The Chevrolet 350 engine is a small-block V8 engine known around the world for its durability, performance, and smooth, quiet operation. It has earned its reputation as one of the most popular, sought-after, and overall best engines of the 20th century. It has become the standard bearer for all Chevy small-block engines.
Figure 1: Seen here is a small block Chevy 350 crate engine. Source: Ohio Speed Shops.
Gearheads particularly enjoy how easy to rebuild the engine is, owing to its plethora of off-the-shelf aftermarket parts. The 350 was mass produced with an exceptionally simple design that facilitates easy upgrades. It is tough, affordable, reliable, and can endure plenty of abuse.
Further, it may well be the most transplanted engine in the history of automation, as it has been put into Fords and any number of other vehicles beyond Chevrolets.
While the 350 was discontinued in 2002 to make room for more fuel-efficient models, it lives on in the hearts, minds, and engine bays of drivers around the world. All in all, it enjoyed one of the longest production runs of any engine ever produced.
But what model year 350 engine is the best? What’s the one Chevy 350 to rule them all? That’s what we’re here to discuss today.
Sources: On All Cylinders.
A Bit of History
Figure 2: The original Chevy 350 from 1967. Back in the day, this little guy could get an impressive 295 HP. Source: Mecum Auctions.
First produced in 1967, the original 350 was developed from the original small block V8 engine produced by Chevrolet. As a high-performance 350-cubic-inch power plant, it was used initially in the Chevrolet Camaro. In fact, it’s first appearance was as an L-48 option for the 1967 Camaro.
However, the 350 later went on to power the Corvette, the Nova, the Caprice, and numerous other vehicles. Buicks, Cadillacs, and Oldsmobiles have all featured the Chevy 350.
Power output and torque ratings have, of course, varied quite a bit throughout the years. However, the original Chevy 350 put out 295 HP and 380 lb-ft of torque. Another fun fact: the engine’s exact displacement is 349.85 cubic inches (5.7 L if you go by metric). But the “Chevy 350” makes for a much catchier name, if we do say so ourselves.
A fuel-injected version of the 350 was added to Corvettes starting in 1985. By the early 1980s, computerized emissions systems became the standard along with throttle body fuel injection systems.
The Chevy 350 Throughout the Years
There have been quite a few variations across the decades. Here is a somewhat exhaustive list (not accounting for the numerous sub-variations of each that have been produced for various specific vehicles over the years).
|Variant||Start Year||End Year||Notable Features|
|L48||1967||1980||Hydraulic cam; Quadrajet carburetor, power output of 300 hp and 380 lb⋅ft (515 N⋅m) torque; 10.25:1 compression ratio|
|L46||1969||1970||2.02 / 1.6” valve heads; 11.0:1 compression ratio; high octane gas|
|ZQ3||1969||1974||300 HP; 10.25:1 compression; hydraulic lifters; Rochester Quadra-Jet 4-barrel carburetor.|
|LS9||1969||1986||Used in C/K/G 10/20 trucks under 8,500 lbs.; Rochester 4-bbl carburetor; 165 HP.|
|L65||1970||1976||250 HP High Performance 2bbl Rochester carburetor.|
|LT-1||1970||1975||Solid lifters; 11.0:1 compression; 178 high-performance camshaft; rams’ horn exhaust; max of 370 HP.|
|L82||1976||1989||Rochester Quadra-jet 4bbl carburetor; dual-plane aluminum intake manifold; hydraulic-lifter cam; 9.0:1 compression; 250 HP.|
|LM1||1979||1988||4-barrel carburetor; maximum 175 HP; mechanical ignition points; computer-controlled spark system.|
|L81||1981||1981||190 HP; 8.2:1 compression ratio; cam and computer control spark advance; “smart” carburetor.|
|LT-9||1981||1986||160 HP; 8.3:1 compression; carbureted with Rochester Quadrajets.|
|L83||1982||1984||200 HP; 9.0:1 compression; “cross-fire” fuel injection.|
|L98||1985||1992||Tuned-port fuel injection “TPI”; 230 HP; aluminum cylinder heads; compression varying between 9.0:1 and 10.0:1.|
|L05||1987||1996||Used in Chevrolet/GMC trucks in the GMT400.|
|L31||1996||2002||5.7L V8 truck engine; combustion chambers and intake ports; compatible with all older small blocks; eight bolts attaching the intake; 255 HP.|
What’s the Best Chevy 350 Engine?
Okay, on to the main event! Out of all the 350 engines produced throughout the years, which one takes the crown?
Plenty of people are going to have plenty of different opinions on this. Ask 10 Chevy fans about their favorite variety of engine and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. But we’ve done our best to compile a somewhat objective list of some of the best 350 engines out there.
Figure 4: An LT-1 installed in a Corvette. Source: Wikipedia, courtesy of Rich Niewiroski Jr.
When it first came out in 1970, the LT-1 was a marvel of engineering. With a high-performance 178 camshaft, solid lifters, and a carburetor with a special aluminum intake that could reach 780 cubic feet per minute, this engine was able to churn out 370 HP when fitted into a Corvette. At the time, this was a big number indeed.
However, Chevrolet was forced to steadily reduce the power output and torque of the LT-1 to meet new emissions standards. In 1972, the power was reduced to 255 HP. The 1975 version of the LT-1 ultimately succumbed to new emissions standards that brought its horsepower all the way down to 145 HP.
The LT-1 was the last and arguably greatest of the old fuel-guzzling, emissions-spewing 350 engines. Those original LT-1s from 1970 will go down as some of the best engines of their time.
Figure 5: The L98 was a sleek redesign of a classic engine. Source: Corvsport.
We’ve picked the 1992 version of the L98 because it represented the 350’s successful metamorphosis into an emissions-friendly, fuel efficient engine. It was a rebirth for engine, in a way, and the original L98 remains one of the most popular 350s ever produced.
New to this version was a TPI (tuned-port fuel injection) system and aluminum cylinder heads (released about halfway through the 1986 model year). The resulting engine could reach 230 HP, a figure that steadily climbed to 250 HP over its years of production. The 1992, with its ability to max out power and torque while maintaining tight emission standards, is our pick for the best L98 engine.
This engine was placed in Corvettes primarily, but also made its way into Camaro and Pontiac Firebird models
Figure 6: The “Vortec 5700”, better known as the L31. Source: Speedway Motors.
From a purely technical standpoint, the most recent version of the Chevy 350 would naturally be the best of the bunch. Marketed as the “Vortec 5700” engine, but known internally by the moniker of L31, this engine was used primarily in GM vans and trucks until 2002. We talked to a few folks at Bob King Buick-GMC in Wilmington, NC, who added that “the 2500 and 3500 all come with a 3-year 100,000-mile warranty on whole engine block assembly” and are all extremely reliable despite their age.
Notable features include cylinder heads with combustion chambers and intake ports very similar to the LT-1. For this reason, the L31 head is compatible with older small-block engines and is easily upgradable and can be popped into all kinds of trucks, vans, or SUVs. Just be aware that a particular intake manifold is required, owing to the 8 bolts used (4 per head) to attach the manifold to the block.
According to Rosedale Chevrolet in Roseville, MN, the L31 is an extremely dependable and versatile engine, and “you can put in just about anything, it’s been produced off and on since the mid-1950s.” Dale Willey Automotive in Lawrence, KS added that “the aftermarket dealers can give you the best information about picking up a L31” and highly recommended checking out any aftermarket seller for an excellent condition used engine or parts. However, “we can say that the L31 comes with cylinders that work with most older models” of Chevys. For this reason, this engine is quite flexible and easy to whatever vehicle you need.
As the most recent 350, it is also one of the most readily available today. As the most modern 350 out there, it is known for its strength, reliability, and durability (much like the trucks it goes in). You can pick one up used or get a half-finished crate version at a very reasonable price.
Source: AutoTrader; interview conducted with representative from Roseville Chevrolet, Dale Willey, and Bob King Buick-Chevrolet (08/31/2020).
Bonus Feature: The New 350 V8 Service Engine
Figure 7: The new 350 service engine, made to be a low-cost replacement for older GM vehicles. Source: GM Authority.
This very year, GM released a special service version of the Chevy 350 to serve as replacements for older trucks and vans. Though it uses a novel 4-bolt block and includes new cylinder heads and block castings, along with a forged steel crankshaft, this engine is in all essential respects a modern upgrade to the classic Chevy 350. You can order yours and find more information here.
At the end of the day, the best year for a Chevy 350 engine comes down to two things above all else: classic feel vs. modern performance.
If you want a classic Chevy 350 in its heyday, before emissions standards clamped down on the brand, aim for an LT-1 from 1970. Grab some aftermarket parts and restore it to peak performance in no time at all.
On the other hand, if you want the best performing 350 that meets emissions standards and still packs plenty of power and torque the L98 from 1992 and the L31 from 1996 on (or the new service engine mentioned above) are both excellent choices.