It’s amazing what a pushrod engine can do these days. The horsepower numbers coming out of LS engine builds are mind-boggling. The numbers get higher, yet these engines seem to ask for more punishment. Obviously, under these extreme conditions, the parts inside these engines, especially the valvetrain, are undergoing severe stress. And one of the parts that are continually managing all of that stress in a pushrod engine is the lifter. That little lifter is the unsung hero of the engine that ensures the valves open and close correctly and that the camshaft isn’t damaged as the engine temperature fluctuates.
A lifter is a cylindrical piece of metal that allows oil to flow through it to hydraulicly control the valve lash and keep things smooth and quiet under the hood. The lifter sits on top of the camshaft and actuates the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves as the cam’s lobes rotate up and down. The idea of a lifter sounds like a relatively simple concept. I thought it was simple until I talked to the folks at Howards Cams and realized I had a lot to learn about lifters. Class is about to begin!
I spoke with Luke Bandt from Howards Cams. Luke is the tech extraordinaire at Howards Cams, and he filled my brain with more than I ever thought I needed about lifters. The first thing he educated me on was the fact that the lifter is part of a larger package, and to provide sound advice on choosing a lifter, he needs to know more about the camshaft being used, the weight of the car, and if you are going to race it. “If someone calls us and says they have a 6.2L Camaro, they want to have fun and do burnouts in,” said Luke. “I would pair them with a semi-aggressive cam for the street and put them on OEM-style performance lifters. That’s all he needs, and we can save him some money.”
In other situations, Luke isn’t trying to save customers money because he is providing advice for nothing except absolute performance. For example, his good friend, Jonathan Capizzi, has a 2,400-pound Fox Body Mustang with an LS engine that he races. Jonathan has set multiple stock-bottom-end and stock-block world records. Through his trials, he has run stock LS7 lifters with the OEM plastic tray and used Howards Cams tie-bar aftermarket lifters. With each lifter choice, Luke and Jonathan considered the entire engine package and the end goal: which was a world record.
To try and simplify things, Luke broke it down for me. With an LS engine, he said they carry three lifter choices, “Factory style replacements (hydraulic lifters), tie-bar style (hydraulic lifters that remove the plastic trays from inside the engine), and bushing roller bearing lifters (solid lifters).” From those three main options, we had the chance to discuss each lifter’s advantages and disadvantages.
To begin, we decided to tackle OEM lifters. “The advantage is the factory has set everything up, and the LS7 was the highest-performing production LS engine ever built, said Luke. “Even if you don’t have an LS7, even with the 5.3, the 6.0, or the 6.2, the LS7 lifters drop right in and work great.” One 10mm bolt and the plastic trays that hold the lifters in place can be removed, and the lifters come out of the engine. A potential disadvantage of the OEM lifter is that there were rumors of a bad batch of LS7 lifters built by GM’s Delphi. Luke says he has heard those rumors but never met anyone with an issue with OEM LS7 lifters. “These are also the cheapest lifters you can buy. For around $170 at a Chevrolet dealer, you can purchase an entire set of lifters for your LS engine.”
Those concerned with GM’s lifters can purchase an LS7-style lifter from an aftermarket company. Howards Cams sells a drop-in lifter good for 8,000 rpm, made by Morel, that uses the plastic lifter tray and is very easy to replace. Luke says these aftermarket lifters come in three different variations, all of which are hydraulic: OE performance, variable duration, and max effort. The OE performance is self-explaining, as they work like the stock LS7 lifter. The variable duration lifter is a fast bleed lifter, “which is a little excessive for a street car,” said Luke. “This lifter will bleed 10 degrees of duration at idle, which calms the car down, provides vacuum, and makes the car driveable. When the oil pressure spikes with RPM, the lifters pump up, allowing a big cam’s peak performance. For a guy who wants a 2,000 rpm stall converter, they can use variable duration lifters and drive on them daily.”
Drag Week competitors would want the max effort lifters. “For someone who says they have an 80mm turbo and 1,000 horsepower, we suggest lifters made by Bill Gaterman. This would be for a full race setup,” said Luke. The advantage of these LS7 replacement lifters is they are hydraulic and streetable, still inexpensive, built with suitable materials, and easy to install. The disadvantage of these lifters is they still use plastic trays, which some people want to delete from the inside of the engine. There are more moving parts inside the lifters, including small needle bearings, which some engine builders worry about failing.
Those who want to delete the plastic trays inside the engine can switch to the tie-bar style lifter. “There is a fair amount of play in the tie bar so as not to impede movement. It’s just there to keep the lifter from spinning,” said Luke. “Morel, Gaterman, and Johnson build these lifters.” The lifter internals can be larger in this configuration with the same .842-inch external diameter. So the internal design can be better. There are fewer moving parts, and the plastic tray is no longer needed. A potential disadvantage to the tie-bar lifter, although unlikely, is that the tie bar can break, allowing the lifter to rotate and wipe out the camshaft. Another disadvantage is the cost. An entry-level set is approximately $680.
The next type of lifter to be discussed was the bushing roller bearing lifter style. All of the previous lifters we discussed had needle bearings inside of them, which some engine builders are cautious of. The bushing roller bearing lifter is a solid roller lifter. “This solid lifter can handle 1,000-pound spring pressure, which a needle bearing can’t handle,” said Luke. Instead of needle bearings, solid lifters use a bronze bushing inside with small oil passages that support the lifter’s roller wheel. This is good for 9,000 rpm. The advantage is its longevity with high performance and the lack of needle bearings to fail and kill an engine. The disadvantage is that the solid bushing isn’t very streetable, and an entry-level set is over $1,000.
I also spoke with Eric Bolander at Howards Cams. Bolander is the Western Regional Sales Manager. He provided excellent advice in closing: “If you install a solid lifter, you have to be aware of the pushrod tolerances. Not all pushrods are equal in length (some can be up to .030-inch different). You have to install an adjustable rocker arm to ensure you have the correct lash in the system.” According to Eric, trying to get the perfect lash without an adjustable rocker arm means you have to swap in and out multiple pushrods to get the .015-inch of lash required in an LS engine which is time-consuming and frustrating. No thanks!
After speaking to Luke and Eric at Howards Cams, I certainly feel I have a better grasp of the world of LS lifters. For the money, give me a set of drop-in LS7s and punch the gas pedal!