Tom Wilson
August 12, 2004
01. Horse Sense: Changing rocker arms is a quick and easy power solution-so was our test. When another, more complicated, test fell through due to a lack of parts, swapping rocker ratios quickly and easily provided a power boost. It might do the same for you trackside someday as well.

It's no secret that adding duration and valve lift helps make power. But besides changing camshafts, there is another way to modify valve events-change the rocker-arm ratio.

Ford V-8 rocker ratios-at least in small-block pushrod engines-are 1.6:1 as designed and sold by Ford. What this means is the lobe lift ground into a camshaft is multiplied by 1.6 to arrive at the valve lift. Thus, a cam lobe that measures 0.353 inch at its greatest height (the lobe lift), will open the valve 0.565 inch (0.353 x 1.6 = 0.565).

02. These 1.6 Hi-Tech stainless steel rocker arms are similar to the ones we've been running on our engine since day one. Comp's premium rockers, these high-strength, high-durability pieces are light yet feature exceptional fatigue strength compared to aluminum rockers. Rebuildable and available for every popular Ford pushrod V-8, these rockers are everything except inexpensive.

Furthermore, the valvetrain industry supports hot rodders by providing alternatives-in the case of small-block Fords, rocker arms with a 1.7:1 ratio. It doesn't take long to figure out valve lift increases with the "bigger" ratio, in our example going from 0.565 inch with stock-type 1.6 rockers to 0.600 inch with 1.7 aftermarket ratio rockers.

No Free Lunch
So, why doesn't everyone simply fit 1.7 rockers and make more power? Well, there's nothing but tradeoffs inside engines, and with rocker-arm ratio you're cashing in some valve-guide longevity for a bit more horsepower when fitting higher-ratio rocker arms. Ford has designed its small-block valvetrains to work with 1.6 rockers-interestingly, many big-block engines use 1.7 ratios in stock form, and it's worth noting small-block Chevys roll out the door with 1.5 rockers. But when the engineers calculated these ratios, they balanced the inevitable side load a rocker arm exerts against the valve guide and made their choice. When you move from a stock 1.6 ratio to a faster 1.7 ratio, valve-guide wear can be expected to increase. For a drag engine or maybe even a dedicated road-racing engine this is no big deal, but for street duty where the miles pile up and no one wants to be rebuilding cylinder heads on a yearly basis, valve-guide wear can be an issue.

03. & 04. Because they are durable enough and definitely less expensive, most enthusiasts opt for aluminum roller rockers, such as this 1.6 version shown with a 1.6 stainless version. Obviously the aluminum rocker is bulkier, which might pose a spring interference problem should large valve-springs be used. The aluminum rockers also must use a smaller roller trunnion to keep a maximum of aluminum mass for strength. These are both Comp rockers, and both are fine choices. Interestingly, Comp says the steel rocker can be lighter than the aluminum version at the valve end because of reduced material there. The difference has to be academic for all but ultra-rpm engines.

High-lift rockers are also tougher on the valvespring because they accelerate the valve. And there is always the possibility of crashing the valves into the pistons with more lift. This point is less of an issue with street engines and their mild compression ratios and valve events than it is with race engines, but it can happen with some aftermarket cylinder heads with unusually shaped combustion chambers.

Furthermore, there are often better ways of getting more valve lift. The clearest example is simply using a larger-lift cam. A higher-lift cam with the appropriate opening and closing ramps provides the benefits of higher lift with less trauma on the valve guides, springs, retainers, and so on.

And not to toss the entire idea of high-lift rockers under the bus, but extra valve lift is often not the best way of gaining power via the valvetrain. Given the option of increasing duration or lift, engine builders typically choose duration because it effectively provides more valve opening and resultant airflow than lift. That is gained via different camshaft lobes.

All that said, higher-ratio rockers have some advantages. They are less expensive and easier to install than a new cam. They can be tuned on a cylinder-by-cylinder basis, and they can be easily installed after the cylinder head, cam, and intake combination have been fitted to the engine and run for a while. That allows some fine-tuning on an existing engine where redesigning another camshaft is not practical.


Two Schools of Thought
Tuners seem to fall into two camps when it comes to rocker arms. One says higher-lift rockers provide a way to even the power outputs of end cylinders, which often are lazier than the center cylinders at higher rpm due to longer runner lengths in the intake manifold. Not an issue with modern EFI intakes, this thinking dates from the carbureted school, where a single four-barrel intake inevitably offers shorter center runners and longer end runners.

The other school of thought says so what if some cylinders run better than others. If higher-lift rockers make more power, why not run them on all the cylinders and gain the maximum engine output, rather than the smoothest?

We belong to the second, max-power school of thought, so when we fitted our 347 Coast High Performance dyno mule to the Westech 901 SuperFlow engine dyno, we had a four-step plan on fitting 1.6 and 1.7 ratio rocker arms.