The Camshaft Decision

Aug 9, 2012

When it comes to building and customizing performance engines, choosing the proper camshaft is a big decision.

With a variety of models and literally thousands of lobe grinds to choose from, cams provide builders with plenty of versatility and a chance to put an individualized stamp on an otherwise common power plant.

New engine platforms have only increased the number of camshaft offerings available, creating a potentially paralyzing overload of choices.

Fortunately, camshaft manufacturers know their products inside and out, allowing them to steer builders in the right direction toward cams that fit their specific application parameters.

From custom grinds to a roller resurgence, here’s a look at what’s happening in the camshaft market, and a few tips to help avoid cam selection mistakes while hopefully increasing sales.

Grinders

While customers are usually willing to defer to the choice of their professional builder for the majority of engine components, it seems everyone has an opinion when it comes to cams.

“People like ordering grinds that are bigger than they need,” says Don Weber, president of Engine Parts Group Inc. “I think a major challenge facing a shop selling a cam to the final user is to supply the right grind for the user’s needs.”

To help with selection, he notes that the Engine Pro cam line is laid out clearly in the company’s catalog, with easy-to-follow directions for selecting the correct grind for each application.

“We list each of our camshafts in one of five stages, along with characteristics to help the customer make the correct decision,” he says.

A common misconception is that cams are basically identical from manufacturer to manufacturer.

“Not true,” says Chris Mays, engine builder/sales for COMP Cams, Memphis, Tenn. “With a lobe library of over 10,000 lobes, we design lobes for specific engine families. One lobe or one cam does not fit all.”

That’s where a shop’s pricing and service come in, he explains.

“Shop owners have to sell not only the cam, but sometimes a matched custom grind fits the customer’s needs better,” Mays says, noting that COMP offers 24-hour turnaround on custom grinds. “The customer has to know he has been sold a perfect match for his application.”

Some drivers may request a custom grind, having been led to believe that it will offer a competitive edge, notes Chase Knight, valve train product manager for Crane Cams, Daytona Beach, Fla.

“Many folks believe that a catalog camshaft is not appropriate, and they need a custom grind for their application,” he says. “We certainly don’t list camshafts in our catalog because they’re not any good!”

He recommends going right to the source if there are any questions.

“Although catalogs and Internet forums provide good information, please call the camshaft manufacturer’s technical assistance staff if there are factors in the application that are not addressed,” he says.

And remember that the choice will affect the overall performance and viability of the engine.

“In most cases, to get the best performance and reliability out of a camshaft, it will require the changing of additional components such as valve springs, lifters and pushrods,” says Shane Pochon, sales & technical support for Lunati, Olive Branch, Miss. “Sometimes this is an option and sometimes it’s mandatory. People are accustomed to hearing the term ‘cam swap’ and assume that is all that is needed. The type of cam or its aggressiveness will determine if additional upgrades are required.”

Rolling Along

Ask cam manufacturers how the market is trending, and they may say things are just rolling along.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen greater acceptance of roller camshafts (both hydraulic and mechanical) in long-term applications,” says Knight “The possibilities of early flat tappet camshaft wear due to today’s oils has been a major factor in this.”

Today’s lower-zinc oil blends are a major reason for the roller resurgence, Weber agrees.

“We will have more roller cams available, both for existing roller engines and retro-roller applications,” he says. “Retro roller cams are not a new product, but coverage and usage is increasing as the engine builder and his customer see this as the best answer to eliminate wear problems caused by the reduction of zinc-based extreme-pressure lubricants in modern oils.

“Converting from flat tappets to rollers eliminates these problems,” he continues. “The conversion is not cheap, but it is worth it, and we are doing our best to make this conversion affordable for the customer who is building a moderately priced engine.”

The good news is that customers are, in fact, continuing to build new engines, even in the face of a still-sluggish economy. Much of that is thanks to the latest OEM power plants.

“(New) engine platforms have driven the camshaft market in a whole different direction,” Mays says. “The GM LS, Ford Modular and Chrysler Hemi platforms have taken over the market. These engines make such great numbers for horsepower and torque compared to their big brothers of the 1960s and ’70s.”

He notes that COMP’s hottest-selling cams are for Ford Modular 5.0-liter DOHC and VVT/AFM GM LS V-8 applications.

“They offer a custom lobe design specifically for each engine family, and custom cam cores made for COMP Cams.”

At Crane Cams, Knight says his biggest sellers are Chevrolet LS camshafts, and also retrofit hydraulic roller camshafts and lifters for earlier AMC, GM, Ford and Mopar flat-faced lifter engines.

“All are precision-ground, heat-treated steel billet camshafts,” he says. “A wide variety of finished grinds are available per specific application, and many of the retrofit camshafts incorporate an iron distributor drive gear, so a standard distributor gear can be used for long life.”

Pochon says Lunati’s Voodoo High Lift series is a strong seller for a number of high-performance applications, thanks to an increased area under the curve.

“This means more throttle response, quicker acceleration, more vacuum and better efficiency, combined with maximum horsepower and torque,” he says.

Weber notes that a number of new, USA-made Engine Pro camshaft grinds and applications will be featured in its newest catalog, which will be out in time for the SEMA, IMIS and PRI trade shows.

“Paying more for a camshaft is no guarantee that it is better,” he says. “All Engine Pro cams are value-priced with computer-designed lobe profiles that are Adcole-verified for accuracy.”

Put it All Together

Of course, the proper cam is just part of an overall engine package that suits the customer’s needs. And when it comes to shops making money on cam sales, the potential lies in combining them with complementary performance parts.

“Sales opportunities are found in the peripheral additional sales of components such as lifters, pushrods, rocker arms, valve springs and retainers, valve locks, timing sets, gaskets and even valve covers,” Knight says.

And always keeping the end goal in mind.

“Make sure that the customer has a realistic overall engine/vehicle combination for his expectations,” he warns. “Additional sales could be cylinder heads, manifolds, carburetors, rear end gears, torque converters, etc., to fine-tune the desired results. Again, utilize the expertise of the camshaft manufacturer when needed.”

Determining these factors requires performance details and expectations from the customer before work ever begins.

“More information never hurts when selecting a camshaft, and also might point out other opportunities for upsell items,” Pochon says. “There are plenty of parts that could be mentioned as taking advantage of the new cam. The lifters and springs are obvious, because a customer that spends some time researching a cam will see these items mentioned over and over. But items like a carburetor, carb spacer, convertor, gear ratio and tires could also be considered, and break-in oil, lubricants and gaskets are an easy sell.”

Shops that stay up on the latest market advancements will have an edge, he adds.

“Technology improvements in valvetrain, lobe designs, lifters and springs have allowed for more power, more efficiency and better reliability,” Pochon notes. “The main reason the camshaft and valvetrain areas continue to grow is that each of these areas are so heavily tied together that improvements in one of these areas opens the door for the other area to improve a little more, and so on.”

Mays agrees that opportunities lie in “the matching components and tuning after the install” and creating an engine package that does exactly what the owner expects.

“Sell to the customer’s needs and sell the proper components to match the camshaft,” he says. “The customer has to feel good about their purchase and it has to make power!”

That’s when you know you’ve made the right decision.