It’s often said that “money makes the world go around.” And it’s true to some extent. Our hobby is often ruled by the almighty dollar. We crave a set of three-piece forged wheels, but our wallet steers us towards budget-friendly cast wheels. We shop for the best deal and agonize over the prices, but can we go too far?
This happens with engine builds all the time. To save a couple hundred bucks, we stuff in cast pistons only to regret the decision when we get the itch to strap on a nitrous system. We lose the bottom end on our engine because a factory bolt failed when a set of high-end bolts would cost us under $50. Sure, we should be frugal with our hard-earned cash, but it’s not really a savings if it costs more down the line.
For this story we wanted to build a typical 350 small-block; an engine as iconic to our hobby as Timex is to watches. The idea was to put it together in a way that your average gearhead would: Spend cash where it made sense and try to save a buck when it wouldn’t cause problems later on.
The biggest choice was in regards to the valvetrain. Solid cams are great for big power and racecars, but if you plan on logging tons of street miles, adjusting valve lash can get old. Hydraulic flat tappet cams are pretty much maintenance-free and very economical, but oiling issues can flatten out a lobe in the blink of an eye. Hydraulic roller cams are what all the new engines run, only it’s pricey. Or is it? Sure, it costs more compared to flat tappet, but if you’re spending three to four grand on a new mill, is another $500 going to put you in hock? If your cam goes flat, any savings you enjoyed by going flat tappet will evaporate. The hydraulic roller arrangement is more reliable and you won’t be screwed if you forget to pour in a bottle of additive when you change your oil like you would be with a flat-tappet setup.
To test this out we built a middle-of-the road 350 small-block engine, dynoed it with a flat-tappet cam, and then tossed in a roller cam to see what would happen.