Recreating a Ford 427 High-riser Engine For a NASCAR Restoration

The 427 high-riser engine dominated NASCAR in 1964, winning 35 races between the Ford and Mercury teams and giving the much-hyped 426ci Hemi more than its share of heated competition. With such a solid record in the books, it was somewhat imperative that longtime stock car historian Dr. John Craft recreate the high-riser with as much date-correct factory race trim as possible for his restoration of a unique racecar from that era.

“It’s the only known surviving 1964 Holman-Moody Grand National Galaxie,” says Craft, noting that there is another ’64 H-M frame dressed with a ’63 body that’s a replica of Fireball Roberts’car. “Holman-Moody built only 20 Galaxies that year.”

The Holman-Moody Galaxie raced from 1964 (racing action is from Riverside) through 1966, then was left in a mechanic’s field for more than 40 years before Dr. John Craft rescued it and started the 427 high-riser engine recreation project.

As you can see from the photos, not much of the body remained after more than 40 years of sitting in a mechanic’s field. But the H-M firewall tag was intact along with much of the frame and some of the suspension components.

eBay Serendipity

Although not a major winner in its career, the car has the rare distinction of running in NASCAR, FIA and USAC competition. The car’s first race was on the road course at Riverside with Dan Gurney protege Skip Hudson at the wheel. Gurney, driving for the Wood Brothers, won that race with Hudson finishing eighth, seven laps down. At the Daytona 500, Bobby Marshman, who later was killed at Phoenix during an IndyCar tire test, finished 35th in the car after dropping out on lap 17 due to overheating problems.

Left: Dan Gurney looks over one of the original engines in the H-M car. Right: A better view of a Ford 427 high-riser engine in a NASCAR racecar from 1964.

Usually when you port a high-riser you screw things up. — Dr. John Craft, engine builder

Moving over to FIA sanction, the car was entered by Augie Pabst in a 250-kilometer support race before the 12 Hours of Sebring. Getting back to NASCAR, the car was driven and wrecked by Larry Frank on lap 110 at Atlanta before running the rest of the season on the USAC circuit by a friend of Fred Lorentzen. After the ’64 season, Holman-Moody sold the car to Jabe Thomas, who ran it in a few races, with significant crashes at Charlotte and Bristol. Over the season the car finished in the top-10 only once for Thomas, but he did loan it to Ned Jarrett at Nashville for the car’s only podium finish — a second-place effort that helped Jarrett to his driver’s title that year. Not long after in 1966, the car was stripped of its useable parts and the shell left for the next four decades on farm owned by Thomas’ mechanic.

The Ford high-riser heads featured massive intake ports. Craft was lucky to find a NOS set still in the box on eBay.

Obviously there had been a number of engine changes during the car’s career, and since a tree was growing through the engine bay of the original car, a 427 high-riser recreation was needed to complete the restoration. Thankfully, the high-riser was also used on the drag strip, so parts, although scarce, are available. Perhaps the most fortuitous starting point came with the eBay purchase of a set of NOS high-riser heads still in the factory boxes and with the Ford shim gaskets.

“[High-rise heads] were race-only heads back then,” reminds Craft. “If you find any today, generally they’re decked or cracked at the spark plug hole.”

NASCAR Politics & Cylinder Heads

The high-riser head offered large (1.34 x 2.72) rectangular intake ports and came with fully machined combustion chambers and 2.19/1.73 valves. The high-port heads would mount to any 427 block — as well as 406 and 428 blocks with a little modification to clear the valves — but due to the ports’ size and location, a dedicated high-riser intake manifold was required. For that year in NASCAR it was a single 4-barrel, but drag racers did get the option of a dual 4-barrel setup.

The 427 FE center-oiling block features a deep-skirt 'Y' design with cross-bolted mains. The block that Craft found on eBay was relatively straight bored only .030 over. He did install a forged-steel crank for durability, as all '64 high-risers sported cast-iron cranks.

Of course, NASCAR politics rearranged the engine scene the following year, and Ford had to develop the 427 medium-riser head and manifold package when the Chrysler Hemi and Ford high-riser were banned. At the same time, Chevy was finally getting the bugs worked out on the 427 Mk IV engine that GM introduced a year earlier after running the “mystery motor” in 1963. For 1965, Ford submitted a new hemispherical-chamber head with single over-head camshafts, better known as the Ford 427 SOHC engine. But when NASCAR made unreasonable demands on the approved vehicles Ford could race with that engine, Ford officials pulled it from competition and got the medium-riser properly homologated in production vehicles.

The rotating assembly comprises Ford ‘Le Mans’ connecting rods and JE pistons.

For his 427 high-riser recreation, Craft had a competition valve job performed on the heads and fitted them with Ferrea stainless-steel valves, but he did resist all temptation to grind the iron in the ports.

“Usually when you port a high-riser you screw things up,” says Craft, noting there was a very effective venturi ring just above the valve seat that most porters would take out. “Ford was pretty good with their castings. Back in the day, NASCAR wouldn’t allow you to port the heads, anyway. I expect to make period-correct horsepower, but as a vintage racer I disdain those who put modern technology in a vintage wrapper and call it a restoration.”

Using eBay and his parts sources, Craft also secured a correct NASCAR single 4-barrel intake manifold and topped it with a modern Holley 750 cfm double-pumper that was retrofitted with the period-correct “Le Mans” center-pivot fuel bowls. Feeding air into the carb is an original Holman-Moody cowl-induction setup.

The recreation’s foundation starts with a short-block assembly that Craft found on eBay. The center-oiling block carries a 1964 production date and came with a .030-over bore and a forged-steel crank. The block had never seen any shrapnel and the cylinder finish was clean enough that it needed only some touching up with the honing stones. 

Short-block assembly included a Ford Motorsport roller timing chain. Factory specs and clearances were observed.

Ford’s 1964 NASCAR engines ran a cast-iron crank, then upgraded to forged steel in 1965. Even though the eBay short-block came with a steel crank, Craft had already gathered a ’65 steel 3.78-inch-stroke, cross-drilled crank and an NOS set of “Le Mans” forged-steel connecting rods that were prepped with ARP bolts. Powered by Ford handled all of Craft’s machine work on the block and balanced the rotating assembly that was completed with a set of JE 4.260-inch pistons. The forged alloy slugs also feature a .400 dome and 1/16-1/16-3/16 rings. Compression ratio is 12:1.

Close-up view of the prepped cylinder block and installed pistons.

“It’s not meant to the be the highest-revving motor,” says Craft, “But high-risers could run to 7,000 rpm with the rev kit — which included shell lifters and better springs. I won’t be running that high, probably observing shift points around 6,200 rpm.”

A Crower flat-tappet camshaft with advertised duration of 290/298 and gross valve lift of .549/561 with the factory 1.76:1 rockers was installed along with the lightweight shell lifters.

“The cam will probably peak out around 6,500 rpm,” adds Craft. “The Ford NASCAR engines weren’t built for quick revving but for longevity.”

For lubrication, Craft went with a Melling high-volume pump blueprinted by Precision Oil Pumps, a vintage Ford windage tray and a Canton 8-quart oil pan.

The heads were fitted with Ferrea stainless-steel valves, and clearances checked as needed. Right is a close-up view of the long-block.

Lubrication is handled with a Melling pump, vintage Ford baffle and Canton road-racing 8-quart oil pan.

“I have the correct 8-quart Ford pan with the original 427 pickup for the purists,” says Craft, adding that the modern road-racing design with baffles will help protect the engine in vintage racing. “This engine is unobtanium. I don’t know where I’d find another set of NOS heads.”

An original high-riser intake tops off the engine assembly.

In wrapping up the engine, Craft installed a reproduction cast-iron water pump, factory style reproduction valve covers and a period-correct Ford dual-point distributor that was converted to electronic ignition with a Pertronix kit. It’s wired to an MSD box that will be hidden under the dash. He also bolted on a set of original long-style exhaust manifolds and a factory bellhousing.

“The idea is that when you open the hood, it will look period correct,” says Craft.

One change for improved durability, however, is favoring a thick-shaft Toploader transmission over the more vulnerable T10.

At this writing, the engine was headed to Florida for break-in and dyno tests. It will then be installed into the restored car, which needed considerable help from a running, relatively rust-free ’64 Galaxie donor car found in Arizona. That car’s frame was cut up to help patch the H-M frame, as needed.

Decoding The Tag

All Holman-Moody racecars had a tag with serial number and description. The “C4” indicated 1964, and the HM, of course, was Holman-Moody. This was the 41st car built for that season. Records are no longer available on this cars from Holman Moody, but Craft’s research indicates 20 Galaxies were built. H-M also built drag and road-racing cars at its facility.

“There was enough of the original body to use as a go-by for the modifications that Holman-Moody did,” says Craft, noting that it was unlikely that even that cancer-ridden sheetmetal was original. “NASCAR cars got rebodied, as a matter of course back in the day.”

From his research, Craft knew Holman-Moody modified the car’s chassis enough to make a difference but not catch the tech inspector’s eye.

“One of the ways Holman-Moody cheated up their cars was by narrowing the rear frame by two inches from the kick-up point back,” says Craft. “But nobody’s been able to tell me why they did that.”

Possible explanations include narrowed rails resulted in a more parallel alignment of the leaf springs, or that the surgery relocated the shock crossmember to help provide more tire clearance.

An Arizona rust-free ‘donor’ car provided much of the sheetmetal repair to restore the Galaxie body. It eventually will receive a coat metalflake paint similar in color shown below.

“But when Jabe wrecked the car, he clipped the back end without realizing it had been narrowed,” notes Craft. “He widened it back to register with the stock body mounts. I had to redo what Jabe had undone when he wrecked hard at Bristol.”

A Holman-Moody traditional finishing touch is the George Barris-inspired metalflake paint job.

Even as this project wraps up, Craft is also working a ’68 Holman-Moody Torino driven by Bobby Allison that finished third at Daytona. That will have a famed 427 tunnel-port engine. And there’s a 428 Cobra Jet engine as well as a couple of small-block Fords on the schedule.

About the author

Mike Magda

Mike Magda is a veteran automotive writer with credits in publications such as Racecar Engineering, Hot Rod, Engine Technology International, Motor Trend, Automobile, Automotive Testing Technology and Professional Motorsport World.
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