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Inside SME’s New 3,080

Oct 07, 2023

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There's no denying that the LSX engine family has been hugely successful and impressive, and aftermarket support for it has been plentiful, boosting the platform's horsepower-making ability. We've seen impressive power-output from these engines over the years, but enthusiasts have pushed the OE components—as well as many aftermarket parts—well beyond their design envelopes. The result can be an unreliable engine program, and that's the last thing you want when you're spending big bucks for big performance. Steve Morris of Steve Morris Engines (SME) decided to build an LS engine that could not only surpass all aftermarket offerings in the power-delivery department, but do so with drag-and-drive reliability.

Morris knows exactly what it takes to make an engine survive hundreds of miles of street driving per day while still being able to perform at the track. He and his staff created the all-billet SMX engine that currently powers five-time Hot Rod Drag Week winner Tom Bailey's Pro Mod Camaro, and which propelled that car to a 5.99-second quarter-mile time—the first 5-second run in Drag Week history—while delivering 1,000 miles of street reliability.

"In 2018, I wanted to make the ultimate drag-and-drive engine," Morris explained. "The SMX was my first venture into an all-billet engine that uses common parts. It's fully water-jacketed for street driving. With that engine, we were the first to go 5s at Drag Week." Bailey's machine posted a 5.77 elapsed time at 260 mph at a later event, showing that there was still more left in the powerplant of the street-driven Pro Mod. And after running the 5.77, Bailey and Morris threw the parachutes in the car and drove it to town to get lunch! SME now has several of the SMX engines in the fastest drag-and-drive cars, including Steve's personal car, "The Wagon."

Building off of that experience, Morris recently turned his attention to the LS platform.

"We've been doing LS stuff for years, and I said, 'I think I want to take this to the LS platform. It needs to be a drop-in for any LS guy, and be a 3,000-plus-horsepower-capable engine you can drive to California and back," the Muskegon, Michigan, resident said.

Having experience in building LS engines, Morris wanted to fix their common failure-points, the most notable of which, according to Morris, is that the water-cooled engines won't hold a head gasket when you get above the 2,000-hp range.

Using the same concepts he used in his SMX engine, which is similar to the 481-X engine platform, Morris planned to manufacture his own block and heads from billet aluminum, designing the combo to work with off-the-shelf components. This allows Morris to build in the necessary strength and durability while ensuring that parts are readily available.

As previously mentioned, the SML is designed around the LS architecture and uses LS-spec internal components, but the SML block and cylinder heads are specific to one another, meaning the heads can't be used on any other block, and vice-versa. The company also has its own unique billet intake manifold for the engine that will likely be sold with all builds.

With the processes for designing and manufacturing already in place thanks to the success of the SMX engine program, it only took Morris about a year to produce his first SML engine. Machined from blocks of 6061 aluminum and heat-treated to T-6 standards for increased strength, the cylinder heads require about 50 hours to machine, and the block takes a little more, at around 60 hours. And although the heads and blocks are manufactured to be extra beefy, the entire engine, from intake to pan, weighs just 425 pounds.

As of this writing, SME has built three SML engines and has three more in process, with plans to build around a dozen per year. The company is currently offering the SML in long-block form (including the intake manifold), and the company can build turnkey supercharged or turbocharged packages as well.

"What we've also done, just as with the SMX, is have parts in stock," Morris noted. "We have shelves full of crankshafts, rods, pistons, valves, lifters, intake manifolds—we have repair parts ready for immediate shipping. We want it to be easily fixable with many standard-fit parts." There's no doubt that this mindset comes from Morris' extensive experience competing in drag-and-drive events such as Hot Rod's Drag Week.

Most custom billet engines are race-only blocks that are solid in design with no provisions for cooling, but Morris designed the SML to be fully water-jacketed to ensure plenty of engine cooling for those long drives between race tracks during drag-and-drive events. Furthermore, the SML block and cylinder heads each have their own coolant passages, with no coolant being passed from block to head through the head gasket.

If you're building your own engine from scratch, then building in some displacement will surely provide some additional horsepower. Like the LS7 that it is based on, the SML can be taken out to 427 cubic-inches with a 4.125-inch bore and 4.000-inch stroke length. Morris prefers to limit them to 400 cubes for boosted, big-horsepower applications, for the added strength that the extra material in the block will offer.

Keeping the crank well-supported are Cleveland-sized main crankshaft bearings, and splayed billet main caps retain them. The camshaft is well-supported too, with 55mm roller cam bearings instead of the conventional bearings.

The rotating assembly consists of a forged or billet steel Callies crankshaft and R&R or MGP aluminum connecting rods, or a Carrillo steel-rod option. That combination pumps a set of forged side-relief pistons that have been fully hard-anodized and utilize a much shorter wristpin that reduces weight in the rotating assembly.

The SML engine was designed for dry-sump oiling only, and SME offers options for Daley or Petersen oil pumps. Buttoning up the bottom end is an SME crank scraper and billet oil pan.

The SML block does have factory-spec engine and air conditioning compressor mount bosses, which are largely vestigial, though Morris has found that the A/C bosses offer a convenient way to mount the dry-sump oil pump. The SML block does, however, employ a lightly modified stock LSX rear engine cover, gasket, and seal, and uses an LS7 Jesel front belt-drive.

The SML cylinder head is based on the LS7 cylinder head, with a similar rectangle-port intake design and exhaust ports that work directly with common LS7 header/manifold designs. The heads also accept stock LS valve covers and LS7-style valvetrain components, and weigh around 5 pounds more than your typical LS7 cylinder head due to their beefy and robust billet design.

Key to retaining head gaskets is the formidable six-pack of ½-inch cylinder heads studs placed symmetrically along the cylinder perimeters. Combined with integrated fire hoops and Hussey copper gaskets, these put the combustion on full lockdown even at 40-plus psi of boost.

As noted earlier, there are no coolant passages from the head to the block, as each has its own dedicated cooling system that flows in and out from the front end of the components. Should you have a gasket failure, no coolant can get into the combustion chamber or out of the head gasket area and onto the track.

With the coolant passages between the block and heads removed, there is more material around the cylinders to provide increased strength and thermal transfer. Both the cylinder and block-mating surfaces also offer over an inch of material.

Commonly available LS7 valvetrain components can be used on the SML cylinder head, but Morris, of course, employs more capable components, with custom Manton rocker-arm assemblies actuating the pushrods. One other unique feature of the SML cylinder heads is the way that oil is scavenged from the end of the cylinder rather than having it return through the lifter valley.

The Steve Morris Engines YouTube channel is full of engine dyno tests, and you can find the SML engine on there as well, but we'll give you the lowdown right now. The first engine built and bolted to the dyno was equipped with twin Bullseye Power NLX 88mm mid-frame turbochargers and fed straight methanol. It produced 948 horsepower and 944 lb-ft of torque at just 5,300 rpm and on 6 psi of boost pressure. The next run to 6,200 saw 13 psi and 1,500 horsepower and 1,277 lb-ft of torque.

Morris continued to creep up on the engine rpm and boost pressure with 3 more pounds and 7,000 rpm producing 1,867 horsepower and 1,390 lb-ft. At 24 psi and just 700 more rpm, horsepower and torque numbers jump to 2,279 and 1,603, followed by 2,505/1,701 at 8,000 rpm and 27 psi. Increasing boost by 5 psi improved power-output to 2,738 and 1,825 lb-ft.

When it was time to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station, boost was cranked up to 37 psi, and at 7,900 rpm the SML fired off a pavement-crushing 3,080 horsepower and 2,530 lb-ft of torque. Dyno testing would have continued, but the very first SML needed to be installed in its new home that same day.

"We're finishing up the first batch of them now, and the first one is going in Kaotic Speed's donk, 'The Bill Collector,'" Morris said of his SML engines.

On just half of the planned boost program, the SML has already propelled The Bill Collector, a 1971 Chevrolet Caprice, to a personal-best elapsed time which, unfortunately, we cannot share here. That said, it looks like there will be some credits to The Bill Collector's accounts shortly.


Steve Morris Engines: 231-747-7520;

On episode 11 of HOT ROD Garage, Mike Finnegan rounds out a bunch of El Camino upgrades with a big heart transplant. Gone is our old 383ci small-block and in its place is a Chevrolet Performance LS376/525 all-aluminum, fuel-injected crate engine that is probably underrated at 525 hp and 475 lb-ft of torque. Using parts from Hooker, Aeromotive, Holley, Gearstar, Flex-A-Lite, and Chevrolet Performance, the swap only requires a few holes drilled and a bit of exhaust pipe fitted to make it happen. In the end, our 1969 El Camino lost some weight and reset the track record on our autocross course. Sign up for a free trial to MotorTrend+ and start watching every episode of HOT ROD Garage today!

The Steve Morris Engines SML SML Billet Aluminum Cylinder Block SML Billet Aluminum Cylinder heads Dyno Testing and Performance Source: Steve Morris Engines: 231-747-7520;