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409 Chevy Engine - 481-Inch 409 Stroker

Get Big Power And Rugged Good Looks With a...

Photography by Steve Magnante

Thanks to the Beach Boys, Chevy's 409 is one of the most famous engines of all time. But how much do you really know about it? Did you know the combustion chambers are in the block, not the heads? Did you know it's the only regular-production Chevrolet passenger-car V-8 with six head bolts surrounding each cylinder bore? Did you know the standard 4.3125 bore was the largest of any Chevy production V-8 until the arrival of the 502? Most importantly, did you know that lots of Chevy Rat motor parts are adaptable?

That final detail is where the venerable 409 gets a new lease on life thanks to a crankshaft swap. With basic machine work, any '70-'90 Mark IV (two-piece rear main seal) 454 big-block crankshaft loads into the 409 block and results in an added 11/42 inch of stroke. Couple that to a 0.060-inch overbore and you get 481 ci. You've gotta wonder if Beach Boys Dennis and Brian Wilson would have bothered if Chevy had gone the big stroke route right out of the gate. Somehow "She's a big gun, my 4-8-1" doesn't have the same ring to it. Then again, "She's real fun, my 4-8-1" might have worked. But the time machine is broken so we'll never know.

Pop music references aside, the 409 is part of the Chevrolet W-series engine family, which debuted in 1958 as the 348ci Turbo-Thrust. The W-series nomenclature derives not from the shape of the scalloped valve covers, but from the designation applied during the engine's initial design phase. According to an SAE paper written by Chevrolet engineers John T. Rausch, Howard H. Kehrl, and Donald H. McPherson, at least three new engine designs were considered to supplement the displacement-limited small-block engine family. Designated the W, X, and Y engines, each was subjected to an exhaustive evaluation process. In the end, the W engine type won, and the name stuck-at least in engineering and hot rodding circles.

By 1961, marketplace horsepower demands had outgrown even the 348, so Chevrolet added 0.1875 inch of stroke and 0.25 inch more bore, and RPO 580, the 360hp, single four-barrel 409 was born. The 409 started out as a highly competitive answer to the Ford 406, Chrysler Max Wedge, and Pontiac 421. With dual Carter four-barrels, streamlined exhaust manifolds, and hot cam timing, as much as 425 hp and 425 lb-ft were available. Less frantic 340hp 409s with single quads and hydraulic cams were also available for family sedan use and trailer towing. But all things must end, and the 409 was discontinued halfway through the '65 model-year. Its replacement? The 396-cube Chevy big-block, which would grow to 427 ci in 1966 and 454 ci in 1970.

Which brings us full circle and to the point of this story, sticking a 454 crank in a 409 block. Let's watch as Joe Jill and the crew at Superior Automotive build a hot pump-gas 481 W motor that cranks out 532 hp and a Bel Air twisting 542 lb-ft of torque.

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