A Guide to Vintage Engine Components
The heart and soul of any hot rod is the engine. From the first sound when it cranks over, to the rumble as it settles into an idle and, of course, the exhaust note it produces accelerating down the avenue. The right engine will stop people in their tracks to take a second look while meandering by at a show. It’ll make people nod with appreciation when the car idles by at a cruise night. And most importantly, it’ll put a smile on your face every time you head out on the road.
When it comes to choosing an engine there are a lot of things to consider. Do you want to stay pure to the brand or model? Are you ready to try something different and deal with the hurdles and challenges of a vintage engine? Most importantly, what is the overall goal for your car?
It’s completely understandable if your performance goals trump any brand loyalty or vintage style of build. If you plan to build a cross-country flyer or a rod to run on the strip and autocross, there’s no denying the easy power and reliable performance of a late-model engine or built small-block. But in many cases, a vintage drivetrain gets the nod for its cool factor, distinctive character, or even just a sense of nostalgia.
For those that are running or planning to run a classic engine, we gathered some of the latest offerings of vintage engine components. We also talked to several engine builders who focus on vintage builds to get their thoughts on the pros and cons of running these old powerplants from decades ago. Vintage engines are cool to drive and stand out at a show – we’re happy to see more of them getting built and driven.
Finding a used set of trick heads for your Flathead can be tough and can also get expensive. Fortunately, we have companies like H&H Flatheads that have a passion to keep yesteryear’s speed parts available for today’s rodders. A case in point is their all-new Navarro aluminum cylinder heads.
Barney Navarro was one of the post-World War II speed equipment pioneers opening his own business in 1947. He specialized in the Ford Flathead V8 and his heads and intakes were some of the best in the hot rod world. H&H is proud to continue the Navarro legacy by using the original permanent patterns to cast new heads – at the original foundry! From there the heads are CNC machined (in Los Angeles) and are available for a wide range of Flatheads including the 59A and 8BA. H&H also offers high-performance, high-dome versions for the 59A and a 75cc ‘blower’ version for the 8BA.
Every engine needs clean air to run and what better way to top off your vintage engine than with a classic V8 air cleaner. Decades ago, these air cleaners, with the stamped iconic V8 logo, were used on all sorts of cars but finding a clean, original set is nearly impossible. Thanks to Speedway Motors, you can score a brand new one!
The new air cleaners are available to fit single-, two-, three-, and four-barrel carbs (2 1/16-, 2 5/8-, 4 1/8-, 5 1/8-inch base) and are supplied with an efficient flowing paper filter. The top assembly is treated to a show-quality chrome finish to fittingly crown your vintage engine.
Builder Sidebar with Tony Lombardi of Ross Racing Engines
The Challenge: The decision to run a vintage engine will likely come down to budget, but keep in mind, the engine really identifies the hot rod. People will remember a cool, different engine. A good builder can make any engine reliable, but it is going to take a little extra expense and know-how to make sure the parts are quality made and fit correctly.
Vintage or New: Keep in mind that most of the vintage engines we build are based on a block and maybe the heads from the era, but all of the internal components are new. They’re all modern-built pieces that we hand select and trust or we build them ourselves. We adapt most engines to hydraulic roller camshafts, use H-beam rods, forged pistons, stroked and nitride cranks, and even build new electronics into old distributors. As for induction, that really comes down to the customer’s preference for carbs or EFI. We’ve been pretty crafty about hiding some EFI systems which is always a great way to go.
Summit Racing Equipment
The name Offenhauser instantly perks up the ears of any hot rod enthusiast thanks to the company’s early years of performance and racing wins at Indy and hundreds of other tracks. The Offy brand also developed intakes and other V8 engine components for hot rodders, including intake manifolds.
Summit Racing offers a new dual-quad Offy intake for the Buick Nailhead that performs as great as it looks. The low-rise intake features Offy’s 360-degree technology – each carburetor sits on a split plenum with tuned runners for even, efficient distribution to each cylinder. This helps eliminate flat spots and produces more power. The dual-quad intakes are designed for use with AFB-style carburetors and available for the 322, 364 and 401/424 Buick.
The best thing about building a vintage engine today is taking advantage of modern technology to improve the engines performance and longevity. In the case of piston rings, Total Seal offers their patented Gapless rings to help seal the cylinder for better power with even more benefits.
Moving to a Gapless top ring will easily help seal in combustion gasses to improve performance and increase crankcase vacuum. A Gapless second ring helps with oil control and blow-by prevention. In the long run, the engine oil stays cooler and cleaner which leads to a happy life for your Flathead.
Builder Sidebar with Tim McMaster from Hanford Auto Supply
Vintage vs Modern: Dollar for dollar, you’re not going to get the power of an LS out of a Y-block or any vintage engine. When properly built, a vintage engine is going to deliver the same performance and reliability of a standard small-block, but is just so much cooler. I guarantee you’ll have more fun with a vintage engine than a typical V8.
Reliability: All old engines have their quirks but when the engine is built by a specialist, these can be addressed. Most of the engine failures I’ve seen are due to novice builders that just don’t know the little differences or nuances of a that engine. An experienced builder can modify and massage a classic engine into a leak-free powerplant with 300-400 reliable horsepower. They’re so much cooler to run and get a lot more attention than a new engine.
Breaker points were used to trigger the ignition on millions of engines prior to the advent of electronic distributors, which began to surface from the OEMs in the early-’70s. Back then, the more accurate and maintenance-free option for hot rodders was from industry pioneer Mallory with their Unilite Distributor.
The Unilite replaced the mechanical breaker points with a compact and maintenance-free infrared light and shutter wheel. This design never required adjustment and improved the trigger accuracy. The classic distributor is still available from Mallory, which is now a division of Holley. It comes with a quality cap and rotor and features a fully adjustable mechanical advance to dial in the perfect timing curve! Models are available for most any vintage V8 engine.
Looking to rebuild or update the top end of your 426 Hemi? Rather than mix and match pieces from different manufacturers, why not go with a complete kit of parts that have been engineered to work together? Edelbrock now offers a Hemi Top End Power Package.
The kit is designed to deliver serious power gains based on an engine set up for 91-octane fuel. One part number, 2052, gets you a kit with Edelbrock’s Performer RPM Heads, an RPM Air-Gap dual-quad intake, a specific Crane hydraulic roller cam and lifters, Performer timing chain set, head bolts, and gaskets. Avoid any worry about mixed and matched parts with a proven performance kit from Edelbrock (available for other classic engines as well).
Every classic engine needs a set of plug wires, but why settle for a standard old wire when you can score a cool woven-looking set of wires from Lokar. Way back when, plug wires were routed through a cotton woven sleeve and these new Vintage Wires from Lokar provide a nice taste of nostalgia to finish your engine’s ignition system.
The plug wires feature an advanced spiral-wound conductor with a suppression core so they can handle the power of modern ignitions while working seamlessly with EFI systems. The woven cotton material is coated with a lacquer finish and Lokar supplies different boots and terminals to work with socket-style or HEI-style distributor caps.
Respect to those who are rebuilding and hopping up a Model-A four-cylinder or other banger. The engines are definitely cool to see and with some searching you can find some neat vintage heads and intakes. When it comes to sealing in the compression of these engines, SCE Gaskets has you covered with an advanced copper head gasket.
There’s a lot more to SCE’s gasket than the annealed pure copper. Between the copper is a sandwich-like design with a non-asbestos inner layer with an NBR binder to deliver a superior, fluid seal. Kevlar material is also incorporated for improved strength with infused graphite for heat resistance. Thanks to SCE, your banger can hold some serious compression!
Builder Sidebar with Eric Robertson from Hot Hemi Heads
Dependability: One of the biggest concerns people have with running a vintage engine is the dependability and availability of parts. When built right, combined with a number of modern and updated parts, these early Hemis are extremely dependable and can make good power.
We manufacture intermediate shafts that allow for different electronic distributors to fit, have adapters to run a small-block Chevy water pump, oil filter adapters, and even a converted 340 oil pump to improve the lubrication through the engine. Our lightweight aluminum heads will get an early Hemi weight down to that of a small-block Chevy. Thanks to trans adapters, you can run nearly any trans you’d like, including later-model overdrives to lower the rpm on those long hauls.
Knowledge: Find a builder with experience in the type of engine you want to build. We talk to rodders about early Hemi issues and solutions every day.
Hot Hemi Heads
Running a vintage Hemi doesn’t mean you have to settle for engine components designed over 60 years ago! Hot Hemi Heads offers plenty of updated parts for early Hemis, including an all new aluminum head for the ’51–’59 Chrysler 331, 354 and 392 Hemis.
The team at Hot Hemi Heads started with a clean slate and CAD technology. The water-jacketed heads are cast from 356-T6 aluminum then finished on a CNC-machine. A beefy 5/8-inch deck and combustion chamber are worked in along with the favorable raised intake port design from the ’55 model head, complemented with an improved-flowing rectangle exhaust port. Hardened seats are installed with intake valves at 2.0625-inch and 1.80-inch exhaust including bronze guides and 11/32-inch valve stems. Better flowing, improved cooling, and more thn 50 pounds lighter – what’s not to like?
There’s no mistaking the exhaust note of a hopped-up hot rod thanks to the perfect cam grind. The engineering team at COMP Cams understands how a vintage engine should sound and has studied the combination of cracking open the intake valve early, a long exhaust duration combined with a generous amount of overlap. The result is an aggressive idle yet with street capabilities and is all delivered in the company’s line of Thumpr cams.
COMP offers the Thumpr series for classic engines including early Hemis, Y-Blocks, Nailheads, Flatheads, Cadillacs and more. There are three unique grinds, including the original Thumpr, the Mutha Thumpr, and the Big Mutha Thumpr; each with a more aggressive application to match higher compression and stall speeds. The complete series is available for solid lifters, flat tappets and even hydraulic rollers.
If you spent a lot of time and money to make your Flathead look and sound like a vintage engine should, be sure to carry that theme down to the starter. Powermaster has you covered with a stock-appearing Flathead starter that is packed with modern internals.
The Vintage Torque starter features a gear reduction motor inside a black powder coated aluminum housing. The starter weighs in at half that of the factory models while delivering over twice the torque. For longevity, a steel gear insert is incorporated to support the OE-style spring drive. The starter is offered for 12-volt, negative-ground electrical systems only and if you need help with charging your Flathead, check into Powermaster’s PowerGEN, as well.
If you’re planning to rebuild your vintage engine, there is absolutely no reason to use any of the original bolts and fasteners. Even if they’re not rusty or look worn, a new engine should always be assembled with stronger, new hardware. ARP has the coverage to handle the needs of most OHV V8s that came out of Detroit, as well as the fabled Ford Flathead.
ARP offers head stud kits for the early and later Flathead models, including sets for many aftermarket heads. These kits include precision-machined 8470 chrome moly studs, parallel-ground washers, as well as show-quality, polished forged stainless steel acorn nuts. Nailheads, Cadillac and Chrysler LA and B engines are also covered with application-specific head stud kits.
Builder Sidebar with Frank Seme of Seme & Son
Machine Shops: Make sure the shop you pick to machine your block and heads has experience with your particular engine and that they know where to locate good American-made parts needed for the rebuild. There are different idiosyncrasies to know about the Nailhead, just as there are any vintage engine, which could turn your rebuild into a disaster if not addressed, so experience is important.
Induction and Dress: When it comes to making a vintage engine run as good as a new engine, the biggest difference will be the intake system, whether it’s carbureted or fuel injection. A well-tuned carb works just as well as a new EFI system and finishes off a vintage engine with the right looks. When you tour around a show, more people will stop and admire a nice Nailhead than any new engine.
Ed Pink Racing Engines
There are little quirks and nuances when it comes to rebuilding any vintage engine. Ed Pink Racing Engines has experienced all of them while developing a number of solutions to improve the performance, longevity, and strength of different engines. As an example, check out their heavy-duty solution to securing the gear to the camshaft on a Flathead.
The original way is to secure the cam gear with four 5/16-inch bolts with a metal plate with tabs that bend up to the side of the hex bolt to keep it in place. The issue is that the metal plate is soft so the bolts aren’t as tight as you think, and the tabs can easily break off and end up in the oil pan. Ed Pink offers a heat-treated steel plate with four ARP bolts with drilled heads so they can be tied in place with safety wire. When finished, there is no way a bolt can come loose. It’s all in the details.
Forget about global warming – what are hot rodders to do with vintage engine overheating? Cruising is just no fun when the temp gauge continuously creeps higher, so do yourself a favor and dial up FlowKooler.
For over 20 years, FlowKooler has led the way in high-flow water pump design and they now offer a rebuilding service, too. Originally, this plan was to help owners with obsolete castings but has expanded to help matching-number cars, racing pumps, and industrial applications. Utilizing existing or modified impeller designs, Flowkooler can help increase flow rates to drop engine temperatures, build pressure, and resolve overheating issues.
Automotion Hot Rod Carbs
Excessive heat surrounding the engine has always been a nemesis to hot rodders and engine performance. Today, due to the low evaporation and boiling point temps of modern fuel blends, engine heat can wreak havoc on fuel systems causing vapor lock, fuel percolation, hard starting, stalling, and other unacceptable issues. To help alleviate fuel delivery issues, Automotion Hot Rod Carbs has introduced a line of effective heat-insulating carb spacers and bowl shields.
The heat-insulating spacers and shields are made from a rigid, aerospace-developed material that will not melt or deform. Currently available for all popular two-barrel carbs (with four-barrel applications coming soon). To make the installation even easier, the spacers are sold as complete kits with studs, nuts, washers and gaskets.
Vintage engines have never been known to be leak free and many times may give off a bit of oily, rich smell while driving. Cars guys typically write off these slight bothers, but there could be an easy solution to help resolve oil leaks, oil orders and even improve the driveability; a properly tuned PCV system, with the help of M/E Wagner.
The team at M/E Wagner has studied the short comings of an engine’s Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) and developed an adjustable PCV valve that can be set to match your engine’s specific vacuum profile. Think about it; when there’s an excessive amount of positive pressure in the crankcase, those fumes are going to push out against all the gaskets and seals, causing leaks. But if you can control the pressure by pulling out the fumes to mix back into the induction system, oil leaks caused by positive pressure will be eliminated. M/E Wagner also offers an inline adapter to convert road draft tube or breather systems to an effective PCV system.
Hidden in Plain Site
One of the most popular upgrades to make a vintage engine perform more like its modern counterparts is to add electronic fuel injection. There are a number of proven kits available that allow you to easily (somewhat) replace your four-barrel carb with a modern throttle body injection system, but what about those running vintage intakes and cool induction setups? AutoTrend EFI has a solution, such as their EFI 48.
Look closely as AutoTrend EFI has captured the style and look of the classic Stromberg carb in a billet throttle body. Each assembly has been CAD/CAM designed then CNC-machined for a perfect fit. The EFI 48 incorporates a single oval butterfly to feed 65-percent more air than a conventional 97 carb. The complete system is supplied with linkage and wiring, sensors, an ECU, and remote internet EFI tuning to get you on the road. A new 2G Tri-Power set modeled after the Rochester carb is also available.
Pontiac powerplants have always been known to deliver loads of torque yet run amazingly smooth. It also seems that Pontiac owners really like to keep things pure Pontiac when faced with the thought of an engine swap. If you’re looking to update your Poncho with fresh power, look up Butler Performance.
Butler has specialized in Pontiac performance for over 50 years and when it comes to complete stroker kits they literally have something for every Pontiac. We’re talking complete, proven kits for 326’s, 389’s, 421’s and more. Each kit is supplied with a new forged crank, H-beam 4340 forged steel rods, pistons, rings, bearings and is all balanced internally. All delivered to your doorstep for assembly into your freshly machined block.
Builder Sidebar with David Butler of Butler Performance
Why a Pontiac? We’re a bit jaded, but we just think Pontiacs are cool. Plus, from the factory Pontiacs have always made a lot of torque and are just smooth-running engines. If you drive a Pontiac, we like to keep things pure with Pontiac power – plus, it’s just different than all the Chevys and Fords that are so common in the muscle car world.
The Challenge: Since we’re based on Pontiac performance, the challenge for a lot of enthusiasts is coming down to finding a good core to build from. It’s not like you can stroll through the junkyard and come across Safaris and Bonnevilles anymore.
Making Old Engines Perform Like New Engines: Most of our customers are building a complete car and one of the best things you can install is an overdrive trans, auto or stick. We now offer a complete driveline package to help our customers. Also, nearly all of our engines run hydraulic roller lifters and cams, aluminum heads, and other components to improve the reliability.
Looking for a set of headers for your Flathead? Flowtech Headers offers a number of different styles such as these rear-exit hugger sets. The rear-exit design is ideal for most street rod applications and have a distinct, vintage flavor to them.
Heavy-duty 16-gauge tubing provides a robust assembly featuring smooth, mandrel bends. The tubes are 1¾-inch diameter to increase the flow while improving the throttle response and overall performance. Aluminum gaskets and hardware are included so you can easily bolt on these high-luster chrome headers and get that Flathead on the road.
Just because you’re running a vintage engine doesn’t mean you have to settle for a weak, old ignition. MSD offers a number of their Ready-to-Run distributors for vintage engines including Nailheads, Y-Blocks, and early Hemis, as well as for the venerable Flathead.
The Ready-to-Run for Flatheads is offered for the ’49-’53 8BA engine. The CNC-machined housing delivers a precision fit and has a sealed ball bearing to guide the steel, QPQ-coated shaft for accurate spark delivery. A high-output ignition module is built into the base of the distributor while an easy-to-adjust mechanical advance allows you to dial-in a timing curve for your specific application.
Builder Sidebar with Mike Herman from H&H Flatheads
Components: The aftermarket, along with other engine specialists, offers everything we need to build an all-new vintage engine, except the block of course. We can get rotating assemblies, valvetrain and cams, bearings, piston rings improved distributors, water pumps, and more. As for heads and intakes, we manufacture a number of branded assemblies including Navarro, Sharp, and more. These parts are made with modern technology and improved materials so you can build a reliable, vintage engine. We do a lot of Flatheads with a stroker kit to increase the cubic inches to 284c.i. over the standard 239.
Vintage or Bellybutton: In choosing between a vintage engine and an everyday small-block, it depends on your goal for the car and keep in mind that you’ll likely be spending a little more on a vintage engine. If you want 400 horsepower in a simple package to drive across Death Valley, a modern V8 might be a better choice. However, when a Flathead is built right with quality parts, it’s going to deliver the reliability of any other engine.
Solid Lift for Y-Blocks
Choosing a vintage engine can lead to limited choices when it comes to engine internals such as bearings, rods, or pistons. When it comes to cams and valvetrains, Howards Cams has vintage engines covered including the Ford Y-Block.
Howards offers three mechanical flat-tappet cams starting with a moderate street performance cam with specs of 220/220-degrees duration @.050, .463/.463-inch lift. A more serious street and racing cam is available that spes out at 238/238-degrees duration @.050, .515/.515-inch lift, while a full nostalgia and racing cam is available at 248/248-degrees duration @.050, .544/.544-inch lift.