These 6 performance parts are true hot rod heroes

The post below was written by Don Sherman.

The specialty-equipment business that feeds the go-fast habit is a $46 billion industry. We salute some of the pioneers and their innovations that transformed jalopies into rods while building brands that are household names today.

a close up of an engine: Holley 3310 Holley© Provided by Hagerty Holley 3310 Holley

The Holley Carburetora close up of an engine: One of the granddaddies of rodding (and now the owner of 40 other brands), Holley forged an empire with bolt-on horsepower. Today, it offers a huge range of carbs ($300–$900) offering more power and better throttle response. Josh Scott

© Provided by Hagerty One of the granddaddies of rodding (and now the owner of 40 other brands), Holley forged an empire with bolt-on horsepower. Today, it offers a huge range of carbs ($300–$900) offering more power and better throttle response. Josh Scott

In 1897, only a year after Henry Ford enjoyed a test drive in his experimental Quadricycle, George Holley built and drove a three-wheeler near his Pennsylvania home, topping 30 mph. Two years later, Holley and his brother Earl established the Holley Brothers Company to build and sell motorcycles, followed by the Holley Motorette, a 5.5-hp two-seat horseless carriage. In 1904, this budding enterprise introduced its “iron pot” carburetor for use on curved-dash Oldsmobiles. That fuel-air mixer worked so well that it was soon found on Buick, Ford, Pierce-Arrow, and Winton automobiles.

After selling 600 Motorettes, the Holleys stopped building cars to focus their energies on carburetor production. Legend claims that Henry Ford backed that move, saying, “If you stop making cars, I won’t build carburetors.”

To burn all the fuel during each combustion stroke, engines require 14.7 parts of air for one part of fuel (by weight). Providing that ideal mix throughout the full operating range from idle to the redline and at every throttle setting is no small feat. One could make the case that the carburetor was the auto engine’s hardest-working and most sophisticated component before it was replaced by fuel injection.

a sign on a post: Automobile Trade Journal/Holley

© Provided by Hagerty Automobile Trade Journal/Holley

Holley thrived by supplying tens of millions of carburetors to Ford and other American makers. When the horsepower race began with the introduction of Chrysler’s Hemi in 1951, Holley responded with its first four-barrel design for the 1953 Lincoln. Holley’s 4150 four-barrel, what some call a masterpiece of engineering and the first true performance carburetor, followed in 1957 on Ford V-8s.

The 4150 is a modular design with ample airflow capacity and astute fuel metering. Through the ’60s and ’70s, Holley never flinched when emissions controls arrived and more power was demanded by Trans-Am and NASCAR racers. The 4150 and its 4165/4175 spread-bore successors still serve classic car owners today.

Building on the respect earned supplying car makers and aftermarket customers, Holley evolved into the hot rod industry’s largest and best-known nameplate. Nearly 40 other brands now operate under the Holley umbrella offering fuel injection, turbo kits, mufflers, wheels, ignition systems, nitrous oxide kits, and brake parts. We’re guessing that the dearly departed brothers would smile knowing that carburetors are still a mainstay product at Holley.

The Flowmaster Exhaust

The Super Flow 44 ($90) uses “delta flow” technology, which substitutes insulating material such as fiberglass with longer-lasting delta-shaped steel baffles that slow the exhaust gas to quiet the boom. Josh Scott© Provided by Hagerty The Super Flow 44 ($90) uses “delta flow” technology, which substitutes insulating material such as fiberglass with longer-lasting delta-shaped steel baffles that slow the exhaust gas to quiet the boom. Josh Scott

Self-taught engineer Ray Flugger launched Flowmaster in 1983 to create a more efficient motorsports muffler capable of reducing noise at racetracks surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Stock mufflers, which are necessarily inexpensive, inhibit exhaust flow to curb the rumble—to the detriment of horsepower. More creative designs with internal chambers and/or sound- absorbing material such as fiberglass cut the din without impeding flow at high rpm.

Building on experience he gained making mufflers for Volkswagens, Flugger invented several chambered, laminar-flow, and straight-through silencers that allowed customers to fine-tune their performance and sound levels. He followed his motto, “Hit the gas till you see God, then brake!” until he died at age 79 earlier this year. Flowmaster was purchased by B&M, the automatic-transmission specialist, in 2011. That enterprise merged with Holley in 2018.

The Isky Camshaft

a close up of a device: For roughly $170, the Isky Mega Racing Camshaft can boost horsepower and torque through revised valve lift and duration in older applications of the small-block Chevy. Josh Scott© Provided by Hagerty For roughly $170, the Isky Mega Racing Camshaft can boost horsepower and torque through revised valve lift and duration in older applications of the small-block Chevy. Josh Scott

Ed Iskenderian is showing signs of immortality. At 99, he’s still toting his trademark stogie and still making camshafts under his trade name, Isky Racing Cams. Beginning with the Ford T-bucket he assembled in 1938 to race across the dry lakes north of Los Angeles, Isky has experienced enough speed and power for three lifetimes.

Swapping camshafts was a favorite mod in the flathead days from the 1930s to the 1950s because it was a cheap and effective means of upping power. This shaft opens intake and exhaust valves on cue by means of an egg-shaped lobe aligned with each valve stem. Lifting the valve higher and holding it open longer allows more fuel-air mixture to enter the combustion chamber while also providing a more expeditious exit for exhaust gases.

While car manufacturers configure their camshafts for quiet running, smooth idle, and peak torque at moderate rpm, racers give no hoot about those concerns. What matters buzzing across a miles-long lake bed or around an oval track is peak power during the last few hundred rpm, so wilder cam timing is always better.

Camshafts are manufactured by spinning the shaft while an abrasive wheel is rocked closer—then farther—from the shaft’s centerline, which grinds one lobe at a time to the desired shape. While sophisticated mathematics and automatic controls are used today, trial and error was common practice in the flathead days. In Isky’s words, “Cam grinding is some part science, some part math, some part luck, and a big part educated guesswork.”