy

350 Small Block Chevy
350 Small Block Chevy. Mark Gittelman

When it comes to General Motors muscle cars the 350 Chevy small block is often what you find when you raise the hood. It made its debut in 1967 in the all-new Camaro. In 1969 they raised the compression to 11:1, installed some high-performance cylinder heads and the engine produced 350 HP but required high-octane fuel. The common version of the engine with the compression ratio of 10.5:1 runs nicely on pump gas and produces around 300 HP. By 1970 they slid this into Chevrolet's entire product line including the first generation of the Monte Carlo.

We had a joke that the 350 was so common you could pick up valve cover gaskets at the local food store. Although this might be a slight exaggeration, high-performance parts for the small block Chevy are available for reasonable prices from reputable suppliers including Summit Racing, Jegs, and Edelbrock. Minor modifications like the ​installation of high-performance exhaust headers in conjunction with an aluminum performance intake manifold and a Holly carburetor can produce cheap horsepower in abundance.

05
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The 302 Ford V8

302 Ford V8
302 Ford V8. Mark Gittelman

The first 302 Ford V8's found their way into the 1968 Shelby GT350. It provided a good balance between power and reliability. Ford continued to produce the small block engine through the mid-1990s. Ford launched a 300 HP high compression, high-performance version of the Boss 302 Mustang in 1969. The engine provides a good foundation for performance upgrades, because of its four bolt main construction. This refers to the main bearing caps that hold the crankshaft in place. It also gives Ford fans a solid platform to fight back against the small block Chevy 350.  the Boss 302 Mustang in 1969. The engine provides a good foundation for performance upgrades, because of its four bolt main construction. This refers to the main bearing caps that hold the crankshaft in place. It also gives Ford fans a solid platform to fight back against the small block Chevy 350. ​

We all Have our Favorite Engines

A favorite engine is often a personal preference. As an example, my first car was rockin a 318 CID V8 cranking out 185 HP. It powered my freedom and will always have a place in my heart. However, it doesn't belong on the list of top 5 muscle car engines of all time.