It is the way of the world today. Technology improves the breed. Flat tappet cams had their day but if performance is your goal, one step that can really complement a good set of cylinder heads is the upgrade to a hydraulic roller cam.

Yes, the cost to convert to a roller is higher than just replacing a flat tappet cam. But there are multiple advantages to hydraulic rollers that we’ll go over before we show how easy it is to convert a 1986 and later model 350ci small block Chevy to a roller.

(Image/Jeff Smith)

Things You’ll Need to Consider for an SBC Roller Cam Retrofit

To update a pre-1986, two-piece rear main seal small block Chevy to a roller, beyond just the cost of the cam and lifters, will also require a reinforced timing cover and a cam button to limit forward cam movement. This requires a button that presses against the inside of the timing cover to minimize forward cam travel.

The addition of a cam button is critical because flat tappet cam lobes are ground to offset the forward motion created by the distributor gear. But roller cam lobes cannot be ground with a taper so a button or other form of limiter must be used to prevent that forward motion. As rpm increases and the cam is allowed unbridled forward movement, this radically retards the ignition timing by as much as 20 degrees. This is why the precise effort to install a cam button is so important.

Beginning in 1986, Chevrolet upgraded the original small block to a one-piece rear main seal and also modified the block to accept a hydraulic roller cam. Rather than using linked hydraulic roller lifters like the aftermarket, Chevrolet used pairs of what are called dog bones that slip over the squared upper lifter bodies to align the roller lifters to the cam lobe. Then a large spring called a spider with eight legs bolts over the dog bones to keep them in place.

To limit cam movement, Chevy engineers used a simple steel plate that bolts to the front of the block to retain the camshaft in its preferred location. This demanded a stepped nose configuration on these newer engines which also requires a matching cam timing gear with a smaller bolt circle compared to the original small block pattern.

Many of these one-piece rear main seal engines were used in trucks but were fitted with flat tappet cams. However, all the roller cam machine work was included in the cylinder block to allow an easy roller upgrade to these engines. Our volunteer for this project was a 1990 truck engine block fitted with a flat tappet camshaft.

Using one of these 1986 and later blocks makes the roller cam conversion much easier compared to an earlier small block. Not only is the conversion easier since we don’t have to spend time custom-fitting a cam button, we can also use less expensive factory replacement style lifters, dog bones, and spider as opposed to more expensive retrofit style linked hydraulic roller lifters.

There’s a complete parts list (with part numbers and links) at the bottom of this article.

Advantages of a Roller Camshaft

The significant advantage to a roller cam originates with its design. A flat tappet cam is limited to a certain amount of lift-per-degree of rotation. If this lift-per-degree limit is exceeded, this increased motion will push the edge of the lifter into the lobe which instantly destroys both the lobe and the lifter. This lift-per-degree is a function of lifter diameter so Ford and Mopar engines enjoy a little more valve lift freedom because of their larger lifter diameters.

For our small block, we originally used a mild street flat tappet cam with duration numbers of 214 degrees at 0.050 inch tappet lift. This produced valve lift numbers of 0.444 inch for the intake and 0.466 inch of lift on the exhaust based on the stock small block 1.5:1 rocker ratio.

The hydraulic roller cam we chose to replace this flat tappet cam is from the Summit Racing lineup of Pro SBC Camshafts. It offers similar duration numbers as seen in the accompanying chart with 218/227 degrees of duration at 0.050 inch tappet lift for the intake and exhaust respectively. But note that the valve lift numbers (again based on the 1.5:1 rocker ratio) have jumped to 0.525/0.520 inch. This is an impressive bump in valve lift of 0.081 inch on the intake side and 0.054 inch on the exhaust side.

Summit Racing SUM-8802 Pro SBC Cam Specs

 Advertised DurationDuration at 0.050Valve LiftLobe Separation Angle
Intake2672180.525"112°
Exhaust2752270.520"

These valve lift improvements are because there is no mechanical limitation on the acceleration ramps on a roller lifter cam compared to a flat tappet cam. This allows the cam designer to create a much faster acceleration ramp for the roller lifter for the same amount of duration. This immediately creates greater potential power gains with a roller cam. This is especially true for engines with a better-than-average set of cylinder heads. Our budget small block is fitted with a set of Summit Racing Vortec cylinder heads that will accommodate the additional lift with no problem. So we’re anticipating a measurable bump in power with this hydraulic roller cam upgrade.

If you’re still unsure as to whether a roller cam is in your future, consider that any flat tappet cam will require custom oil for the life of the engine. A performance flat tappet cam will demand a typical hot rod oil like Summit Racing’s ZDDP-enhanced 10w30 or 10w40 oil. This is a built-in annual additional cost every time the engine needs an oil change. Hydraulic roller cam engines don’t necessarily need this ZDDP-enhanced oil and can use a slightly less expensive, off-the-shelf engine oil of the same viscosity.

How to Convert From a Flat Tappet to Roller Camshaft

Now that we’ve covered the relative advantages, let’s get into exactly how to convert from a flat tappet to a hydraulic roller. If the engine is in the car, in most cases it will probably be easier to remove the engine from the car unless there’s enough room for the cam to clear the vehicle’s grill assembly. Our conversion will be done on our Summit Racing engine test stand, so all we had to do was drain the coolant and pull the radiator from the stand. Then we unbolted the water pump and removed the harmonic balancer.

We won’t detail the disassembly since that’s a fairly typical effort. Once the intake, rocker arms, pushrod, and lifters are pulled, we removed all the oil pan bolts except the rearmost on each side to lower the oil pan enough to remove the front timing chain cover. With that accomplished, we then pulled the timing chain set and the old cam.

We used a locking three-jaw puller to slide the crank timing gear off and then used our harmonic balancer tool to press the new timing gear in place. The one-piece cylinder block requires a stepped-nose hydraulic roller cam with a different cam bolt pattern compared to the more traditional flat-nose Chevy cams. This new cam also requires its own specific cam gear. The Cloyes crank gear has three different keyways with one for straight up, and one each for two degrees of advance or retard. We installed the crank gear in the straight up position since our new cam is ground with built in advance. With the crank gear in place we installed the cam and then merely lined up the marks on the gear.

As mentioned earlier, these one-piece rear main seal engines use a two-bolt, flat steel plate to limit forward cam movement in the block. What is not commonly known is that there are two versions of this cam limiter plate with either a narrow or a wide bolt pattern. The narrow bolt pattern measures 3.294 inches while the second generation plate is 3.620 inches. Our particular engine is a later model Gen II that uses the wider plate. Both plates are still available. We’ve included both GM part numbers in our parts list although only one is required for any engine.

The Summit Racing hydraulic roller conversion kit that we ordered includes the spider and lifter retainer dog bones along with the narrower Gen 1 limiter plate. It’s also important to note that Chevy uses a pair of round-headed Torx style bolts to attach the limiter plate to the block. These are necessary to clear a performance timing chain set because regular hex-head quarter inch bolt heads may be too tall.

With that part of the install handled, it was time to address the cylinder heads. The original flat tappet valve springs on our engine were way too mild to work with our hydraulic roller cam’s additional lift so we upgraded to a set of what are essentially LS6 beehive valvesprings that offer multiple advantages. First, these springs will offer more clearance to the valve guide seals so we don’t have to worry about smashing the seals because of the greater valve lift. Plus, the reduced size of these beehive retainers improves stability at higher engine speeds. We also ordered new 7 degree, 11/32 inch valve locks although it appears the original locks will work with the beehive retainers.

The spring swap went without mishap. We used compressed air to keep the valve closed and quickly changed the springs using a Moroso over-center valve spring compressor tool. Of course, you could also use the older, lever style tool. The rest of the conversion went rather quickly. We put thread locking compound on all three cam gear bolts, torqued them in place, lubed the chain, and installed the front cover and oil pan. With the harmonic balancer in place and the water pump back on we were ready to install the intake manifold.

We prefer to set valve preload before we install the intake manifold so that we can double check zero preload on the lifters and make sure everything is installed properly. Because our rubber Vortec intake gaskets were near new we didn’t have to replace them. With a nice new bead of RTV for the end seals, the intake slipped right into place.

With this new steel roller cam, we also had to replace the original distributor gear. Steel cam gears do not mesh well with iron distributor gears and can quickly produce damage so it’s critical to install a new melonized distributor gear. Melonizing is a heat treatment process that allows the distributor gear to wear properly with the steel cam gear. In fact, a melonized gear is compatible with any camshaft regardless of material.

Get more in-depth tech on distributor gears here: How to Choose Which Distributor Gear to Use 

If the engine will be run with a mechanical fuel pump and because this is a steel camshaft, this will also require a bronze-tipped fuel pump pushrod. We’ve included a part number for a Comp cams pushrod that will prevent damage to the cam.

Read more detail on fuel pump pushrods here: How to Pick the Right Mechanical Fuel Pump Pushrod

Preignition Checklist

Before dropping the distributor in, we took the time to pressure lube the engine to make sure we had plenty of lube up to all 16 rocker arms. We lubed the new distributor gear and placed the distributor at 15 degrees before Top Dead Center (BTDC) and plugged in all the rest of the spark plugs and wires. We then pre-filled the carburetor float bowls and primed the engine with several shots of fuel.

This ensured that the engine would start almost immediately, which it did. We ran the engine for a couple of minutes at around 1,600 rpm to ensure plenty of splash lube on the cam and lifters and then rechecked the timing and locked it down at 15 degrees BTDC for a total of 34 degrees of mechanical advance. We’re now ready to drop this new motor into its new home in our 1965 El Camino with a nice new hydraulic roller cam that should make a little bit more power as well as being more durable.

Check out the photo walkthrough below, then keep scrolling for a parts list at the bottom of this article.

A hydraulic roller cam conversion does require a few parts to complete beyond just the cam and lifters. We opted to upgrade the valve springs to a set of LS6 style beehives along with guided roller rockers mainly because stock stamped steel rocker arms do not offer sufficient slot travel to accommodate 0.550 inch of valve lift. (Image/Jeff Smith)
removing a camshaft from a small block chevy engine
With the timing chain cover and gear removed along with all the lifters, the original cam slides right out. (Image/Jeff Smith)
We used a three-jaw puller to remove the original crank gear and then used our balancer installer tool and a length of aluminum tubing to press the new gear in place. (Image/Jeff Smith)
There are three different positions on the Cloyes crank gear. The rounded slot (A) is zero while the square version (B) retards timing two degrees. The peaked or pointed slot (C) will advance the cam by two degrees. The lower case callouts are the marks to line up with the cam gear. We chose the zero or straight up position (A). (Image/Jeff Smith)
With plenty of assembly lube on the journals, lobes, and distributor drive gear we slid the new Summit Racing hydraulic roller cam in place. (Image/Jeff Smith)
installing a cam limiter plate on a small block chevy v8
Second generation small block Chevys use a stepped nose cam that is held in place with a camshaft limiter plate. Be aware that there are two different width limiter plates. Our engine needed the wider version. Make sure to use the proper attaching bolts so the cam gear does not hit the retainer bolt heads. (Image/Jeff Smith)
man holding gm dogbone hydraulic lifter plate retainer
GM devised this simple system to align the hydraulic roller lifers. These dog bones slip over the squared portion of the lifters so that the rollers are always in the proper position. (Image/Jeff Smith)
The eight dog bones are retained with what is called a spider, a large spring steel retainer with eight legs held in place with three bolts that thread into stands in the lifter valley. We used short 5/16 inch bolts retained with thread locking compound so that excessive bolt length does not impede oil movement through the oil galley. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Most hydraulic roller cams will demand better valve springs so we added a set of Summit Racing LS6 beehive springs and matching retainers. These springs will offer superior valve control although given the rather conservative cam timing numbers we don’t anticipate spinning this engine past 6,000 rpm. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Vortec iron heads do not use pushrod guide plates and instead employ guided rocker arms to properly align the rocker arm over the valve. Stock, stamped guided rockers do not offer sufficient slot travel for 0.550 inch valve lift so we converted to a set of 1.5:1 Summit Racing roller rocker arms. (Image/Jeff Smith)
setting valve lash lifter preload on rocker arms in an engine cylinder head
With the pushrods and the rocker arms in place, we set lifter preload at just a touch over a quarter-turn and used the exhaust-opening/intake-closing method to set the preload. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Many roller cams now use a steel core. This requires a melonized distributor gear (left) to ensure it is compatible with the steel cam. If you are not sure of the distributor gear material, an iron gear will have a smoother look to the lower portion (right) while the melonized gear features a mottled or dimpled appearance. A stock iron gear used on a steel cam will quickly damage the distributor drive gear on the cam. It’s also important to always use a new distributor gear with a new cam. (Image/Jeff Smith)
pressure lubing an engine with a hand drill on distributor shaft prior to initial start up
We also pressure-lubed the engine to make sure the lifters and entire valvetrain had oil before we started the engine. (Image/Jeff Smith)
When running a hydraulic roller camshaft like this steel one from Summit Racing and combining it with a mechanical fuel pump, it’s critical that you also include a bronze-tipped fuel pump pushrod like this one from Comp. This will prevent damage to the steel camshaft. (Image/Jeff Smith)
setting ignition timing with light while engine is on a run stand
We set the crank to 15 degrees before top dead center (BTDC) on cylinder Number One on the firing stroke and then dropped the distributor in place and lined up the rotor with Number One of the distributor and the engine quickly started and ran. There is no specific break-in procedure required for a roller cam so our engine was ready to go! (Image/Jeff Smith)

SBC 355 Hydraulic Roller Cam Parts List

  • SUM-8802 – Summit Racing Pro SBC Camshaft
  • SUM-150123 – Summit Racing Hydraulic Roller Lifter Install Kit
  • NAL-10088128 – Chevy Performance Cam Limiting Plate (1st design)
  • NAL-10168501 – Chevy Performance Cam Limiting Plate (2nd design)
  • NAL-14093637 – Chevy Performance Camshaft Bolt
  • SUM-HT217-16 – Summit Racing Performance LS7 Hydraulic Lifters
  • CLO-9-1145 – Cloyes Street True Roller Timing Set
  • SUM-174002 – Summit Racing Valve Spring Set
  • CCA-787-16 – COMP Cams Steel Valve Spring Retainer Set
  • CCA-601-16 – COMP Cams Street Valve Lock Set
  • SUM-1457200 – Summit Racing Chromoly Pushrod Set
  • SUM-G6935-16 – Summit Racing 1.5:1 Roller Rocker Arm Set
  • SUM-850466 – Summit Racing Melonized Distributor Gear
  • CCA-4607 – COMP Cams Bronze-Tip Fuel Pump Pushrod
  • MOR-62371 – Moroso Stud Mount Valve Spring Compressor
  • SUM-SAE30 – Summit Racing ZDDP Performance Motor Oil
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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.