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.
Bonus: The Top 10 Chevy Engines of All Time
These engines have put more cars in the winner’s circle than any other powerplants in history.
The super Chevys of the world would be a lot less interesting without all the great engines that power them. Before 1955, few in the hot-rod community gave Chevys more than a passing nod, thanks to their reliable, but unremarkable, Stovebolt Six engines.
Everything changed in the fall of 1954, when Ed Cole’s lightweight, groundbreaking V-8 arrived wrapped in a breathtaking ’55 design that was all new from the tires up. It wouldn’t be long before more powerful versions were offered. Once speed-crazed enthusiasts discovered the wonders of this compact powerhouse, it soon replaced the flathead Ford as the darling of the performance world.
Three years later, a new, larger engine would be introduced, the 348, to be followed by the 409. Immortalized in song, the 409 gave way in ’65 to the 396. Then came the 427, and 454. The ’90s gave rise to the LS engines, which are writing a new chapter in the legacy of high performance Chevys.
Here, in chronological order, the picks for the Top 15 Chevy engines of all time.
1) 265 V-8
(3.750 X 3.00)
Brand new for model year 1955, it powered over one-half of all new Chevys sold. Ditto in ’56. Its actual production run ended in mid-’57 when availability ended. It was used on early-model two-barrel/ manual transmission orders. Trucks and select cars had iron blocks with thicker cylinder walls. This allowed for 0.125-inch (1/8-inch) boring (18 more cubic inches) for 283 cid. Surprisingly, the fabled ’55 small-block V-8 engine commenced a 50-year-plus history. The very first 265 assembled at the Flint Engine Plant on July 9, 1954, was put aside for perpetual display in a sealed enclosure. In all, well over 1.5 million 265-powered Chevrolets were sold.
2) 283 V-8
(3.875 X 3.00)
It was a passenger car option from model year 1957 through 1967. You name it and it did it—including make 1 horsepower per cubic inch in ’57, thanks in part to a “Duntov” camshaft and Rochester fuel-injection. Hot-rodders then bored its cylinder walls 0.060-inch for 292 cid, as well as 0.125-inch for 301 cid, then installed 1.94-intake valve heads (1960-up) and 2.02-intake valve heads (1964-up), a ’57-’61 245 or 270hp dual WCFB carb setup, or a ’62-up aluminum high-rise four-barrel intake with 500-600 cfm Carter AFB or Holley after 1965. These 283s, 292s, and 301s ruled the streets in every town in America (when linked to a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed and high numerical rear gears). The 283 also powered millions of the USA’s work trucks. In all, millions sold.
3) L65 327/365HP V-8
(4.00 X 3.25)
From 1958 through 1964, Chevys grew bigger and heavier, so factory engineers bored and stroked the 283 to 327 cubes. The highest factory horsepower rating for a 327 was 375 in 1964-’65 (Corvette with Rochester fuel injection). But the best bang for the buck was the 365hp version sporting a 600-cfm Holley carb on an aluminum high-rise intake manifold. Both of these engines were internally identical (11.0:1 compression, big ports, and 2.02-intake valve heads and a radical “30-30” solid lifter camshaft). The 375 and 365hp engine’s power curve was 2,700 rpm to 7,200 rpm and powered on in a blink. Many of these engines were purchased by enthusiasts from GM parts departments, over-the-counter. Some were then equipped with a new 750-cfm, dual-inlet Holley 3310 carb for even more power. Thousands of previously 301-powered Chevy IIs and Malibus became ultimate performance monsters on the street and strip with the factory 365hp 327.
4) 348 & 409 “W” Motors
(4.125 X 3.25 & 4.3125 X 3.50)
The 348 was originally designed to be a heavy-duty truck engine capable of pulling tons of weight. Yet when stuffed into a ’58 Impala with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, it wasn’t so great. But with more compression, a high-lift camshaft, tri-power induction, manual transmission and gearing, it became a certified high-performance torque monster capable of making over 300 horsepower to about 5,500 rpm— through factory stock exhaust. The 315, 320, 335, and 350hp 348s in 1960-’61 continually put Chevys in the winner’s circle from coast-to-coast. The 1961-’65 high-performance 409 was a bored and stroked 348 with larger head ports and valves. Despite heavy pistons due to cylinder head and combustion chamber design, this engine was highly competitive in everything except NASCAR long-track competition. (Imagine eight two- pound piston assemblies revving 6,400 rpm for many hours.) Short tracks—no problem. The overwhelming majority of the USA’s best drag racers ran a 409 in 1962-’63. Regional and low-buck racers ran B and C/Stock 409s in the mid-’60s with much success. Top 409 big-name racers in ’62 were Dyno Don Nicholson, Hayden Proffitt, Dave Strickler/Bill Jenkins, Dick Harrell, Ronnie Sox, and Butch Leal. We could easily name 30 more national, regional, and local 409 racers in 1962 who seldom lost. Additionally, the Beach Boys became even more famous because of their hit song, “409.”
6) L78 396/425HP
(4.094 X 3.76)
Its “daddy” was first seen at Daytona in 1963. Designed to make Chevrolets competitive on the NASCAR high banks, the “Mystery Motor 427” blistered the field in qualifying runs. During the race, minor things such as water pump failure forced all entries to the pits. But the cat was out of the bag. Over another year of engineering saw its external dimensions increase about 1 inch—to where none of the Mystery Motor internals were interchangeable. In February 1965, two Turbo Jet 396 “big-block” engines replaced the pair of 409s: RPO L35, a 325hp torque engine featuring high-velocity, oval-port heads and an 800-cfm Rochester Quadrajet carb; and RPO L78, a 425hp, ultra-high-performance engine featuring rectangle-port heads, 11.0:1 compression, and an aluminum high-rise intake manifold with 800-cfm Holley carb. Either engine could be ordered in any fullsize model. Production: L35 55,454. L78 1,838. The L78 also saw its way into 2,157 Corvettes for an extra cost of $292.70. In ’65, the 425hp 396 was the quickest and fastest RPO Chevrolet ever produced. But that wouldn’t last long.
7) L72 427/425HP
(4.250 X 3.76)
Designated RPO L72, it was offered in 1966 Corvettes and 1966, 1968, and 1969 fullsize passenger cars. Rated the same as the ’65 L78 396, it actually produced 450 hp and was advertised as such early in model year ’66. Then, due to owner insurance cost flap (and theoretical potential loss of sales), its rating was quickly reduced to 425. Since new, this engine has proven to be a winner on all fronts and is the basis for all other solid-lifter big-blocks offered through 1969. Total 1966 L72 passenger car sales were 1,856. Big car L72 sales in 1968 and 1969 were 568 and 546, respectively. These late-’60s cars were huge. Performance fans chose Chevelles, Novas, and Camaros instead.
8) 427/430HP L88
(4.250 X 3.76)
The 1967-’69 RPO L88 race engine was rated at only 430 hp for obvious reasons—the first of which was the given rpm-reading: a mere 5,200. Why tell the world your 12.5:1-compression, mega-cam, rectangle-port 427 actually snorts out over 550 hp at 7,400 rpm? It was only available from the factory in the Corvette, or over the parts counter. This engine put out so much power and heat that it was very difficult to keep cool on the street.
Actually, there was a factory center console plate on Vettes so equipped stating, “Not For Street Use.” As it was indeed a road-racing terror, L88 Corvette sales in 1967-1969 were 20, 80, and 116, respectively. The L88 solid-lifter camshaft was Chevy’s best sounding cam to date, and thousands were sold to owners of solid-lifter 396 Chevelles, Camaros, and Novas who sought a max-power setup with an awesome-sounding rough idle.
9) 427/430HP ZL1
(4.250 X 3.76)
Developed initially for the 1969 Camaro Super Stock competition, it was only available through “Central Office Production Order 9560.” A ZL1 Camaro was a legal, factory-built Super Stock/B drag car. With an aluminum 427 producing over 550 hp, Chevrolet Engineering execs originally thought the bottom-line cost would be very racer-affordable. But when the corporate bean-counters became involved, no cost breaks were given. The engine ($4,160) cost more than the base price of the V-8 Camaro ($2,727). With sales tax, license cost, and shipping, out-the- door was just over $7,000. The ZL1 engine internally was much like the iron-block 427 L88. But the ZL1 had open-chamber heads for better high-rpm power production, plus floating wrist pins and a few other minor updates. Original Camaro production: 69. All 69 ZL1 I.D. numbers went unknown until the early 1980s. All were then were published in Super Chevy via then editor and co-author Doug Marion— thanks to Chevy’s legendary Product Promotion Department guru, Vince Piggins. Depending on who you believe, there were definitely two, and perhaps three, ZL1 Corvettes built and sold to the public.
10) 454/450HP LS6
(4.250 X 4.00)
It was a one-year/one-model super engine (1970 Chevelle SS) with sales totaling 4,475. Thousands more short- and long-blocks were sold for many years afterwards. Try four-bolt main bearing caps, 11.0:1 compression ratio, special high-lift camshaft, huge rectangle-port heads, and an 800-cfm dual-inlet Holley carburetor on a flat, aluminum intake manifold. Most LS6s also had the extra-cost cowl-induction hood option for cooler incoming air. Some of the non-cowl-induction-hood LS6 cars had a factory or aftermarket aluminum high-rise intake manifold. Wise owners thought it was more of a power-producer than the cowl hood, and they were right. With this high-rise intake manifold, a set of tubular headers and a super-tune, LS6s produced over 500 hp and ran in the high 11s at over 115 mph—with slicks and 4.10- 4.56:1 gears. Not bad for a 4,000-plus-pound street car. Today, the 450hp ’70 LS6 is to many the granddaddy of all the big-inch crate engines GM offers. There wasn’t a street tire made in 1970 that could handle the torque and horsepower of an LS6. When the Holley carb’s secondaries began to open, the rear tires broke loose.