How Tos / Tech

Header How-To: 5 Keys to Choosing the Right Headers

Stock exhaust systems typically restrict the flow of exhaust gases out of your engine, and thus prevent your engine from reaching its full power potential. In our “Exhaustive Research” post, we showed you how to choose the right exhaust system to help gain back lost horsepower.

Of course, the first exhaust components to handle spent exhaust gases from your engine are the exhaust manifolds or headers. The stock manifolds are restrictive, but a set of mandrel-bent aftermarket headers will allow the exhaust gas to move freely from the engine, reducing power-robbing backpressure in the process and allowing your exhaust system to expel gases even more efficiently. A good set of headers will actually build up enough exhaust flow velocity to create energy pulses that pull or scavenge spent gases from the engine.

So what makes a good header for your application? Consider these five points:

1. Header Size: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

One of the main considerations in choosing a set of headers is the diameter of the primaries, which are the pipes that connect directly to the exhaust ports. There are many factors that go into choosing the right pipe diameter—engine size, horsepower, intended use of the vehicle, and more—but one common mistake that many hot rodders make is to assume bigger is better.

Although smaller-diameter primaries will flow less volume than bigger primaries, a smaller diameter pipe actually creates faster exhaust flow velocity with just enough resistance to foster good low- and midrange torque. For that reason, most header manufacturers recommend modest pipe diameters for street applications—1 ½-inch to 1 5/8-inch diameter primaries for a small block engine, for example.

2. Header Dimensions: Full Length vs. Shorty

Headers come in a variety of dimensions and configurations for specialty applications, including fenderwell, dragster, and circle track headers. We’ll keep our focus on the most common street performance designs: full-length, shorty, and mid-length.

Full-Length Headers

Full-length headers utilize primary tubes that are longer than the primaries on your stock exhaust manifold. In most cases, these four primary tubes empty into one collector pipe and form a “4-1” design. Full-length headers help produce more overall power with good power in the low- and mid-rpm ranges—right where most street-driven vehicles can use it the most! The longer primaries also reduce the chance of escaping gases getting drawn back into another pipe.

Shorty Headers

Shorty headers consist of four short primaries that dump into one short collector pipe. The compact dimensions make shorty headers a perfect choice for extremely crowded engine compartments or lowered vehicles where clearance is a concern. Shorty headers also typically work with the remaining stock exhaust components without modification (full-length headers require some modifications), so installation is often a quick, clean process. Although shorty headers don’t always produce as much low- and mid-range power as full-length headers, they do provide significant power gains over stock manifolds and have the potential to produce higher rpm power gains.

You can maximize the performance of your shorty headers by opting for equal-length primaries. Equal-length primaries will scavenge gases equally from all eight cylinders, keeping the torque curve consistent from each cylinder. The result is a broader torque curve in the low- and mid-rpm range.

Mid-length headers offer some of the benefits of full-length and shorty headers. They provide longer primaries than the stock manifold to help produce more of that coveted low- and mid-range torque and power. However, the primaries are not as long as full-length headers, so there’s increased clearance for lowered vehicles.

Tri-Y Headers

3. Header Configuration: 4-1 or Tri-Y?

As we mentioned earlier, full-length headers typically use a 4-1 design to empty the primaries into the collector pipe. However, some manufacturers offer headers in a “Tri-Y” configuration.

Tri-Y headers merge the four primaries into two slightly larger secondary pipes before merging into one collector. These secondary pipes allow the exhaust gases to maintain a higher velocity for a longer period of time as they gradually merge into the collector. This enhanced exhaust flow typically results in a broader torque curve than 4-1 headers.

4. Header Material: Mild Steel vs. Stainless Steel

Most aftermarket headers are made from steel or stainless steel. The advantage of choosing a standard steel header is simple: cost. Mild steel headers cost significantly less than varying types of stainless steel but don’t offer the durability of stainless steel.

Stainless steel headers last longer than mild steel headers in extreme conditions, such as the environment in your engine compartment. They are better able to stand up to extreme heat and will not rust. The superior thermal characteristics and rust-free surface of stainless steel allows them to maintain smooth, restriction-free exhaust flow throughout their lifespan.

5. Header Coating: The Ceramic Benefit

Once you choose between mild steel or stainless steel headers, chances are you’ll be faced with another dilemma: natural vs. coated. The most common type of header coating is ceramic coating, which provides an added thermal barrier. This keeps heat inside the primaries and helps keep ambient temperatures low in the engine compartment. That means cooler, denser intake charges and increased horsepower. In addition, ceramic coated headers maintain their finish, even in extreme conditions.

Headers are also available with a natural or painted finish. These finishes are a more affordable alternative to coated headers, but don’t provide the performance or durability benefits.

No matter which style you choose, you can take full advantage of your new headers by scrapping the rest of your restrictive stock exhaust, including the mufflers—find out how to choose the right muffler now.

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14 Comments

  1. Pingback: How to Choose an Aftermarket Exhaust System

  2. i have a 2017 chevy camaro ss with a LT1 engine. i would like to know which would be the very best headers for my car

  3. What would you recommend for a 4.1 straight 6 cylinder ford engine. In a 75 XB Falcon

  4. Taphawn Bryant says:

    Hey I have a 1972 ford maverick
    My engine 289 v8 from a 150 ford pick up
    The room is very limited looks like would have to cut
    Maybe not
    I want the best headers to increase power

  5. Robert Marty says:

    I have a 1970 Chevelle Malibu that I’m just beginning to make a motor swap to a ZZ6 engine. This is a new motor listed in the GM performance catalog. I bought this motor with EFI and complete serpentine belt system to include AC pump, alternator, and power steering pump. This set up leaves some issues to be resolved, such as custom made AC and power steering lines to mate up with existing stock parts. I believe I have solved the new fuel system issues to include new fuel tank, electric in tank fuel pump, fittings and flex line to motor fuel rail. With help from a childhood friend that is a fantastic mechanic we will bring this 49 yr old machine into the 21st century. That still leaves me with a couple old school problems to solve. I need help with which headers to buy that will fit the car. I want ceramic coated that will tie into the existing 2 1/2 exhaust. This project will take all winter and one thing my mechanic Dad taught me is take your time and do it right. Any assistance on header choice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  6. Jim Arbogast says:

    I would like to see all your short & long tube headers offered for my 67 Ford Fairlane with FE 427 engine with 2″ and larger primaries.
    This is a 4spd car with a scatter sheild & large oil pan..

  7. What is the best header for an 1986 Honda Prelude Si 2.0L with PFI

  8. Hey I was wondering what would be a good set of headers for my 94 GM 5.7 I already have duel flow masters no cats.

  9. Pingback: Best Long Tube Headers for 5.3 Silverado | Affordable Picks 2020

  10. You said “shortys don’t make as much low and mid range power as long tube headers, but have the potential to produce higher RPM gains”.

    This seems to go against all other information I’ve researched and is backward.

    Shortys make more low and mid range power and torque. Long tube headers make more top end power than shortys but sacrifice low and mid range.

  11. Need a set of headers for Chevy 3500hd L96 motor 2017

  12. Dylan Ellmore says:

    I need headers for my 2011 crown Victoria

  13. Jeffrey Fisher says:

    Time for header purchase for my 1965 Mustang 289 with Edelbrock 2027 top end E street package. Any help would be appreciated

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