Many will tell you that Tommy Ivo's T-bucket is still to this day one of the best looking
Of all the vintage engines being examined in this series, the Buick V-8s of the '50s and '60s have maintained their loyal fan base in the hot rodding world longer than many of their competitors. Almost from their introduction in 1953, the Buick overhead V-8s caught on with the coupes 'n' roadsters crowd, lakes runners, drags racers, and even builders of sports car "specials."
Today, you see Buick engines in a variety of hot rods, not just nostalgia or trad rods. And, we don't mean one or two Nailheads at an event, as might be the case with a 409 or 312 Ford, but enough to carry off their own Nailhead Corral!
Few vintage engines-other than the Flathead and Hemi, which are in a category all their own and not covered in this series-have so much specific information available. Couple that with an ever-widening choice of performance and appearance equipment, and you have a very practical engine choice that will reward a rodder with long-term reliability and serious low-end torque. A full "dresser" Nailhead will draw a crowd of other enthusiasts who are quick to begin storytelling about street and track exploits with Nailhead V-8s in days gone by.
Among the first engines built by Scottish-born David Dunbar Buick was an overhead-valve one-lunger at the close of the 19th century, so the cusp of technology was associated with the Buick marque from its inception. Conceived as a higher-level car from the start, once the Buick name was established it was soon folded into General Motors by William Durant, and several times (pre-WWI) Buick was the biggest seller and the savior of GM. Little known trivia: The three shields that make up the Buick logo are actually representative of David Buick's ancestral heraldry.
Performance, dependability, and luxury were all successfully meshed in the Buick line's reputation, that first attribute forged in racing competition, including taking checkered flags at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even before the Indy 500 had been thought of. The dependability, at a time when automobiles were still thought of as an amusing fad, was demonstrated by Buicks in numerous cross-country, and cross-continent, endurance events.
As we have discussed in other engine profiles of this series, the hot inter-marque sales competition of the automakers in the '50s sparked rapid development of the engines we take for granted today. These engines may seem technologically primitive compared to our fuel-sipping, distributorless, computer-managed powerplants of today, but they laid the OHV groundwork for the modern engines we now enjoy in our daily drivers.
For decades, the Buick line had been powered by overheads almost exclusively when few other makes were so equipped. During what we affectionately call the "Flathead era," Buicks were powered by a succession of OHV straight-eight engines that were smooth and had the torque to handle heavier luxury-model cars. They were not that popular with hot rodders, but the few who bothered to take a 320-inch Buick-eight out of a wrecking yard and drop it into a roadster with a recessed firewall (as did Ak Miller) found they could prune off a hot Flathead Ford time after time without ever running hot.
In 1953, Buick introduced its first overhead-valve ("valve-in-head," as Buick would say) V-8 engine in a 322ci size, and with 236 hp, it received immediate notice, triggering a climb in Buick sales that didn't begin to dim until the later '50s. That first "Nailhead" V-8 (so named derisively in reference to the relatively small valve-head diameter in relation to the standard stem size; i.e., proportioned "like a nail") was joined by a 264-inch version in 1954 for the lesser "Special" line, and in 1957 was superseded in the higher lines with a new 364-incher in 1957.
Nailhead installations today run the gamut from pristine to practical. The former is exemp
On the other end of the spectrum is this cut-down '20s Buick closed car with an "undressed
Buick has a colorful history of performance, but there was no better unofficial spokespers
Mike Keeler's beautiful Deuce five-window illustrates a nice Nailhead installation. You ca
Most later Nailheads you find will have a center-sump oil pan (top). A rear-sump oil pan (
One way to handle the left-side traffic jam of exhaust/steering/starter is to use an outsi
If you want a lighter, more modern starter that can also save you some room, you might con
Earlier engines can benefit from the late Nailhead's TH400 with switch-pitch converter. Th
That motor continued in the line through 1961, but sales were down by two-thirds by 1959. The smooth power of the Nailhead motors was still praised by owners and auto writers, but according to industry observers, it was Buick's failure to read the mercurial styling trends of the late '50s that killed their sales. Obviously, car customizers didn't feel that way, since they snagged all the toothy Buick grilles and gracefully curved side trim they could get, to apply them to plebeian makes like Chevy and Ford for an upgrade.
In an effort to stimulate sales and keep up with the horsepower "curve," Buick introduced the fabled 401ci V-8 in 1959, and it continued until the end of the Nailhead era in 1966. This and its 425ci bigger brother (1963-1966) more than held up the highway performance image of the cars, and Buick's sales were recovering in the early '60s.
These are the engines that made the reputation the Nailheads enjoy today with legions of fans. While the design of the heads didn't make for great high-rpm breathing, they worked superbly at doing what Buick engineers were aiming at: making torque. So proud of their cruisin' torque was the Buick team that they gave their engines decals that referred to their torque rating, rather than their displacement. Thus, to the confusion of many Buick initiates, you pop the hood on a Buick Wildcat and see decals that proclaim the engine as a "465," yet that is lb-ft, not cubic inches! That engine is actually a four-barrel 425-incher (1963 to 1966).
Buick went on to maintain its position at GM, and in the overall marketplace, with innovations like an aluminum V-8, the first V-6 in the U.S., the fabled Grand National turbo cars, and with constantly reinvented styling. However, with the exception of the few Nailhead cars that ran in NASCAR in the early '50s and the Super Wildcats, Riviera Gran Sports, and those turbo models of much later, the Buick name was not connected to a racy image.
Hot Rodding and Nailheads
Torque is what propels a car across an intersection from a dead stop, without "gow" gearing or high rpm. The Nailhead Buicks could do it without a murmur of protest, plus run 100 on the open highway all day long without your right foot being all the way down. Torque is good, and low-end torque is even mo' betta. This is the arena where Nailheads shine. The 401 achieved 410 lb-ft, even with a two-barrel carb, and 445 lb-ft with a Carter AFB four-barrel. The beauty of that last number is in the rpm at which that max-torque is achieved, 2,800! Most modern "performance" engines that can produce that much torque do so at higher rpm. Take your typical 383-stroker small-block Chevy. It makes very good torque, say around 420 lb-ft, but at over 4,000 rpm. Unless you wind the wee out of it, a 65-year-old geezer in a 45-year-old 401 Buick could embarrass you from stoplight to stoplight. Hopefully, there are no witnesses.
This "dig-out" performance appealed to hot rodders right from the beginning. Thanks to some trendsetting rodders, such as Max Balchowsky, Tommy Ivo, and Tony Nancy, the rodding world was exposed to what a Nailhead was capable of. Max had a shop in Hollywood for imported sports cars. While he tended to the tuning and repair needs of Ferrari and MG owners from the '50s on, he wasn't above building hot-rodded Buick engines and running them in "sports car specials," which at the time were usually built from various aftermarket bodies made of the new Fiberglas wonder material and mounted on a postwar Ford chassis or tubular design. Motivation was usually by good-'ol-boy domestic V-8s. They often trounced the tea-baggers in road races, and few foreign roadsters could compete with them in hill climbs. Max started with a channeled Deuce roadster with a Nailhead, then graduated to a handmade/junkyard sheetmetal sports car body on a primitive frame, the first of the famous "Ol' Yeller" specials, driven by Max and several now-legendary race drivers.
Simple 1/4-inch plate mounts like these are easily fabricated to mate with early Ford bisc
Identifying Nailheads is easy: If it has a left-side starter and a rear-mounted distributo
Milr Products not only makes about the coolest Nailhead valve covers we've seen, with Buic
Like a Buick calliope, Eelco's "flagship" is this chopped 'n' channelled A coupe with its
Sanderson Headers makes a nice short header perfect for street rod applications, with good
Russ Martin's Centerville Auto Repair has all the trick parts to complete your Nailhead. C
If you want a vintage intake, there were a number of them made. Part of Russ Martin's coll
This Nailhead-in-an-A has the radiator moved forward and a recess in the firewall, which i
A nice installation in a Deuce highboy, this Nailhead wears custom-built headers, coveted
Max developed friendships with a number of celebrity clients, including one we all know and love, "TV" Tommy Ivo. Tom had a brand-new Century in 1955 and loved it, but he didn't know much about engines at first, until Max taught him how to tune and rebuild Nailheads. When Tom was inspired by fellow actor Norm Grabowski's seminal T to build his own bucket, Max said it should have a Nailhead. While Norm's car was showy and radical looking, Tom built a very clean street rod with the emphasis on performance, as attested to by its nearly unbeaten status on the streets of the San Fernando Valley and the dragstrips of the L.A. area. From that success, Tom developed an interest in a pure race car, and wound up trying his injected Nailhead out in a friend's dragster chassis.
With the go-fast disease progressing nicely in his system, Tom then had Kent Fuller build a new chassis and campaigned this with an injected Nailhead (Top Gas) in 1958, followed later by a twin-engined Nailhead gas dragster (he sold the single-engine Nailhead car to buddy Don Prudhomme). He began his professional touring-pro career with the twin-engined car, then built the famous four-engined, four-wheel-drive Showboat dragster in 1961. Tom remained a pro racer for many years after in Top Fuel and Funny Cars.
Famed upholsterer Tony Nancy had also built Buicks when he stopped using Flatheads in his 22jr roadsters. They were as fast as they were detailed, like all of his dragsters to follow. However, there were lots of other street rods and competition cars powered by Nailhead Buick V-8s. Northern California's Nailhead guru Russ Martin has a display case in his shop that features vintage car magazines. Although the collection is restricted only to magazines that exhibit a Nailhead on the cover, there are some 56 at last count.
Back in my homeland of Massachusetts, we had a local guy named Whitey Gould who did for the East Coast what Ivo had accomplished in L.A., building a very clean T-bucket with a Nailhead sporting six Stromberg deuces on top. Whitey's creds were gained on the streets and at New England dragstrips, as well, leaving a lasting respect for the Nailheads among my crowd of impressionable teenagers. Forty-five years later, my current ride is a '40 pickup with a 401.
Nailhead Power Today
From the mid-'50s to the late '60s, hopped-up Buick powerplants filled the engine compartments of dragsters, roadsters, lakes cars, show cars, and fat-Ford hot rods across the nation, then they seemed to fade out of favor as factory hot rods and high-output big-block engines, the cream of the musclecar era, became available to any rodder with a steady job and a cosigner.
Nailheads are having their renaissance today, though, as a newer crop of rodders discovers the trifecta appeal of their low-end torque, their narrower width (for a big-block engine), and their classic looks. Hard to believe, but it was 11 years ago that Doc Frohmader did an outstanding year-long series of Nailhead buildup articles in this publication, when the Nailhead revival was starting, and the engines and articles are just as relevant and popular today.
The upright valves and their inboard location were part of the factory design to make the engine narrower, which is good for street rod applications; however, the Nailheads do have some added length, with a long timing cover at the front and a rear-mount distributor that angles backward a little, instead of being vertical. You'll need room for the distributor in flat-firewall cars, and a considerable recess for a Model A or '33-40 Fords with "projecting" firewalls. A complete 425 Buick weighs 620-640 pounds, which isn't bad for that much displacement, and can easily be svelted-down another 50 pounds or so with tubing headers and a typical aluminum aftermarket intake manifold.
The 264 and 322 engines had tin spark plug wire covers (center), but the aftermarket caugh
Only the '53-56 264-322 heads had a tapped provision for mounting plug wire covers, but no
Many '50s V-8s had a flat valley cover that rodders usually replaced with finned aluminum
Sometimes, an engine is so cool-looking, you don't want to distract from the picture with
Don't overlook "vintage" wrecking yards that may be near you. Ask old-timers where they us
One problem with Nailheads is the left-side starter location, which causes interference problems between the steering, starter, and exhaust all trying to occupy the same real estate. Unfortunately, we know of no one then or now who made an adapter plate (as they did for Olds V-8s) that swapped the starter over to the right. If you have an M2 frontend, there's plenty of room to run a D-shaft past the exhaust and starter, but you'll have to plan carefully to utilize a Nailhead with a dropped axle, split 'bones, and a Vega box.
Your search for a Nailhead to use in your next project should probably be focused on the 364-401-425 engines. The earlier engines are harder to find, and the later engines have bigger valves and other improvements, although vintage speed equipment and trans adapters for the earlier engines are sometimes easier to find, perhaps because hot rodders "traded up" when the bigger Nailheads came out. The 401 happens to be one of the most common because it was produced in higher quantities over a number of years, while the 425s are tougher to find and are more expensive, since they were only in a few models. The Riviera Gran Sport enthusiasts are always trolling for 425s and pay a little more than we vintage-rod builders.
As with any senior-citizen engine, you should check the condition of the block and internals carefully, looking for cracks in heads, cylinders and water jackets, gouged cylinders from OEM wrist pins that came loose, or a loose balancer bolt (they need to have 225 ft-lb of torque to stay on) that could have caused damage to the crank snout. Take the short-block to a machine shop for a thorough exam. Ideally, find an engine that has not been rebuilt before. The Buick cylinder heads are comparatively easy on valve seats, but the material around the seats isn't copious, so many a Buick head has been ruined by someone trying to install hard seats and hitting the water jackets.
You'll find engine rebuild kits readily available from Egge Machine, Kanter Auto, and Centerville Auto Repair, with most internals still available from Federal-Mogul and oil pumps from Melling. Other Buick parts specialists include Classic & Muscle Automotive, and J&C's Parts. Between these experts, you can set up your Buick with everything from modern crank seals to roller rocker arms. Poston Enterprises has a line of performance camshafts for the Nailheads. You should know that the original profiles on stock Nailhead cams were comparatively radical for non-musclecar OEM applications, as a means of compensating for shortcomings in port size and angles. Most of the common Nailhead-building mistakes are well covered in the previously mentioned '97 Frohmader articles in Street Rodder. What is needed is a decent book about the Nailheads, because the story of these engines today is too big, even for an entire issue of a magazine.
The end of the Nailhead era saw these engines fitted with GM's newest transmission, the Turbo-Hydramatic 400, and we bless those forward-thinking GM engineers, as this is a rare case of a vintage engine that comes with a thoroughly rugged, modern transmission! These were in '64-66 models, but then if you have a pre-1964 Nailhead, that '64-66 TH400 trans and flexplate can easily be fitted to the early (shorter) rear crank flange with an adapter from Centerville Auto Repair. Wilcap has adapters for GM automatics and a stick bellhousing.
There is enough aftermarket performance equipment being made today for the Buick Nailhead engine that you could assemble a fire-breather without ever visiting a swap meet or eBay, although there are still good vintage external items out there in fairly good numbers for the traditionalists. Since these engines have excellent performance to start with (stock with a good cam profile and 10:1 compression), about all street rodders are concerned with are the intake and exhaust. Sanderson Headers has the hot side covered, and the right year and model of original cast-iron manifolds can work quite well in some applications. What's hard to find is a left-side manifold that clears both the firewall and steering. New Tri-power intakes are available from Offenhauser (see Exeter Auto Supply) and Streamline Hot Rod Parts carries the new Eelco dual-quad and 6x2 intakes.
When shopping for a vintage intake, be aware that there are three widths of manifolds. Measuring from one of the front boltholes to the one on the opposite side, the 264/322 manifolds measure 8 1/4 inches, 364s measure 8 5/8 inches, and 401/425 intakes measure 9 inches.
Recent dyno tests on Eric Schmidt's well-built 425 Buick at Craig Shuck Motorsports showed results of 470 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm, and 370 hp at 3,600 rpm, which is more than enough to make your rear tires dance around like water drops on a hot frying pan! Also interesting in his test results were that Tom Telesco's adjustable billet roller rockers (see Classic & Muscle Automotive) were worth some 13 hp, the Eelco 2x4 had the same power as a vintage Edelbrock 2x4, and that the Sanderson shortie headers were about the same power as cast-iron manifolds, but moved the powerband up a little.
When it comes to dressing for the party, Buicks look as good as anything out there, short of a blown Hemi with M/T valve covers. Offy still makes their finned valve covers, as do Mooneyes, Milr Products, and Eelco. O'Brien Truckers, Moon, and Milr Products all make finned aluminum valley covers. Ignitions are available ranging from new billet MSD distributors to Joe Hunt Magneto's "mag-alike" to vintage Mallory or rare W&H DuCoil distributors. If you want modern performance with the original look, send your stock distributor to Dave's Small-Body HEIs, where Dave Ray will rebuild your distributor and install modern electronics and adjustable vacuum advance while keeping the outside stock.
For a vintage engine suitable for today's hot rods, Buick Nailhead engines are still in decent supply. Though they're not as cheap as a small-block Chevy or as expensive as a 409 or Hemi, we've seen numerous complete Nailhead motors going for $500-$600. (This author bought a running '65 401 for $600 with a rebuilt TH400.) Watch your local classified papers and hit the swaps. It may be unwise to buy one from a source that is too far from you to permit a thorough examination before purchase, which is true for any vintage engine.
Once you get "Nailed," you'll understand why these have remained so popular in hot rodding circles. For what you'd spend for a crate motor, you'll have a piece of automotive history in your engine bay that'll be good for horsepower and conversation for many years to come.