in "Head to Head" Competition (get it???)

© 1998 Marshall V. Daut, Scottsdale, Arizona

The Preliminaries to the Bout

Unless you've been living on the moon for the past decade or so, y'all know about Texan Larry Brumfield's famous 5.9:1 high compression cylinder head, which he developed for our beloved Model "A" and "B" engines. Many of you probably have one of them or know someone who's running one on his/her/its car (a politically correct gender-neutral possessive pronoun statement for the 1990's). Before Mr. Brumfield's cylinder head became available, upgrading choices were limited if we wanted to squeeze a few more ponies out of our poor old four-bangers via a head swap -

(a) mill the standard 4.2:1 compression ratio factory A" head;

(b) try to find a rare 1930-31 5.22:1 ratio "police" head with the embossed letter "B";

(c) install a 1932-34 so-called "C" head, whose 4.6:1 compression ratio doesn't boost performance all that much and requires an expensive water pump change;

(d) purchase a multi-milled used high compression flathead model at the local swap meet;

(e) or belly up to the bar and buy an overhead conversion.

All of these possibilities had inherent shortcomings and "gotcha's" built into them. No matter which path you chose to follow, it was still luck of the draw whether you really improved performance - or ended up buying someone else's headaches. "Used" is "used" no matter how you spell it.

But the brand new cast iron Brumfield head changed all that. If you read through the past couple years' worth of "Secrets" [of Speed] issues since the head's introduction, you'll see the same theme running throughout letters to the editor. The list of equipment on individuals' non-overhead conversion engines usually includes the Brumfield head. To be sure, other quality newly-made cylinder heads are available, such as Dan Price's aluminum repro Thomas and Ford Specialty Products' Winfield knock-off, to mention but two offerings. But by all appearances, the Brumfield head has achieved better market penetration = everybody and his brother has seemingly purchased at least one. I have installed a couple Brumfields on customers' past restoration projects and I am presently running three of them on my Model "A"s. And I have been most satisfied with their quality and performance during the last six years or so. Short of laying out some long green and installing an overhead set-up, the Brumfield head has nicely filled the gap between pure stockers and pure performance folks in the Model "A"/"B" world. The Brumfield head offers many advantages over previously cited options:

(1) its price was/still is reasonable, a recent price increase notwithstanding;

(2) there are no moving parts to break;

(3) no additional components to purchase, such as rare three-stud "C" water pumps;

(4) the cast iron material will last almost forever without chemical electrolysis degeneration often seen on aluminum heads;

(5) the head can be ordered from the comfort of your home with almost immediate delivery (no trouncing through rainy swap meets);

(6) the favorable compression ratio of 5.9:1 isn't especially hard on poured babbitt bearings;

(7) you actually get what you pay for - a noticeable performance improvement;

(8) and in the rare instance where a problem develops - such as during the casting process - Larry Brumfield backs his product up with excellent service and advice.

In my case, I experienced a continually blowing head gasket after initial installation. In an attempt to solve this problem, the almost-new head was milled. But the head gasket continued to let loose under heavy acceleration. After talking the problem over with its creator, it became evident that it wasn't the cylinder head's fault at all. It was cheap old Marshall's fault. I had opted not to change the studs and nuts, even though the installation instructions recommended that the buyer do so. Once I installed all new studs and nuts, the gasket stopped blowing out. Duh!!! In my business world of video production, that's known as E.S.O. = Equipment Smarter than Operator.

With this cylinder head, the "near" high performance Model "A" crowd has been as happy as a midget judging a Lady Tree-Topper's Club mini-skirt contest (women are 5'10"" or taller!). But then along came the "Super" Brumfield cylinder head with its multiple configuration possibilities and our nice, pat little four cylinder world once again became awash with options. Two questions naturally arise: "Is the 'Super' Brumfield head really better than the 'standard' Brumfield in terms of value and performance enhancement?" and " Which one should I buy?" I decided to test the two heads in search of answers to these questions. Hopefully I can now advise and answer some readers' concerns about cracking open the wallet and buying yet another cylinder head for our precious cars.

Oh, by the way, one thing should be mentioned here before the bell rings and the bout begins. This article should not be construed by the reader as an advertisement for or by the Brumfield Company, nor should it be inferred from the text that these are the only reproduction cylinder heads to be considered for purchase. I am just another one of the nameless rabble of consumers out there looking to boost my Model "A" Ford's performance (like you) and have not been compensated in any way, by anyone, for running these comparison tests. The information herein limits itself strictly to a head-to-head duel between the "standard" and "Super" Brumfield heads, sort of an in-family squabble. My sole purpose in testing these two cylinder heads and then sharing my findings gratis with the Model "A" community was to provide a good foundation for the readers to make an informed decision about which Brumfield head to purchase that will meet their personal requirements. Or whether to buy one at all. If the readers can benefit from my experience, that will be payment enough for this "A" boner! O.K.??? Good. Then on with the main event...

The Two Contenders

In this corner...

The reigning Champion - description: "standard" Brumfield with 5.9:1 compression ratio (with standard bore); material: cast iron with 30,000 to 35,000 p.s.i. tensile strength; options: can be ordered with any spark plug; price: now $269.00 plus UPS. (Note: my once-milled standard Brumfield head compression ratio with 0.040 overbore is probably close to 6:1 or a hair over that)

And in this corner...

The up and coming Challenger - description: "Super" Brumfield with multiple compression ratios available; material: same as "standard" Brumfield; options: compression ratios up to 8:1 and above (not recommended by the manufacturer due to breathing problems), counterbore depth per request, spark plug size variables; price: $339.00 plus UPS.

Rules of the Contest

The rules are simple and few:

Rule #1 - To ensure that we're comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges, both cylinder heads were tested on a 1931 DeLuxe Roadster (my highway lizard), using the same "everything else" throughout. The only difference in performance could then be directly traced to the cylinder heads. The test engine is a Ron Kelley creation with insert bearings, 0.040 overbore and an SU1R camshaft. "Everything else" includes electronic ignition, modern 14mm Champion spark plugs, 32-36 Weber downdraft carburetor, AC&R headers and Aires muffler. Rear end gear ratio is 3.78, running through a Ryan 33% reduction overdrive.

Rule #2 - Because I don't happen to have access to an accurate timing light setup precise to the millisecond or live near a drag strip, the results of the tests must necessarily be subjective, as judged by me. This will probably invalidate my assessment in the eyes of some empirical data lovers out there. However, I would hope that even they can appreciate that this kind of "seat of the pants" comparison has its place along side the admittedly more accurate dynameter and measured quarter mile testing that I, too, enjoy reading about. Moreover, when it comes to gauging performance, which really matters more when you mash the accelerator button to the floor - a table with dry statistics in a magazine back home or the driver's screams of ecstasy as he blows past a very upset Z-28 Camero driver on the freeway? Something about that last measurement makes it more appealing to me personally.

The Fight

"Standard" Brumfield - Driving with this head for the past six years permits me to report that the "standard" Brumfield head has much improved low end torque over the "A" factory, "B" Police or so-called "C" cylinder heads, referred to henceforth in this article as the "A-B-C's ", as well as improved "umph" in the mid-range from 35-50mph. Although 55+ top end is better than the other heads, it's not quite as high as I would have liked. And it seems to take a little longer to get to top end than I would like. (Naturally, the Ron Kelley engine improved these weak areas once I swapped motors) At least, that's the way it appears to me and perception is reality, after all.

Throughout the entire power range, though, the head performs very well, indeed. The car's mileage improved and the engine actually ran a little cooler (even with the 180 degree thermostat installed). It was definitely worth the bucks to buy this head and forget my "A-B-C's". All of these improvements over the other heads were to be expected, of course, but still nice to mention in case someone out there in reader land is considering upgrading cylinder heads.

Using the "standard" Brumfield head for many years has actually spoiled me when I drive one of our other "A"s still wearing the factory head. I wonder what's "wrong" with it! No get up and go, especially when the stock carburetor, ignition and exhaust components were still in place! The performance improvement was noticeable from the very first day when the new head was installed and has given excellent results ever since. The roadster used in this comparison had gone cross-country many times running this head with nary a complaint (once I changed those darned studs and nuts). Since adding all the extra speed goodies to the Kelley motor, the head has had a chance to show off even more of its performance capabilities. I drive my roadster almost every day, sometimes hundreds of miles a day, so I know this car inside and out, in all traffic/road conditions and am intimately acquainted with its personality (and they ALL have their own unique personalities, don't they?) I can feel any difference in performance, whether due to a slightly plugged jet or a low tire. This all means that judging whether a performance change has occurred after swapping cylinder heads will be a piece of cake!

Those of you who are still running one of the "A-B-C" heads will probably agree that the weakest spot in the power curve is just after shifting into third gear. This is most likely an inherent weakness area in the engine/gear ratio design and not specifically any of the heads' fault. Installing the Brumfield head, however, noticeably improved this weak spot. With the "standard" Brumfield head I can stay with or usually beat traffic starting from a green light in the first two gears. Once in third gear there is a marked power increase over the "A-B-C's" in the 26-47 mph range. Although I was still looking for some more "get-up-and-go" in this area to keep up with traffic, the "standard" Brumfield had provided much improved performance over the other heads. From 48mph and up, though, I'm back in the pack! The increased compression and improved breathing really begin to tell in this range.

I run super unleaded gasoline and that seems to take care of most pinging. The timing didn't really need to be retarded, but it is helpful to use the spark lever more often to maximize drivability and performance. Retard the spark when idling, advance it most of the way while accelerating and only completely advance the spark once speed has been attained. This will keep those pesky internal detonations to a minimum. My thanks to the EPA for the wonderful quality gasoline/water blend we're obliged to run out here.

And looks? The appearance is identical to the factory, except for the small raised "B-F" letters near the distributor. I've heard of guys grinding down these letters and painting the head Ford Green. No concours judge would be able to spot the difference, either. So the owner gets an original appearance AND a performance increase! The best of two worlds!

The higher 5.9:1 compression ratio doesn't seem to tax the starter motor, but then I don't live in subzero weather. I believe this wouldn't become a problem anyway until you start reaching above 7:1 ratios. Maybe you cold weather folks can shed some light on this increased CR/cranking speed issue? It's a non-issue here in the Phoenix area.

Let's summarize some of the "standard" Brumfield head characteristics, as compared to the "A" factory, "B" Police and "C" heads:

(1) it retains stock appearance;

(2) increases mileage because it burns fuel more efficiently;

(3) improves cooling for the same reason;

(4) yields excellent low end torque;

(5) gives impressive mid-range acceleration;

(6) increases top end;

(7) and generally improves driving characteristics through all rpm ranges. There are no major dings to bitch about. All in all, exactly what one would expect of the "champion".

"Super" Brumfield - Now we turn our attention to the contender: the upstart "Super" Brumfield cylinder head. Billing oneself with the label "Super" is bound to cause people to expect more out of you than otherwise, so our high expectations and open wallet better not be disappointed!

I spoke with Ron Kelley, the engine's builder, about what to specify when ordering the "Super" head. Ron highly recommended that an 0.080 flycut be specified, so that went on the order form. Even though this engine has insert bearings, I was hesitant to order the 7:1 ratio because someday I may use the head on another engine, one with babbitt bearings. So I specified 6.85:1 with 14mm Champion spark plugs (try 'em - you'll like the improvement over stock plugs, especially the smoother idle!). Maybe not a crucial difference between 7:1 and 6.85:1, but it does offer some peace of mind.

I had also talked to Larry Brumfield while filling out my order and was advised that it would take a month or so to get my new "Super" Brumfield head because unlike the "standard" Brumfield, this one is individually made to each customer's specifications. So like anything special ordered, plan on allowing a little more time for its arrival. Patience is a learned virtue. The order was sent in and I waited for the head to arrive.

But when it did come - WOW! Was this one impressive, powerful looking piece of iron! Quality inside and out! The combustion chamber area was nicely finished and looks about the same as on the "standard" Brumfield head, with the exception of my requested 0.080 flycut area. But in its creator's own words: "Not all Super heads look exactly alike in the spark plug area". I'll describe how mine looked. Yours may be different, depending upon the configuration you order.

First, the spark plug area is slightly recessed and features a raised ring around the 14mm plugs. (Apparently if you order the head with the original 7/8" plug hole, there'll only be the slight recess, no raised rings). If you're trying to "sneak one" past the concours judges, this probably is not the head to use. But I suspect for those readers interested in boosting their Model "A" performance, that's not a major consideration.

Second, my Super head has a little more "meat" built into it from the foundry for subsequent millings, if necessary. So my Super head is a little taller than most of them. Even so, when you get your head, I suggest test fitting it with a new gasket and see if the NEW nuts draw down far enough on the NEW studs' threads. To achieve proper 60-65 foot-pounds torque spec's without stripping the nut or stud, the top of the stud should protrude at little above the nut. If not, order the slightly longer studs that secure the ignition cable bracket on Model "A"'s from March 1929 through production end. Snyder's Antique Auto Parts number for this 3 3/4" stud is A-6066-C, while Bratton's Antique Auto Parts part number is A-6070. You can probably get away with using the two tall front studs that hold the radiator neck in place, but don't skimp on the other ones. Or you'll get "torqued off"!

Third, use only a copper/asbestos cylinder head gasket to ensure better seating around the combustion chamber, as recommended by the manufacturer after exhaustive head gasket testing. And here's an extra sealing trick an old hot rodder once told me: to keep the cylinder head gasket from shifting and then blowing out, spray both sides of the gasket with either black enamel or a silver spray paint and allow to dry. Some magic chemical reaction occurs when the paint gets hot and melts that helps keep the gasket in place better than using the sticky gasket sealant. Anyway, I haven't blown a head gasket since employing this method, in addition to installing new studs and nuts every time I swap heads (not necessary when re-installing the low compression factory 4.2:1 cylinder head). If you're experiencing intermittent blow outs, try one or both of these cures. They work!

Fourth, do not use a gasket under the upper water outlet on either head! Even if you slip pieces of cardboard under the ears as we all do, it'll still crack. Make certain your gooseneck's mating surface is as level and true as possible. Better yet, use one of the new repro necks and save your original piece for future use. This area is thicker on these new necks and will hold the torque better. Bratton's and Snyder's part number for '28-29 models is #A-8250-A, while '30-31's require gooseneck #A-8250-B. Apply a generous coating of RTV sealant on both surfaces and stick the neck and head together. If properly done, no water will leak and you won't crack the neck's base when torquing the nuts. I tried my standard way of inserting cardboard supports (against the advice in the instructions) and sure enough - POP went the original gooseneck at about the 50 foot pounds mark. Learn from my mistake: listen to the manufacturer and don't use a gasket here.

Finally, retard the initial timing just a shade and adjust according to driving conditions. The manufacturer recommends setting the trailing edge of the rotor near the distributor body's #1 electrode at TDC. Final tweaking can be performed after a few test runs. You will definitely need to use the spark lever while driving to keep any pinging under control. With my modest 6.85:1 ratio this wasn't much of a problem once I became familiar with the head's new power curve characteristics.

With everything buttoned up, it was time to test drive the Roadster and go through the torquing routine over the next few days.

Blow by Blow Account of the Action

Once I felt the head had seated properly, I began sticking my foot into it. As much of an improvement as the "standard" Brumfield head had been over the "A-B-C's", this new "Super" head went another notch above that! Low end torque was much improved, mid-range power increased and best of all, third gear became awesome!!! The engine now has oodles of power when I shift into third - and the power just seems to grow! With this increased third gear torque and pep, the car's really a pleasure to drive around in traffic now! And no problem turning the 6 volt starter over, either, even after a long, hot drive in the Arizona desert!

On the highway in the non-overdrive mode, when I accelerate from 45 to 60, it happens RIGHT NOW! The motor seems to love this rpm range with the increased compression and breathing capabilities. All those other goodies that "speed people" had recommended - such as higher lift cam, opened up intake valve ports and larger valves, downdraft carb, exhaust headers, electronic ignition, trued and balanced tires, etc. - are really working well together now. It literally sails at 65 mph in overdrive and does so effortlessly. In fact, I have to monitor my speed because it wants to creep up into the 70's! A little push on the accelerator and it's up to 80 in no time! Almost a little scary! Still not a 427 Corvette and maybe not as impressive as an overhead setup, but hey - we're talking about a bolt-on flathead here! Perspective, let's keep things in perspective!

And guess what!? Top end is where I want it to be! The roadster's speedometer reads "80" at the upper extreme, but in overdrive I've buried that and had LOTS more to go! If the 19" tires hold and the fenders don't come off, I bet she might reach 90-95! It never did that before, no matter which head the engine was wearing!

And the Winner Is...

I guess now you're waiting to hear "who" won the contest in this writer's humble opinion. Or was the "fix" in? Was it really a fair fight between the two contenders, given all the upgraded features built into the "Super" head? Well, there was no knockout victory and the referee was unable to declare a clear winner. Both cylinder heads offer a mighty "one-two" Sunday punch, depending upon the user's expectations and application. Actually, in larger sense, everybody wins, whether they have installed a "standard" or "Super" Brumfield cylinder head. Each head delivers the performance promised by the manufacturer, plus maybe a little more. Even though my engine is probably only midway up on the horsepower development ladder compared to speed demons' cars, there's no reason to think that similar improvements wouldn't be experienced with bone stock or slightly beefed up "A"/"B" engines. The principles are the same, after all. A 6.85:1 "Super" Brumfield head like mine probably wouldn't be terribly hard on babbitt engines if some common sense and prudent driving habits are observed. You can make something foolproof, but you can't make it d--- foolproof!

So we're back to square one: which head to buy? My advice after testing and living with both heads is simple. If you want a stock appearance with a definite increase in performance - but are rightly or wrongly (two schools of thought here) concerned about shortening your babbitt's life - go with the "standard" 5.9:1 Brumfield head. However, if you don't care about winning Top Flight Blue Ribbon honors in national concours competition - but you do want to step up in acceleration, mid-range torque and top end - spend the extra $70 and order a "Super" Brumfield. It's worth the additional delivery time and money, if my experience counts for anything.

To summarize in bolt-on flathead terms, if you want to go fast, buy a "standard" Brumfield; but if you want to go "super" fast, crack open that wallet a little farther and order a "Super" Brumfield! Shy of going the overhead route, this is the best "short" money you can spend to squeeze more performance out of your four banger!

The "Super" Brumfield truly is "super"!

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