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The Big Chill

How To Keep Your Engine Cool

Bob Mehlhoff Sep 1, 2002

Step By Step

Aluminum radiators, like this crossflow unit from Be Cool, offer improved engine cooling in a more lightweight package compared to traditional copper-brass radiators.

Surface area is critical to good radiator efficiency. Inside this aluminum radiator are wider tubes that provide more surface area, which enables the radiator to cool considerably better than older radiators that used narrow tubes.

If your engine has aluminum heads, it’s crucial to keep your cooling system operating efficiently. Aluminum heads typically have smaller water jackets than those found on cast-iron heads—the external dimensions are similar, but the ports are often larger, the deck is thicker, and the material near the rocker stands is thicker. This leaves less area in the water jackets.

A higher fin count on the radiator’s core generally allows better cooling because of the increased heat transfer to the atmosphere. Just remember to keep the core free from dirt and debris.

Does your third-generation Camaro run hot only at freeway speeds? If so, check under the front of the car to make sure the radiator baffle is still intact. After years of negotiating driveway ramps, these plastic pieces wear or break off and the engine temperature will climb at freeway speeds.

Mechanical cooling fans work best when the fan sets approximately halfway inside the fan shroud. Fan spacers are available to change the fan-to-shroud depth, but they should only be used without a viscous drive fan.

Electric fans save power and provide improved cooling. The best place to mount an electric fan is on the engine side so that it is pulling the hot air from the radiator.

If engine overheating occurs at higher engine speeds, check the lower radiator hose to make sure the inner spring is intact. If the spring is missing or rusted heavily, the lower hose can suck shut and restrict coolant flow from the radiator to the engine.

High-performance cars and horsepower are hot—especially under the hood. Hot rodders know that an internal combustion engine heats things up by combining fuel, compression, and ignition to create horsepower. But there’s a fine line between heat that generates power and a parts-damaging furnace.

To keep heat in check, today’s engines use a forced liquid circulation system that consists of a water jacket, radiator, water pump, thermostat, fan, and hoses. When combined with the appropriate airflow, coolant flow, and system pressure, this system allows the engine to operate at the high temperatures needed for optimum performance and reliability.

Because performance enthusiasts thrive on adding extra power that places additional demands on cooling capabilities, we decided to take a look at cooling systems with a high-performance perspective and outline many of the systems and products available. We asked Stewart Components to share some of its cooling system experience.


The radiator’s job is to cool the liquid that has been heated by the engine. A variety of designs are available that enable both coolant flow and airflow to occur efficiently, but the most important temperature-reducing aspect of a radiator is the size of its surface area. Modern radiators use wider tubes with cross sections that provide more surface area per cubic inch of coolant compared to older designs that used narrow tubes with shorter cross sections.

Aluminum vs. Copper-Brass

Many new performance radiators, such as those from Griffin and Be Cool, are made from aluminum that offers weight savings over copper-brass. While aluminum does not dissipate heat as well as copper-brass, modern radiator design more than makes up for the difference. Old copper-brass radiators were soldered together, but solder is a poor thermal conductor and this reduced the ability of the fins to remove heat from the tubes.

Coolant Flow

Coolant flows through a radiator tube at a velocity sufficient to cause turbulence. This moves the liquid in the middle of the tube to the edges, allowing better thermal transfer between the coolant and the tube surface. Aluminum radiators, with wide tubes and smaller cross sections, need less velocity to achieve optimum thermal transfer and thus provide improved cooling.

A common misconception is that coolant flowing too quickly through the system will not have time to cool adequately. However, the cooling system is a closed loop, so if the coolant stays in the radiator longer to allow it to cool, it remains in the engine longer too, which increases its temperature. If this occurs, coolant in the engine can boil away from critical heat areas within the cooling system and cause hot spots, which can cause engine damage.

Crossflow vs. Upright Radiators

New cars have come equipped with crossflow radiators for more than 30 years, and today many modified cars from the ’60s and earlier have them installed. Crossflow radiators are superior to upright radiators because the radiator cap is positioned on the low-pressure (suction) side of the system, which prevents the pressure created by a high-flow water pump from forcing coolant past the radiator cap at high rpm. Upright radiators typically have the cap on the inlet side and thus subject the filler cap to the pressure drop of the radiator’s core in addition to the system pressure. >> The disadvantage of this is that it can lower the effective pressure of a 22-psi cap to as low as 10 psi.

Higher radiator pressure allows a higher boiling point for the coolant, so it’s best to use the highest pressure cap that the radiator manufacturer recommends. Higher coolant pressures also transfer heat more efficiently from the cylinder heads. Performance radiators will typically accept 22-24–psi caps, although coolant will generally only build to 16-18 psi due to expansion up to 200 degrees F.

Water Pumps

Most stock water pumps are manufactured to operate at relatively low engine rpm and do not provide an adequate coolant flow to meet high-performance demands. Aftermarket water pumps, such as those from Weiand, Edelbrock, and Stewart, are designed for high-performance use yet consume minimal horsepower during operation. High-flow water pumps can often flow 35 to 40 percent more than stock pieces, have higher quality components, and are frequently made from aluminum instead of cast iron.


A cooling system relies on some type of fan to move air at slow vehicle speeds. While mechanical fans usually work fine, when cooling conditions become complicated, electric fans not only provide superior airflow over mechanical fans, but they also commandeer less horsepower (some large mechanical fans can consume over 15 hp at 6,500 rpm). Furthermore, most mechanical flex fans are not designed for high-rpm use and can present serious vibrations concerns due to air turbulence.

Electric fans operate best when installed as a puller (behind the radiator), and sometimes multiple electric fans can outperform a single large one. A high-performance V-8 typically needs about 2,800-2,900 cfm for adequate cooling. Just be sure your charging and electrical systems are up to the task.


Pulley size plays an important role in an engine’s cooling capability because the diameter of the pulley affects the water pump’s operating rpm. Although many pulley systems have a 1:1 ratio with the crank pulley, improved cooling can often be achieved by running a water pump 35 percent faster than the crank pulley. Exceeding that percentage is not recommended. Pulley manufacturers like March offer a variety of choices to change water pump ratios.


Thermostats allow an engine to reach operating temperature quickly. Used with a high-flow water pump without internal bypasses, the thermostat may need to be modified by machining three 3/16-inch bypass holes directly in the poppet valve to allow some coolant to bypass the thermostat even when closed. This modification results in the engine taking slightly longer to reach operating temperature.


March Performance
Naples, FL 34110
Flex-a-Lite Consolidated
Milton, WA 98354
Spal Advanced Technologies
Des Moines, IA

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