Larry Dixon ENG

For those of you that have been following our series’ of articles where we tag along with Top-Fuel racer Larry Dixon as he rebuilds his ’66 Nova, this is what we call a milestone article. In fact, this is probabaly the one that you’ve been waiting for – the installation of the drivetrain.

We introduced the project back in July, and then chronicled the arrival of the Chevrolet Performance LT4 crate engine, Strange driveshaft fitment, and how the suspension was rebuilt with the help of Classic Industries to control the car’s planned 9-second quarter-mile e.t.’s. But now it’s time to place the new engine under the hood.

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The Chevrolet Performance Connect & Cruise crate engine package gives you just about everything you will need to install the new LT4 in your classic ride. Some assembly required.

A Popular Predecessor

There is no arguing the fact that Chevrolet’s LS engine has rejuvenated the musclecar wars with their inclusion in production cars like the Camaro, and Corvette. Above and beyond that, thanks to Chevrolet Performance’s crate engine program, the LS engine has literally revolutionized engine swaps and hot-rodding.

First task on the agenda was removal of the always dependable small-block already in the car.

Building power and using performance items like forced induction, aluminum heads, and even aluminum blocks is now common practice, and production engines are lasting for hundreds-of-thousands of miles. What’s more, is combustion technology has created automotive motivators that deliver the power of an old school big-block in a reliable and streetable, small-block-sized package.

As far as we know, no one makes engine mounts or a transmission crossmember for this swap - yet. Larry and the guys at Walt's Hot Rod's had to make their own.

Ultimately building the exhaust was the toughest challenge. – Larry Dixon

An entirely reinvigorated aftermarket has whole-heartedly accepted this new-age engine, and has developed parts to improve performance and their installation in classic musclecars. There are an increasing number of enthusiasts that prefer to swap the late-model LS engine and a matching, electronically-controlled transmission in their hot rod, so they can have new car drivability in a classic wrapper. The swap has become commonplace, and with the accessibility of used engines increasing, dropping a more modern and powerful engine into your car is becoming increasingly cheaper.

When the LS1 was introduced in 1997, it initially created a divide in enthusiasts. On one side of the fence were the purists that felt the traditional small-block was irreplaceable. Conversely, there was also a large contingent that felt the introduction of the LS would ingratiate a new-found appreciation for this all-new small-block. But a huge concern that initially resonated throughout automotive enthusiasts, was the cost of acquiring the then-new engine when a swap was contemplated. We’re not going to argue that initially, that was true. Recently though, finding a used LS engine in running condition is easier, and no more expensive than locating and purchasing a traditional small-block.

The LT4 crate engine comes in both wet and dry sump configurations. Most guys will surely opt for the wet sump like Larry did. If so, we are certain that someone will soon be building an aftermarket oil pan, because the stock pan needs to be modified to make room for the steering linkage.

But is the LS’ lifespan nearing the end? Is this proven power-delivering device ready to be outed by something even better? Maybe not entirely, but there is a new crate engine on the horizon, and it might just give the LS a run for its money.

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A New Era Of Performance

Larry Dixon is a professional drag racer that has made a name for himself by piloting Top-Fuel cars for many years. But what you might not know, is that he is also a true Chevrolet enthusiast. Larry is the proud owner of a ’66 Nova that has been spending a lot of time parked and taking up space in his shop, because his “day job” used the bulk of his time.

While the passenger's side manifold was able to fit with the engine installed – barely, the driver's side needed serious modifications. This is another area where the aftermarket will need to step up, and headers will surely be available in the very near future.

When he heard that Drag Week was coming to his neck of the woods, he luckily had some spare time on his hands, and decided it was time to breathe new life into the Deuce and participate in this grueling five-day event of road tripping and quarter-mile racing. When he decided to get his Nova ready for this yearly event, he could have readied the engine already in the car or built another stout small-block for under the hood. Heck, he could have even swapped an LS engine into the space between the fenders, but he wanted something totally different.

Larry felt the obvious choice was for him and his guys to install Chevrolet Performance’s newest crate engine – the supercharged LT4 –  in his small Nova. We asked Larry why he chose an LT4, and he said, “Ultimately, the power, fuel mileage, and the ability to run on pump gas.” But when we answered back with ‘you had a perfect running small-block,’ he countered with, “Yes, but it has less power, doesn’t get as good fuel mileage, and needs leaded, higher-octane fuel.” We completely understood, and with that said, this is where the all-new, supercharged LT4 crate engine enters our story.

The 4L85E transmission had some cast-in protrusions that needed minor clearancing to fit in the Nova.

When Chevrolet originally introduced the LT4, they let everyone know they had created a 650-horsepower, supercharged engine for delivery in a production car. Power junkies took notice. This 6.2-liter V8, made its debut under the hood of the 2015 Z06 Corvette, and at the time, the beating heart of America’s sports car was the most powerful production engine GM had ever built.

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Fully dressed, an LT4 (with aluminum block and heads), weighs 529 pounds. This is slightly more than its 450-pound predecessor, the LS7. Since the LT4 makes more power than the stock LS7 at any engine RPM, we’re confident the new engine will be quick (pun intended), to win over enthusiasts. When it was first introduced, we had a hunch that it wouldn’t be long until Chevrolet Performance would release the LT4 as a “crate engine” so anyone with any body style car could enjoy the reliability, driveability, and power.

The Connect & Cruise package comes complete with the engine and transmission controllers, and the drive-by-wire throttle pedal.

That is exactly what happened. According to Curt Collins, associate manager Chevrolet Performance, COPO, and performance parts licensing, “The LT4 is now one of our Connect & Cruise packages, and is a complete powertrain solution. It includes the engine, transmission, both controllers, harnesses, oxygen sensors, gas pedal, and torque converter. The items are matched to work together, are all 100-percent new, and come with a two-year/50,000-mile warranty.” To us, it seems obvious why Larry chose this engine.

Easier Said Than Done

Much like when the first LS swaps were initiated, the aftermarket hasn’t fully developed the ancillary pieces needed for a swap like this, so Larry and the crew from Walt’s Hot Rods, were diving head first into uncharted waters. Take for instance the engine mounts. Nobody makes them. Larry had no choice but to design and build his own, and the crew at Muscle Rods was paramount in making that happen.

Plug And Play Power

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19332621           LT4 wet sump                     $15,625.00

19331517           Engine controller                $2,300

19300174           4L85 E transmission           $3,543.85

19329416           Transmission install kit       $100

19125817           Bell housing                        $174.66

19299802           Torque converter                $890.72

19302405           Transmission controller      $1,277.99

 

Note: These are MSRP.  Each dealer sets their own retail price that is usually much less.

Something else that did cause an issue was the exhaust. The LT4 comes with a set of production based, individual-tube-style manifolds (much like a shorty header) with a tin sheild. With the shields attached, the manifolds would not fit. After removing the shields, the passenger’s side manifold had enough clearance to fit between the engine and shock tower – barely. The driver’s side did need to be modified. Again, this is a new frontier, and aftermarket parts are not yet available. We asked Collins if Chevrolet Performance has any plans to supply swap parts like headers and such, and he said, “Not sure about that, but I would anticipate new offerings in the LT line-up – similar to what we have done with the LS line – both in engines and upgrades.”

Speaking of mounts, have you ever seen a transmission crossmember designed for installing a 4L85E transmission into a ’66 Nova? Neither has Larry, so just like the engine mounts, he and the guys make one. Luckily, the crate engine does have the needed wiring and controllers as part of the kit, so making those connections was not an issue. Collins told us, “The controllers are specific for crate engine use. They are not based on or anything like a production controller. Production controllers are made to communicate with much more in the production car (radio, ABS, etc.). Ours is much simpler, and designed to control the engine and communicate with the transmission controller as needed.”

Larry incorporated a Rick's Hot Rods fuel tank with an internal pump to supply fuel to the engine. He cut a hole in the floor to allow easy access to the pump and filter, and ingeniously hid it with an air cleaner assembly.

When the guys were installing the engine in the Nova, they did so with the oil pan removed –they had to. The LT4 crate engine comes in either a wet or dry sump version, and this one had a wet-sump pan. When the guys first tried to set the engine in the car, they realized the steering linkage was in the same location as the sump area of the oil pan.

To fix this real estate clash, a hole was drilled on both sides of the oil pan, and an insert tube for the linkage to pass through was welded between the two holes. According to Larry, this wasn’t the biggest hurdle they had to overcome, as he said, “Ultimately, building the exhaust was the toughest challenge. Because of the time constraint we had getting ready for the event, we had to go with the stock GM manifolds that needed modified.” This modification consisted of the number three tube needing to be rerouted to clear the steering column shaft.

Once the engine and transmission were actually mounted in the car, it was time locate the engine and transmission controllers. Although the control boxes are weatherproof, Larry chose to mount them high on the footwell area of the passenger’s side of the car. This keeps them away from engine heat, out of the weather, and out of sight unless you climb under the dash looking for them.

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In our next installment, Larry and the guys build a proper cooling system with the help of C&R Racing.

But Wait, There’s More

The last pieces of the puzzle revolve around cooling the engine, transmission, and heated and compressed intake air. Once again, this did require some customization, and C&R Racing stepped up to the plate. The design and implementation of the cooling systems are fairly in-depth, so we’ll show more on that part of the swap in our next installment. Also to come will be the complete article on how the car faired at Drag Week, along with some dyno numbers.

We’ll wait to hear form you about the viability of the supercharged LT4 replacing the LS engine. Even if it doesn’t ever eclipse and replace Chevrolet’s previous-generation small-block, you can bet that it will eventually be a great addition to any musclecar looking to upgrade to a factory-built, Chevrolet Performance, supercharged crate-engine that comes with a warranty.