Not so long ago, the bigger is better philosophy reigned supreme regarding camshafts. The result was overcammed engines that sounded great and could crank serious top-end power, but were not very streetable and couldn’t idle to save their lives.
But thanks to modern cam technology, you can come pretty darn close to the Holy Grail of street bumpsticks—cams that make high rpm power, have good low-end torque and drivability, decent vacuum for power brakes, and that loping idle we all love. Camshaft theory is a complex subject that can take a book-length article to explain. We’re going to concentrate on the basics you’ll need to know to choose a good street cam, and later we’ll share with you the key information you’ll need to supply your sales rep when purchasing a cam.
Lift and Duration
Lift and duration are the primary factors that determine a cam’s profile. Lift is the amount a cam lobe actually moves a valve off its seat and is measured in fractions of an inch. Duration is the amount of time a cam keeps a valve off of its seat, measured in degrees of crank rotation.
Lift and duration combined determine total open valve area—the space available for air and fuel to flow into and out of the combustion chamber. The more valve area open to flow, the more power an engine can theoretically make. The trick is to “size” a cam to optimize valvetrain events for your particular engine combination and vehicle.
Virtually every cam maker uses duration to rate camshafts. When someone talks about a “big” cam, they are referring to cams with longer duration. This keeps the valves open longer, increasing midrange and top-end power at the expense of low-end torque. A shorter duration cam does just the opposite. Because it doesn’t keep the valves open as long, a smaller cam boosts low rpm torque and drivability.
Advertised Duration is the figure you usually see in the cam ads and hear about at those late-night bench races. The problem with advertised duration is cam makers use various methods of measuring it, making it difficult to compare cams from different makers.
“Duration at .050” measures duration at .050 inches of valve lift. Since all cam grinders use this measurement, it’s a much more accurate way to compare a wide variety of camshafts. Two cams may be very close in advertised duration, for example, but make peak power at different rpms.
Lobe Separation Angle
Lobe Separation Angle, or LSA, is the number of degrees that separate the peak lift points of the cam’s intake and exhaust lobes. LSA helps determine the cam’s behavior; you can take a given set of lift and duration figures, change the LSA, and get cams with vastly different characteristics. Generally, a cam with wider LSA (112-116 degrees) offers less overlap between intake and exhaust opening and closing events. That translates into a wider rpm range, better idle quality, and higher engine vacuum, but at the cost of less torque at low and midrange rpm. A cam with a narrow LSA (104-108 degrees) offers greater low and midrange torque production, but a narrower operating range, a choppy idle, and less engine vacuum.
For the street, you want a cam that offers a compromise–decent idle quality, respectable vacuum for operating power brakes and such, and good overall power production. Again, much depends on the overall engine combination and intended use, but as a general rule, cams with a 110-to 112- degree LSA offer good power and decent street manners.
Flat Tappet vs. Roller
Now that you have an idea of what lift and duration are, let’s muddy things up by comparing flat tappet and roller lifter cams. Flat tappet cams use a lifter with a slightly curved bottom that slides against the cam lobes. Virtually every V8 engine built before the late-1980s came with a flat tappet cam; they are reliable and relatively inexpensive. With literally hundreds of profiles to choose from, finding a good flat tappet cam for your street car is not difficult.
Roller cams are hardened steel cams that use lifters with a roller, or wheel, that rolls over the cam lobes. This design dramatically decreases valvetrain friction and wear, and allows designers to create profiles that offer more lift without increasing duration. That means a roller can make more midrange and top-end power than a flat tappet cam of the same duration without sacrificing bottom-end power. If you need proof that roller cams are better, ask the OEMs what they put in their engines nowadays.
Hydraulic or Solid?
Flat tappet and roller cams for overhead valve engines are available with hydraulic and mechanical lifters. Hydraulic lifters are self-adjusting; they use an oil-damped, spring-loaded plunger to help maintain valve lash (the distance between the valve stem and the rocker arm tip). Hydraulic lifter cams are quiet, require virtually no maintenance, and transmit less shock to the valvetrain.
Their main drawback is a tendency to “pump-up” (overfill with oil) and cause the valves to float, or stay open too long, at high rpm. Valve float kills power and can lead to engine damage if you keep your foot planted in the throttle.
Mechanical, or solid, lifters are not self-adjusting. They rely on a properly set up, adjustable valvetrain to maintain proper valve lash. Because solid lifter cams are less susceptible to valve float at higher rpms, they are ideal for more radical street and racing profiles. The price of running solid lifters is periodic adjustment of valve lash and increased valvetrain noise.
Overhead Cam Considerations
Overhead cam engines, like Ford’s 4.6- and 5.4-liter Modular V8s, follow the same rules regarding cam selection as overhead valve engines. The primary difference is how valve lift is determined. Overhead cam engines don’t use rocker arms, so there is no multiplication effect to increase valve lift (cam lift x rocker arm ratio = valve lift). Thus, cam lift and valve lift are the same.
The only way to increase lift with an overhead cam is to reduce the diameter of its base circle (the rounded bottom portion of the lobes). Changing the base circle increases valve lash as well, requiring the use of taller lash caps on the valve stems to maintain proper valve lash. This is a fairly involved process, which is a big reason why you’ll see many street cams for overhead cam engines with various duration figures but the same lift number.
Now that you’re familiar with common cam specs, how do you make sure get a camshaft with the right specifications for your engine? You’ll need to provide your cam sales rep with the right information about your vehicle. We’ll tell you what that info is in Part 2.