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How To Make A Junkyard LS Engine Look Good

Author: Tommy Lee Byrd | 01/06/2021 < Back to Motor Life Home
001_ls_engine_dress_up.jpg

There are two ways to LS swap a vehicle—the sloppy way and the tasteful way. We can appreciate either flavor, as the sloppy cars tend to have a fun personality, but when it comes to appearance, the LS engine simply doesn’t look good in its raw form. This is especially true with the popular 4.8-, 5.3- and 6.0-liter truck engines, which are wildly popular due to their affordability and strength. Even when you clean up the wiring, relocate the coils or modify other factory components, you’re left with an engine that doesn’t look like it belongs in a muscle car, classic truck or customized creation.


Most of the time, the reason for using a truck engine is budget. These engines can still be bought from junkyards for significantly less money than your typical aluminum-block LS1, LS2, etc. Of course, you still have to spend money on the fuel system and operating system to make them operate in a non-original application, but the cost of entry is much lower on the truck engines. With this in mind, we thought it would be fun to take a crusty junkyard engine and give it some style, using Holley components, a can of engine paint and a couple evenings in the shop.


Our starting point was downright disgusting. Once we stripped off the accessories, we could see that this engine wasn’t exactly pampered by its previous owner. Sometimes an engine in this condition can also be in poor condition on the inside, where it really matters. In this case, the dramatic dirtiness of this engine offered the perfect example to show the night-and-day difference between a junkyard-fresh LS engine and one that has been dressed up. Whether you’re planning to do a full rebuild, or just do some minor updates like adding a bigger camshaft and head studs, you can change the attitude of your affordable LS engine with some excellent bolt-on components and a little bit of creativity. Let’s take a closer look at how we transformed an ugly truckling into a nicely detailed engine that looks as good as it runs.


LS dress up before

The average LS based truck engine gets used and abused. This one has about 150,000 miles of use, and was in good working order, despite its appearance. We started by removing the water pump and accessories, and stripping away the original wiring.

LS dress-up degreasing

Foaming degreaser works nicely to loosen up the gunk and grime on the cast iron block. We concentrate mostly on the lower portion of the block, near the oil pan as that is the dirtiest area. We also don’t want to pour a tremendous amount of water into the top side of the engine.

ls dress up degrease 2

We carefully pressure wash the engine, making sure to plug off any open areas that could let water into crucial areas of the engine. It’s a good idea to leave the intake manifold bolted on until you’re finished pressure washing.

ls dress up painted block

After scraping any remaining gunk off the block, we gave it a few coats of paint, which made a huge difference in its appearance. Whether you like the old school look of Chevrolet Orange, or the modern look of a black engine block, a fresh coat of paint goes a long way.

ls dress up vk090000 oil pan

Since we planned to install this engine in a Chevy Nova, we used a Holley VK090000 kit, which includes a pan that fits many 1955-1987 GM applications. The kit also includes the proper pickup tube, sump baffle, oil filter stud, oil passage cover, gasket, stainless steel bolts and RTV.

LS engine dress up valley cover

The topside of the engine is the area of concern, so we started by removing the bulky truck intake manifold and doing our best to clean the aluminum cylinder heads. Then, we removed the original valley cover by removing the 10 bolts. Later model LS engines, like the LS3 and others feature an 11-bolt cover. We also removed the knock sensors from the recessed holes in the cover.

ls dress up intake valley cleaning

Before the new valley cover goes into place, we scrape the surface and clean it so the new cover and gasket seals off nicely.

LS dress up new valley cover

We used a Holley 241-260 valley cover, which is beautifully machined out of aluminum plate. We opted for a natural finish, but it is also offered in black anodized and polished finishes. We could’ve reused the original bolts, but went with the better-looking Mr. Gasket button head stainless steel bolts (60920G).

ls dress up valve covers

The next way to clean up the appearance of our 5.3-liter truck engine is to hide the coils. We could relocate them and run a smooth valve cover, but space is limited on our project. We went with Holley two-piece valve covers (241-176) in polished finish. Optional finishes include Orange, Red, Natural and Satin Black with machined details. You can also get them with Chevrolet script, Holley script or plain.

ls dress up valve covers 2

Installation starts with the lower portion of the valve cover, which is the component that actually seals against the cylinder head. You will need Mr. Gasket 61040G gaskets and you can reuse your original bolts with rubber seals that press into the cover.

There are two bolt patterns for the coils. The Gen I LS coils are positioned vertically, and the Gen V LS coils (what we used) are positioned at an angle. We used the supplied spacers and hardware to attach the coils to the valve cover.

ls dress up valve cover coil cover

After threading in the oil fill cap, and attaching all four coils on this side of the engine, we can install the integrated coil cover. This cover does not need a gasket, and attaches with the four supplied stainless steel bolts.

ls dress up headers

While original cast iron exhaust manifolds flow plenty of air for most street applications, the clean look of headers definitely adds some style to this engine. We went with a set of Flowtech shorty headers with 1-5/8-inch primaries, 2-1/2-inch collectors and a polished 304 stainless steel construction (11576FLT). The headers come complete with hardware and collectors with o2 bungs already welded in.

The options are wide open when it comes to intake manifolds for an LS engine. The original truck intake manifolds are functional, but they don’t look good. You can swap to a lower-profile car intake, but it’s still black plastic. We went with the Sniper EFI low-profile sheet metal fabricated intake manifold (820101-1).

ls dress up intake o-ring seals

We started the intake installation by pressing the supplied O-ring seals into place. The thick sheet aluminum construction is strong and lightweight. This intake features the LS1/LS2/LS6 throttle body opening, and comes complete with fuel rails. It has four vacuum ports underneath the plenum and a provision for a MAP sensor on the back.

ls dress up intake 2

While we could’ve gotten aggressive with our intake manifold choice, we chose the low-profile sheet metal intake because it will fit in just about anything and keep the flat hood.

ls dress up torquing the intake

We installed the intake with the supplied hardware. It’s best to apply engine oil to the threads and gently tighten them, starting in the center and working our way outward in a crisscross pattern. Then, we tighten the bolts in two steps: 44 in-lbs and 89 in-lbs.

ls dress up fuel rails

With the Holley injectors and fuel rails pressed together, this engine is starting to look much more complete. The fuel rails have small brackets that keep them stable and pulled down tight onto the injectors.

ls dress up completed engine

After a couple of evenings in the shop, we transformed an ugly truck engine into a great-looking heart transplant for our Nova project. There are so many options for colors, designs and finishes, but the Chevrolet Orange block with polished aluminum accessories gives this modern engine a bit of old school flavor to match the car it will be powering in the near future.


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