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Oval Port Big-Block Engine Build - The Ovalnator

We try to coax 800 hp out of a big-block street engine using oval-port heads and hydraulic roller cam.

By Richard Holdener, Photography by Richard Holdener

Enthusiasts seem to be divided on just what constitutes a real street motor. On one side, we have the daily driver camp, where “street” is defined as the motor used to power your daily driver, as in the car you could jump in to take a transcontinental trip to visit grandma. Positioned to the far side of the daily drivers are those who take the term “street motor” more literally, as in, if it motors down any street, well then by God, it is a street motor. Never mind the cantankerous behavior, the tendency to overheat and the abysmal fuel economy—if it rolls, it tolls.

For the rest of us, the definition lands somewhere between these two extremes. Being performance enthusiasts, a mild, stock powerplant just isn’t going to cut it, even if it was reliable enough for that coast-to-coast adventure. Then again, we all crave power and performance, but who wants to drive a car that bucks and stumbles at anything less than wide open throttle? No, an honest-to-goodness performance street engine must combine the proper measures of both performance and reliability.

To illustrate the far end of a real street engine, we decided to set our sights high in terms of power, while simultaneously limiting those variables that otherwise detract from reliability. For the most part, the performance of any combination is dictated by the big three—namely heads, cam and intake. For any given short-block, changes to the big three will determine where the motor makes peak power and torque. Low-speed power requires only minimal head flow, mild cam timing, and a simple dual-plane intake.

In addition to making modest power, these components also tend to enhance reliability, as engine speed and reliability are often inversely proportional. The recipe for making big power is hardly proprietary. Start by simmering a set of cylinder heads equipped with cavernous port volumes, then stir in an aggressive, solid-roller cam profile, and just a pinch of high-rise, single-plane intake. Combined to perfection, the combination can yield impressive high-rpm power, but power alone doesn’t make for a successful street mill.

In truth, a successful combo requires balancing the fine line between performance and reliability. For this build up, we decided to go big on the performance side. What is big for a street engine? How does 800 hp sound? Eight hundred horsepower constitutes serious power in anyone’s book, but making power is rarely a problem. Properly chosen, big heads, big cam and big intake all combine to produce big power. The problem is said combination rarely includes big reliability or driveability. Making our goal of 800 hp considerably more difficult was the fact that we decided our street-oriented BBC must include two components not usually associated with big power, namely a hydraulic roller cam and (of all things) oval-port heads. From the beginning of time, performance Rats have come with rectangular-port cylinder heads, leaving the more pedestrian pushers with oval ports. The same can be said of hydraulic valvetrain. Even just one of these variables should greatly limit power production, but the combination should make the goal all but impossible, right?

As always, we had a few tricks up our sleeve. Naturally, a set of stock oval-port heads were out of the question, but the aftermarket has produced oval-port heads that offer amazing flow and power potential. One need only to check out the results of our recent big-block head shoot out to realize that oval-port heads no longer take a back seat to their rectangular-port brethren. In fact, the results of the head shootout combined with this particular build up indicate that oval-port heads might just be the hot set up for the majority of street/strip build ups.

For our oval-port big-block build, we chose a set of AFR 300 Magnum heads. As indicated by the name, the oval-port offerings from Airflow Research featured 300cc intake ports combined with 123cc exhaust ports and 110cc combustion chambers. The 300 Magnum combined full CNC porting, a 2.30/1.88-inch valve package, and five-angle competition valve job to produce serious flow numbers of 387 cfm on the intake and 296 cfm on the exhaust. We have come to expect big flow numbers from aftermarket aluminum heads, but these 300 Magnum heads offered tremendous flow through reasonably sized ports. As indicated by our previous BBC head testing, big flow and small ports combine to make serious power.

The next two components used in the build up enhanced both power and reliability. The use of a hydraulic roller cam provided a set-it and forget-it approach to valve lash, to say nothing of the milder valve springs compared to a typical solid roller. Though we chose a hydraulic roller profile, we chose one capable of making serious power. Straight from the Crane catalog (PN 139851), the Crane hydraulic roller profile offered .680 lift (both intake and exhaust), a 270/282 duration split (@ 0.050) and a wide 115-degree LSA. The wide LSA improved idle quality while the 0.680 lift ensured we took full advantage of all the flow available through the AFR heads. The long duration shifted the torque curve high enough in the rev range to help the Rat produce the desired peak power number. Cam selection is a critical element in any build up, as the cam helps determine the effective operating range and overall character of the motor. Excessive cam timing limits drivability, but insufficient cam timing limits power. The key is to find the proper balance.

The second trick up our sleeve helped not only improve power, but also effectively tamed the cam timing. Knowing that there is no replacement for displacement, we decided what this build up needed was additional cubic inches. Reaching 800 horsepower with a 396 would be extremely difficult and result in a dedicated race motor that would only be happy above 8,000 rpm. Stepping up to a 427 or 454 would help reduce the engine speed where peak power occurs, but even these displacements would result in wild combinations ill suited to any street use. No, to be successful, we had to step up significantly in displacement from any production big block. Stepping right past the usual 496 (4.28 x 4.25) or the 540 (4.50 x 4.25), we upped the inches to a full 555 cubes. The key was to use an aftermarket block from Procomp Electronics that provided the ability to swallow not only a 4.25-inch stroker crank from Scat, but also a set of 4.560-inch (small dome) forged slugs from JE Pistons. The Scat forged steel crank was precision ground, heat treated and shot peened and also featured chamfered oil holes, a large radius on all journals and nitride hardening for superior wear resistance. Scat also provided the necessary H-beam connecting rods that featured doweled caps and 7/16 ARP cap screw bolts. Combining the forged rotating assembly with the beefy, four-bolt block ensured not only plenty of power-producing displacement, but also a bullet-proof bottom end.

Now equipped with a cam, cubes and compression (just under 11.0:1), our AFR-headed 555 stroker was missing only an induction system and a few finishing touches. While a dual-plane intake is usually preferred for street use, the lofty horsepower number and massive displacement all but dictated the use of a single-plane design. Looking through the list of available intakes offered for oval-port heads, we chose the 454-O from Edelbrock. Similar to their popular 454-R, the single-plane 454-O was designed for use on oval-port heads. We also liked the fact that the 454-O accepted the large 4500 (Dominator-style) carburetor. While a 4150 Ultra HP might be a better choice for street use, the two-circuit Dominators can be used successfully on many street/strip applications. Besides, Dominator carbs, especially the new Ultra Dominators, flat out just look cool, to say nothing of the extra power offered on high horsepower applications. Rounding out the induction system was a 1-inch, four-hole, tapered combo spacer from Wilson.

With the power producers now taken care of, we turned our attention to finishing off the stroker. In addition to the powerful hydraulic roller cam, Crane cams also supplied a set of hydraulic roller lifters. The Crane retro-fit hydraulic roller lifters were machined from 8620 steel billet, heat treated and assembled in house. The inherent strength of the superior 8620 material was combined with precision plunger fitment to provide proper (and consistent) bleed-down rates. The metallurgy and machining that goes into the Crane hydraulic roller lifters allows high(er) rpm use than conventional lifters. Given the intended power output and engine speed of our stroker, the Crane hydraulic roller lifters were definitely the hot set up. Crane also supplied a set of the original 1.7-ratio Gold rocker rams, hardened pushrods, and a double roller timing chain. Though the block from Procomp Electronics featured a provision for the Gen VI cam retaining plate and factory lifter retaining system, we chose a retro-fit hydraulic roller cam and cam button (and lock) to dial in cam thrust. The double-roller timing chain required a dedicated Gen VI timing cover supplied by Milodon. Milodon also came through with a complete oiling system that featured a kick-out pan with integrated windage tray, HV oil pump and pick up. ARP hardware was used exclusively for the build, starting with head and main bolts right down to the oil pump stud.

Finishing things off was an MSD billet distributor and wires, and a set of 2.25-inch dyno headers feeding a set of Borla XR1 race mufflers. Timing was set at 37 degrees and we ran the engine strictly on 93-octane fuel. Ensuring our thirsty stroker had plenty of petrol was an A1000 pump and fuel pressure regulator from Aeromotive.

After a thorough break-in procedure, dialing in the timing and air/fuel mixture, we came up just a little short. How short? Well, the hydraulic-roller cammed, oval-port headed 555 produced peak numbers of 773 hp at 6,400 rpm and 699 lb-ft of torque at 5,400 rpm. Impressive numbers to be sure, especially since the 555 stroker thumped out over 650 lb-ft of torque from (below) 4,000 rpm to 6,000 rpm, but a miss is still a miss.

Reviewing the dyno curves, we see that the torque output was acceptable, but that the power seemed to fall off at the top of the rev range. We know from our calculations that 800 hp was getting near the limit of the head flow offered by the AFR 300 Magnum heads, but the culprit was more likely the as-cast 454-O intake manifold. Look for us to remove the intake and send it out for porting before getting the motor back on the dyno for round two. Obviously the intake manifold cannot be designed for use on every combination from a stock 396 to a 555 (or larger) oval-port stroker. The intake must (by design) be a compromise between the extremes.

Knowing this, the porting should unearth additional airflow to at least allow the intake to keep pace with the Magnum heads. Since the AFR heads continue to flow well past 0.700 lift, we feel there might also be more power to be had with a slight bump in cam lift via a set of 1.8:1-ratio Crane roller rockers. The addition of synthetic oil and specialized oil and fuel treatments should further narrow the existing 27hp gap. We'll provide a brief update on the status as soon as we get it back on the dyno, but for now we'll have to be content with an oval-port, hydraulic-roller cammed Ovalnator that makes just 773 hp!

SOURCES
Edelbrock (Carbs)
800-416-8628
http://www.edelbrock.com
Crane Cams
1830 Holsonback Drive
Daytona Beach
FL  32117
866-388-5120
www.cranecams.com/
Aeromotive
7805 Barton Street
Lenexa
KS  66214
913-647-7300
http://www.aeromotiveinc.com
Air Flow Research
28611 W. Industry Drive
Valencia
CA  91355
661-257-8124
www.airflowresearch.com
Holley
1801 Russellville Road
Bowling Green
KY  42101
270-781-9741
www.holley.com
Scat Enterprises Inc.
Redondo Beach
CA
310-370-5501
www.scatcrankshafts.com
Milodon Inc.
2250 Agate Court
Simi Valley
CA  93065
805-577-5950
www.milodon.com
MSD Ignition Autotronic Controls Corp.
1490 Henry Brennan Dr.
El Paso
TX  79936
915-857-5200
www.msdignition.com
JE Pistons
15312 Connector Lane
Huntington Beach
CA  92649
714-898-9763
http://www.jepistons.com
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By Richard Holdener
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