At this time we're going to take a short break from looking at vintage kit cars and instead take a look at a legendary engine, one that was never installed in a production car, but makes a killer powerhouse for the Cobra clone crowd.
The Ford SOHC (single overhead cam) racing engine was built in the 1960s and developed a nasty reputation by far exceeding its numbers, and it has been shrouded in myth and legend ever since. Occasionally one is shoehorned into a Cobra, kit, or hot rod and it looks (and sounds) awesome. Nothing draws a crowd at a car show like popping the hood and revealing a Cammer, the nickname for the SOHC Ford.
The Ford FE family of engines was introduced in 1958, and has been made in a variety of sizes, from 332 to 428 ci. The 427, the basis for the Cammer, first came out in 1963, where they produced mixed results in NASCAR racing (the premier series for manufacturers). Joe Weatherly won the driver championship in a Pontiac, but Ford took the manufacturer's championship anyway. In 1964 Chrysler introduced the 426 Hemi, which outpaced the 427 Ford. Richard Petty swept the driver series, although Ford drivers picked up enough points to bring home the manufacturer's title again. However, winning the manufacturer's title didn't get much press, and Ford was desperate to take both sides of the title.
When the 426 Hemi was first introduced, Chrysler hadn't made enough to qualify it as a true "stock" engine. Contrary to myth, NASCAR did not require engines to be sold in factory-assembled cars, but they had to be available over the counter at dealerships. This point had been stretched many times by all parties involved!
Ford, not going to be outdone, immediately began development of single-overhead-cam heads that could be bolted to a mildly modified 427 block. The overhead cams required a different oiling system from the standard 427, so lube was routed through a gallery along the left side of the block and then fed to the mains, thus becoming known as the "side oiler" block.
The aluminum OHC heads took larger valves (2.25-inch intake, 1.95-inch exhaust) and breathed better due to hemispherical combustion chambers. The cams were driven by a 6-foot-long, double-row roller chain, with a short second chain to run the distributor, fuel pump and the primary drive gear. The new engine was heavy (680 lbs), but weighed a tad less than the Mopar Hemi.
On the minus side, the Cammer was much wider than the pushrod 427, would barely fit in the engine bay of many Ford products, and it was never going to make it as a street engine, both for practical and economic reasons. However, Chrysler was starting to offer the 426 Hemi in their hot street machines so Ford had to put on a good show to convince NASCAR that they really intended to market the new engine.
A few Cammers were installed in 1964 Galaxies, photo-graphed and paraded before journalists, but none actually rolled off the lines, which put NASCAR in a quandary. Chrysler had a double-overhead-cam Hemi waiting in the wings should the Ford SOHC prove dominant, and NASCAR's Bill France didn't want to start an engine war that could increase costs and top speeds (safety became a serious issue when the crude stock cars of the era topped 200 mph).
Faced with a political hot potato, NASCAR straddled the fence. In 1965 the Hemi and the Cammer were both banned, leading to a boycott by Chrysler. Late in the season (as more street Hemis were sold) the Hemi was allowed back on short tracks only. Ford stuck with the 427 pushrod engine and, with ace Ned Jarrett, won both NASCAR titles.
For 1966 NASCAR (hurt by lower attendance) allowed the Hemi to return on all tracks. They even welcomed the Cammer, but handed it a 427 lb penalty to discourage the use of overhead cams. It would have been dead meat for a Mopar so Ford took their toys and went home.
All this maneuvering left Ford with a great racing engine but no place to play. The engine was too bulky and heavy for the Ford GT program, so that left drag racing.
Top-line drag racing had been the domain of the Hemi since its introduction, with all the top fuel rails and most of the funnies and gas coupes packing Mopar muscle. That changed in 1965, when Mustang funny cars (A/FX class) dominated the season and took the NHRA Winternationals. Ten were built by stock-car wizards Holman Moody, and equipped with Hilborn-injected, nitro-burning Cammers. One was driven by Gaspar "Gas" Ronda, who made the first pass under nine seconds in an unblown funny.
Connie Kalitta built the first blown Cammer for his fuel rail, and found that the connecting rods, which were fine for normally aspirated engines, were not up to the job when the blower kicked in. Most drag racers switched to Mickey Thompson aluminum rods (a modified Chrysler Hemi design) that solved the problem. Kalitta was the first rail through the 200-mph barrier, and "Sneaky Pete" Robinson took the 1966 NHRA World Championship in his Cammer-powered rail.
Jack Chrisman ran a very quick Mercury Comet funny with a Cammer while "Ohio George" Montgomery stuffed a home-brewed Cammer into his '33 Willys gasser (and later a Mustang) with excellent results. Danny Ongias won almost every event he entered in 1969 with a Cammer Mustang owned by Mickey Thompson, and "Dyno Don" Nicholson took the 1971 Winternationals with a Cammer Maverick.
However, the reign of the Cammer was short. In the late 1960s Ford switched their development dollars to the 429 "Semi-Hemi," which could be built on a smaller budget and installed in many of their street cars. Drag racers, however, continued to use the Cammer into the early 1970s.
Ford actually sold some of the Cammer engines in race tune. A single-four-barrel version put out an advertised 616 hp at 7,000 rpm and retailed for $2,350 (if you could get one). Adding a second Holley 780 carb produced 658 hp. The hollow exhaust valves were filled with sodium, which was supposed to make them run cooler. This was not altogether successful and most Cammer builders replaced them with solid valves, and most street Cammers are detuned to around 600 hp.
Cobras And CammersOnce their racing days were over, Cammers started showing up on the street,and three were swapped into 427 Cobras by their owners. In the mid-'70s Jim Haynes slipped a twin-turbocharged Cammer (estimated to produce around 1,000 hp) into his original 427 Cobra (chassis CSX3331). At about the same time, CSX3305 received a Cammer that had been massaged by Holman Moody. About this same time CSX3150 also had a Cammer.
There are a few new Cobras and replicas that have had Cammer transplants. Peter Portante (General Manager at ERA) once installed one in an ERA and recalls it fondly. Wedging it through the stock hood opening was a tight fit, and the frame had to be notched at the front to allow the balancer to be removed. The footboxes and fender wells also needed some reshaping. Dee Walters has a cammer in his ERA, which sports a "Cammer" license plate. A 1996 KIT CAR article reviewed a Hi-Tech (now defunct) Cobra clone with the famed SOHC Ford. Texan Alan Sorkey had his new Shelby Cobra (CSX4083) built with a NOS Cammer to make it the only Shelby Cobra with an original SOHC engine. It wears four Webers on a one-off fabricated manifold.
The big downside to the Cammer is cost. Original engines seldom come on the market, but when they do, the price tag is usually north of 20 grand. Dove Manufacturing makes new SOHC heads from time to time, but they are bare and you must come up with the special cams, valves, and drivetrain yourself. Today you can get just as much (if not more) power from a pushrod FE or a blown small block. However, if you like legendary engines and can stand the ticket, the Cammer commands respect like no other!