There are probably a million ways to dress-up a classic show car’s engine. You can add colorful spark plug wires to any vintage motor. You can install Chevy Orange logo valve covers on any 1958-’86 slant edge small-block Chevy. You can get a universal-fit Airbox air cleaner with a blue HPR filter, for muscle cars with cowl induction. These colorful “goodies” will make your engine look flashy and more modern, but they may change the character of your “mill” from old to new.
These days, with the value of original and old school cars soaring, an updated appearance for that vintage engine may not be the route you want to take. If you’re building an engine for a vehicle that fits in either of these two categories, your engine dress-up options actually fall into four main categories:
1. Painting and detailing the engine to its original factory appearance;
2. Adding factory optional dress-up equipment from the original era;
3. Locating hard-to find, period-correct aftermarket dress-up items; and
4. Installing aftermarket reproductions of period correct dress-up parts.
Standard Factory Dressings
Classic car restorers have been known to stop just short of fisticuffs when debating what colors car factories painted engines many years ago. “What’s the proper color for my engine?” is often the first question new collectors ask and sometimes there is no absolute answer. For instance, paints in various shades of blue are available to 1960s Pontiac engine restorers.
“Robin’s Egg Blue” was the factory issue color on cars made early in that decade and Metallic Silver Blue was used after 1966. Today, both of these colors are sold by different suppliers as “Pontiac Blue,” so some rebuilders wind up using the wrong color for the year of their engine. Good research can avoid this problem, but it gets a little trickier to determine which of several Robin’s Egg Blues is the perfect OEM match.
In reality, there may be no single “correct” color to paint a vintage engine. Auto historians have found that car factories purchased paint from different vendors and, although manufacturers provided color specifications to these suppliers, slight variations could and did occur. Therefore, engine rebuilders may not be able to swear an oath that PlastiKote’s No. 208 Pontiac Blue is more accurate than Eastwood’s No. 777 51629 ZP Pontiac Light Blue for 1959-’65 engines (or vice versa). However, as long as you use just one type of paint, the results will meet current guidelines.
Such guidelines are often established by clubs that recognize one brand or one model of a car – for instance a Ford club or a Mustang club. For an older engine made when thousands or hundreds of different automakers produced cars, clubs such as the Antique Automobile Club of America (www.aaca.org) or Classic Car Club of America may be helpful.
According to Shane Hanke, the owner of Shane’s British Classics in Waupaca, WI, there are websites such as www.mgcars.org.uk/mgtd that give the color samples and modern product codes to help restorers find the correct engine paints for vintage British sports cars. Engine color information is also available from companies that supply such products including Bill Hirsch, Tower Paint and Jochem’s Auto Parts.
Engine paints are formulated as Very High Temperature (VHT) coatings and the labels on the can will indicate the maximum temperature they will withstand before burning off. We’ve seen powder coat and porcelain finishes on old engines.
Technically, these are not authentic, but they sure look nice. There are new ceramic engine paints as well as special paints for engine parts such as exhaust manifolds, accessory brackets, starters, generators (and alternators), carburetors and so on. ECS Automotive Concepts (www.ewcsautomotive.com) sells a new product called RPM Rust Prevention Magic that can be used to treat bare metal engine parts so they can have an original look without rusting.
Another item needed to dress-up an engine to look like it did when it was new is a kit of all the decals the factory put on it. Up until the mid-1950s, engines had only a few decals on parts such as the air cleaner, valve covers and oil filter (if they had an oil filter).
Later engines all came standard with decal-plastered air filters, as well as smog pumps, oil filler caps, electrical parts and many other components requiring certification labels, etc. Automakers were even forced to retroactively add labels to cars like the Fiero due to government recalls. Phoenix Grafix (www.phoenix graphix.com) is a large supplier of decals, but many other catalog distributors offer decals for specific years, makes and models of cars.
Hobbyists don’t necessarily think of a restoring an engine to stock appearance as dressing it up, even though they are willing to spend a bunch of money doing it. “Well, I guess it’s dressing up an engine when you have new paint and new decals on the valve cover and air cleaner and everything is shiny and neat and working,” 1957 T-Bird owner Mike Drechsler told Engine Builder. “But until I really thought about this, I always felt dressing up an engine meant adding the optional ‘chrome pack’ that you see on a lot of these T-Bird engines.”
Factory Dress-up Kits
Chrome packs or engine dress-up kits were mainly a late postwar era development. In the 1920s or 1930s, if your car came with a dressed-up engine, your name was probably Howard Hughes or Jay Gatsby. Expensive luxury cars like Duesenbergs came with nickel-plated engine parts. If you ordered your “Duesie” with a supercharger, then it had huge, bright metal flex pipes flowing from under the hood. In contrast, if you bought a Ford V8, you got a motor painted drab green; if you bought a Chevy with a “stovebolt six” it was painted stove pipe gray. Automakers didn’t offer many dress-up parts in those days.
As we’ll see in the section on period-correct aftermarket parts, following World War II the growth of hot rods and custom cars spawned the growth of mail order parts houses offering speed equipment for street driven cars. Some of this equipment was designed to dress-up the looks of engines (more often than not Ford’s flathead V8). By the mid-‘50s, enthusiasts could order all sorts of under-hood appearance enhancements from these places, but not from Detroit.
Car Fax 1958 – a publication that recorded new car costs, factory suggested prices and detailed prices for factory-installed optional equipment and accessories – didn’t list a single engine dress-up kit for Big 3 models or Studebakers or Ramblers. Even the Corvette and T-Bird had no shiny extras.
This doesn’t mean all ‘50s-early ‘60s engines looked boring. Certain engine dress-up items were standard on cars like the Corvette and pricey options like fuel-injection or air conditioning may have included shiny engine bits. It’s also possible that dealer-installed accessories were put on before a car left the showroom. However, there were no factory dress-up kits until the mid-’60s.
Specialty cars like the Corvette and T-Bird had distinctive-looking engines, that were optional in other Chevys and Fords. In 1962, the Pontiac Grand Prix came out for the sports-personal market niche and the 1963 Buick Riviera followed a year later. Then, the Mustang and GTO arrived in mid-1964 and both of them took factory engine dress-up parts to a new level. By 1965, a 389-cid V8 with chrome-plated rocker arm covers, oil filler cap and air cleaner was standard in GTOs. Ford marketed the Mustang as an entry-level sporty car with lots of options to boost its price. Mustang extras included Cobra engine dress-up kits.
Other factory muscle cars like the Chevelle SS 396, Olds 442, Ford Fairlane GT, Dodge Coronet R/T, etc., came with dressed up engines. In 1965, Pontiac realized the chrome parts for the GTO’s 389-cid also its 421-cid V8, so a dressed-up 421 was used in the Catalina 2+2, a full-size muscle machine. Although the chrome parts were standard on these “factory hot rods,” anyone could order them through the dealer parts network and use them to dress-up a non-muscle model that came with a milder version of the same basic engine.
It didn’t take the factories long to realize that a little bright work under the hood sold cars. By 1968, half of the 16 engines offered for Tempests, GTOs, Firebirds and big Pontiacs came with chrome-plated low-restriction air cleaners and seven of those also included a chrome oil filler cap and rocker arm covers. By 1969, Ford made a bright engine dress-up kit and aluminum rocker arm covers part of its Ram Air option, but the parts could be ordered separately, too.
Finding period-correct factory optional engine dress-up equipment is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Ads in car clubs devoted to one make of car may get you in touch with vendors who bought out old dealer inventories to get new old stock parts to sell.
Auctions on eBay are another possibility, but beware of listings that say “also fits 1965 Mustang” as they are selling aftermarket parts (sometimes very cheap aftermarket parts) that fit your car and many others. Such parts will not give you the originality you are looking for. Hemmings Motor News is a julyly magazine with thousands of classified ads that can also help you locate very-hard-to-find factory-issued engine options.
The prices of NOS parts found today can shock you. An original AC chrome oil filler cap for a 1964-‘67 Pontiac 389-cid/400-cid V8 (GM part No. 5420359) was recently listed on eBay for $149.99. That compares to $34 for a correct chrome re-pop from Ames Performance (www.amesperf.com). Probably the only difference between the two is that the car with the NOS cap will win a few more points in a judged car show. However, it is that kind of bragging rights that collectors are willing to pay for. As they say, things are only original once.
Old School Aftermarket ‘Dress-Up’ Parts
Racing car designer, builder and driver Joseph W. Jagersberger was born in Vienna, Austria in 1884. After high school he joined Mercedes as an engineering apprentice and he later became a demonstrator of the company’s products – sort of a public relations man. He started racing in France in 1897 and continued driving racing cars after he came to the United States in 1903 to join the Case racing team in Racine, WI. In 1914, he formed a company to make speed equipment for Model T Fords. Today, you’ll find cylinder heads made by his RAJO (RAcine JOe) Mfg Co. are part of “Speedy” Bill Smith’s vintage engine collection at Speedway Motors in Lincoln, NE.
The RAJO story illustrates how far back the speed equipment industry started and the collectible nature – and value of – early speed equipment today. The following ad for a RAJO cylinder head appeared in 2011:
RAJO MODEL T FORD OHV HEAD with all accessories. Rebuilt ready to go: $2,740. This is everything you need to convert your Model T to an overhead valve motor. Nicely rebuilt RAJO cylinder head, rebuilt rocker arm assemblies, push rods, head bolts, exhaust manifold and valve cover. Ready to go!
For comparison, an original Model T Ford cylinder head that needed clean up was recently listed as a $9.99 buy-it-now item on eBay, while a perfect cylinder head that had been cleaned-up was auctioned for a high bid of $85.
It’s true that Joseph W. Jagersberger didn’t make his overhead valve conversions as a dress-up item. His was one of hundreds of companies making parts that enhanced the performance – rather than looks – of engines. However, it was from the same speed equipment industry that the development of engine dress-up parts evolved after World War II. Ray Richter of Bell, CA – a Los Angeles suburb – was a pioneer in catalog sales of speed equipment in the postwar era. His Bell Auto Parts “49” Catalog, distributed in 1949, was advertised as “the most comprehensive and up-to-date catalog of racing equipment.”
The Bell Auto Parts “49” catalog offered speed equipment made by a long list of early suppliers. The back cover promoted Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weland, Navarro, Tattersfeld, Knudsen, Harman and Collins, Winfield, J.E. Pistons, Thomas, Halibrand and Burns products. Although the external engine parts like cylinder heads, intake and exhaust manifolds, magnetos, air cleaners, exhaust headers and carburetors were sold as “racing equipment,” they also made the engines they went on look cool and many are considered dress-up items today.
Some items in the 1949 Bell Catalog were actually described as parts that enhanced the appearance of an engine. “Made of steel tubing, these wire looms give the neat precision appearance of a professional racing engine. The sturdy brackets mount on the intake bolts, holding the wires away from oil and cylinder head temperatures,” noted the copy for chrome-plated ignition wire looms that fit Ford and Mercury V8-85 motors and sold for $7.60 per pair (plus 5% excise tax).
Other mainly dress-up items in the catalog were a chrome Air Maze air cleaner for FoMoCo flatheads ($4.25), a chrome Hellings air cleaner for engines running Riley carburetors ($6.25), Belond No. 855 chrome-plated exhaust headers for ’35-’48 Ford flatheads ($42.50), chromed Stromberg 97 carburetors ($10 exchange or $16 outright), polished chrome-plated carburetor stacks ($1.25 each), a polished aluminum fuel pump stand ($1.75), chrome acorn manifold bolts specifically sized for Edelbrock Super and Offenhauser Dual Manifold intakes (25 cents each) and polished aluminum velocity stacks ($2 each).
Automotive writer Ken Gross has always been fascinated with the Ford flathead V8. “I don’t know if it was because I was speed-equipment-deprived as a child or what,” he told interviewer Phil Berg in his book, Ultimate Garages. “I just looked through issues of Hot Rod and I just wanted all of it (speed and dress-up parts),” he said. “And now I’ve got a lot of it.” Gross was talking about the 138 or so vintage Ford intake manifolds hanging on the wall of his garage.
Reproduction Old School Aftermarket Goodies
To add to the value of a classic car, an aftermarket engine dress-up item has to have something special going for it. There are many chrome goodies that will fit certain vintage engines and brighten them up, but that alone won’t justify the cost of buying them. In fact, some cheaply made parts may fit poorly or start rusting very quickly or simply look “cheesy” on a collector car. Professional appraisers joke that there are cars that are worth more with their hoods closed!
As we have already seen, the really special dress-up items are the factory chrome kits and the authentic vintage aftermarket parts that survived through the years. Due to the passage of time, such parts are difficult to find and a few may even be true rarities. Fortunately, over the past decade or so, the restoration parts industry has grown both in size and marketing sophistication. Even old line companies like Edelbrock and others have started selling replicas or exact reproductions of parts they sold years ago or parts made by other iconic hot rod parts suppliers.
Edelbrock – which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year – could simply dust off old blueprints for its vintage parts. Egge Machine, for example, created Egge Speed Shop to sell Moon, Offenhauser, Wayne and OTB re-pops.
“As old school looks in traditional hot rods and customs became popular, the perceived values of vintage engine dress-up items like Offenhauser valve covers, finned aluminum flathead oil filters, finned air filters and the like went through the roof,” explains Alan Mayes, managing editor of Ol’ Skool Rodz magazine. “If the items could be found at all, they were too expensive for the average guy to buy or too valuable to leave on an unattended car.”
According to Mayes, the automotive aftermarket that caters to traditional hot rodders and customizers is small enough to act quickly, though. “Companies like Mooneyes (www.mooneyesusa.com), O’Brien Truckers (www.obrientruckers.com), H&H Flatheads (www.flatheads-forever.com) and several others stepped up to offer new replicas of those desirable old items,” Mayes notes. “ In some cases, they were even able to locate and refurbish the original molds. After all, back in the day, those parts were made by hot rodders who became entrepreneurs and everyone knows hot rodders don’t throw anything away!”
An outgrowth of the swing to old style aftermarket dress-up parts is that engines which went out of vogue years ago are regaining popularity. This group includes early postwar Caddy V8s, Olds Rockets, Buick “nailheads,” Chrysler Firepower Hemis and even GMC-Chevy-Ford straight sixes and Olds-Buick-Pontiac-Packard straight eights. A few specialty vintage engine parts suppliers sell Offenhauser valve covers for 1953-1966 Buick nailheads and 1949-1956 Olds Rocket V8s.
Smaller companies are also making vintage style parts. PML (www.yourcovers.com) markets Cadillac valve covers for 1949-1967 Cadillacs with 331-, 365-, 390- and 429-cid V8s with four-bolt valve covers. For 1963-1967 390- and 429-cid engines, the PML covers will bolt on the heads, although the shape is different. You will need to use a 1954 Cadillac gasket to get the valve covers to seal on a 429. The finned covers carry the 1949 style Cadillac logo.
As a niche market, the restoration engine business allows room for some creativity, too. Ross Racing Engines makes both speed parts and stock replacement parts for nostalgic Oldsmobile Rocket and J2 engines. One example – the company’s Lacey & Morse aluminum cylinder head for 1949-1964 Olds 303-, 324-, 371- and 394-cid V8s – is made for racing, but looks very shiny and dressy and shaves 70 lbs. off the weight of a stock head.
Hot rodders and racers have no lock on the retro-look marketplace, either. Patrick M. Dykes of Casa Grande, AZ, (patricksantiquecars.com) sells engine dress-up items for 1932-1953 Ford V8s and 1937-1962 Chevy in-line sixes, but focuses largely on the old truck category. Patrick’s current vendors include two very famous names – Iskenderian and Offenhauser, while he manufactures (and, like all his parts, warrantees) other components himself. One of his specialties is parts for the GMC 228 thru 302-cid inline sixes.
Chances are pretty good that the number of vendors making reproduction nostalgic parts will keep expanding. The 1949 Bell Catalog had 40 pages, plus covers, and there are still quite a few parts shown in it that haven’t been reproduced yet. In fact, there are some real niche-niche items like a Weiand polished aluminum head for the Studebaker Champion flathead six priced at $43.25 and a dual-carb intake manifold for Chrysler and DeSoto sixes and Dodge truck engines priced at $43.75. We wonder how many of those they sold?