Here’s a challenge that’s going to feel just like an episode of our favorite show: Roadkill Junkyard Engine Swap Challenge! Imagine that you’re locked in a big car graveyard with the ultimate set of tools, and there happens to be a shop onsite that will fabricate any driveshaft you want. You have a cool old car, a generous selection of interesting engine donors, and you will drive out of the yard in your new ride after selecting the best drivetrain. Let’s start by taking a look at the car.
Yes, it’s the heartbreakingly lovable 1961 Dodge Lancer that we saw in a Denver self-service yard a few months back. The Chrysler A-Body was a versatile, simple rear-wheel-drive platform that sold in the millions during the 1960s and 1970s, and there’s room in the engine compartment for cutting-and-pasting some pretty hefty V8s. The car has a Slant-6 engine already, and we’ll allow the option of keeping that engine if you just can’t abide the idea of ditching a Leaning Tower of Power. So, the 101-horsepower, 170-cubic-inch straight-six is Choice #1 in the challenge.
If you want to be very conservative and traditional about your Lancer engine swap, here’s your choice: a plain old Chrysler LA-series small-block V8, with ancestry stretching all the way back to the early 1960s. This truck even has exhaust headers, so you’d have that going for you.
The 5.2 Magnum V8 is a member of the same engine family as the 360 in the ’85 Ram we just saw; it’s the venerable 318 with roller camshaft, electronic fuel injection, and other modernization touches. It will start up in any weather, idle smoothly, and get decent fuel economy compared to its old-school ancestors.
Chrysler built some very potent turbocharged machines with their 2.2 and 2.5 four-cylinder engines, and the 174-horse Turbo II out of this member of the K-Car family would make a lightweight Lancer go pretty well.
We know, you’re screaming about how the LeBaron GTC is front-wheel-drive, and that we must be total idiots for thinking that the 2.5 Turbo II could be an easy swap into a rear-wheel-drive Lancer. Well, this very same wrecking yard has a 1995 Dodge Dakota with the naturally-aspirated 2.5 bolted up to a 5-speed rear-wheel-drive transmission— a little-known application for this engine, but it really did happen.
So by yanking the engine out of the LeBaron and the transmission out of the Dakota, you’d have a lightweight turbocharged powertrain setup for your Lancer, which would become a nimble handlin’ machine (by 1961 compact-car standards, provided you modified some junkyard sway bars to fit).
The XJ Cherokee was made for a thousand years, more or less, and U-Wrench-It yards are overflowing with examples equipped with the sturdy 4.0-liter AMC straight-six pushrod engine. Better still, plenty of these trucks are two-wheel-drive machines with Aisin AX15 5-speed transmissions. Dropping this setup in the Lancer would keep the swap in the Mopar family (unless you’re a hair-splitting purist who sees American Motors as an unwanted adoptee into the Chrysler family, in which case you are going to be very angry at the engines that come next in this list), while keeping the car’s inline-six purity.
The GMT360 family of trucks, which included the 2002-2009 Trailblazer/Envoy/Bravada/Ascender/Rainier/9-7X, came equipped with a sophisticated dual-overhead-cam inline-six that made V8 power levels. We’re not even including a small-block GM V8 in this challenge (despite the fact that this junkyard had plenty of 305s, 350s, Vortec 4.8/5.3/5.7/etc. engines), because I am putting together a 1941 Plymouth with a Trailblazer engine. Embrace the glorious blasphemy of a Chevy-swapped Chrysler that isn’t a V8!
A few rows over from the Lancer sits this 1977 Mercury Cougar sedan, an intensely brown Malaise Era machine with the not-so-beloved 351M V8 engine and a 3-speed automatic transmission known for popping into reverse on its own. Sure, it’s just 130 horsepower and you’d be chased out of town by a pitchforks-and-torches-wielding mob of Mopar zealots… but sometimes you need to be perverse.
This junkyard had neither a 16-valve nor turbocharged version of Volvo’s workhorse slant-four engine, but it would be a simple matter to go back and upgrade your Swedish-powered Lancer with the
rod-throwing high-revving four-valves-per-cylinder head and/or the head-gasket-blowing mighty boost of the Volvo 740 Turbo’s induction system.
If you went with this engine choice, you’d be keeping both the slanted engine configuration and the manual transmission, so the case could be made that you’d be keeping true to the ’61 Lancer’s spirit with this swap.
The BMW E36 3-Series is an extremely common junkyard inmate, but the only one in this yard with a manual transmission was this four-cylinder version. 26 more horses than the Volvo engine in Choice #10, plus the same slant-four cylinder layout.
The Chevrolet 90° V6 engine is not related to the Buick V6, being a shortened version of the small-block Chevy V8 rather than an abbreviated Buick 215 aka Rover V8. The 4.3-liter version makes plenty of torque and an enjoyable disagreeable exhaust note, and it’s no problem to find a T-5 manual transmission to put behind one (though this junkyard had none).
A lightweight dual-overhead-cam straight-six making 200 horses, replacing a primitive pushrod straight-six making 101 horses— what’s not to like about this swap? Try taking this swap to a Chrysler-centric car show and you’ll find out!
For many years, BMW made some of the best straight-six engines in the world, and the M30 “Big Six” was in production for nearly three decades. The one in this E32 7-Series Autobahn dreadnaught isn’t quite as powerful as the Trailblazer six, but it’s a lot lighter and sounds like an angelic choir at full throttle. It shares the slant-six layout with the Lancer’s original engine, which almost compensates for the notoriously flaky 1980s BMW engine electronics. You can find manual transmissions for these engines if you’re persistent.
The trucks of the late-1990s/early-2000s monstrous-SUV boom are showing up in self-serve junkyards in large numbers now, and most of them got there because the interiors got ooky and the bodies got dented, not because the engines crapped out. The most power you’re likely to find at U-Wrench-It is going to be in a truck like this, and so here’s the most power of all of your Junkyard Engine Swap Challenge choices today. In a 2,595-pound Lancer, this engine with the two-wheel-drive transmission out of any number of discarded Town Cars and Crown Vics would be plenty of power. Squeezing a wide DOHC V8 into that engine compartment will take a lot of hacking and slashing of metal, but you could make it happen.
Choice #14: 2010 Chevrolet Impala, 3.5-liter pushrod V6 with 5-speed manual transmission
Power: 242 hp, 240 lb-ft
Purist rage: Tsar Bomba
Do you want by far the best power-to-weight ratio of any engine among these choices and a close-to-bolt-on manual-trans option? If so, the GM High Value V6 is for you. The latest in a series of GM 60° pushrod V6 engines that began way back in the early 1980s with the Citation’s 2.8, the 3.5 in this 7-year-old Impala is amazingly small for its output and features variable valve timing. The LZE’s bellhousing bolt pattern is the same as the one on the common-as-dirt rear-wheel-drive 1980s S-10s/Sonomas/Hombres and Camaros/Firebirds with the 2.8 V6, several of which are in this yard, so no worries about the front-wheel-driveness of the donor car (other than the worries about making the modern engine-control computer from the Impala happy with a different transmission, but you’ll solve that).
There you have it: One great car, 14 engine choices including four V8s, five L6s, two V6s, and three L4s. Detroit engines, German engines, Japanese engines, even a Kenosha engine. Pick your Junkyard Engine Swap Challenge favorite, and explain your pick in the comments below.
Choice #1: The Chrysler 170 Slant-6 and 3-on-the-floor manual transmission that’s in the Lancer now
Choice #2: Carbureted Chrysler 360 V8 and automatic transmission
Choice #3: Fuel-injected Chrysler 5.2 V8 and 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #4: Chrysler 2.5 Turbo II L4 with Dakota RWD 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #5: AMC 4.0 L6 with 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #6: GM Vortec 4200 L6 with automatic transmission
Choice #7: Ford 351M V8 with automatic transmission
Choice #8: Volvo B230F L4 with 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #9: BMW M42B18 L4 with 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #10: Chevrolet 4.3 V6 with 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #11: Toyota 7M-GE with 5-speed manual transmission
Choice #12: BMW M30B35 L6 with automatic transmission
Choice #13: Ford 5.4 InTech V8 with automatic transmission
Choice #14: GM LZE 3.5 V6 with S-10 RWD 5-speed manual tranmission