I’m asking this for a friend and I know you will have suggestions. He’s building a vintage El Camino and has decided on an LS swap. He wants 650-700 hp with an automatic. The LS9 is 635hp to start but no auto is recommended. As a crate engine, the LS9 would cost about $21,000 plus the transmission and harness. The next idea is an LS7 for about $13,000 plus trans and harness. What would be your suggestion for a cost-effective way to get to 650-700 hp? What about an LS3 for about $12,000, plus trans and harness and throw on a Magnuson supercharger for about $6,000? Would that be a more cost-effective way to go? – R.L.

(Image/OnAllCylinders – Lori Sams)

Jeff Smith: Let’s first look at why he thinks he needs 700 hp in an El Camino.

It will be near impossible to plant this kind of power with street tires and especially in an El Camino since there is minimal weight over the rear tires.

Even at 500 hp, this would be difficult—at 700 hp, he will likely need slicks just to keep the tires from spinning at any speed below 60 mph.

This will make the car extremely difficult to drive.

If it has $10,000 worth of suspension, perhaps traction will be slightly better.

But with a near-stock suspension it will be a dangerous handful unless he’s a very skilled driver. Emphasis here on driver skill.

Much of this horsepower push is coming from the magazines. They rarely talk about 500 hp engines anymore. The problem with 650- to 700-hp engines is there are parallel issues which are never discussed, yet are critical to creating reliable performance.

You mentioned transmissions. Let’s limit our discussion to automatics since they are easier to drive. At 750 hp, we are at the top of the heap for a 4L75E from GM, and it’s probably better to go with a 4L80E. This is a big transmission, but in a 1968-72, it probably won’t require floor pan mods.

A strong 4L80E will cost between $3,500 and $4,000 and will then demand a custom driveshaft and something stronger than an 8.5-inch 10-bolt rear end.

We’re looking at another $3,500 for all those pieces. And don’t forget that you will need some monster tires to hook all that power.

The best way to get to that power level is probably with a supercharger—either a centrifugal like a Vortech, or a positive displacement blower like the Magunson you mentioned. These add-on kits will also drive up the price of the entire package. If we include the previously discussed drivetrain parts—we’re looking at numbers approaching $20,000.

Don’t Sleep on the Supercharged LSA

One supercharged Chevrolet Performance package I like is the one that garners very little attention. The LSA (PN 19331507) is the engine used in the older supercharged Cadillac CTS-V before the conversion to the LT4. The LSA is a docile package, yet delivers excellent power at 550 hp and is essentially an LS3 with different heads, a small 1.9L TVS blower, and an ultra-conservative cam.

This engine never makes less than 400 foot-pounds of torque from 2,000 to 6,300 rpm with a peak torque of 551 ft.-lbs.

That would feel like a mild big-block in the car and yet is only 6.2L or 376 c.i.d. Remember, these are conservative horsepower ratings—at least 5 percent under the normal hot-rod-style correction factor.

Adding 5 percent means closer to 575 hp.

Add headers and a mild tune (the engines are always soft on timing and rich in the air-fuel calibration) and the power could jump to 625 hp. This is a far better choice in terms of power per dollar.

The engine is still expensive at slightly less than $12,000 and it will need additional parts.

Among the required add-ons is a controller kit as well as a complete intercooler since it is plumbed to employ this advantage. That will mean an external reservoir, lines, and a separate radiator. All this keeps the inlet air temperature manageable so that the engine doesn’t detonate.

It’s a chore to find a spot for all the plumbing although a 1968-72 El Camino probably has the room. But much of that real estate will be eaten up pretty quickly when you start adding an ECU, intercooler, and all that plumbing. Plus, you will also need a complete accessory drive, which GM also can supply and is highly recommended

Consider a Junkyard Pull for the Most Cost-Effective Build

For a slightly different approach, I just finished a junkyard 6.0L truck engine for Car Craft Magazine with a small cam (it idles at 14 inches of vacuum), mildly ported 5.3L heads, and EFI using a stock Trailblazer SS intake.

That engine made 496 hp at roughly 6,000 rpm.

Duplicating this package probably wouldn’t cost more than $6,000 including the Holley HP ECU.

With better heads and slightly more camshaft, we think this engine will make 550 hp but the price begins to climb with better parts.

NOTE: LS car engines and LS-based Vortec truck engines are abundant in scrapyards everywhere, and a good low-cost option for LS swap projects. You can use these articles to help you locate the engine you want to work with.

If your friend wants a new engine with a warranty, he can’t go wrong with an LS3.

Put headers and a mild cam in it and that will make close to 550 hp and I’ll bet he will be thrilled—unless he is used to more power. If his previous ride had less than 450 hp—the added power will astonish him. It’s not a bad idea to go conservative at first and then build from there.

Author: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith has had a passion for cars since he began working at his grandfather's gas station at the age 10. After graduating from Iowa State University with a journalism degree in 1978, he combined his two passions: cars and writing. Smith began writing for Car Craft magazine in 1979 and became editor in 1984. In 1987, he assumed the role of editor for Hot Rod magazine before returning to his first love of writing technical stories. Since 2003, Jeff has held various positions at Car Craft (including editor), has written books on small block Chevy performance, and even cultivated an impressive collection of 1965 and 1966 Chevelles. Now he serves as a regular contributor to OnAllCylinders.