~FLATHEADS~
1. OVERVIEW & HISTORY                7. IGNITION
2. FUEL FLOW                                8. INDUCTION
3. HEADS                                       9. EXHAUST
4. CAMSHAFTS                             10. LUBRICATION   
5.
CRANKSHAFT
6. RODS & PISTONS
IGNITION
   “Freddy Flathead doesn’t care what’s throwing
spark,” blurted Milt Johnson. I was attending classes
at RIT at the time and made occasional trips down to
B&M Speed shop in Henrietta to throw around ideas
with Bruce Fleishman and Milt, my project at the
time was a magneto I had acquired. Milt was right of
course, Freddy Flathead doesn’t care, but Freddy’s
owner Leadfoot Louie did, so I set out to learn a bit
more about ignitions and how they could improve
the performance of my race car.
   When they designed the Flathead, Ford Engineers
knew what they were doing and installed a dual
point distributor in the engine from day one, this
stayed in place through 1948 when it was replaced
by a more conveniently located single point
distributor. The original distributor was placed on
the front of the engine, driven directly off the
camshaft at one half engine speed (just like the cam)
and performed very well in a stock application. The
only reason (I can think of) for replacing it when the
engine was re-designed for the 8BA version in 1949
was to change the location to a side mount which
was more readily accessible. Regardless, the early
‘diver bells’ and ‘crab type’ were all good units and in
general, easily modified for racing. Bob Hayslett
loved his diver bell unit and used it throughout his
years of Flathead building on the B29. He even
added roller bearings to the housing so that the
rotor could rotate more freely but he was an
exception in this area as most racers simply added
heavier springs to combat point float. This worked
well in the early years of stock car racing as well as
at tracks that kept the engine rules as basically
stock. Cliff Kotary once bought a car from Mert
Skinner that Mert couldn’t get running correctly.
After adding some heavier springs to the points, Cliff
went out and won the feature and Mert wanted the
car back. Benny Stephens brought along a crab type
with good springs to the pits, watched warmups, and
picked out a car that wasn’t running right before
making an offer to the owner to put it right, if he
could drive it. I’m positive that throughout the
Flathead era, many racers used the stock Ford front
mount distributor with great success. The dual point
set up was very reliable but didn’t address one of the
basic shortcomings of the breaker type ignitions in a
racing engine; which was optimum performance at
high RPM. Basically, the 6-volt system lacked
enough ‘juice’ to keep things lit once engine
builders started using higher compression heads
and turning the flatheads up more. The stock
flathead was produced with approximately 6.5 to 7:1
compression and test rated at 3600 RPM, in this
instance the ignition was fine but what happens
once we get to 8, 9, or 10:1 compression @ 6000
RPM?
  As an engine approaches higher speeds (with
higher compression), the air-fuel mixture obviously
becomes less dense,  like anything with mass, the
mixture can’t move instantaneously, it needs time to
get from one place to another. At higher engine
speeds, this time is greatly reduced meaning the
mixture packs less punch. This lighter mixture also
is now more difficult to ignite as well. Current has
the same problem in that it too can be viewed as a
fluid that has mass and flows through the ignition
system. So at high engine speeds, it too has the
problem of packing less punch at the plugs since
there isn’t as much time for the coil to build up
potential. Quite the quandary, you need more spark
at higher speeds to fire the less dense charge yet
your ignition system is dropping off at the same
time, what to do?
  Early racers knew just what to do – get a magneto.
Problem solved. The beauty of the magneto is that as
it is spun faster, its potential rises which is perfect
for racing. Since it creates its own current, you also
now longer have the need for a battery either. So,
why didn’t everyone just go out and get one? Well,
some track and club rules required that the engine
look ‘stock’ which precluded their use and of course
there’s the other factor of availability and cost. Cost
was probably the main deterrent precluding their
usage, a magneto has never been cheap, and still
aren’t. The early salt lake racers (that predated most
stock car racers) were also, for the most part, just
boys who weren’t flush with dough. While the dual
point distributors were great at engine speeds they
were made for, and reliable since two sets of points
were sharing the load, they had shortcomings in cam
design (which induced ‘point float’) and high engine
speed performance. The early racers, most notably;
the Spalding Brothers, went about modifying these
units for their needs by taking care of the points
with heavier springs and then converting them to
dual coil units. By adding the second coil they now
had one for each bank of the engine which was an
ingenious and effective solution. The coil now had
twice as much time to build up potential and it
follows that engine performance was greatly
enhanced. They also knew that by adding larger
coils, there performance was enhanced accordingly.
  I’ll make the assumption that once available, most
racers probably converted their 6-volt systems to 12
volt when using the stock ignition, and added a 12
volt coil as well. That probably would have been a
quantum jump over 6-volt performance. Yet another
quantum leap would have been doing this again with
a dual point, dual coil distributor and adding the
larger coils as well. By the dawn of the 1950’s, the
top dogs at the dry lakes were using systems like
this and they were, by this time, being produced by
manufacturers such as Spalding, Charles ‘Kong’
Jackson and Harman-Collins, all excellent units. In
Roger Huntington’s wonderful 1950 book, ‘Souping
the Stock Engine’, he relates that these systems had
dated the magneto system in most cases, it was
cheaper and properly set up, just as good or better.
The Kong unit is particularly nice, he addressed all
of the shortcomings of the stock unit by; having the
cam ground larger with less of lobe angle which
coupled with properly sprung dual points,
eliminated problems with point floating. These cams
were ground by noted camshaft and carburetor guru
Ed Winfield and the cam spun in ball bearings. The
points plate is adjustable for ease of tuning, the
entire assembly and cap is rather large for it’s time,
reducing the possibility of spark jump on the cap or
in the plug wires. And, the unit also came with a
cabled advance control that could be mounted right
to the dash of the racer, enabling the driver to
advance his ignition as needed while the race was in
progress. Cliff Kotary used these units, and swears
by them. According to his son Roy, the only problem
with them was in getting parts and Cliff protected his
cap like it was King Midas’ gold. Willy Wust used the
Harman-Collins front mount dual coil and my father
remembers that they never had any problems with
it, obviously these were both excellent units in their
day. Mallory and Harman-Collins side mount units
were available shortly after in both single 12V coil as
well as Mallory’s ‘Rev Pole’ unit which used a special
high voltage coil, again these worked extremely well
and that’s where I started when I went to Flathead
power.
  While I was very pleased with my Mallory, naturally
I was always looking for more which is why I got a
magneto. Now, I’m no ignition guru but I understand
what works well and I’m always willing to try
something that will enhance my engines
performance, the magneto was an easy choice once I
could afford it. Mags have been on automobiles since
they were invented and their design, while improved,
has basically remained the same since the 1920’s.
By the time stock car racing had become the rage,
many were available from Harman-Collins (later
Schieffer and then Cirello), Wico, and Scintella
(Vertex) amongst others. All excellent units for the
flathead, none to be had cheaply. I liked this option
not only due to the fact that it produced more spark
as engine speeds increased but also because they
are dead reliable, the battery can fall out of the car
and you can keep right on racing. Beautiful. A word
of warning with them though, when placing them in
the engine (which we’ve always done with the cap off)
make sure to steer clear of the rotor. Unless of
course you like current running through your body,
a mag in good condition will surely wake you up in a
hurry, right Dad? The only problem I can think of
with a magneto, other than cost, is that they do
require a fair amount of power to turn them. Some
people I’ve talked to claim they take as much as 10
Hp to turn, which is unsubstantiated to me at this
date, Vertex’s pamphlet claims it’s more like a couple
of horsepower which makes more sense to me. How’d
it perform? In a word – perfect. When I put the mag
in I was running gas with a 4-barrel. Everything
equal (with the Mallory), I noticed an immediate gain
in response and power. The magneto is the cat’s
meow and I didn’t think there was any better option.
At the time, there wasn’t, but that all changed once
again when inventive Flathead owners starting
converting breakerless electronic ignitions for their
use.
  It probably started with the GM HEI units, a very
good unit which with some machining can be easily
fit to the side mount timing cover of the flathead. My
only problem with these units is their looks, they
just don’t look right to me, big and ugly on the
pretty engine is my opinion. But, they do perform,
Dad tried one and it worked very well in a racing
application. A better option in my book is the smaller
and prettier Mopar electronic ignition, many flathead
owners are taking this a step further by converting
these innards into stock flathead housings, further
enhancing the nostalgic look as well as performance.
I should note that the advance curve (or ignition
retard) on these units has been calibrated for an
OHV engine, this isn’t the same curve that’s required
for a flathead and hence has to be adjusted
accordingly – by someone a lot smarter than me. I
took the easy way out and purchased an MSD side
mount unit which is the new cat’s meow. MSD and
Mallory both make these units now in front and side
mount applications, fired with a MSD (Multiple
Spark Discharge) box, they are easily the best choice
available. They have the performance end covered,
are properly curved for the flathead (I installed mine
out of the box, they give you extra springs and tips if
you want to play with the curve), and the new front
mount units are reminiscent of the early stock units
as well, the only thing I don’t like about my side unit
is it’s looks but I can’t deny the performance is even
better than the magneto.
  Allright, just a little on plugs and wires to wrap
this up. With the dual point and magneto ignitions I
used copper wires, Accel Superstock. Nothing fancy,
they worked perfectly. With the MSD I’ve used their
silicone 8.5MM wires as recommended, they too have
worked flawlessy. The main focus here is to ensure
that your wires are in good condition, properly
terminated and separated to avoid any possible
spark jumping. Check them at night with the engine
running, if you’re having problems, it may reveal
itself with a few good revs. Spark plugs are another
point of focus – many guys use Champion plugs, J or
H-10. In my experience, I’ve never had much luck
with the Champions. I’m sure that in their day they
were excellent, especially the older two and three
electrode racing plugs (these split fire plugs are
nothing new really). If you’ve ever read up on electric
current then you know that the best conductor of
electricity is silver, copper is close but silver is king
(check out the ‘Nology’ site). I’ve always used a
copper core plug with only one exception and that’s
when I tried a silver core, which worked great but as
you can guess, was pricey. Still have them and may
try again. My choice now is a common lawnmower
plug, Autolite 295. These are outstanding plugs and
once you’re ready for another set, the old ones can
go in your Willy’s plow truck. On methanol, I gapped
them @ 0.018 with the magneto and now gap them
@ 0.043 with the MSD unit. I set the total advance at
18 degrees @ 2500 RPM (full advance) and don’t
worry about the low speed performance, after all, it’s
not what I’m after. This set-up works very well in my
instance. I’ve talked with others who have related
that they set their advance considerably higher in
racing applications during the 50’s and 60’s, I
wondered about it since more advance adds
additional loading on the bearings especially. But in
reading Huntington’s ‘How to Hop Up Ford and
Mercury V8 Engines’ he relates for an all out
competition job ‘better figure on 30-35 degrees’ total
advance. Then relates that you’ll have to figure this
out for yourself based on what you want for
performance and wear, which is the best advice of
all.   
Diver Bell on the #24 car. Stock equipment.
Crab style ignition  on the 151.
Bob Hayslett's diver bell with ball bearing rotor.
Bob's diver bell assembly.
Curves showing voltage buildup in coil and spark voltage drop off at high RPM.
Scheiffer magneto and Offy lead plate.
Vertex magneto output curve.
Kong ignition with dual coils.
This shows the points adjusting plates, cam and rotor of the Kong unit. Nice.
Harman-Collins front mount dualcoil unit.
Mallory units, 'Rev Pole' on right.
Vertex magneto with mechanicl tach drive is a very attractive option.
Grant dual point, Spalding mag and Accel dual points can all be adapted.
Don't forget the good coil, Accel and Mallory 'Rev Pole'.
One of the best options available today.
Tough to beat this set-up.