The 'budget build' myth of hotrod and high performance engines

This article explains our opinion on the myth of the 'budget build', and why it is nonsense. It is possible, but not in the way most people think.
 Engine budget build The myth
 Engine budget build The truth
 Engine budget build The short block
 Engine budget build The top end


The myth

We have seen it over and over... articles written by hotrod 'experts' and engine builders that claim a 'budget build' engine of some kind. They claim to take a $200 junkyard engine and turn it into a screamer overnight with virtually no money... how do they do this?

The answer is: mostly by lying and hiding costs, like all good accountants. What they do isn't possible for the average hotrodder or engine builder. They use expensive parts they have laying around, whose cost can be attributed to other projects. They take sponserships and donations from parts suppliers, who are happy to give them free parts for a mention in the article or video. These 'budget' builders can get thousands of dollars in new or barely used parts for almost nothing. That $500 camshaft kit? probably given for free by a supplier. Those $2,000 cylinder heads? Those were probably on a shelf from another build or another article. And so on... it isn't a 'budget' build anymore when there are thousands of hidden dollars tied up in it.

And most of these 'budget' builds are never put in a vehicle... the expensive parts come back off afterwards and are either reused on another project, sold, or sent back to the original supplier. So yes there is little real money invested... but the average builder could never do that, let alone the practicality of actually running it in a vehicle when the parts are needed for other projects.

But can a true budget build be done by the average person? The answer is yes, but not how they do it in the articles and hyped videos, and probably not how the average person wants or expects. Read on to see how we have done it.

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The truth

The focus of a true budget build is money. It always has been and always will be. Prominent editors and writers want to cover this up with a veil of fancy parts and shiny advertising. If-- and that's a big if -- the true bill of materials can be located, it is often far over what the average person considers a 'budet build'. So what exactly is a budget build, anyway?

When we consider that a new/rebuilt engine can be ordered for a few thousand dollars, a budget build should fall below that. The average person does not need a 600 horsepower screamer, even if they often want that. If they build one, it usually isn't a car that gets kept... it has no street manners and drives fine on a track, but not in a normal vehicle. A budget build should have decent power and torque, and still be affordable below what could be purchased off the shelf (our opinion, of course). It isn't a race-track only engine, but rather an all-around well-performing, fast and/or efficient engine, designed for a wide range of use but better than the engine that came in the vehicle from the factory. That is the goal, isn't it? a better engine? For a perfect engine, lots of money is required and is no longer a budget build. Never let the 'perfect' get in the way of the 'good-enough'.

The person who actually needs and wants a budget build doesn't have much money. Anybody with money can order a great crate engine in today's world. Even a half decent amount of money can find a good engine. So a budget build caters to those who don't even have a half decent amount of money. But what they should have is: time. Time makes all the difference. Time to track down the right parts at the right price, the right cores, the right suppliers if necessary. Time to go to swap meets and surf the internet. Time to price shop, and research, and put in all the work necessary.

Unfortunately in today's world, the entire idea of a 'hotrod' is priced beyond the average person. Builders turn up their noses at anything that doesn't cost loads of money, look fancy, or have fancy and expensive underpinnings. But beyond pride, none of that is necessary. Even the idea of putting a V6 in a hotrod, or any car for that matter, will often meet with derision. But that is one way to do a budget build: make something that no one else wants, because it is cheaper, parts are more readily available, and demand is low.

One thing the standard build articles do prove is this: decent performance can be had from almost any engine if it is done right. With this in mind, let's see how to do that, but not spend loads of money. Or much of ANY money for that matter. Real money... not the fake stuff magazines and websites throw around.

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The core

Ok... so where do you start with your budget build? The same place the magazines and websites start. With a junkyard core or a running engine that doesn't cost much money. Time and again, those build articles have proven that on their standard internals, a cheap engine usually does just fine for normal use. Standard pistons, bores, camshafts... it usually doesn't matter a whole lot on the dyno. Four-bolt mains, two-bolt mains.... it doesn't really matter unless you're drag racing over and over. And a budget build isn't meant to do that.

Standard operating procedure by the 'budget builders' is to take this running core, and slap on some great heads, manifolds, fuel system and go to town. The result is usually adequate for what the average person requires. But those are expensive parts, and underneath it all is still a used short block that has many miles on it. We will get to the 'expensive' bits later, for now let's focus on that core. The magazine builders don't care about the used core as they will never actually put it in a vehicle, but we care. So if you have the engine there and available, why not do a quick rebuild just to freshen it up? Rebuild kits are cheap, and if the short block is in nice shape machine work shouldn't really be necessary. A quick rebuild will restore the factory clearances and make a tired engine new again for very little money... mostly it takes time.

Which brings us to machining. Machine shops WILL break your budget, beyond a doubt. Too many times we see projects started that get started during or after machining because the money set aside for the project is already used up. It is almost impossible to build a budget engine with a machine shop. If you purchased a core that requires that much machining anyhow, it is the wrong core. The core should be selected carefully to entirely avoid machine shops. The best cores will be virgin engines that have been run, but never rebuilt. Standard internals, standard parts, untouched. The average person can easily hone cylinders, re-ring pistons, etc. Select a core that doesn't require expensive machining. The best ones are the ones you can hear run. You know the block is okay, and the internals are fine.

So where can these virgin cores be found? The answer here is something most people don't like. Engines that are ignored by most people. Engines like the GM 307 cubic inch. The GM 366 cubic inch big block. Look for low-mileage engines in RV's and motorhomes that don't get driven a lot. They haven't been rebuilt because people don't want them due to their 'reputation'. And the best part: they are cheap! But they can work just fine and make decent performance under the right hands. Often times builders and hotrodders scoff at what they don't know or understand. And these engines are eschewed for the wrong reasons. They maybe had poor flowing cylinder heads, or were 'fuel economy' engines, or had two-barrel carburetors. But who cares about that? We're probably changing those things anyway. Underneath is a set of great parts that aren't that different from the other engines. And even two-bolt main engines work just fine... ignore the people who will tell you they are weak. The engine survived this many years in it's original form, hasn't it? Sure they won't work in a drag race environment, but that's not what a budget build is for. A budget build is for enjoyable street use at very low cost.

We have our core, ideally in running condition. Maybe old and dirty, or missing a few parts. It won't cost much beyond elbow grease to freshen it up. Rebuild kits are cheap, and as long as all internal parts are intact and in decent shape, no machining beyond what the average person can do should be necessary. A rebuild kit can easily put our core back to factory specifications. Aftermarket pistons and connecting rods and so on do not give enough gains to make it worthwhile for the budet builder. It is too much cost for so little performance advantage. Use stock parts... it will save you money now and in the future should anything go wrong years later. Stock parts are always cheaper, and this includes stock cylinder bores. But unless the engine is horrible damaged anyhow, honing the cylinders and some TLC should be all that is necessary. New bearings, new rings, new seals, and our core will be in fantastic shape.

There is another problem of common engine rebuilding involving cylinders and boring. Some builders always bore them out, mostly for no good reason other than they want the work and it makes them feel better. Unless the bore is terribly scratched or malformed, this is hardly necessary. Then too the pistons must be replaced. So avoid boring at all cost. A different engine core can usually be purchased for far less than the costs involved in a re-bore. So if you made a mistake and the core is damaged when you open it up, suck up your pride and get another. This is about money, after all. Avoid the urge to press forward with machining. Cores are cheap. Use some of that time that you have instead of money, and locate another core instead.

So what parts on our core should we replace, if any? Usually only the camshaft and associated parts. Nothing else really matters in the short-block as much. Even the oil pump can be checked and rebuilt if necessary. If it worked, it will probably keep working. This is a budget build, after all. Don't waste money. Several times we have replaced an oil pump in a build 'just because', only for the new one to fail. In today's world of cheap parts it is just as likely the new one will fail as the old. If it worked, rebuild it, check it, put it back in. If the clearances, castings, and all parts are fine, it will work.

If the core was in a truck originally, a camshaft might be an ideal change. You could buy one new, but a used one will work just as well if it is in good shape. Check out swap meets and the internet, look for what you want and check the condition. Usually something very cheap is out there. It doesn't have to be high performance, usually stock camshafts work just fine for a budget build regardless of what aftermarket manufacturers will tell you. They are trying to sell you a product, after all. But if you are going to spend money on your core, do it with the camshaft. This will usually affect the characteristics of your engine more than any other part of the short-block you can alter.

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The top end

The top end, meaning cylinder heads, intakes, fuel system... this is usually where lots of money goes. Unecessary money. Builders in articles usually put expensive parts on because they can. They have found a way to hide the money or get the parts for free so it appears cheap. So how can we do something similar, but for really cheap?

The answer is: stock parts. Just not the normal stock parts that came with your original core, most likely. If you are building a high-performance, expensive engine then by all means, match the flow and numbers for the cam, heads, and intake. But the factory has already done this for us... many times over. We just have to find the right place to get parts.

This is where time comes in again. Do the research to find what you want... most of the data is out there. The casting numbers for great flowing heads, nice intakes, valve spring configurations, etc. Spend the time to find the combination you are looking for that fits your engine out of factory parts, then locate these parts as cheaply as possible. Clean and refurbish, preferrably again with no machine work, and install. Even valve work isn't hard to do once you learn how. Porting and polishing only requires time and elbow grease. With lots of time, the right set of factory standard parts can become great at very low cost. And if you aren't building an expensive drag race engine, you don't need fancy internals. The right stock valves and springs usually work just fine if you selected the cylinder head you want. With time, research, and luck, a great set of heads can be produced for little cost. Don't fall for the quick-and-easy (and expensive) 'just buy new heads' procedure.

The intake and fuel system is a critical part of the build. And usually expensive. But keep in mind one of the best performing and economically balanced carburetors is a properly tuned Quadrajet. They are cheap and readily available. And if you just learn how to tune it, will run economically at low throttle and perform wonderfully at wide open throttle. And for a budget build, shouldn't economy be important? So if you want economy, just don't mash the throttle. But when performance is needed, open all four barrels and let 'er rip. But the important factor here is the time and research to tune it correctly. Many people abandon the Q-jet because of a lack of knowledge. But for a budget build, it is far and away the best option out there.

Used intakes are readily available and cheap, usually, unless you want a specific high-performance and narrow-use version. But for a budget build we want a good all-around performer. Don't let factory cast-iron manifolds scare you-- they generally flow just fine for normal power-band operation. And with some internal polishing, they will flow even better. Sure an aluminum manifold looks pretty... but this is a budget build. Cast-iron manifolds are everywhere. In the end, 10 pounds of weight savings on your engine with an aluminum manifold won't get you much for your money. And ideally, a cast-iron manifold came with your core in the first place.

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