Why not to use a small-block Chevy engine
The small block Chevrolet (SBC) engine is popular, reliable, powerful, and has almost unlimited potential. However, the use of small-block Chevrolet engines (specifically, the 350) is controversial in hotrodding culture.
SBC in engine swaps
Pre-1949 cars and trucks are generally where engine swaps are most common, and the builder has almost total control over the choices he makes. Those who oppose the use of small block Chevrolet engines typically approve the use of SBCs in muscle cars that originally came with them.
Reasons against using the SBC
Those who oppose the use of such engines offer several arguments in support of their point of view. Among them are:
The SBC is regarded as reliable and cheap to build. However, it is not the only reliable and cheap to build engine. Many other similarly reliable choices exist, and they are only marginally more expensive to build. Examples include Ford's 289-302 engine family, and Chrysler's somewhat more expensive to build 318-360 engines. The LA family of engines have a rear sump pan like the SBC, and can be easily installed in most hot rods set up for a rear sump oil pan. They can take a 4" stroke crank with very little trouble.
It should be noted that internally balanced motors like the Mopar 318 were considered by many to be indestructible, at least in stock configurations. The engines would run seemingly forever thanks in part to a short stroke and a long connecting rod in combination with shaft mounted rocker arms. Additionally, the 318 produced very good horsepower and torque for its displacement, and are in good supply. They were used in nearly every class of vehicle that the Chrysler Corporation built.
As another example of an engine with good durability is the small block Ford. Even today, Ford small blocks have a reputation of being easy on main bearings, a sign of a well designed (or overbuilt) block and crank.
Bottom line, there are many choices besides small block Chevys, each with their own pluses and minuses. History will show that there are always engines that are particularly troublesome (not the Ford, Chevy or Mopar mentioned above), but for a low mileage application that concern may be minimal.
As with many hobbies, originality is prized among hotrodders. Small-block Chevrolet engines are common, so those who use them are often forced to sacrifice the bragging rights that typically accompany an unusual engine choice unless the induction system (for example) is something special, like tripower, blowers, turbos and the like. Even then, there will be those who will pass by any SBC due to them being so common.
By opting for lesser-known or more original engines, hotrodders can preserve and enhance the cultural and mechanical diversity that's a part of hotrodding in general.
Oftentimes, an uncommon engine will be well received in the hotrodding community, simply because it's uncommon. Examples of uncommon engines are Early Hemi engines, Buick Nailhead, 472 and 500 Cadillac] big blocks, Ford Flathead V8, Chevy 348 and 409 engines, Early Olds Rocket V8 etc. Most vintage inline 6-cylinder engines are also well-received.
Some of these engines do have downsides, such as the Ford Flathead's problem with cracking when overheated. So being unique does sometimes come at a cost -- those that choose an uncommon engine have already decided that originality/uniqueness outweighs the ability to build an engine cheaply.
Originality, creativity, and individuality
Many people seem to apply their originality and creativity when making paint and interior choices, but their individuality is not similarly reflected in their choice of engine.
In the automotive world, as in most hobbies, some people feel the price paid for being an individual and a leader is almost always worth the extra effort.
Engine fitment issues are not insurmountable
Dealing with clearance issues or fabricating engine mounts for non-SBC engines relates directly to the project at hand. In some cases, almost any engine could be used. In other cases, like where space is at a premium even a SBC is too large. One source for endless examples and ideas is the Fiero community.
The SBC's rear mounted oil pickup creates a "sump hump" that may cause an installation problem depending on the chassis/crossmember configuration. In tight compartments it may interfere with the vehicle's steering components or frame cross members. The builder would be wise to do a thorough mock up before putting torch to steel so he knows beforehand what he's up against.
Another item to consider is the placement of the distributor. In the tri-five Chevy they designed a ton of room ahead of the radiator, but the distributor is almost touching the firewall and is directly under the wiper motor. Where's a front mounted distributor SBC when you need it? It's called the LTx, '92-'97
A teenager working on his first car may very well be financially forced to choose a SBC. However, for someone who's spending $10,000 to $20,000 on his prize street rod, the cost difference is negligible.
Also, unique hot rods with unique engines may have higher resale values than cookie-cutter SBC rods.
By focusing on building and running lesser-known engines, hotrodders are able to preserve the historical legacy inherent in many of the less popular (but more notable) engines. By creating a demand for such parts, individual hobbyists can help to support the businesses and parts suppliers necessary to fuel the perpetuation of the hobby.
The Chevy 235 inline six
The Chevy inline six engines are one of the better "nostalgia" hot rod engines on the road. They may not be capable of as much power as most V8s, but they are by no means weak. There are several great parts suppliers on the net, including Patrick's Antique Cars and Clifford performance. You can get a dual carb intake for $200-$300, split exhaust headers for about $150, and spend a few hundred for some nice dress-up parts like a Wayne valve and side covers, a beehive oil filter and matching beehive air cleaners. You'll have a nice nostalgia piece for that ol' classic.