5 Forgotten V8 Engines From the Golden Age of Muscle Cars

During the 1960s and early-1970s, the American automotive industry produced some of the most iconic V8 engines of all time. Everyone remembers Chrysler’s 426 HEMI, Ford’s 427, Chevy’s LS6 454, Pontiac’s 455 HO, or even Buick’s Stage 1 455. But today, we’re going to take a look at five forgotten and grossly underrated V8s that were able to hold their own in terms of performance during the golden age of muscle cars.
Shelby-tuned Ford K-code 289 16 photos
Photo: Ford Motor Co.
Pontiac FirebirdPontiac 350 HODodge Challenger T/AChrysler 340 Six-PackDodge Dart GTS 340 ConvertibleChrysler 340Oldsmobile Cutlass W-31 (1970)Oldsmobile Ram Rod 350 (W-31)Frd Mustang ConvertibleFord K-code 289Shelby GT350Studebaker AvantiStudebaker 289 R2Studebaker Lark R2Studebaker 289 R2
The V8 was not invented in the U.S. But it morphed into the world’s most popular engine thanks to the American automotive industry. In 1914, Cadillac became the first carmaker to mass-produce a V8 (the L-Head). But it would take another three decades until it would develop into the go-to engine choice for all other U.S.-based manufacturers.

From the early-1960s, until the 1973 oil crisis, the V8 was at the center of a horsepower war that gave us a multitude of four-wheeled legends, all recognized worldwide as muscle cars.

These models came out with a huge variety of V8 configurations, but today, only a few flagship units take all the credit, while smaller and cheaper versions that were equally exciting have been unfairly forgotten. That said, let’s look at five of the most underrated high-performance V8 from that exciting period.

Pontiac 350 HO

Pontiac 350 HO
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
Before it was discontinued in 2010, Pontiac tried to stay alive by marketing badge-engineered GM models from Australia. It was a sad ending for what used to be GM’s performance division. Many enthusiasts credit Pontiac for starting the muscle car craze when it transformed the Series 22 Tempest into the GTO in 1963. The division remained at the top of the muscle car food chain for the next decade with its exciting models and powerful V8s.

Today, Pontiac is remembered for awesome eight-cylinder bangers like the 455 HO or the Tri-Power 389, but there was also a smaller sibling that deserves more credit.

First introduced for the 1968 model year, the 350 replaced the older 326. Displacing 353.8 cu in (5,7 liters), it was available with either two- or four-barrel carbs and although it was a solid engine, it wasn’t anything truly special in standard form. However, the HO (High Output) versions were a different story.

With higher-compression heads and intake from the 400, a camshaft with a more aggressive profile from the 400 HO, as well as other improvements, the 350 HO could make 325 hp (329 ps) in 1969 models like the Tempest, Firebird, or Le Mans. In reality, this figure rose to over 350 hp (355 ps) when put on a dyno, making it one of the most powerful engines for its displacement back in the late 1960s.

Chrysler 340

Chrysler 340
Photo: Mecum
When it comes to Mopar V8s from the original muscle car era, the 426 HEMI is king. In more ways than one, it was the engine that everyone wanted to beat, but enthusiasts seem to forget that Chrysler build other race-bred, eight-cylinders during that period that deserve the same level of respect even if they weren’t as powerful.

Probably the most underrated Chrysler V8 is the 340, which was introduced in 1968. Equipped with various forged components, and a four-barrel carb mounted atop a high-rise, dual-plane intake manifold that fed high-flow heads, it was conceived to perform well both on the street and the strip. Initially rated (conservatively) at 275 hp (279 ps) and bumped up to 290 hp (294 ps) in the triple 2-barrel carb Six-Pack version, which debuted in 1970 on the Challenger T/A and 'Cuda AAR, the 340’s forte was its lightweight construction. Apart from this, it was extremely reliable, and a lot cheaper than its popular big-block siblings.

Though cars that featured this engine were no match for the HEMI Mopars, the lower weight translated into better handling and sometimes, surprisingly-low quarter mile times that shamed larger, more powerful muscle cars. Even on the same platform - the Challenger, for example - the 340’s power-to-weight ratio resulted in a better quarter mile time than the more potent, yet heavier 440 big block in multiple independent tests.

Oldsmobile Ram Rod 350 (W-31)

Oldsmobile Ram Rod 350 \(W\-31\)
Photo: Hemmings
Another GM division that’s not around today, Oldsmobile wanted a piece of the muscle car pie back in the second half of the ‘60s, developing its very own V8 range that included high-performance big blocks like the 400 and 445.

Oldsmobile’s small blocks were used in the carmaker’s mundane models, so they are easy to forget when talking about high-performance engines of that period. However, there was a notable exception that still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Like the previous entries on our list, the Ram Rod 350 was introduced in 1968 and was available only on the F-35/Cutlass models equipped with the W-31 option. Unlike the standard 350, the Ram Rod came with a high-performance cam, ram air induction, and a Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carb, goodies which helped it spit out 325 hp (330 ps). Like most high-performance engines of the period, the output was deliberately underrated to keep insurance costs at bay, so the true power potential of this terrific V8 stood around the 350 hp (355 ps) mark.

Except for the 1970 models, which received visual upgrades similar to those of the 4-4-2, Olds cars equipped with the W-31 option looked much like the regular models. This, coupled with the lack of advertising meant that few Ram Rod 350-powered cars were sold during the engine’s short lifespan.

Ford K-code 289 (HiPo)

Ford K\-code 289
Photo: RM Sotheby's
Although this engine is not as underrated nor as forgotten as the other V8s on our list, it was - and still is eclipsed by larger displacement siblings such as the 429, 428, 427, 390, or even the Boss 302.

Affectionately known as HiPo or K-code, it debuted in late-1963 on the intermediate Fairlane as a high-performance version of the standard 289 - which, oddly, was not offered on the Fairlane. Then, a year later, it was added to the Mustang’s options list, becoming the pony car’s most powerful engine until 1967 when the 428 Cobra Jet was introduced.

It featured many improvements over the standard 289, including thicker main bearing caps, heads with smaller combustion chambers, solid lifters, a hot cam, performance exhaust manifolds, and a bigger Autolite carburetor.

All those upgrades meant that the K-code could produce 271 hp (275 ps), which was pretty impressive for a 1964 engine. However, Carroll Shelby would go on to prove that it was capable of more.

From 1965 to 1967, the HiPo was used by the legendary engineer in the Mustang-based GT350 and the Cobra 289. With redesigned exhaust headers, an aluminum intake, and a 715 CFM Holley carb, the Shelby-tuned K-code could easily make 306 hp (310 ps). Moreover, an optional Paxton supercharger could take the already-impressive V8 close to the 400-hp (405 ps) mark.

Studebaker 289

Studebaker 289 R2
Photo: RM Sotheby's
While now-defunct brands like Pontiac or Oldsmobile might ring some familiar bells for younger enthusiasts, Studebaker surely doesn’t. Founded all the way back in 1852, the South Bend, Indiana-based carmaker was a fierce rival for Detroit’s three major corporations for many decades. It finally stopped producing cars in the late 1960s, but a few years before this happened, Studebaker was building one of the greatest American V8 of all time.

Unveiled in 1951, the 289-cu. in. (4.7 liters) V8 was a bit too similar to Cadillac’s overhead-valve (OHV) eight-cylinder introduced two years earlier, but the differences that seem to make it less advanced, actually made it legendary. It was known for its bombproof architecture that featured forged internals, a gear-driven camshaft, solid lifters, and no less than eighteen cylinder head bolts, which would help it handle virtually any supercharger one could fit on top.

During the early-1960s, the 289 was still going strong even if it was considered heavy and outdated. It powered the company’s remaining models, including the compact Lark and the luxurious Avanti four-seater in either standard, 240-hp (243 ps) four-barrel carbureted form or in R2 guise where a Paxton supercharger boosted its output to 290 hp (294 ps).

The only Studebaker model that can be called a muscle car was the R2-powered Super Lark, but the company never advertised the model as such. Still, road tests made during the first part of the ‘60s concluded that the Super Lark was faster and handled better than any rivaling compact.

There was also another version of the 289 worth mentioning: the R3. Though it was bored to 304.5-cu. in. (5.0 liters), it kept the 289’s basic architecture and equipped with a Paxton blower, it could spit out close to 400 hp (405 ps). The R3 only powered a handful of Avantis and a single, special-order Super Lark. The engine helped a modified Avanti break 29 speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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