Heads on a Budget

Sep 6, 2012

Our article back in February on the cylinder heads market brought up the subject of “budget” heads as being quite popular. These economical options serve a stout market-those looking for more power than OEM versions, but really not needing the features and expense of all-out racing components.

We wondered about these “budget” or “entry-level” offerings-the differences in quality, materials and performance from their higher-end counterparts, and more importantly, how shops can choose the best head for each application.

Several prominent heads manufacturers had the answers.

On the Level

It’s not surprising that the various cylinder head manufacturers serving the performance aftermarket offer their products in a variety of levels and price points.

“AFR offers fully 100-percent CNC-ported heads for small-block Chevy Gen 1, 2 and 3, Windsor small-block Ford and big-block Chevy (applications), and big-block Ford aluminum cylinder heads,” says Rick Sperling from Air Flow Research.”All are available in entry-level and high-end versions. Additionally, for the hardcore racer, we fully CNC-port many of Edelbrock’s Pro-Port raw castings. We currently offer their 15-degree small-block Chevy and the popular Ford SC1 and GV2 castings, with more offerings in process as we speak.”

Ford and Chevy are the main offerings at Trick Flow Specialties as well, notes Mike Downs.

“Currently we offer aluminum cylinder heads for small-block Ford, Ford 351 Cleveland, big-block Ford 429/460, Ford Modular 2-Valve, small-block and big-block Chevy, GM LS, and GM LT1 engines. The majority of our heads are fully CNC-ported in either a Street Port for street and bracket racing, or a Competition Port for power-adder and full-out racing applications.”

Heads for various street and racing applications are available from Racing Head Service.

“RHS offers a full line of performance aluminum heads for small-block Chevy (conventional and LS platforms), big-block Chevy and small-block Ford engines,” says Chris Douglas. “We offer two series of products: PRO ACTION heads are performance upgrades for street and sportsman racers. Our PRO ELITE series contains CNC ports and are designed for hardcore street/strip and all-out race efforts. Most RHS cylinder heads are offered as bare or fully assembled, and in some cases we offer P-Port versions for professional engine builders that wish to port the head themselves.”

With all of the available applications, where do lower-end, entry-level versions fit in?

“Our heads come in a full array of runner sizes and porting options. The machining operation on our raw castings are the same on all levels of our heads; however in CNC porting, we control cost by the length of the CNC porting program,” says Sperling. “Whereas the entry-level heads can spend six to eight hours per pair, our high-end heads can spend up to 24 hours for one set. This means we can more accurately duplicate our initial prototype design.

“Having multiple different runner sizes allows us to tailor a cylinder head that will work well with your current engine combo,” he adds. “In addition to those options, we allow the customer to choose which springs, valves, retainers, etc., they wish to use. All our heads come standard with premium hardware; 21-4N stainless steel valves, Pacaloy springs, Manley retainers and ARP studs. Optional upgrades like titanium valves or retainers are available for hardcore racers with aggressive cams and high-rpm applications.”

CNC porting also sets the various RHS levels apart, notes Douglas.

“The primary difference in our two series of products is the CNC machining processes incorporated into the PRO ELITE products. Both series start with the same top-quality castings and include precision machine work (valve jobs, valve guide prep, etc.),” he says.

Port work also differentiates the Trick Flow levels, says Downs.

“As I said before, we offer two levels of CNC-porting on the majority of our heads. But we also recognize that some customers need a head that flows well, but is less expensive than a CNC-ed head. That’s why we offer a Fast as Cast option for all of our product families with port profiles digitized from CNC-ported profiles. They offer very good levels of airflow at an affordable price.

“All of our cylinder heads are made from the same high-quality aluminum-we don’t specify lesser materials for the entry-level heads,” he adds. “The same goes for the components on our assembled heads-it’s all top-quality stuff like Ferrea valves, Pac Racing valve springs, and ARP rocker studs. Customers can upgrade to things like titanium retainers and higher-rate valve springs to meet their needs.”

Strong Options

While more economical heads are obviously going to offer a lower level of performance than their higher-end counterparts, the manufacturers note that in many cases the differences aren’t that great.

“The CNC machining utilized in our PRO ELITE (high-end) series provides the absolute maximum performance,” notes Douglas. “(But) our ‘as-cast’ (lower-end) heads offer tremendous flow, optimized atomization, etc. RHS is fortunate to have access to the industry’s largest R&D/engineering team and works hand-in-hand with sister companies such as COMP Cams to develop engine packages that deliver maximum performance and durability.”

Sperling agrees that differences between available head levels are apparent, but not always huge.

“In our big-block Chevy products, our entry-level head is more than 100 hp less than our higher-end stuff,” he explains. “In our other lines, that difference is a quarter to half that, which is still substantial. The bottom line is the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ still rings true.”

When it comes to horsepower numbers, flow characteristics are what set the different levels apart, says Downs.

“In most cases, additional flow and larger ports translate into horsepower. A head with a CNC Competition Port job will typically flow better than a CNC Street Port head. For a typical street or bracket racing application, that extra flow is usually not critical, so the less expensive head is the better deal. But in an all-out race engine that is designed for maximum horsepower, that extra cfm from the competition-prepped head can be the key to reaching the desired power level.”

Some other materials can be differentiators as well.

“Many of our mid- and upper-level heads feature lighter valvetrain components out of the box,” he says. “That translates into lower rotating mass and higher rpm, which translates into horsepower. These heads often have titanium components, which are stronger and more durable than steel but weigh less.”

A question shops may have, then, is if they sell a budget-minded customer a lower-end head now, will it translate into upgrades or repeat sales down the road?

AFR’s Sperling says it’s a matter of meeting customers’ immediate needs and anticipating future desires.

“Our theory is to get you in the right product-not only for your current build, but something that you will be happy with down the road as well. Although one head will not fit all applications, our focus on flow under the curve means our heads can work well in multiple operating scenarios.”

An important consideration, he adds, is to go with quality products that can be built up as needs change.

“With the ability to upgrade springs, retainers, locks, etc., at any time, we often have customers calling back looking for a higher-pressure spring or lightweight valve,” he says. “One question we receive a lot is, ‘Can I send my head back to AFR for additional porting?’ Unfortunately, due to machining processes and casting differences, we cannot do this.”

Douglas of RHS says it works both ways.

“Cylinder heads are an expensive and critical part of the engine package. We find that once we build trust in our products with a customer, they are extremely loyal and will again choose RHS heads for future engine builds.”

The Right Choice

So, what’s the best approach for shops to determine the head that best-matches the customer’s needs?

Trick Flow’s Downs says it’s about usage.

“Knowing how the vehicle is going to be driven really dictates where to start with cylinder head choice,” he says. “A street-driven car has a different requirement than an all-out drag racer. Street vehicles need low-end torque for that ‘seat of the pants’ feel, where an all-out drag racing application requires a completely different torque curve.”

It’s also important to know the rest of the engine setup.

“Equally important is the engine combination,” Downs adds. “The head is such an important part of the engine, so knowing cubic inches, compression, camshaft specs, intake manifold choice, etc., are really important. If you look through our catalog, you will see Top-End Engine kits that offer proven parts combinations that make dyno-proven horsepower. If you assemble an engine to match the ones we used for dyno testing, you will make the same power, if not more, than our combinations.”

As is often the case, the proper choice will be gleaned from strong two-way communication with your customer before an order is ever placed.

“The best thing shops can do is thoroughly understand their customers’ needs and desires,” explains Sperling. “To do that, shops need to ask a lot of questions about the application to get the correct combination of parts that work in unison with each other. Shops might also want to consider a head that allows for future growth down the line.”

The heads suppliers then try to make it simple to get just what you need, both digitally and in-person, notes Douglas.

“We try to make that process as easy as possible with a well-designed catalog and website, but in many cases, it’s best to talk with our technical services people to find the optimum match for your engine project. RHS has a large and well-trained technical support staff on call to assist engine builders, shops and do-it-yourself customers. We also offer tech support via our online product support forum, Twitter, Facebook and instant chat.”

And finally, the manufacturers caution builders that economical heads are not the same as those that are cheaply made.

“Not all heads are created equal,” warns Sperling. “The quality of parts and accuracy of machining vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. The cheapest head or the one that looks like it might offer the greatest profits to your shop might come back to bite you. Unhappy customers tend to be louder than happy customers, so it’s always best to never sacrifice quality by trying to save the end-user a few bucks. This is especially true in today’s world of social media and public forums that have raised the bar on customer service, quality and consumer awareness.”

Downs agrees.

“There’s a difference between affordable and cheap,” he says. “Trick Flow is about making horsepower affordable-that’s why we do our own design work, make our own patterns, and do all of the machine work and dyno-testing in-house. That helps keep our costs down, allowing us to offer better head designs and better components to the customer at a very fair price. That’s what real value is about.”

Douglas notes that these warnings apply to assembled heads as well.

“In our experience, not all assembled heads are created equal,” he says. “Some manufacturers choose to use inferior or offshore valvetrain components, which may give them a price advantage but leads to unhappy customers and poor performance down the road. Like most things in life, you get exactly what you pay for and we just don’t believe in offering anything but the best.”

He also recommends looking beyond published statistics.

“Don’t fall into the flow number trap,” he says. “Flow numbers are a flawed standard, since you can make flow benches read anything you want to depending on the setup. We strongly suggest shoppers look beyond the flow numbers when making a purchase decision.”

And be secure in the knowledge that, should your customer’s application call for an economical cylinder head, that there are quality options readily available.