Remembering Some of History’s Greatest V8s

Some of the greatest classic cars in automotive history have become collectible largely due to their legendary power plants. These engines had names of their own that quicken the pulse of car guys everywhere. Names like Hemi, Cobra Jet, TurboFire, Rocket 88, Boss, and Magnum instantly add to the value of the vehicles they power.

With all the buzz about transitioning to electric vehicles in just the next few years, will these legendary petrol powerplants just fade away? Of course not. They have rightfully earned their places in the hearts of drivers, mechanics, collectors, hot rodders, and racers; and for a lot of folks, that place is a permanent residence.

The granddaddy of them all is the Ford Flathead. Introduced in 1932, this workhorse was a mainstay in the Ford lineup well into the 50’s. Its longevity can be traced to its smooth operation and its responsiveness to modification, which kept it relevant in drag racing, and even today can be found powering some fabulous street rods and show cars. The Beach Boys’ mythical “Little Deuce Coupe” was powered by a “flathead mill” according to the song. Drag racing forefather “Big Daddy” Don Garlits made a name for himself with flathead powered dragsters. Even today, he has a collection of fully operational flatheads and flathead powered cars up to an including the exotic Ardun versions. Corvette godfather Zora-Arkus-Duntov designed a Hemi head for these engines, hence the “Ar(kus) Dun(tov) name. Big Daddy says the Ardun heads add an additional 100 horsepower.

Remembering Some Of History’s Greatest V8S
The historic Ford Flathead V8 powered vehicles for 3 decades.

Ford went forward with their bulletproof small block engines, 221, 260, 289, 302, 351, including the high winding Boss versions, that were very successful on the racetrack to say the least.  Ford was known for exotic big blocks too.  The 427 Single Overhead Cam monster was so exotic it was banned by NASCAR.  But it proved to be a beast on the drag strip, especially with a load of nitro in the tank, powering such luminaries as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “The Bounty Hunter” Connie Kalitta, and “Sneaky Pete” Robinson to numerous victories.  The Boss 429 was not banned by NASCAR, and it became so dominant that even Richard Petty switched to Ford for 1969.  The race was on!

Remembering Some Of History’s Greatest V8S
The Ford small block proved reliable in numerous applications. Here’s a 351 in a Torino GT!

Most would agree than when it comes to small blocks, Chevrolet is king.  Beginning with the 265 in 1955, a series of variations of this basic design powered GM cars well into the 21st century.  And race wins?  Nearly every form of motorsport that allows a V8 engine to compete has a  glowing history with Chevy small blocks.   Street rodders love the versatility, the compact size and weight, and the parts availability of the Chevy small block.  It can power a truck for a million miles, or spin at 10,000 rpm in a drag car.  Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins built his reputation largely on his ability to squeeze big power from a small Chevy. 

Remembering Some Of History’s Greatest V8S
Perhaps the most popular engine of all is the small block Chevrolet. Small blocks have powered everything from trucks to all-out race cars. This one sees duty in a custom pickup

In the Chrysler world, the transition from a straight 8 engine in the 50’s to a hemispherical head V8 made a huge and lasting impact on the automotive scene.  It was one of the first engines that could generate one horsepower per cubic inch.  And when hot rodders got hold of it, it spelled doom for many other designs.  Garlits switched from flatheads to Hemis in the early sixties and stayed with them even till today, as he races Hemi powered Challengers in Stock Eliminator.  Today’s ultimate V8s?  I submit the answer is the awesome 11,000 horsepower nitro-fueled Hemis in 340 mph Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars today.  The sound, fury, and performance of these engines is like nothing else.

Remembering Some Of History’s Greatest V8S
The Chrysler Hemi. From the dragstrips to the super speedways, to the street, this is the no-holds-barred design that cemented Mopar’s reputation for all-out performance. This one is the star of the Boyd Coddington built “Max Hemi.”

There are dedicated enthusiasts for Buick Nailheads, Oldsmobile Rockets, Pontiac Ram Airs, Ford Cobra Jets, and many more, and rightfully so.  There are few things as exciting and pleasurable as stepping on the gas pedal connected to a strong-running V8 engine, hearing that wonderful sound, and feeling that powerful thrust. 

Remembering Some Of History’s Greatest V8S
Buick’s big engines were highly respected well before Buick became a purveyor of Turbo V6 power. This beast is a 425ci Nailhead V8 with twin four-barrels nestled under the hood of a ’65 Riviera Gran Sport.

There are so many more great engines we could discuss.  Of course, the subject of gasoline fueled automotive engines has filled volumes.  There are great 4-cylinder, 6 cylinder, 10-, and 12-cylinder motors as well.  And there are marvelous modern mills like the LS motors, Coyotes, and Gen III Hemis.    Let us know what you think.  Perhaps another blog is in the making!

Fun Fact:  At the time of this writing, all of these engine types could be seen in vehicles available from the MaxMotive Pittsburgh Showroom.

About the author:
Bobby Martin is MaxMotive’s Vehicle Specialist.  He has driven cars powered by all the varieties of engines mentioned in this article except a nitro Hemi.  He has, however, piloted an alcohol fueled, supercharged Hemi Funny Car to a best of 5.57 seconds at 259.61 mph in the quarter mile, quicker and faster than any electric vehicle to date. 

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