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10 Epic—and Epically Named—Engines from When Detroit Ruled the World

By: · May 13, 2015

-Detroit has never been stingy with superlatives. As we’ve been reminded by Mad Men, marketing guys called the shots in the postwar era, and they slapped hyperbolic and animated tags on everything in Motown, including some pretty mighty engines. The good times rolled right up until the mid-1970s, when the first oil-crunch and inexpensive imports co-conspired to take some of the shine off Detroit’s enthusiasm. Despite this, a few select nameplates have endured, and they're sure to bubble to the top of conversation whenever and wherever matters of horsepower are discussed. Here’s our list of the top 10 engines—and names—from an era when the engineering inside was worthy of the hyperbole plastered on the outside.-Shamed by rival manufacturers' ability to conjure up menacing engine names seemingly at will, Ford product planners held an emergency meeting in Dearborn to select an appropriate moniker for the upcoming high-performance version its 428-cubic-inch FE-series V-8. Short on time, the team unanimously agreed on “Cobra Jet” when it became evident the minibar had run dry—sort of. As Ford engineer Bill Barr tells it in The Essential Muscle Cars by Mike Mueller: “We didn’t just roll out the product with everyone standing around it scratching their ass trying to name it. The idea was already rolling by then. Some artist in styling had already created a drawing—the snake with the wheels and exhausts coming out his tail. We had the drawing and the name came from there.”-Created by mating a production 428 FE block with 427 low-riser heads, a 390 GT cam, 10.6:1 compression pistons, and a cast-iron version of Ford’s aluminum Police Interceptor intake topped off with a Holley carb, the 428 Cobra Jet appeared as a midyear 1968 option on the Mustang, Fairlane, and Torino, as well as a few Mercury models. The Super Cobra Jet used a different crank and rods, and it added an engine-oil cooler among other tweaks. As the FE-series engine began to age, both names and a new variant, the Cobra Jet Ram-Air, would be applied to high-performance versions of Ford’s 385-series 429-cubic-inch engine for use in the Mustang and the Torino.-As the muscle-car era was coming to a whimpering halt under the weight of stringent emissions standards and the ever-increasing costs of insurance and fuel, Pontiac made one last stab at big-block glory with its purposefully named Super Duty 455 V-8. Ushered past the bean counters and into production on the back of engineering enthusiasm and little else, the 455SD debuted in the 1973 Firebird with 290 net horsepower and 395 lb-ft of torque. Although ultimately less powerful than the original team had hoped (at the time, GM limited compression ratios to 8.25:1), its hearty four-bolt mains, reinforced bulkheads, and round exhaust ports were ripe for modifying. Some enthusiasts have claimed to have massaged up to 600 horsepower out of the block—after a sizable cash infusion, of course.-Only an estimated 1296 455SDs were built in its two runs in 1973 and 1974, its relative exclusivity ensuring mythical status. Curiously, some 400 sets of SD-specific parts reportedly disappeared from the manufacturing facility before they could be assembled, virtually guaranteeing the legacy of the 455SD would stretch far beyond its reality. So enduring is the impact of the Pontiac 455 Super Duty that Australian rock group Radio Birdman paid it tribute in their literally titled 1981 composition, “455SD.”-Max Wedge—just hearing the name makes you want to clench your jaw and pummel something with a blunt object. Offered in Plymouth and Dodge models in the spring of 1962, the 413-cubic-inch Max Wedge V-8 looks exactly like its name implies: large, solid, and, thanks largely to the wide and low cross-ram intake plenum resting between the canted valve covers, vaguely wedgelike. Brandishing a pair of four-barrel carbs and a set of imposing, upswept cast-iron headerlike exhaust manifolds, the Max Wedge produced 420 gross horsepower.-With the horsepower race in full swing, Chrysler sent the Max Wedge back to the millwright with instructions to bore the cylinders just enough to reach 426 cubic inches of displacement. Referred to as Stage II Max Wedge, the engine now put out a reported 425 ponies. For its final performance before the vaunted 426 Hemi would steal the spotlight, Chrysler released the Series III Max Wedge,  which offered improved cylinder heads and camshaft profiles for even more power.-Although the Nailhead story begins about a decade before the muscle-car era got up to full speed, without it, Buick's torque-rich -When the second-gen Nailhead-based 401-cubic-inch -Today, a “turbo fire” is what happens when your tight bro Zack totally rails on his hella-sick Civic; in an aerospace-obsessed postwar America, it implied that the future was indeed now. Perhaps that’s why Chevrolet chose the Turbo-Fire tag when it launched its revolutionary (and not turbocharged) small-block V-8 in 1955. Of all the engines on this list, none can boast the longevity or flexibility of the legendary Chevy small-block V-8.   Embraced by the performance community, the small-block was almost immediately subjected to shade-tree re-engineering projects, with daring enthusiasts poking, prodding, stroking, boring, and force-feeding it in a noble quest for horsepower.-Despite Chevrolet's efforts to keep the Turbo-Fire moniker in the vernacular (the turbo theme would resurface over the years in the form of the Super Turbo-Fire, Turbo-Jet on some big-block V-8s, and even Turbo-Thrift on the inline-six), many gearheads began to refer to the Chevy V-8 as the -Not to be confused with a hazing ritual probably practiced by hopeful fraternity pledges at the University of Notre Dame, Golden Commando was a tag given to certain models of Plymouth's version of Chrysler’s “B”-series engine. Starting in the late 1950s, Plymouth began to market versions of its 350- and 361-cubic-inch “B”-series V-8 engines under the Golden Commando moniker.  Although the majority of Golden Commandos were carbureted, reportedly up to seven examples were outfitted with Bendix fuel injection. Of those, only two are said to have made it to the public.-In 1960 and ’61, the Plymouth was available with the Sonoramic Commando, a hairy-looking beast that sported long tuned intake runners that positioned the carburetors off to the sides of the block.  Eventually, the “B”-series engines were displaced by the legendary 426 Hemi V-8.-Chrysler rather enjoyed going Commando, as it would resurrect the moniker for numerous variations including Plymouth's Super Commando (it was called the TNT in Chrysler-branded cars; Dodge got the Magnum), which hung around through most of the 1970s in various states of tune and output.-Arguably the only internal-combustion device to share a name with one of the most notorious NYC nightlife establishments in East Village history, Oldsmobile applied the Ram Rod moniker to its high-performance W-31 350-cubic-inch and W-30 400 engines in 1968. Although cruising of the muscle-car variety peaked before the Ramrod nightclub got into full swing, the uneven confluence of events nonetheless stirred deep internal reflection among many a prepubescent car fan, a situation only complicated by the arrival of unleaded fuel, net horsepower ratings, and the leather guy in the Village People.-Incorporating a larger harmonic balancer, bigger valves (reportedly pinched from the big-block 455), a cam running .308 degrees of duration, fresh-air induction, and a mandatory three- or four-speed manual transmission, the 350-cubic-inch Ram Rod had an Olds-quoted output of 325 gross horsepower. The fender decals disappeared at the end of ’69, and the Ram Rod 350 became simply the -If there were an official internal-combustion engine of the 1980s alternative nation, it would without question be the Chrysler Slant Six. Found under the hood of numerous Chrysler products from 1960 on, in either 170-, 198-, or 225-cubic-inch variants, it wasn't until the Slant Six A-body vehicles hit the used-car market that the engine began to weave itself into the tapestry of nerd-chic popular culture. In addition to being cheap, durable,  and widely available, the no-wave persona of vehicles like the Dodge Dart and Plymouth's Valiant and Duster made them an obvious choice for cash-strapped indie-rock types. The affiliation culminated when a Washington D.C.–based trio chose the moniker -Despite its dowdy reputation, the Slant Six did not escape the attention of hot rodders. To meet the homologation requirements for NASCAR's newly announced six-cylinder-sedan racing series, Chrysler engineers went to work and came up with the Hyper-Pak, a component set designed to wring every available drop of performance from the smaller 170-cubic-inch Slant Six. The parts list included a long-runner intake with a Carter four-barrel carburetor, domed pistons, a performance camshaft, and strengthened valvetrain components. The program's success was confirmed on race day, Slant Six–equipped vehicles taking spots 1 through 7. Although its trademark slant architecture may have been born of packaging concerns decades earlier, its technological triumphs have long been transcended by its reputation as an efficient and resilient performer.-When it comes to naming engines after potentially cataclysmic atmospheric disturbances, few makers can match the chutzpah of Willys-Jeep. Preceded by the Super Hurricane L-head (Willys-Kaiser/Jeep–speak for flathead), the Jeep Tornado inline-six emerged in the early 1960s as one of the first postwar overhead-cam engines to come from an American manufacturer. It was unique in the respect that a single cam lobe was employed to open the intake and exhaust valve on each cylinder. Complex for its time and prone to excessive oil consumption and leaks, the Tornado was dropped from the lineup in 1965. Undeterred, Industries Kaiser Argentina (a.k.a. IKA) picked up the tooling and kept it in production in one form or another until the mid-1980s.-Did you really think we'd not include Chrysler's 426 Hemi? So what if its legacy has been distorted to near-cartoon status by decades of clueless smack-talkers—the engines used by top NHRA racers today still have roots in the competition Hemi Chrysler dropped on the world back in 1964.-Although the name is used universally, Hemis are generally divided into three eras: The first generation appeared in the early 1950s and was released as the Chrysler Firepower and DeSoto Firedome; later the Dodge Red Ram would join the group. In the mid-'60s, Chrysler released the second-generation 426, using the term Hemi for the first time. This is the engine that earned it the -Although it was despised by many for its crude demeanor and unremarkable performance, Pontiac’s long-lived cast-iron, pushrod four-cylinder would ultimately touch almost the entire GM empire, due largely to the fact that the General had no worthy successor in waiting. Born in 1977 from the hearty stock of the Chevy four, the Iron Duke displaced 151 cubes of majestic fury, and was known by many aliases: the 2500, the 151, the Pontiac 2.5, the cross-flow-head LX8, and, in fuel-injected guise, the Tech IV.  (For reasons still unknown, the sticker on the air filter of the Tech IV actually read “4 Tech.”)-Although its output never crested the 110-hp mark in civilian trim, the four-cylinder Poncho didn't escape the scrutiny of the aftermarket hot-rod community. Some builders hit the Pontiac parts counter and emerged with the hardware to piece  together either a 232-hp, 2.7-liter or 330-hp, 3.2-liter SD4 version to mimic the engine used in the 1984 Indy 500 pace car Fiero (the actual pace car, not the tape-and-stripe-job retail models). Some of those builder specials are still in use today by ARCA teams. By the time the Duke was relieved of power in 1993, it had served in five of GM’s six primary lines—only Cadillac remained unstained. Outside of GM, it also served in the Jeep CJ, AMC Concord and Spirit, and Grumman’s once-ubiquitous LLV postal vehicle.

 

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