Welcome back to another week of crappy old cars! Today is a special edition of Shitbox Showdown, for a non-car-related reason. I’ve finally gotten around to decommissioning my fifteen-year-old iMac and moving everything over to my new computer, running Linux Mint. This means that, for the first time ever, Shitbox Showdown is being brought to you via entirely open-source software: operating system, photo editing, web browser, everything.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal to most of you, I know, but it means a lot to me. We here at the Autopian are very pro-DIY, if you hadn’t noticed; wrenching, right-to-repair, modified cars, and punk rock are all very near and dear to our hearts (okay, maybe punk rock is just me). We’re tinkerers, and we know a lot of you are, too. So today we’re going to salute the two greatest tinkerer-friendly engines of all time: the air-cooled Volkswagen flat-four, and the Chevrolet small-block V8.
But before we get to those, we should finish up with Friday’s odd couple. There was a lot of vocal support in the comments for the Yugo, but it couldn’t pull the votes – the Gambler-ized Mustang took a comfortable win. (You all thought it was likely to be more knowledgeable in the proper times for holding and folding, I guess.) And I tend to agree; a Yugo would be fun to own, for a while, but that Mustang is a blank slate, despite all the mods.
And speaking of blank slates: Over the years since cars began, lots of different engines have come and gone. Some have been better-suited to modification than others, and some have, by sheer numbers produced, become ubiquitous in gearhead circles. The engines under the hoods of today’s competitors were blessed with both a brilliant mod-friendly design, and massive production totals over a long period of time. You can build either one of them, in fact, entirely from aftermarket parts, with no involvement from the original manufacturer whatsoever. Now that’s open-source. Let’s check them out.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter overhead valve flat 4, four-speed manual, RWD
Location: Sacramento, CA
Odometer reading: 29,000 miles (rolled over at least once)
Everyone has a Beetle story. Actually, these days, maybe that isn’t true; everyone of a certain age has a Beetle story. Younger folks have a Camry story, or a Civic story, or something, I guess. But I have a Beetle story, and here it is: My dad had a 1969 Beetle like this one, only his was beige. He sold it when I was six, but I have clear memories of it, my favorite of which is him taking me to see Star Wars at the drive-in. I first met Luke and Han and Leia and Darth Vader from the front seat of that Beetle, with one of those big cast-aluminum speakers hanging in the window and a big paper bag of popcorn we snuck in from home on my lap.
Because of my dad’s car, when I picture a Beetle in my mind, it’s a ’69. So this one looks right to me: Red taillights, simple straight bumpers, no vents behind the rear windows, and front turn signals atop the fenders. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an original Beetle any more, and this one is no exception. It used to be red, it looks like, based on the color of the door sills and edges of the engine compartment. The seller does also say it was in a minor rear fender-bender once upon a time, which might have been when the color change happened.
[Editor’s Note: Also, it has the four-vent engine lid from a ’72-and up Beetle as well, but that engine looks original; I can’t quite tell from the pics, but it may have been upgraded to a 1600 dual-port at some point, but I’d need to look closer. Still an oil-bath air cleaner, though! – JT]
Assuming it’s stock, which is always a huge assumption with these, this is a 1500 cubic centimeter version of VW’s famous flat-four, making 53 horsepower when new. Much more is possible, of course, with modifications ranging from bolt-ons all the way up to complete custom jobs. Looking at this ad again, it actually doesn’t explicitly say this car runs. But these are dead-simple engines, easy to revive from slumber and hard to outright kill, so even if it doesn’t run now, that’s a minor hurdle.
Air-cooled Volkswagen prices have gone absolutely batshit insane in recent years, which makes this car seem expensive. But it’s about the going rate for a scruffy, running, rust-free Beetle. Long gone are the days when you could buy a Bug for $100. Volkswagen made plenty of them – 1.2 million in 1969 alone – but all good things must come to an end, and the once-ubiquitous Beetle is now a collector’s item, because fewer and fewer are left every year.
Engine/drivetrain: 327 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Ridgecrest, CA
Odometer reading: 34,000 miles (rolled over at least once)
One, eight, four, three, six, five, seven, two. That sequence of numbers is cast into millions of intake manifolds, usually just behind the water outlet for the thermostat. It is the firing order of Chevrolet’s legendary small-block V8 engine. This cast-iron marvel was introduced in 1955, and lasted for more than forty years, in more than a dozen displacements (if you count aftermarket combinations of bores and strokes that Chevy never officially built), installed in everything from trucks to family sedans to Corvettes.
This “Colonnade” era Chevy El Camino was probably originally equipped from the factory with a small-block V8, but it wasn’t the one under its hood now. It now uses a 327 cubic inch V8 from 1967, backed by what’s almost certainly a Turbo-Hydramatic 350 automatic transmission. The 327 was an extremely common small-block size during the ’60s; it’s the same 4-inch bore as the 350 that followed it, but has a shorter 3.25 inch stroke instead of 3.48 inches. More importantly, like just about any small-block Chevy ever made, it bolts right up to the same mounts and bellhousing, and can use all the same aftermarket parts. If Lego made a car engine, it couldn’t be more interchangeable than a small-block Chevy.
This El Camino runs and drives just fine, the seller says, and has had some recent work done to keep it that way. The seller says it cruises along at 70 mph at low revs, due to tall rear axle gearing. In the ’70s, before the widespread adoption of overdrive automatic transmissions, carmakers would raise the rear axle ratio (smaller numbers) to lower engine speeds and increase fuel economy. This made for sluggish acceleration, but nice relaxed cruising.
This El Camino looks like it’s in good shape overall, though once again, someone thought flat black was a good idea. If it were up to me, I’d be trying out one of the many backyard DIY painting approaches out there. This car originally had a great deal of chrome trim on it; the seller says the window trim for the doors is included, but the bed-edge trim is MIA. I bet reproductions exist if you really want.
The beauty of these cars is that either one of them is just a starting point. Any level of power you want simply bolts in, right in place of whatever is there right now. Or if you want to keep the status quo, any one of hundreds of parts suppliers stand ready and waiting to keep them going. They’re different beasts, built for different purposes, but they’re both old enough that they’re just playthings anyway. Which set of toys are you playing with?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)