The allure of the "barn find" has lost some of its luster over the past decade or so. It seems that every dusty car suddenly wears the moniker as a badge of honor and perceived value. Hot-rodders can read between the lines and debunk the pretenders, but occasionally a hidden treasure is still legitimately found in a barn. In the case of this behemoth of an engine, it's one of several remaining automotive artifacts in the Jim Smith estate, and it's sitting in the dirt, beneath the tin roof of a barn that has been standing far longer than hemispherical combustion chambers have existed.
Although Jim passed away several years ago, we recently had the opportunity to visit his place and scope out some of the long-forgotten relics in the woods. Among those relics are a trio of first-generation Dodge Chargers, a 1957 Chevy two-door hardtop, and several other rusted hulks that have surrendered to nature's corrosive tendencies. While many of those cars are no longer salvageable, there is still a piece of Jim's legacy that has been protected for many years: A complete Hemi engine sits in the barn, as a quiet reminder of Jim's louder days in the drag racing world. If Jim had stuck with racing just a few more months, this engine would've likely ended up in his home built dragster and would've had a mixture of alcohol and nitromethane running through its veins. Yet, here it sits, hidden from civilization nearly 60 years after Jim purchased it.
As we drooled over the engine, curiosity got the best of us, so we wanted to find out some of the history of this abandoned Elephant. We found information at Hot Heads Research & Racing that gave us the exact location of the engine numbers, as well as a listing of the available Desoto, Dodge, and Chrysler Hemi engines produced from 1951 through 1958. There were a dozen different Hemi engines produced during that period, so it can get a little confusing when it comes time to identify an engine like this example. Hemi engines were also used in marine and industrial applications, which are not listed in the table of engine numbers and horsepower ratings.
As a general rule of thumb, early Hemi engines have the distributor in the rear, as opposed to the 1960's revision which featured a front-mounted distributor kicked over at an angle. The Dodge and Desoto Hemi engines are smaller in physical size and displacement in most cases. The smallest Hemi, the Dodge 241ci variety, only made 140 horsepower, but weighed 140 pounds less than the 392, due to its much smaller size. Although weight was a natural disadvantage of the larger Hemi engines, the horsepower capabilities made up for the physical size and weight.
Both Dodge and Desoto had high-performance dual-quad versions of the Hemi engine, cranking out more than 300 horsepower, but Chrysler was the choice for hot-rodders with its four-year run of high-horsepower Hemi engines with dual quads. By 1957, even the single four-barrel engines were cranking out well over 300 horsepower.
One of the obvious traits of the 331ci Chrysler Hemi engines built from 1951 through 1954 is a bellhousing cast into the block—other Hemi applications had a more conventional bolt-on bellhousing. The outward appearance of the cylinder head is quite telling on early Chrysler Hemi engines. The 331 had no water passages for the crossover. The 354 had water passages with no other casting bosses or markings. The 392's water passages moved closer to the deck surface and have two raised bosses on the ends of the cylinder heads. Apart from that, when it comes to differentiating the 354ci and 392ci Chrysler Hemi engines from 1956 through 1958, external differences are not immediately obvious to the naked eye. But the numbers tell the tale. After wiping off decades of barn dust from the front of the block, we shined a flashlight behind the water pump to see if we could make out the engine numbers. The prefix on this engine is NE57 and is followed by a series of numbers. The NE57 tells us that it's a 1957 Chrysler 392ci engine, and the block could've been used for the 325-hp four-barrel configuration or the Holy Grail 375-hp dual-quad setup.
Since it appears to be in stock form, we can safely assume that this is a 325-hp engine. With only 9.25:1 compression and a very mild valvetrain, this engine has tremendous potential with a matched combination of upgrade components. Of course, that inspired some thoughts about what could've been had this engine continued on Jim's desired path. He would've likely installed a set of custom pistons to raise the compression ratio, sent off the camshaft to have it re-ground to a more aggressive profile, and ported the cylinder heads to prepare it for a heavy load of nitromethane. In the modern hot-rod world there are so many more options to give this engine great horsepower with off-the-shelf parts, and that's where Hot Heads Research & Racing comes into the picture.
If we were to build this barn find 392ci Hemi, the wish list at Hot Heads would be quite lengthy. We'd start with a Hot Heads rebuild kit (PN 10105) which bumps compression up to 10.0:1 and includes moly rings, high-volume oil pump, double-roller timing set, and a performance camshaft of our choosing. The rebuild kit also includes the necessary bearings, gaskets, bushings, and plugs to completely refurbish the engine. For the camshaft we'd probably go with hydraulic lifters and Hot Heads PN 23004.392, which features .485-inch valve lift, 232 degrees of duration at .050-inch lift, and a 108-degree lobe separation angle. Hot Heads also offers camshafts with a wider 112-degree lobe separation angle for supercharged applications. The stock 392 cylinder heads feature 2.00-inch intake valves and 1.75-inch exhaust valves, but Hot Heads reports that the earlier 331 and 354 cylinder heads flow better, despite the smaller factory intake valve size.
If we wanted to get really serious, we could go with Hot Heads' most famous product, its aluminum cylinder heads. Hot Heads started the CAD design with the favorable 1955 raised-port profile, then improved it with rectangular exhaust ports for even better flow. From there, hardened valve seats and larger 2.0625-inch intake valves are installed. Many other improvements have been made to give you plenty of options for aftermarket pushrods and valve springs. Hot Heads offers them in bare and assembled configurations, for use on Chrysler Hemi engines, including the 331, 354, and 392. The aluminum cylinder heads not only open the door for more horsepower, but they also reduce weight drastically. Hot Heads also offers various stages of custom porting, allowing these heads to flow up to 367 cfm at .600 on the intake side and 259 cfm at .600 on the exhaust. Straight out of the box, the aluminum Hot Heads cylinder heads flow approximately 30 cfm higher than stock heads.
With our newfound Hemi knowledge, we found another early engine to identify. This one immediately stands out because of the bolt-on bellhousing, raised water passages and smooth cylinder heads. Is it a 354? Let's look at the numbers.
Directly in front of the valley cover is a series of letters and numbers that tell us exactly where this engine originated. The NE56 prefix tells us that this is, in fact, a 354ci Hemi, which came from a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker and made 280 horsepower.
Hot Heads covers all the bases when it comes to stock rebuilds, mild street engines, or racing engines, with a wide variety of parts and decades of hands-on experience. If you get your hands on an early Hemi engine like this incredible barn find, Hot Heads should be your first call for all the advice and parts you'll need to put your engine back on the street or the track. We hope that someday Jim's old 392 can see some action again. For now, it's still sleeping peacefully in the barn.
On episode 66 of Roadkill , David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan head to Colorado Auto & Parts, a giant you-pull-it yard with heritage back to 1959—with a good stash of vintage cars that have been there for decades. One of them was a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 that had been melting into the ground since 1980. But 37 years of neglect are not daunting to Roadkill, so the guys figure out how to get it running and driving. First, they've got to deal with 37 years of raccoon poop, which is just part of bringing the Disgustang into the Roadkill fleet of project cars. Sign up for a free trial to MotorTrend+ and start watching every episode of Roadkill today!