Quick History: Engine Swaps

Imagine what you could get away with if no one told you what wouldn’t work, there were no lawyers involved, the Internet wasn’t there to call you an idiot, stuff was dirt cheap, and you were fearless about pounding things out with your own hands and limited resources. No idea too crazy, no goal unreachable, no contraption too outlandish. That was hot rodding, ’50s style. We feel obligated to instill you car-loving newcomers with a sense of awe for the ingenuity and action of the original hot rodders who created our hobby. We’ll do that here, with plenty of images that may seem like they came from your great-granddaddy’s scrapbook but that make Roadkill Show exploits look mainstream.

The photos here came from the archives of Petersen Publishing (aka Trend Publishing for a few years), the company that founded Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazines, which are the roots of Roadkill Show. These photos are also from Petersen titles such as Car Craft, Rod & Custom, Motor Life, and Sports Car Graphic. The shooters themselves are legendary—Eric Rickman and Bob D’Olivo in particular—and the moments they captured show us how the car life really was. And it was pretty incredible, especially if you think of these accomplishments in the context of the never-before-seen newness of the time. We’ll parcel out this magic in easy bite-sized pieces. Look at the photo, learn the names, go use the Google for more and BAM, your afternoon will be gone. Sorry, not sorry.


It was probably the birth of the muscle-car era and the advertised wins in Stock Eliminator drag racing of the ’60s that created brand loyalty in the gearhead world. Today, so many people feel that crossbreeding of engines and bodies is socially unacceptable, but in the ’50s, all that mattered was going fast. The result: Wild mismatches of engines and bodies were commonplace. Seen here are a Buick Nailhead in a ’53 Studebaker and a 454ci stroked Chrysler Hemi (with mechanical fuel injection) in a ’57 Thunderbird that was brand-new at the time. The T-bird was a famous car built for Frank Cannon (left) by Art Chrisman (right), who passed away at 86 years old on the day we wrote this. Imagine today buying a brand-new Mustang because you liked the style and suspension but then ripping out the 5.0L engine and installing a Dodge Hellcat because you needed 707 horsepower. That’s basically what went on. Hot Rod magazine was packed every month with how-to stories on engine swaps. Cars were cheaper, wrecking yards had more late-model cars, and people wanted power. That was it.

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Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover