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Building an Engine to Make Power
There is plenty of folklore about making power, such as the myth that it’s easier to make power with
a Chevrolet than with a Ford. Nonsense. The truth is, you can make just as much power with a
Ford, for the same amount of money, that you can with a Chevrolet. There is no black magic here
— just the simple physics of taking thermal expansion and turning it into rotary motion.

To learn how to make power with a given engine, we have to understand how power is made. How
much power an engine makes depends on how much air and fuel we can pump through the engine,
and on what we do with that fuel and air mixture during the split second it is in the combustion

We have to think of an internal combustion engine as an air pump. The more air and fuel we can
pump through the cylinders, the more power we’re going to make. This is why racers use big
carburetors, manifolds, heads, superchargers, turbochargers, and nitrous oxide. Racers
understand this air pump theory and practice it with wreckless abandon, sometimes with
catastrophic results. Good racers also understand the “too much of a good thing” theory.
Sometimes it can cost you a race, and sometimes it can cost you an engine.

Getting power from our air pump takes getting liberal amounts of air and fuel into the chambers,
then squeezing the mixture as hard as we can without damaging the engine. When we raise
compression, we increase the power of our mixture yields. It is the intense heat of compression
coupled with the ignition system spark that yields the energy from our mixture. The more
compression we have, the greater the heat created to ignite the mixture.
However, when there’s too much compression and with the resulting heat, the air/fuel mixture can
ignite prematurely resulting in preignition and detonation. So we have to achieve the right
compression ratio to get the most from the fuel we have. Today’s street fuels won’t tolerate much
over 10.5:1 compression. This means we have to look elsewhere for answers in the power
equation, like more aggressive camshaft profiles, better heads, port work, hotter ignition systems,
exhaust headers that breathe better, state-of-the-art intake manifolds and carburetors, even
electronic-fuel injection where we never thought of using it before.

The thing to remember about gasoline engines is this: The fuel/air mixture does not explode in the
combustion chambers, it “lights off” just like your gas furnace or water heater. Because the mixture
is compressed and ignited, it lights off more rapidly. Combustion in a piston engine is just that, a
quick fire that sends a flame front across the top of the piston. Under ideal circumstances, the flame
front will travel smoothly across the piston dome, yielding heat and pressure that act on the piston
and rod to yield rotary motion at the crankshaft. A bad “light off” that originates at two opposing
points in the chamber is the preignition or detonation that we mentioned earlier. The opposing light
offs collide creating a shock that hammers the piston dome which is the pinging or spark knock we
hear under acceleration. The objective is to get a smooth, quick fire, with the flame front traveling in
one, smooth direction for maximum power. Call this power management.

Power management is having the right balance of ignition timing, fuel mixture, compression ratio,
valve timing events, and even external forces like blower boost or nitrous input. All of these
elements have to work together if we’re to make productive power. Let’s talk about some of the
elements we need to make power.
Nitrous oxide or “squeeze” is all the rave today for those looking for quick and easy power (50 to
150 horsepower) on demand. Nitrous makes boatloads of power at the touch of a button, but it can
be very harmful to a budget engine that isn’t properly prepared. Nitrous will severely damage your
pistons and rings if not properly executed. It can and does hammer rod bearings resulting in severe
wear. It is also hard on main bearings due to these loads. No matter what the nitrous oxide optimist
club will tell you about “laughing gas”, nitrous can and does shorten engine life. So don’t be drawn
into believing it’s a magic horsepower pill without consequences. If you’re going to be using nitrous
oxide, be prepared for its shortcomings. Accept the fact that nitrous will shorten engine life no
matter how it is used. The more aggressively you use nitrous, the shorter your engine will live.

It is easy to be lulled into believing a larger carburetor, more aggressive camshaft, and large port
heads will make more power but this isn’t always true, especially in budget street engines.
Induction, camshaft, and heads should always jibe with your performance mission. What’s more,
you want your engine to survive while making all that power. Your engine build plan needs to
include a common sense approach that involves the right selection and packaging of parts for best

If you’re building a daily driver, you’re going to have to compromise to some degree in terms of
performance if you want reliability. We compromise because radical engines don’t do well for the
daily commute. They also struggle to pass a smog check, depending on where you live. Radical
camshaft profiles give the engine a rough idle, which can be frustrating in traffic and make it
virtually impossible to pass a smog check. Loud mufflers can cause hearing damage and make for
an annoying drive. They can also get you a ticket for noise pollution in some communities. A high
compression ratio can cause overheating when traffic comes to a stop. Overcarburetion fouls spark
plugs and pollutes the air.
This brings us to another valid point -- air pollution. Environmentalists and performance enthusiasts
don’t get along, but it is our responsibility as performance buffs to build and tune our engines for
cleaner emissions and better human health. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy
catalytic converters and a smog pump. It does mean you need to package your induction and
ignition systems for optimum emissions performance at the tail pipe. In short, clean up your
performance act.

Carburetors play a role in pollution, too. A big, fat 750 or 850cfm Holley carburetor looks good at
the drag strip, cruising spot and car show, but it is not a practical carburetor for everyday street use
where clean emissions are important. This isn’t so much about Holley carburetors as it is about
carburetor sizing in general. We want carburetor size and engine mission to be compatible for
optimum performance and cleaner emissions.

If you think this clean emissions hoopla is a lot of nonsense, consider the last time you were behind
a hopped up vintage musclecar in traffic that made your eyes water. Also remember that if your
vehicle falls under the guidelines of state emission laws and smog checks, the law doesn’t give you
a choice. Clean up your exhaust emissions or face revocation of your license plates in some states.
Building an environmentally responsible engine doesn’t have to be difficult either. Carbureted
engines are not going to burn as clean as fuel-injected versions. If you can run electronic fuel
injection, do so for cleaner air. Do so for your own health and for the sake of others who breathe. If
you can’t, be conservative in your performance plan and dial in the right size carburetor. Instead of
a 750 or 850cfm carburetor, opt for a 600 or 650cfm carb and see how your engine performs. A
carburetor that’s too small will become apparent quickly in the absence of torque as RPMs
increase. Large carburetors give us more torque on the high end. Smaller carburetors do well on
the low end. Choosing the right amount of carburetion is often trial and error.

Keep proper carburetor jetting in mind, too. Jets that are too large will make the engine run rich or
“fat”, burning the eyes of those who have to follow you. Jets that are too small can be harmful if you’
re leaning on it hard and lean detonation burns a hole in a piston. Again, fine tune carburetor and
jet sizing for best results. Always err on the side of rich versus lean for longer engine life. If you
really want to make a lasting impression on the community, go for a smog check each time you
make a carb/jet change and see what it does for emissions. Cleaner air is up to all of us.
The important question is, how much power do you want your engine to make and what can you
afford? We’re assuming you have invested wisely in your engine’s bottom end with healthy parts
and building procedures that will make the most of the engine’s potential. For example, if your plan
is 450 to 500 horsepower from a small block, stock rods and cast pistons won’t cut it. Ask yourself
what your engine’s bottom end can withstand, and then program the power accordingly. If you are
seeking 450 horsepower, then hopefully you have prepared the bottom end with heavy-duty rods
and pistons, coupled with building techniques to ensure that your engine survives.

Making power in a Ford engine has everything to do with air flow. A popular misconception
suggests that the larger the carburetor, intake, and cylinder head ports, the more power you are
going to make. In part, this is true. However, you must ask, where do you want the engine to make
power and why? If you are building a drag or circle-track racer, you are going to want the engine to
behave differently than you would a street engine. Racing engines make their power in a much
higher RPM range than a street engine. A circle-track racing engine is going to make power
differently than a drag-racing engine. Torque needs to come on strong from part throttle to full
throttle with a circle-track engine. Drag-racing engines need to make torque at high revs. In either
case, we have to design an engine that delivers power when it’s needed or the whole thing is
View of main caps, crankshaft, connecting rods and bottom end
Have you invested in a
strong bottom end? Before
you can make real power,
you should have a bottom
end that can handle the
power. All that power is
useless if you have a soft
bottom end. Failure should
never be an option.
A good street engine should make excellent low-end torque, yet be snappy when it’s time to wind it
tight. With that in mind, which carb, manifold, cylinder heads, and camshaft should you choose?
First, you’re going to want cylinder heads that are compatible with your pistons. With flat-top pistons
(which most street engines should have), the field is wide open. If you’re opting for stock cylinder
heads, keep combustion chamber size and deck thickness in mind. Nothing beats older Ford
cylinder heads for compression, thanks to smaller chambers. An early 289/302 small-block cylinder
head with 57cc chambers, coupled with flat-top pistons, will yield a compression ratio of
approximately 10.0:1 depending upon compression height. Late-model 302 heads with 64cc
chambers will yield less compression, which may mandate shaving the block and head deck
surfaces to achieve the 10.0:1 ratio desired. Keep this in mind when shopping cylinder heads.
351C 4 barrel cylinder heads intake port
Making power has everything to do
with airflow. Where do you want your
engine to make power? Where will
your engine’s power band be most of
the time? Large ports, such as those
found in this 351C-4V head, have little
value in daily street use. Huge ports do
their best work at high RPM, where we
need lots of airflow. For low-end
torque, we need smaller ports where
air velocity increases at lower revs,
giving us all-important torque where we
need it most.
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This has been a sample page from

How to Build Max Performance Ford V-8s on a Budget How to Build Max Performance
Ford V-8s on a Budget
By George Reid
Low-cost formulas for building serious horsepower!
This book addresses high-performance V-8
engines such as the 289, 302, 351ci small-blocks
found in Mustangs, as well as the FE series of
big-blocks. Emphasis throughout is a budget
approach to building high performance powerplants
through the use of over-the-counter factory
components and selected aftermarket pieces.
Includes realistic, low-cost formulas for building
serious horsepower in Ford V-8 engines.
Read the
sample pages to learn more!

Temporarily Out of Stock - More On their way!

Click below to view sample
pages from several chapters
1 - Engine Building Basics
2 - Making Power
3 - Engine Block
4 - Crankshaft, Rods & Pistons
5 - Cylinder Heads
6 - Camshaft & Valvetrain
7 - Headers and Exhaust
8 - Ford Ignition Systems
9 - Engine Build Ups
8-3/8 x 10-7/8
128 pages
300+ b/w photos
Item #SA69P
Price: $22.95
Click here to buy now!

If you're serious about building a powerful
Ford V-8 you need this book!

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How to Build Big-Inch Ford Small Blocks
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thoroughly explains the building of a small block Ford
stroker, paying special attention to the effect that
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