Old Rat, New Tricks

Refreshing the Appearance of an Outdated Big-Block Chevy

By Tommy Lee Byrd – Photography by the Author

Making horsepower requires a special skill set, which includes attention to detail inside the engine. The outside of the engine doesn’t affect horsepower, but it can set your car apart from the others at the local cruise night. During a recent project, we gave an outdated big-block Chevy a new look, while also improving its performance capabilities. We started with a crusty 396 and didn’t make many substantial horsepower improvements, but we did help its curb appeal without spending a tremendous amount of money on dress-up items.

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01 big-block chevy dress up 1967 Camaro
Our starting point for this engine bay makeover is a 1967 Camaro that was a street machine project in the ’80s. The 396ci big-block runs fine but is outdated and quite crusty, so we’re going to freshen it up while also helping it perform better.

Many of the parts and pieces that we installed were intended to bring the engine into the modern era of performance, but those components also gave it a fresh appearance. So we combined that with cleaning and painting to create a nice-looking package for a driver-quality car. Make no mistake, this isn’t show-car stuff, as we performed these upgrades with the engine still installed in the car and we didn’t go to extraordinary lengths to refurbish any original components.

Read More: Tested, Tuned & Torque for Days

The idea was to take away the ’80s appearance by first removing the bright yellow plug wires, “braided” radiator hose covers, and rusty valve covers. We also stripped down the cooling system and removed the intake manifold to have proper access to the block and cylinder heads for a little rattle-can restoration. A fresh coat of Chevrolet Orange helped breathe some life back into the old big-block, and we were able to start installing the new parts we ordered from Summit Racing.

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03 big block chevy dress up 1967 Camaro radiator
The first step in the makeover is draining the cooling system and removing the radiator. Then, we remove the mechanical fan, water pump, and alternator to provide access to clean the front of the engine block and cylinder heads.

We wanted a mostly original look, so we went with a mild-mannered dual-plane aluminum intake and a set of OE-style chrome valve covers and air cleaner with factory-style decals. We did upgrade to new headers and a completely new cooling system, as well as a serpentine pulley system to really dress up the front of the engine. The combined result of the new components, detail work, and simple stuff, like new coolant hoses and clamps, gave this ratty big-block a new life.

02 big block chevy dress up 1967 Camaro cooling system
Even though the car runs fine we can see that many of the components need to be replaced. We’ll focus heavily on the car’s cooling system, as it needs a new water pump, coolant hoses, and radiator. During that process, we’ll swap the mechanical fan for a pair of electric fans.
04 big block chevy dress up decades-old headers
Next, we remove the decades-old headers. These long-tube headers are beyond crusty, so it’s in our best interest to replace them. If your headers aren’t pitted badly, you can have a local powdercoat shop recoat them to save a few bucks.
05 big block chevy dress up HEI distributor
We’re checking over the ignition system and will likely replace the common parts, such as the cap and rotor. The HEI distributor is in good working order, but we plan to remove it so we can then remove the intake manifold.

06 big block chevy dress up Edelbrock Torker II intake manifold

The old Edelbrock Torker II intake manifold is heading to the swap meet pile, along with vacuum secondary Holley carburetor. Even if we were planning to keep this combination, we’d need to remove the intake for proper blasting and cleaning for a new appearance.

07 big block chevy dress up big-block stripped down
With the big-block stripped down, we use degreaser from the local parts store and give the engine a thorough cleaning. We also use a wire brush to loosen up flaking paint, while a putty knife and razor blade clean up the gasket mating surfaces.

Read More: Upgrading the Wiring Harness in an Early Chevelle

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08 big block chevy dress up Dupli-Color Chevrolet Orange engine paint
Dupli-Color Chevrolet Orange engine paint woke up the tired-looking big-block. We also replaced the crusty old bolts with new ones from a complete engine bolt kit from Summit Racing (PN SUM-56491HS). The bolt kit is a cheap way to freshen up the old big-block.
09 big block chevy dress up aluminum water pump
After applying RTV to the gasket surfaces, we install an aluminum water pump. Once again, this upgrade is twofold: it performs much better than a stock unit and it also adds some texture and color contrast to our engine bay.

10 big block chevy dress up Frostbite aluminum radiator

Another big upgrade includes this Frostbite aluminum radiator, complete with dual electric fans and a shroud. The aluminum finish adds a modern touch to this engine bay, and the electric fans provide excellent cooling performance. The best part? It bolts in to the factory holes.

11 big block chevy dress up RTV is used to create a gasket
We scraped any paint overspray off the front and rear gasket surfaces of the block and prepared the new intake manifold for installation. A bead of RTV is used to create a gasket, instead of using the supplied end gaskets.
12 big block chevy dress up Weiand aluminum intake manifold
Next, we drop the Weiand aluminum intake manifold into place. It is the closest in appearance to an original-style dual-plane intake manifold, and it was very affordable, so we added it to our order at Summit Racing.
13 big block chevy dress up metallic ceramic coated headers from Summit Racing
The metallic ceramic coating on these headers from Summit Racing will brighten up the engine bay and keep our big-block breathing easily. The passenger side is an easy install, but the driver side requires raising the engine to slide the header into place.
14 big block chevy dress up OER chrome covers (PN OER-VC1210)
Although hundreds of valve cover options are on the market, we wanted the factory look, so we went with these OER chrome covers (PN OER-VC1210) and fastened them with new bolts that came with the Summit Racing bolt kit. The Tonawanda decal also came from Summit (PN OER-258555).

Read More: Replacing Window Regulators, Side Glass, and Weatherstripping on a Chevy II

15 big block chevy dress up polished mechanical fuel pump
A new polished mechanical fuel pump will be largely hidden by the new pulley system, but it was a necessary upgrade to ensure proper fuel delivery to our new carburetor.
16 big block chevy dress up Concept One serpentine system
Dozens of pulley systems are available, but we love the compact and clean design of this Concept One serpentine system. Also notice that we’ve replaced all rubber hoses and clamps, as well as the thermostat housing.
17 big block chevy dress up standard chrome 14-inch air cleaner
Although we still have some work to do to complete the entire car, we’re pleased with the progress of the engine bay on this old-school Camaro. We finished off the engine with a standard chrome 14-inch air cleaner, complete with proper 396/325hp decals. Now we have a good-looking and great-running big-block, ready for the local cruise night.

Concept One Pulley Systems
(877) 337-0688

Summit Racing
(800) 230-3030

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