The Ford Y Block - its Past, Present, and Future Performance History
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
The Hot Rod Reverend's daughter and groom in front of the getaway car!
Before we get into Y Block performance, I thought I would post a picture and say a word about my daughter, Leah, on her wedding day. Readers of the blog will recall that it was Leah who, just before her high school graduation, had asked me to get the 1955 Ford Fairlane back on the road so that she could ride in it the night she graduated. And now, here she is a few years later taking a ride in the '55 on her wedding day! Many have asked how I handled all of this since this was my first daughter to get married and she wanted me to perform the ceremony since I am an ordained minister of the gospel. Officiating the ceremony that weekend was the most difficult set of service circumstances I have ever been dealt! But we all made it through, and I had the chance to chauffeur the bride and groom after the reception per their request.
On to the Y Block!
Soffian Adam's 292 Y Block with 3 deuces and ram's horns exhaust manifolds at Fast Fords
If you have been following the website any length of time then you know that at times I reference the Y Block's high performance potential. For most classic car owners the Y block gets passed up when it comes to building a high horsepower engine. There are a few reasons for this of course. For many years the Ford Flathead reigned supreme, even up into the 60's with front engine dragsters, hot rods, and other builds that included the venerable V8. The Y Block was Ford's first foray into production overhead valve engines. Of course, there was the Lincoln series Y Block that began life in the public eye in 1952, but these days many people remember the more plentiful Ford Y Block which was first offered in 1954 in 239 c.i. size. The 256, 272, 292, and the 312 completed the offerings from Ford over the years. When Ford introduce the next series of V8 engines in 1958, the Y Block had received very little engineering and production time when compared to the Flathead or the time the FE and small block families would receive. 1957 was the best year for a customer to purchase a high performance Y block. That year not only was an E code 2x4 intake manifold 312 offered from the factory, but you could also purchase an F code supercharged 312 that put out well over 330 horsepower. Very few people alive today realize that the quick ramp up to factory Y Block horsepower put Fords in the winner's circle quite a bit in many different venues and levels of racing. Ford dominated NASCAR in 1956 and 1957, winning more races than all other makes combined.
Joe Weatherly running a Y block powered 1956 Ford at Daytona
In 1958 the Y block was "de-tuned" by Ford for all practical purposes as the manufacturer looked ahead to the FE series of V8's that offered much more potential in the horsepower race because of larger cubic inch sizes. When the Falcons, 60's Fairlanes, and Mustangs all came along the small block like the 289 and 302 entered the picture and the Y Block was pretty much put out to pasture by a large majority. Complaints of lack of oil to the top end, sluggish ignition systems, and "towering inferno" carburetors were the talk among bench racers. Who could forget the funky exhaust crossover pipe that sat just behind the radiator?
The Y block replaced the beloved Flathead V8, and first appeared in the same 239 c.i. size
If it had not been for my distant relatives and my own dad's experience with high performance Y Block engines I would not have known the record myself. How such feats such as Karol Miller's record run at the Bonneville salt flats in 1957 got buried and forgotten in the history books I have no idea. He showed up with a 1956 Ford Victoria running a 292 c.i. Y block with the 2x4 intake manifold. In his class he bested the competition by roughly 10 mph! But even most of the Ford loyal alive today have no idea that this ever took place. May I recommend an excellent read by author Charlie Morris? the title is Ford Y-Block, A Performance History. You can find this book on Amazon or even eBay, or maybe Google the title to locate the best price. You would be amazed to read of the racing and performance history of the Y Block - Thunderbirds besting Corvettes at Daytona, Y Block wins at Pike's Peak, the record number of circle track wins, and of course the drag strips that were also dominated by Y Block powered cars and dragsters.
Even many Ford enthusiasts do not know the race win record of the Y block!
Another interesting note about the Y Block, and one that I did not discover until I was in my 30's, is that Ford shipped out much of their tooling to South American countries for further Y Block development and production runs. LTD's of the 70's in Latin American countries had the 292 as an option for a power plant. Ford went one step more in engineering by redesigning the head configuration so that the two center exhaust valves were no longer next to each other. For what was titled "Phase 2" the Y Block had an intake and exhaust arrangement that followed the small block V8's in the US. Of course this changed the camshaft and the exhaust note somewhat, but all other configurations were pretty much the same in Phase 2. The Y Block in these countries proliferated for many years, and even in the 80's there were successful raod race cars powered by Y Block engines.
Over the past 20 years the Y Block has enjoyed a bit of a revival. Many an automotive enthusiast has finally become bored with "slapping a 350 in it" when building a hot rod or resto-mod vehicle. At most car shows or cruise-in's it is not uncommon to see cars and trucks with a Y Block under the hood. Thankfully, this resurgence has brought about new bolt-on performance upgrades for the engine. When the parts are coupled with know-how from experience builders and machinists the Y Block powered car at the track or the car show becomes a real head turner. Even the legendary engine builder, John Kaase, got into the act by using a Y Block to build his 1st place entry at the annual Engine Master's Challenge just a few years ago.
When researching history for aftermarket Y Block performance parts, no one would disagree that very little had ever been made available by companies such as Edelbrock or others in the 50's or 60's. Of course, at most swap meets you will find the occasional Offenhauser 3 deuce intake or maybe an Edelbrock version, but no swap meet will ever have a set of aftermarket performance heads. Up until the last decade none were ever produced! If you wanted to horse up your 292 or 312 you had to dig into what Ford offered from the factory and juice it up as much as you could. This has always made the 2x4 manifold setups and the factory supercharger systems high end items under lock and key.
Matched pair of Holley 4000's for a future E code Y Block
Now, there have been some camshafts grinds made available down through the years. Iskenderian leads the pack in this regard, but other companies such as Crower or Howards also have offerings. Over the past two decades however there has been some serious movement in the Y Block performance parts world. The most radical of which would have to be the brand new aluminum heads that were designed by John Mummert from El Cajon, California. His website is ford-y-block.com and contains not only very helpful technical information but also a wonderful list of available parts such as modern camshaft grinds, aluminum heads, hi-ratio rocker arms, and even stroker kits. Mummert's new four barrel intake manifold is touted by many to be a few ticks better than even the Blue Thunder version. When parts like these are coupled with machinist know-how from men such as Ted Eaton, Tim McMaster, and others who frequent the Y-blocksforever.com website forums, the results in high performance are truly amazing. It is not uncommon to surpass one horsepower per cube, and the more serious builds can attain well above 400 horses on pump gasoline with no power adders like superchargers or turbochargers. (Those power adders could easily be discussed in a separate blog post - there are few turbocharged Y Blocks reaching the 800 hp mark!)
A high performance 312 with aluminum heads and intake (courtesy Jack Luellen)
All of these parts are wonderful, but they do come at a hefty price. Much of that is because of the law of supply and demand, the very niche market to which they appeal, and the simple fact that many of them are made right here in the USA. About 5 years ago even Edelbrock was considering recasting their 3 deuce intake manifold for the Y Block but I guess the bean counters decided it was a no-go. All of the pre-press and marketing - there was even a picture in one of their catalogs that said "coming soon" but it was not to be. Not only are performance parts expensive, but they also "move" in the swap market quite quickly! About 15 years ago or so I put together a blown Y Block with parts from Paxton McCulloch. While most of what I purchased I had located at swap meets or through various leads, I did happen to buy the very last NOS VS57 supercharger mounting bracket for the 55/56 Ford passenger car from Paradise Wheels. (the company that bought out Paxton McCulloch many years ago) A man from Iowa saw that set up and just had to have it so I sold it to him. I could have written an article or two on the carburetor modifications I had to make!
VS57 Paxton McCulloch supercharger mounted on a 292 Y block (Hot Rod Reverend)
Obviously the Y Block can be built to perform with other engines of the same cubic inches, and that quite well. The results from the most recent Fast Fords event (see a few of my earlier blog posts if you are new to the site) prove that pound for pound the Y Block can hang right up there! I was reminded of this fact again when Tony Fritz invited me to the Kil-kare drag strip in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks back.
Spending time with Tony Fritz in the staging lanes at the Kil-kare drag strip in Dayton, Ohio
Tony's 427 powered Maverick runs in the 9's quite easily...
I had a wonderful time with Tony, his family, and some of his friends that afternoon, but I was surprised to find that Harry Hutten was racing there too. Harry was at Fast Fords but never had the chance to really race his Mercury down the track. When most folks take a quick glance at Harry's Merc there is not too much that is eye-catching - especially when it comes to drag racing. The car weighs roughly 4200 lbs or more, but would you believe it runs in the 12's down the quarter mile? Yep, that 312 Y Block makes that car really scoot!
Harry Hutten's heavy Mercury getting ready to surprise everyone with Y Block power!
As I posted in the last entry, my friend Tim McMaster took his Y Block powered roadster to the Bonneville salt flats in an effort to break the record for the world's fastest Y block. In 2020, the car went 193 mph, and Tim had his sights set on breaking his own record by pushing the car above the 200 mph mark.
Each August the event is attended by quite a few drivers, their crews, and spectators with much fanfare and media on hand to record the action. While Tim was able to go 196 mph plus, the 200 mph mark was hard to reach due to track conditions. You can click the link below to watch a brief video of the Y Block action from Tim McMaster.
So what does the future hold for Y Block performance? In some ways there is much disappointment yet in others there is much hope. I will have to admit that as a young man driving around an old car with an out-dated engine in the 1990's gave me mixed emotions. I loved the car, the engine, and the period tech, but watching all of my friends buy performance parts for their small blocks or even 60's Ford engines off the shelf was a downer. Y Block speed parts was something of lore back then. These days with the resurgence of the engine's desirability, hot-rodding, and of course the racing crowd, individuals and other small companies have delved back into making parts readily available for the Y Block faithful. Aluminum heads are still being produced, parts such as supercharger kits, headers, and intake manifolds are out there. Even companies such as Harland Sharp make high-performance rocker arm shafts for the engine! And, who would have ever imagined that a publication called "Y Block Magazine" would not only take flight but proliferate all these years? (You can subscribe by visiting this link: http://www.y-blocksforever.com/Links.html)
As the current generation of grandfathers and great-grandfathers pass off the scene, I do wonder what will happen with the Y Block. There may be a day when the engine is relegated to collector car status for restoration work and rarely seen in any venue that touts high performance. I believe at the Fast Fords event there was not one Flathead-powered car or truck during the entire weekend, so this prophecy may eventually come to pass. Watching Y Block performance fade off into the sunset may be something that takes place during my lifetime I would imagine. There will be a day when no one makes off-the-shelf parts and the restoration-minded, simple engine-rebuild parts dry up as well. I do believe that beyond the racing crowd today there is one other group that continues to feed the need to supply high-quality parts for the Y Block (and this group is not even a high-performance crowd per se). That group would be the owners of the 1955-57 Thunderbirds and the 1954-57 Ford passenger cars. There is a tendency for these folks to rely upon the Y Block quite heavily and we will hope that as time wears on the owners will keep the Y Block in the vehicle and not simply "slap a 350 chevy" into the engine bay!
The Hot Rod Reverend
aka Daniel Jessup