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Street Race Truck More... The Toolbox

Building Custom 241 Red Ram Driveshaft Headers

8/27/2020

When I decided to build an old school, traditionally built hot rod I was committed from the very beginning to do as much of the work myself. I knew this meant my final product would not be the next AMBR winner or contend for the Riddler award, but the feeling of accomplishment and the education was my goal. Above all else I aimed to build a car that felt like it was built by young guys with modest tools in a simple garage – a fifties style hot rod.

It is amazing how much can be learned when you just commit to tackling fabrication tasks yourself. This is a chronicle of my journey building my very first set of headers. Here were my goals at the outset:

  • Use original 1937 Ford driveshaft tubes for the cones
  • Use what I could find on the cheap
  • Use my own tools - a 110 MIG welder, chop saw, hand die grinder and cut-off wheel
  • Avoid using original manifolds (although they are cool too) but because the set I had was cracked and needed repair it would probably only be a matter of time before another set cracked too!

The first and last points were the most important to me for sure. I loved the idea of taking some of Henry’s 1937 Vanadium steel and using them for exhaust headers. I also liked the idea of a set of headers that seemed tailor-made for the car.

What scared me the most is that I had never built a set of headers in my life, and hoped my welding skills were up to the challenge. Here goes nothing!

Step 1: Locate an original 1937 Driveshaft

Many might question why. Well, back in the old days it is what old hot rodders did. Junkyards were full of old Fords so the parts were easy to find. People were just like me and on a budget so they used what was available. Many people refer to these headers as “torque tube” headers. This is a bit of a misnomer because the best headers were not made with heavy Ford torque tubes. Instead, the best pieces our forefathers in hot rodding looked for was a genuine 1937 ford drive shaft. It is tapered the same on both ends so you could slice it in half to make one set of headers. Some also claim that the steel is special and makes a beautiful ringing sound when the engine is running. I would later find out this is indeed true, but I am jumping ahead! I had to go on a hunt for a proper drive shaft in order to find a genuine Ford piece from the River Rouge plant circa 1937!

As you may have guessed ’37 driveshafts are not as easy to find as they used to be. I had to check in with all of my buddies and was finally able to find a good driveshaft from my friend Skip in Minnesota. One call to French Lake Auto and I was in business. It took about a week to arrive, but when it did I was so happy to see it was in great shape. It wasn’t rusty, dented, or bent up. When I found out Skip had to tip a car over to get the part for me I was sure to tell him I owe him one!

I set the driveshaft up in my chop saw and made three important cuts. Once right down the middle of the tube, one on each end to cut off both the splined tip and bung on the opposite side.

The cones were my starting point. They are heavy and long. Perfect!
Step 2: Make some exhaust flanges

The next step would be making some flanges to mount on my 1954 241 dodge engine. You sure can buy flanges that are ready to go, but I thought I might take a whack at creating my own. I had never built anything in CAD so I used this opportunity to design my first part on a computer. It was a high-tech way to build an old set of headers. I also chose to do it this way because I needed a few tweaks to my flanges that are not available with over the counter flanges you might find on eBay.

I am using the original generator bracket on my engine which is designed to mount to the cast manifold on the passenger side. Also, I had a set of cast-away header tubes measuring 2.5” OD and didn’t want to hand-grind the holes to make everything fit. Most of the over the counter header flanges are designed around smaller tubes.

Using a gasket and a swap meet flange from a buddy as a pattern for the hole spacing I created my flanges so they could be cut out at my local shop with a plasma/laser cutter. I designed them to be ¼” thick steel so they would be less likely to warp/bend during the welding process.

I completely messed up my first attempt thinking I could scan the gasket and use the image as a template. I am sad to say my first set of flanges were way off and wouldn’t fit at all. The second attempt was much better because I took the time to measure and check all of the hold spacing measurements. Definitely a rookie mistake, but a good lesson learned for future parts I set out to make!

Above you see the first flange off of the laser table mounted to the engine. Everything lines up! The long extended rectangular piece in the design is a carefully located chunk that I could bend and drill to provide the necessary mount for the generator bracket. I had to bend, drill, tap, and cut off the extra un-needed length before I could proceed. Once everything was bolted down I was very happy with the result.

After working a couple of days I had a really great set of flanges that I was proud of.
Step 3: Source or bend tubes to connect the flanges to the cones

It would not be difficult to have tubes bent to use during this step, but I was lucky and learned of a discounted u-fab header kit part 9300561 for a big block Chevy that had been returned without engine flanges. I picked it up for a song and a dance but would have considered purchasing it anyway because the pre-bent tubes really made life easy.

Step 4: Mocking things up

With the engine in the chassis the way I wanted it, I used a series of jack stands, magnets, and welded ½” x ½” square tubing to my chassis to hold the cones in place where I wanted them to end up. In the interest of keeping both headers symmetrical, I cut the first tube for the cylinder farthest to the front. I used a combination of two pieces to create a nicely flowing curve into the narrow end of the cone.

I liked it so much I cut two more tubes the exact same way for the other side. When I tacked both sides up I was astonished to see that the headers were dramatically different and one cone reached back further than the other. I totally forgot how the ports are staggered and the first cylinder on the driver’s side is further back than the one of the passenger. Another rookie mistake but catching it early meant I could fix it and move on.

After a little adjustment, I had both sides looking close again. Once I had the first tube on each side looking good I tacked it a little better so it was stable. I then moved on to the remaining cylinders starting with the tube furthest back (or closest to the cowl). I used a dovetail method rather than notching the tube to the matching circumference of the cone. Both methods would work, but I like the dovetail look better.

Once all of the tubes looked like they would fit together I traced the tubes on the cone giving me a guide for cutting the holes. I then cut the tack welds and moved on to opening up the holes.

Step 5: Opening up the holes and welding everything together

I used a trusty hole saw to cut the holes in the cone where the individual header pipes would feed hot exhaust through. It was pretty straight forward but I would advise using a hole saw much smaller than the tube diameter. It was very easy to use a carbide burr on a die grinder to bring the holes to the proper size for a perfect fit.

Welding a set of headers together requires patience and care. If you have a heavy workbench where you can clamp the header flange down this will ensure warpage will be kept to a minimum. Move your welds around and don’t concentrate too much heat in one area. Also, let things cool down without the help of water/quenching. I didn’t have any issues with my headers while keeping these things in mind.

I started out by tig welding all of my nicest joints. When I say nice I mean the gaps were nice and I didn’t have much to fill in. As things pulled and moved I did end up with some ugly gaps that I was able to go back and MIG weld.

My welds were ugly enough I decided to grind them all as smooth as I could. I used a die grinder and carbide burr for the majority of this work but finished things off by sanding with an orbital sander.

Once both sides of the headers were welded and roughly ground I mounted them to the car and fired it up. The resulting sound was great to hear. Every hot rod is slightly different and having headers that fit close to the car gives it a tailor-made feel when you look at it.

There are perhaps pros out there that will have a chuckle looking at my work, but it feels great having built my first set. Would I do things differently next time – you bet. Am I going into the header business? Not a chance!

If you are looking for lakes headers, or lakes header kits Speedway Motors has you covered. I am thankful I was able to use some of the “off the shelf” parts and still come out with something unique. If you decide you would like a set made with legit 1937 Ford driveshaft cones happy hunting. They are still out there!

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