What Is a Crate Motor?by Richard RoweUpdated June 22, 2023
Once upon a time, the only part of a hot rod that mattered was the engine, the horsepower it produced and the time-slip of the car it was installed in. For those too young to remember, this was back in the days before $10,000 paint jobs, magnetorheological suspensions and fuel-injected four cylinder racers that could decimate many stock V8s. Times have changed, and a hot rod is now measured by its merit as a complete package. As such, many enthusiasts now spend their time and money on the rest of the car, and the pre-built, pre-tuned engine market has exploded.
As the name implies, a "crate engine" is a complete engine that is delivered in a crate. Though the term could apply to the completely stock long-blocks sold by retailers, it generally refers to those ready-to-install powerplants sold by the aftermarket. An aftermarket engine is often sold as a complete package, including the block, rotating assembly (crankshaft, rods and pistons) and heads. Many include a camshaft, intake and carburetor and have been tested and horsepower-certified before shipping.
The prototypical crate engine is the ZZ350 produced by Edelbrock. This 350-horsepower, 350-cubic-inch small-block Chevy is far and away the best-selling engine in the industry and has been used in everything from show cars to drag boats. Even Detroit has gotten into the game, evidenced by GM's stupendous 640-horsepower Supercharged LS9, which can be plucked right from the Corvette factory and delivered to your door for a paltry $29,990.
A crate engine's main benefit is the reliability of its manufacture and ease of installation. Gone are the days of endless trips to the machine shop, trial and error engine experiments, expensive mistakes and the necessity of purchasing a separate water-cooled checkbook. Now, the back-yard hot-rodder can simply Click-Click-Vroom his way to horsepower nirvana and sleep easy at night knowing it comes with a warranty.
Crate engines are expensive. Ridiculously expensive. MOPAR's 540-cubic-inch Race Hemi comes in at slightly more than a used Hemi Charger at $37,590, and Edelbrock's top-dog 555-cubic-inch, 697-horsepower RPM XT will set you back as much as a new Camaro.
Crate engines come in all trim levels, including short-blocks (block and rotating assembly), long-block (short-block plus cylinder heads), "complete" engines (long block plus intake manifold, exhaust headers) and ready-to-run engines that are shipped with everything but oil and noise.
Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.