Ron Pope Motorsports                California Custom Roadsters               

Donor Car Considerations


New Member
Hi All -

I'm starting to keep an eye out for a good donor car. I'd like to keep the build as simple as possible. For now, I'm setting my sites on 70's GM's. Something with a 350 or 400 small block / TH350 or 400. I had been just focused on cars, but Chester claims a truck or van can offer a lot of parts too. Would you all agree that's still the case?

Also - most of the builds I've seen documented use a Ford 9" rear end. Is there any real shame or more importantly - difficulty - in using the rear end from a GM donor?

Again - it just seems that GM is the popular choice for components. Is this mainly because of availability, or would I really be at a disadvantage to go with a Ford unit - maybe a 1/2 ton pickup?

And finally - I've limited myself to the 70's (or earlier) to avoid the computer control and fuel injection. Is that about right for model years to avoid complications?

Thanks in advance for any advice, thoughts, opinions, or helpful comments. :D

Don't pass up a computer controlled car, chances are you will want to go with a four barrel carb anyway and do away with the air pollution stuff on it, so you wont need the computer. As for the rear end the ford 9 inch is the strongest but a chevy rearend will do unless you are going to run the stuffing out of it. Have fun and goodluck with your project.
You didn't say where you are, but here in Cali the year of the block sometimes has a determination of what smog equipment will be needed. I would almost say 60s era GM cars, trucks, and vans would be better for block usage if you want to run carburetors. Transmissions and rear ends can be any year.

Keep in mind that aftermarket parts are probably the cheapest for a small block Chevy, cheaper than most any other engine, and there are a lot more choices. Also, computer engines are not that different, so I agree you should not rule those out. An intake/carb/dist. swap on most of them is about all that is needed, or you could even run the FI for something different... Nothing wrong with a van or pickup for parts...
Twenty years ago, the hot lick was to use early block and head castings. The later stuff was thin-wall cast to be lighter and it was light enough that metal moved around too much in heat cycles. Show me a 305 cylinder head and I will show you where it's likely cracked. But all that really desirable early stuff is now twenty years older. Finding a good 400 block is pretty much impossible in this area. When you realize the latest 400 is now 29 years old, you can imagine most of them have likely been bored at some point and the prospect of trying to run a 4.125 bore block at .060 over isn't real exciting for me.

And it's still common to hear someone crowing they have a set of 461X head castings. Gee, that's really nice, as those heads are 40+ years old, have had a dozen valve jobs done on them and are probably old enough to not have accessory mounting holes. Trying to resurrect a set of these heads is generally as pricey as purchasing a set of aftermarket heads. If you're trying to restore an early Nova or Corvette, the castings are worth it. If you're trying to get your T-Bucket running, there are better cylinder head options available for better prices.
If I were building a car from scratch I would go with a newer drivetrain. The autowreckers are loaded with 90's Lincolns with 4 valve 4.6l's with overdrive transmissions. There are several 4 bbl manifolds available for conversion. There are also controllers available for the transmission. No overdrive sucks IMHO. As far as the Ford chevy thing. I don't know why anyone would build a Ford then put a chev motor in it but that is my opinion and maybe not yours. The old Chevy is cheap saying is bs if you are buying new quality aftermarket parts. SBF are super cheap now because of the 5.0l days in the 80's and 90's. If you are going to be using a lot of swap meet and used parts that is where the chevy will shine because the used market is so huge.

I don't quite understand the reasoning for buying a whole vehicle other than you will get to actually drive it and make sure the drivetrain is in good shape. In most vehicles the rearend is going to be too wide and need some mods anyways. For the rest of the vehicle all you will probably use is just the engine and tranny. Maybe you could part out or sell the rest of the vehicle to recoup some of your costs though.

Maybe post some goals or what your ideal car would be and we could try and post some pros/cons to help you further.

Good luck,
I would stay away from the trucks and vans. The rear ends are really wide and the wheel bolt patterns are different than a car. This make wheel choices pretty slim. The s-10 has a good rear end in it and works great, most have a 3:73 or 4:10 gear in them.

The perfect donor car and we are looking for them all the time is a mid 70s
Camaro or Nova, or any of their sister cars from GM. These are rust buckets so they sell cheap. Most had 350-350 combos in them. The rear ends are a good width. Now here where you can save some money. The front disc brakes can be bolted on 49-54 Chevy spindles, with a simple adapter and caliper brackets. A savings of several hundred $$$$.
Hi All -

Thanks for all the tips & insight.

fordsbyjay - I know it's a cop-out answer, but the bottom-line to why I'm looking for an entire car is "Chester told me to". I've been reading the $3000 Bucket book, where the advice is to get a donor & strip it clean, and keep it around to strip it some more as needed. I've been questioning this a little too. If I pick up a GM donor & pull the engine & trans, go elsewhere for a Ford rearend - what other substantial parts will I expect to harvest from the donor? RPM points out the front brakes. Much else??

As someone pointed out, it would be nice to pick up a running donor - to verify engine & tranny condition. I've been primarily focused on any 70's passenger car (Monte Carlo, Camaro, Impala, Caprice, ....) or sister cars with Chevy V8. Also been focused on something with original - non-bored engine. Lots out there have already been gone through pretty extensively.

I may save myself from marital discord if I pick up these items already pulled and avoid having a car carcass lawn ornament.

That being said - can anyone comment on using an Olds engine. I've seen several 307's around VERY cheap - and even a couple 403's. The local machine shop tells me the 307's are virtually indestructable - but by no means a performance engine. But it doesn't take much to have fun with a bucket, does it? Again, my target is still a Chevy 350 - but I'd like to hear some thoughts.


That being said - can anyone comment on using an Olds engine. I've seen several 307's around VERY cheap - and even a couple 403's. The local machine shop tells me the 307's are virtually indestructable - but by no means a performance engine. But it doesn't take much to have fun with a bucket, does it? Again, my target is still a Chevy 350 - but I'd like to hear some thoughts.

Hammerhead, You should decide now what your goal is. Do you want to race this at the drags? Do you want to show this at the car shows? Do you just want to putt around on cruise night? Do you want to be able to take extended trips in this with the whole family? Do you care about bad weather options? These questions must be worked out in your mind, before you commit to parts. You may change your mind down the road, but you have to have a starting point.

If you just want to cruise around without thought to racing or showing the car, then most any smaller power plant will do, because frankly, with a car as light as a 'T' bucket, it takes almost no power to curise, and the bigger the engine the harder to control the car, plus there is the weight factor. All that big engine weight is on the front. A little Toyota PU or 2.8L S-10 might be an ideal donor for that, but it won't impress the show or go guys.

If you want to show, then make / model of drive train isn't so important, just so it can be made to look fantastic. You can go high tech or old school, modern billet power or even flat head. The key here is $$ and hours and hours of labor for making it show worthy. Anything from a model 'A' Ford to a C6 'Vette could be a donor car.

If you want to race, then yes, you want strong. A strong engine, a strong rear end, a strong transmission, etc. Cubic inches are usually better, and a heavy duty Ford rear may be the only way to go. In this case, forget the donor car, you will need too many specialized parts that you won't find on one donor.

If you want rat tod, then any old beater you can make go might be a good doner car, because it doesn't really matter if it is traditional, show worthy, race worthy or whatever, it just needs to go under it's own power.

Lot's of people have started with what the neighbor offerred cheap, or what Craig's list had that day. This may or may not fulfill your goals, and you may wind up building something you didin't really want.

If you are like a lot of guys, you are probably looking for a combination of the above, something that looks decent enough to show locally, something that drives well enough to putt around in, and something that you might check out against the tree sometime. The point is, no one can advise you on how to achieve your goal unless you have a goal in mind and can tell us what it is.... There are just way too many options. Sorry to soap box, but I struggle with the same problem and changing goals all the time and it has filled my shop with many engines, and lot's of donor options. Like me, you just need to do it your way, but mostly you just need to do it!
Thanks Corley for the advice on nailing down objectives. As for the purpose of the car, the ultimate goal is to have a toy to cruise and have fun with my girls. In the process, I'm hoping to do an engine rebuild myself - keeping things as stock as possible for reliability purposes. Maybe some bolt on performance, but nothing that will make it difficult to maintain, or increase breakdown potential.

If we end up with something nice, it would be be cool to show locally - but that's not a defined goal. I have no interest in taking it to the strip, but I would like to have something that holds your attention when you romp on it. As light as they are, it shouldn't take much.

So with goals of reliability and ease of service, appearance, power, and build economy - it sounds like any small block chevy can deliver. 350 would be great. Lots of 305's around too. Hoping to check on a couple this weekend.
I used a '66 chevy van for a donor only because I drove the van for 5 years before I took the parts off of it. I used the complete stock drum brake system front and rear. It came from the factory with 4:11 gears in a 12 bolt rear (gears are a bit much but will work with the tall tires I have). Both axles are heavy and are a little wide but were free and help to make the car appear shorter. I have a 94" wheelbase. I was planning on a Ford sb and c4 trans but a guy I worked with said I could have a sbc if I pulled it out of a snowbank. I literally pulled it out of a snowbank. It was free but it cost me about $3500 to overhaul. A crate engine will run you about the same but comes with a warranty. A $50 used trans + a rebuild kit makes a cheap tranny. I rebuilt the trans myself which helps. With the Chevy 350/350 combo I just have to have the driveshaft from the van shortened as the front and rear yokes fit which is cheaper than a complete new one. Another thing I've found is to not overlook the small things. A low mount alt bracket for a sbc will run you about $20 but for a Pontiac or Chrysler you may end up having to make your own or modify one. I started my project in '94. I'm 52 now but I've been dreaming about a bucket since the late 70's. My dream was not only to have a Tbucket but to build one. After many job layoffs and the car sitting in a storage unit for 7 years i'm finally getting paint on it. Don't let your dreams die however you decide to build your car. After this long I can almost see the light at the end. The total cost so far is under $9000.005a.jpgrod1.jpgrod2.jpgrod3.jpg
The van idea sounds good because you can also use the front axle and brakes, a very big savings there... I like wide rear ends because you can now run wheels that are not a bunch off-set, much smarter, and stronger... Not being a racer is also smart, any rear end will be more than enough in a T Bucket, not enough weight to really hurt one, unless you are a bit crazy with the gas pedal... Just push it to the floor, never snap the pedal if you want to hang on to the pavement... These cars are super quick out of the gate, if the wheels are not spinning and you are going straight... Drive safe :)
Do not be surprised if your build changes a couple times during the process. Mine changed twice before it settled into its current form, which is far from finished but I now have a firm idea in my head of what I want it to end up like.

Oh and Welcome to the site!
... Not being a racer is also smart, ... :)

Dammit Ted, I wish you had told me this years ago!

My (serious) advise is to look at a lot of cars and decide what pushes your button. Then see if its practical for you & your family, and then see if its affordable for you & your family. There have been a lot more projects started than have ever been finished.

And be honest with yourself too. If you really cant stand the idea of turning up to a cruise in a car that looks like a dog, or if you really want to have fun AND the accolade of the crowd - or your car buddies - then you have to build accordingly. THeres no point in kidding yourself about stuff like that.

All the best with your project from the bottom of the world.

     Ron Pope Motorsports                Advertise with Us!