If you are, ahem, a car buff of a certain age, then there is a phrase with which you are familiar: “Put a 350 in it!” It was the catch-all solution to any build-your-own-muscle-car problem.
Me, I always scoffed at the idea — I’m a Mopar man — but a friend who is a GM guy (and has not, as far as I know, ever put a 350 in anything) pointed out the benefits of a Chevrolet 350 as your first build: “There are a million parts for it, and there isn’t a problem you can run into that a hundred thousand other people haven’t already had and solved.”
The small-block Chevy V8 made its first appearance in the 1955 Corvette and Bel Air; up until then, both cars were only available with a straight six. (This was a time when most automakers had two basic V8 blocks, one small and one large, with differences in bore and stroke accounting for variations in displacement.) The first iteration displaced 265 cubic inches (that’s about 4.3 liters to you whippersnappers) and put out between 162 and 195 horsepower. Those are “gross” numbers, taken on the test stand with no transmission, accessories or exhaust, so figure 135 to 165 hp by today’s measurements. Small and light — the 265 weighed less than Chevy’s sixes — the overhead-valve small block was as modern as an engine could be. Find a Chevrolet for sale
There would be several famous iterations of the small-block Chevy, including the 283 (4.6L) and the 307 (5.0), which shared the 265’s 3.875″ bore, and the 4″-bore 327 (5.4, and can I just say how much it pains me to refer to these classic engines in liters?). The engine would grow as big as 400 cubic inches (6.6L), giving the small block slightly more displacement than the 396-cubic-inch big block.
The 350 (5.7) was born in 1967, when Chevy lengthened the 327’s stroke. In its first iteration, the L-48 350 was a 295-hp high-performance engine for the Camaro. It was offered in the Nova for ’68, and in 1969 it largely replaced the 327 as an optional engine in every Chevrolet save the Corvair and the van (the latter would get it in ’70).
From here, the 350 would follow the ups and downs of the American car industry. In 1970, GM cranked up the compression ratio to 11:1, fitted solid lifters, an aluminum intake manifold, “ram’s horn” exhaust manifolds and a big 4-barrel Holley carb to make the LT-1, which would turn out 370 hp in the Corvette — a big number at a time when the Impala’s big-block 454 (7.4L, kiddies) put out 345 hp. By 1975, the emissions-choked 350 had slipped to 145 hp — unless you count the 125-hp version inexplicably stuffed into California-market versions of Chevy’s new little Monza. Throughout the 1970s, if a Chevy drove by, there’s a good chance it had “350” badges on the front fenders.
In 1976, Chevrolet introduced a new emissions-friendly 305-cubic-inch small-block V8. Big blocks and the small-block 400 were dropped from the car line, and the 350 took over as the largest engine offering for most of GM’s passenger cars. But its reign would be short: By the early 1980s, GM had replaced most of its big, rear-wheel-drive cars with small front-drivers — and come 1980, the 350 was relegated only to Camaros, Corvettes and trucks.
As the 1980s wore on, 350-powered cars started going to the junkyards — and their engines started coming out. Suddenly, the 350 was the building-block of choice for souping up cars like the Monte Carlo, Malibu and Grand Prix. “Put a 350 in it!” became a buzz phrase. My first exposure to the “built 350” was in a friend’s 1981 Olds Cutlass Supreme, formerly diesel-powered, with a THM350, 4.11 gears and glasspacks. The owner didn’t have a mullet, but he did have a buxom blonde girlfriend who drove a Camaro Berlinetta. Find an Oldsmobile for sale
The 350 would last until 2002, primarily as a truck engine; after 47 years in production it would serve out its last days as an option in GM’s full-size vans. The final variant, marketed as the Vortec 5700 but known internally as the L31, produced between 255 and 350 hp. You can still buy one as an unfinished crate engine.
There would be other 5.7-liter V8s: Chevrolet introduced the “Generation II” small block in 1992, with a 349.5-cubic-inch LT1 variant that shared the same 4″ bore as the classic 350. Technically, this was a new engine with a unique block, though there was some parts compatibility with the old small-block engines. But even this engine would not outlast the venerable Gen I 350, and it was discontinued after 1996. (The 1990-95 Corvette ZR-1 had a 5.7-liter V8 called the LT5 that was unrelated to either the Gen I or Gen II 350.)
After years spent scoffing at the 350, I now find myself in the unexpected position of owning one. (Technically my wife owns it, but we live in a community property state.) It’s a throttle-body-injected L31, and it lives between the front fenders of our ’94-ish Chevy 2500 pickup truck. We haven’t made any mods — maybe someday — but for now it’s a quiet, reliable and unassuming engine with a solid work ethic. Parts are as plentiful as pasta, but the engine never seems to need much attention save oil changes and belt/hose swaps. Much to my surprise, I find it very fulfilling to own this piece of Americana — and I know that should I feel the need to wrench some parts onto the ol’ girl for a few extra horsepower, there’s no problem I can run into that won’t have already been solved a hundred thousand times.
I know I’m not the only car buff with bad memories of mullet-wearing greaseballs saying that the best plan for any classic car was to “put a 350 in it!” But after so many years, I find my animosity for the 350 turning to affection. Hot Rod Magazine put it best: “There’s no denying that the ubiquitous 350 is the most versatile, most easy-to-build, best bang-for-the-buck engine on the planet.”