This is a tight shot of a 64cc combustion chamber in an iron Vortec head. Notice how the chamber pulls inward between the intake and exhaust valves. This is often described as a heart-shaped chamber that reduces volume while improving combustion efficiency.

I want to build a 350 Chevy with iron heads and a 10.0:1 compression ratio. Will that work on 91 octane pump premium fuel?

Seemingly simple questions like this one often result in more complicated answers. The short answer to your question is that you should be able to run a small block with a 4.030-inch bore at that compression ratio on today’s rather poor pump premium gasoline. We’ll further qualify our answer with the assumption that we’re talking about 91 octane premium gasoline.

We’ll assume you are running a 4.030-inch bore. Static compression ratio is affected by multiple variables including crankshaft stroke, piston-to-head clearance, head gasket thickness, and piston valve reliefs (if present) or the presence of a dish or dome in the piston. Here’s an example of a 350 with a 10.1:1 compression ratio:

  • 4.030-inch bore and 3.48-inch stroke
  • Heads with a 64cc combustion chamber
  • Flat top pistons with 6cc of valve relief that sits 0.005-inch below the deck
  • 0.041-inch thick head gasket

Most production small blocks were built with the piston placed closer to 0.020-inch below the deck. This will increase the quench area, which reduces static compression and also affects how well the quench performs. The above example keeps the piston-to-head clearance fairly tight at 0.046-inch. With a 0.020-inch piston deck, that moves piston-to-head clearance to over 0.060-inch, which is not good for several reasons.

If you decide to swap heads, a good OEM choice is the late 1990s Vortec truck head. This iron head uses a nice, compact 64cc combustion chamber that benefits from the very popular heart-shaped chamber. Chamber shape and volume have a big effect on combustion efficiency. While a larger chamber will reduce static compression, a poor chamber shape will require more ignition timing to properly burn the air/fuel mixture. This additional timing then contributes to detonation problems.

There are several aftermarket iron heads that feature combustions close to 64cc that would also work well.

Dart offers an Iron Eagle cylinder head with 2.02/1.60-inch valves with a 67cc chamber. This would only drop our example 350’s compression by 0.3 of a point to 9.81:1. This could be pumped back up to 9.87:1 with a 0.038-inch gasket.

World Products makes a 64cc head called the Sportsman II with a 200cc intake port and 2.02/1.60-inch valves. This is an older design, but still a decent head that would perfect for our 350.

Running 10:1 compression the street is also dependent on camshaft timing. If the cam has a somewhat conservative 200 to 210 degrees of duration at 0.050-inch tappet lift, this might cause problems. Combining a short duration cam with very little overlap with 10:1 static compression ratio will likely cause detonation problems depending upon the amount of initial timing and how quickly the ignition curve is tuned. You’ll will probably cause tuning problems as you try to prevent the engine from detonating on 91 octane fuel.

A smarter solution would be to select a camshaft with at least 218 to 228 degrees of intake duration with a lobe separation angle of 110 degrees. Assuming this would be a dual pattern cam with slightly longer exhaust duration, the additional valve overlap tends to bleed off cylinder pressure at lower engine speeds and reduces low to midrange cylinder pressure. This reduced cylinder pressure is accompanied by built-in exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) to help reduce the chance for detonation.

One point we hear frequently is that an iron head will trap more heat in the chamber than an aluminum head. It is true that iron does not transfer heat as quickly as aluminum. But in our experience iron head engines don’t experience detonation any more readily than aluminum heads. Perhaps this might be true with a heavily loaded race engine under extreme conditions, but in a street engine the closest you might come to that would be using the engine to tow heavy loads. For all the above reasons, we would never recommend a 10:1 static compression ratio with iron heads and a short duration cam for towing.

Another area worthy of consideration is how inlet air temperature affects how quickly an engine might experience detonation given a fixed octane fuel. For every 25 degrees F increase in inlet air temperature, the engine will need one full number of additional octane. As an example, if your engine was right on the edge of detonation using 91 octane fuel with an inlet air temperature of 80 degrees, it would likely experience detonation when the inlet air temperature increases to 95 to 100 degrees or higher. If the inlet air temperature is lowered by 25 degrees F, the engine’s octane requirement will decrease by one full number.

This is important since running a cold air system can reduce the chance the engine will rattle.  Of course, ignition timing, spark plug selection, air-fuel ratios, and a host of other details all play a part in these situations. This is why we always mention that it’s best to treat the engine as a system rather than a compilation of a pile of separate parts.

So to wrap this up, a 10:1 static compression ratio combined with an efficient, heat-shaped combustion chamber head, a dual-pattern camshaft with at least 218 to 220 degrees of intake duration, and a properly-designed ignition curve should reward you with a very snappy small-block that will make great power and not cause detonation issues. Hope this helps!

Author: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith has had a passion for cars since he began working at his grandfather's gas station at the age 10. After graduating from Iowa State University with a journalism degree in 1978, he combined his two passions: cars and writing. Smith began writing for Car Craft magazine in 1979 and became editor in 1984. In 1987, he assumed the role of editor for Hot Rod magazine before returning to his first love of writing technical stories. Since 2003, Jeff has held various positions at Car Craft (including editor), has written books on small block Chevy performance, and even cultivated an impressive collection of 1965 and 1966 Chevelles. Now he serves as a regular contributor to OnAllCylinders.