The muscle car era was filled with ridiculously powerful engines, but it’s easy to forget that many of the top performing motors were only available in very limited quantities, cost a fortune to buy and were too unreliable and impractical to be used as daily drivers. It was affordable power, not homologation specials, which led the craze for straight line speed. Three engines defined the segment for the average buyer, going on to become affordable entry points into classic performance.
The name “385” comes from the stroke length of the original engine, but enthusiasts will be more familiar with the engine’s muscle car variants: the 429 Cobra Jet, 429 Super Cobra Jet and Boss 429. Output was quoted at around 375 hp to keep insurance adjusters at bay, but wise buyers knew these engines gave the Ford Torino and Mercury Cyclone 400+ stock horsepower for a few hundred dollars over the base engines while opening the door to simple performance mods pushing output above 500 hp. Although passenger car versions left production in the late ’70s, the 385 continued in trucks until the introduction of the Modular V10 in 1997.
Each of GM’s brands had a reputable muscle car engine, but it’s hard to argue with the 455’s ubiquity: by 1970, this engine was available in every Pontiac from the GTO to the Executive. With a lightweight design and a whopping 500 ft-lbs of torque on hand, it had no problem maintaining the brand’s performance reputation, even in lesser, two-bolt main versions. As emissions regulations came into effect in 1973, it became the most powerful engine sold in America and kept enough compatibility with pre-smog versions to make junkyard motors a cheap starting point for muscle car builds.
Yes, the Hemi may be the go-to for Mopar collectors today, but the high-strung, NASCAR-bred Elephant motor was heavy and had trouble idling. By 1966, Chrysler had combined the thin wall casting of their small block with the big block RB engine to create the 440. Cold air intake and triple-carbureted “Six Pack” versions didn’t have the Hemi’s horsepower, but they made up for it with plenty of torque, making them excellent performers on the street. Over 750,000 were produced, making it a readily available performance platform.
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