Building A 427 For Today's World
Building a classic big-block for today's low-octane world
From the March, 2009 issue of Corvette Fever
By Steve Dulcich
Photography by Steve Dulcich
Our resto Rat is a mildly...
Our resto Rat is a mildly updated L72 427, freshened and waiting to bereunited with its home in Rick Stoner's '66 Corvette. Factory rated at425 hp, these 427-cube powerhouses and the engines that followed definedan era.
Corvettes have always been known for performance and, by virtue of someof the famed powerplants of the past, the classic Corvette mystique hasbecome legendary. Looking back to its history, perhaps no enginecombination was more responsible for that legendary status than the MarkIV big-block. The Chevy big-block, as it's known today, was introducedto the public via the Corvette model line, initially as a 396-cidpowerplant in 1965, and growing to 427 cubes in 1966. The 427-inchCorvettes set the performance high-water mark for a generation, and thatstoried past is relived today in the cult status of collectability theseoriginal vehicles retain.
There were many variations on the 427 big-block Corvette theme, with thedesignation of the engine's RPO option codes filling out the lexicon inCorvette circles. Two versions of the 427 debuted in the Corvette lineupfor 1966, with the "mild" hydraulic-cammed 10.25:1 compression L-36rated at 390, breathing through oval port heads. The more seriouspowerplant that year was the 11:1 compression, Holleyfour-barrel-equipped, 425-horse L72. This engine featured
Inside, the engine's greatest...
Inside, the engine's greatest deviation from stock was a set oflower-compression pistons designed to provide about 10:1 compressionwith early small-chamber heads. Stock L72 engines featured 11:1compression, so we were giving up a full point of compression tofacilitate running on today's pump gas. Speed-Pro's forged No. 2300slugs handled the task. We'd make up the inevitable power deficitelsewhere. The rods are heavy-duty factory forgings, fully reconditionedand fitted with ARP bolts.
Chevrolet's massive, high-flowing rectangular-port heads, a solid-liftercamshaft, and a bulletproof bottom end containing a forged crankshaftvia a four-bolt main-cap design. The raw performance of these big-blockCorvettes made a dramatic impact in the automotive world, and the 427Corvette legend was born.
Choices in 427 big-blocks were expanded in 1967, with three newTri-power engines adorned with an induction consisting of a trio ofHolley two-barrel carburetors. The milder 400hp L-68 was based on theL-36 engine, while the 435hp L71 otherwise shared specs with the L72 ofthe previous year. Closing out the ranks of the Tri-power 427s was theL89, which was essentially an L71 with an aluminum version of thelarge-port rectangular heads. The top-dog 427 was the legendary,underrated, 430hp L88. It was designed as a racing powerplant, with aserious 12.5:1 compression ratio, an 850-cfm Holley carb, dramaticallybeefed internals, and aluminum heads. For 1968, the big-block optionswere unchanged, but in 1969, an addition was made to the lineup, whichconstitutes the Holy Grail of 427-cube Corvettes: the exotic ZL1all-aluminum big-block. Exotic it may be, but don't expect to find onesitting under a tarp, as factory production was little more thanone-off.
For 1970, the 454 replaced the 427 as Corvette's big-block offering,putting an end to the period recognized by the mystique of thiscelebrated powerplant.
The rods and pistons will...
The rods and pistons will be acting upon the factory forged-steelcrankshaft, which was likewise fully reconditioned and balanced. Chevydid not skimp on the internals on these factory heavy hitters.
For many in our hobby, building up an original 427 powerplantfor an original big-block Corvette comes with a duty to the historicalsignificance of these machines. Rebuilding any engine necessitatesdeviations from originality to some extent, as by definition an engineis original only once, and that was when it was assembled on the GMline. New replacement parts such as rings, bearings, and gaskets have tobe included, and once the factory seal is broken, where to draw the lineon originality becomes an individual's choice. From a power productionstandpoint, nearly four decades of development on the popular big-blockChevy has advanced the potential of these engines tremendously, however,the price of this allure is paid in the cost to originality.
Our subject is an original '66 vintage 425hp L72 427, the property ofCorvette collector Rick Stoner, who values the historical significanceof these special machines. Rick is the proprietor of Westech PerformanceGroup, a dyno facility with expertise in building extremely powerfulbig-block Chevys. However, he approached this buildup with definedobjectives. The engine would be essentially stock to preserve thepedigree of his rare and classic Corvette.
To work with our selected...
To work with our selected combination of camshaft, the pistons requiredcustom machining of the intake valve relief to an additional 0.070-inchdepth before installation. Here the piston is fitted to the bored,decked, line-honed, and indexed factory 427 block. Dougan's Machine, inRiverside, California, handled all the machining and balancing. Ringsare Speed-Pro's excellent plasma-moly units, file-fit to the bores.
Rick's intent was to retain the original look, flavor, and feel of hisclassic big-block Corvette and, for him, this ruled out suchostentatious modifications as tube headers, aftermarket induction, oraftermarket high-flow aluminum heads. Rick relates, "If I put onheaders, a giant cam, trick heads, it's not anything like the cars wereoriginally. If I did all that, why not just stroke and bore it . . .then I might as well build an 800hp monster with an aftermarket block."Rick continues, "At some point, all of the engine's originality is lost,then you have to think about the point of having an originalnumbers-matching big-block car." We find it hard to discern fault inthat logic. Rick's approach did, however, leave some flexibility in theselection of upgraded or modified components within the build, with theobjectives of reliability, driveability, and performance.
To meet these goals, some changes to the pure stock combination weredeemed acceptable. As Rick puts it, "You're always going to be changingparts in a rebuild, and if a modern Competition Cams version of thestock cam gives me a similar feel, sound, and vibe to the original, butwith more power and rpm, I'll take that upgrade. The cam isn't making apermanent alteration to the engine, and it's pretty transparent when inthere; it just works better. If a better aftermarket Comp valvetrainwill add engine reliability and performance, I'll take a seat at thetable for that--deal me in.
There is little doubt that our unexpectedly strong power numbers were adirect result of the special Competition Cams CB Nostalgia LS-6+ cam.The specs for this solid flat-tappet cam are enough to suggest the powerpotential of the hot solid-lifter grind. Specifications measure out withduration at 0.050 inch of 239/246 degrees, and a base advertisedduration of 276/283 degrees measured at 0.015-inch tappet rise. Grossvalve lift measures a lofty 0.544/0.539 inch on the intake and exhaustlobes, respectively, while the valve lash is kept to a tight 0.012 inch.The lobe separation is ground at 112 degrees.Comparing these specs to the stock L72 cam gives some insight into theadditional performance potential, though some of the subtle advancementsin cam technology and design cannot be read off a spec sheet. Thefactory cam came through with an advertised duration of 306 degrees, andmeasured 242 degrees at 0.050-inch tappet rise, with a gross lift of0.520 inch; however, the lash was much greater at 0.020/0.024 inch.While both grinds seem similarly serious by the specs, the modern Compgrind reaches higher lifts faster by virtue of a higher-intensity lobedesign, and therefore provides more area under the lift curve for betterbreathing and power.
"I'll blueprint the bottom end and have Steve Brule (Westech's enginebuilder and dyno operator) assemble it like a race engine, checkingclearances, making sure everything is at the best specs for a balance ofpower and reliability. I'll file-fit and gap the rings for a bettercombustion seal than stock and I'll use modern forged pistons withcoated skirts. All this stuff was never done from the factory, but we'rejust optimizing the assembly and making sensible upgrades where theoriginal parts are going to have to be replaced in a rebuild, like inthe pistons, rings, and cam. All of these changes add up to performanceand reliability through higher quality in the build, instead of makingbig changes to the engine's original combination."
The block was painted the...
The block was painted the requisite Chevy Orange on the outside, whilethe inside was painted to help seal the cast surface and promote oildrain-back. The crank spins in new Federal-Mogul Speed-Pro bearings,which were used throughout the build.
Early big-blocks required...
Early big-blocks required a grooved rear camshaft journal for properoiling. We ordered our Competition Cams PN 11-671-4 Nostalgia LS-6+camshaft with the provision. This cam was designed to sound like theoriginals, but with added punch in power production. Comp Cams was thesource for all the camshaft-related equipment, including the solidlifters and timing set.
Early 427 engines featured...
Early 427 engines featured compact closed-chamber heads, which are greatfor combustion efficiency and contribute to the high factory compressionratio. We dropped that ratio some, but were sure Comp's stainless steelvalves and the detailed high-performance machined valve job would helpget back some of the performance sacrifice. For durability, hardenedexhaust seats were also installed.
The valvesprings are Competition...
The valvesprings are Competition Cams 924 dual-spring assemblies,the recommended pieces for our choice of camshafts. Additionally, theretainers, locks, studs, and guideplates are all high-performanceCompetition Cams parts.
We followed through the assembly...
We followed through the assembly of the valvetrain with Comp's ProMagnum rockers and pushrods. All valvetrain upgrades would serve a dualpurpose of enhancing power and long-term reliability.
When installing a variety...
When installing a variety of custom cam and valvetrain components, it'simportant to make a check of valvetrain geometry. Pushrod length willaffect the contact point and range of motion of the roller-rocker tip onthe valve-stem tip. The valve tips were given a coat of dye, and thepattern was checked. This is just about perfect.
As was the original, the Comp...
As was the original, the Comp Nostalgia cam we selected is asolid-lifter design, requiring valve adjustment to provide the specifiedlash clearances, 0.012 inch for this particular cam. We always reset thelash hot after the engine is run in.
While the subtle changes identified so far are aimed at performance andlong-term reliability, there were other aspects of the build: Some ofthe factory specifications were backed out in favor of improved utilityand driveability in today's world. The primary factor is compressionratio. The factory-rated ratio of the L72 squeezed to a proportion of11:1, which was just right when you could pull up to the pump and askthe attendant to fill it up with ethyl, with an octane rating of100-plus waiting to splash out of the nozzle. These days, you'll grabfor the hose yourself, and here in California it's pumping from a poolof 91-octane unleaded premium. Rick says, "I want to just get in, fillit up on the road, and go--just like in the old days. I don't want totoss in a jigger of booster, mix up a concoction of higher-octane swill,or worry about where to find gas to make this thing go. I'd rather justback some of the compression ratio out, and that will cost some power,but with the other changes I should have that more than covered."
In keeping with the objective...
In keeping with the objective of a stock appearance, the factory intakemanifold was retained. This original two-plane aluminum high-rise unitis a fairly good piece for an engine of this size and specification. Theaftermarket water neck is for dyno hookup only, and a stock unit will besubstituted before the engine is installed.
Piston dome and chamber volumes are the key contributors to compressionratio with a given engine combo, and here the obvious choice to dial inthe ratio was to select the appropriate piston. Rick explains, "Theseearlier 427s used closed-chamber heads that measure around 100 cc stock,and I wasn't going to consider anything but the numbers-correct heads.With the small early chamber, the trick is to use a smaller dome to cutdown on the compression ratio. For this build, I used a set of Speed-Proforged pistons (PN 2300), which have a dome volume of 16.8 cc. We foundwhen building the engine that the valve-to-piston clearance on theintake side was not enough, and had the piston's valve relief notchesfly cut 0.080-inch deeper to give a safe clearance. This reduced thedome volume another couple of cc's, down to 14. With the pistons fittingat 0.005 inch below the decks, and a 0.051-inch-thick head gasket, thefinal ratio in my engine worked out to 9.86:1. That's the truecompression ratio, and it's still high enough to make good power, but isa lot safer with today's gas and iron heads."
The beautifully restored factory...
The beautifully restored factory Holley 780-cfm vacuum secondary carb isthe handiwork of Sean Murphy Induction of Huntington Beach, California.Again, the factory's choice of components lends itself well toward thegoal of performance.
The cylinder heads offered some opportunity for improved power, and alsorequired a few mods for longevity. Although porting the stock headswould be a possibility, Rick decided he wanted to keep these rarefactory castings stock and limit the flow enhancement to a good,machined, multi-angle valve job. According to Rick, "The valve job was aplace where I wanted the best workmanship possible, since machining theseats is a basic part of the rebuild. I didn't skimp here, because thereis a power difference in how well the job is done. I didn't want anyonecarving on these rare stock heads with custom porting, even though itwould have made more power. It just doesn't make sense to me to cut onsomething this rare and expensive. I did have hardened exhaust-valveseats installed when the heads were rebuilt, since the seats werehammered and the no-lead gas meant they'd always be in line for abeating. The hardened seats just add durability, and I didn't wantproblems down the road. The valves were replaced with a newhigh-performance stainless steel set (2.190/1.88 inch) from CompetitionCams. The new valves improve flow and durability compared to theoriginals. I just went to Comp Cams for the works to assemble the heads,from the valves to the springs, locks, retainers and guideplates. I knowfrom experience that this stuff is bulletproof."
Compared to a set of tubular...
Compared to a set of tubular exhaust headers, there was no doubt we'dgive up power potential with the stock manifolds, but they're incharacter with the restoration theme of the build. There are far worsedesigns in iron manifolds than the factory Corvette units.
The engine build wouldretain all of the major external cues that signify this as a stock earlyCorvette big-block. The factory high-rise aluminum intake manifold wouldsit between the heads, drawing air from the factory list No. 3247 Holley780-cfm vacuum secondary carburetor. To ensure that the vintage carbfunctioned like a fine artifact, Sean Murphy Induction of HuntingtonBeach, California, was called upon to fully rebuild and restore thepiece. On the opposite end of the heads, the factory iron exhaustmanifolds were retained, again to impart an appearance of originality inthis installation.
As configured on the dyno,...
As configured on the dyno, the 427's exhaust manifolds would direct thespent gasses through the set of head pipes that will be installed inRick's '66 C2, though we terminated the exhaust there, running withoutmufflers.
In 1966, the stock L72 big-block was rated at 425 hp. We hada mildly revised version of this engine, essentially using all stockmajor components with about one point less compression, but with a moremodern cam profile, an upgraded valve job, and top-notch machining,assembly techniques, and replacement parts. How would the variouschanges balance out in terms of the power at the crank? Naturally, thecrew at Westech had a dyno test in mind for this in-house project, andwe were eager for the results. The engine was loaded onto Westech'sSuperFlow 901 engine dyno to determine the answer. The engine wasinstalled with a belt-driven water-pump setup, and the head pipes thatwill be installed in the car were bolted to the manifold exits. The onecompromise to originality was the installation of a modern MSDdistributor in place of the factory ignition. This substitution wasrequired since the original distributor was out for restoration andwasn't available in time for the scheduled test day. Experience hasshown there is little difference in output between these ignitions iffunctioning properly. A set of MSD plug wires was installed to directthe spark to the fresh spark plugs.
For testing purposes, MSD...
For testing purposes, MSD ignition components were fitted in the dynoinstallation, including the distributor and wires. The factory ignitionand distributor were being restored, but we expect those pieces toprovide comparable output in a combination like this.
Since this was a new engine combination, there was more to do thansimply fire it up, pull the handle, and record the power curve. Theengine was first filled with conventional 10W-40 motor oil, and thelubrication system was thoroughly primed using a priming shaft driven bya drill motor through the distributor hole. Next, the engine wasstatically timed with the engine off, and the fuel system was checked,baselining the mixture screws at 11/2 turns out from lightly seated. Thefloat levels were checked and adjusted, with the fuel supplied by thedyno's electric pump. With the preliminaries out of the way, theignition was hit, and Rick's 427 fired instantly. With a flat-tappetcamshaft, break-in was critical to avoid cam failure. The engine wasimmediately brought up to 2,300 rpm, and the oil pressure and fuelmixture were verified on the dyno's instruments. With everything lookinggood, the timing was adjusted to establish 34 degrees of total ignitionadvance, and the engine was run for 20 minutes to complete theSuperFlow's automated break-in cycle. Dyno operator Steve Brule examinedthe running engine with a mechanic's stethoscope to listen for anyunusual internal sounds or valvetrain maladies. With everything lookingand sounding great, the engine was shut down, the valve adjustment waschecked and reset, and the oil was changed to Lucas synthetic.
The factory pulley set was...
The factory pulley set was unavailable, so we substituted a set ofunknown origin found at Westech to turn the mechanical water pump. Thecrankshaft vibration damper is a rebuilt original.
Fully assembled and rigged...
Fully assembled and rigged on the dyno, the 427 fired instantly. It wasgiven a 20-minute break in cycle. Break-in is especially critical withflat-tappet performance cams, so the initial settings must be madecorrectly to ensure the engine is ready to run when fired. This 427sounded healthy.
After break-in, the standard...
After break-in, the standard oil was replaced with Lucas synthetic motoroil, and the valves were checked and readjusted. We were ready to runfor the power numbers.
Preliminary testing showed...
Preliminary testing showed a somewhat lean mixture at wide-openthrottle, which was quickly remedied with a jet change to richen themixture.
Finally, we were ready for the testing. The engine was brought up for ashort sweep test, running from 3,500 to 4,500 rpm to get a quick gaugeof the wide-open-throttle mixture. The dyno instruments showed that theHolley carb's jetting was a little outside the zone, recording a leanmixture. The dyno pull also showed that this 427 was a truly torqueybeast, powering over 450 lb-ft of torque right from 3,500 rpm andholding nearly flat to the top at 4,500. With minor re-jetting,everything proved dialed in, so we opened up for a sweep test over abroader range, extending the dyno controls to pull to just over 6,000rpm. This time we recorded a peak power output of 451 hp at 5,900 rpm.Even with the lower compression in deference to today's pump gas, theengine was recording higher output than the factory gross rating of 425hp. The real credit goes to the Comp Cams camshaft and valvetrain, aswell as the detailed prep and assembly. The mild Rat really liked torev, holding its torque production high enough in the rpm range toregister a nice, lofty power peak. The 427s were known to rev, and thisone seemed to confirm that reputation, making horsepower right past themagic 6,000-rpm range.
Optimal timing was found to...
Optimal timing was found to be 36 degrees total--a measure of the fulltiming with the centrifugal advance fully engaged, but with the vacuumadvance disconnected. This simulates the operating conditions atwide-open throttle.
With the recorded data making us feel secure that the air/fuel ratio wasright in the optimal range, additional tuning would be limited to makingseveral pulls in an ignition timing loop to determine the optimal totalspark timing setting. We proceeded and found the big-block to favor 36degrees of total timing, which isn't unusual for a Chevy Rat. The finalbest power figure came in at a surprisingly solid 455 hp at 5,900rpm--very stout for our 10:1 427. The unquestionably raucous power ofthis "stock" Rat makes it a worthy testimony to the 427's legacy.
When it was all said and done,...
When it was all said and done, the mildly altered L72 427 cranked out455 hp at 5,900 rpm, substantially above its 425hp rating, even at thelower compression ratio. The engine willingly revved to the 6,300-rpmrange in our testing, and made use of the rpm by hanging on with thepower production. Torque was stout throughout the curve, reaching a peakof 460 lb-ft, and showing muscular twist throughout the rpm range.
Superflow 901 Engine Dyno
Tested At Westech
STP Correction Factor
Bold values are peak