The 12 Port Story

The 12 Port Story Pt. 6
Herbert Hall
(originally printed in Vol. 2, Issue 1 of the 12 Port News)

    This month it is a pleasure to spend some time looking back over the career of one of the legends in auto racing.  Mr. Howard Johansen.  In this article we will be focusing primarily on the GMC 12 Port cylinder heads that Howard Johansen manufactured in the early 1950's.  However, Howard Johansen was a major force in auto racing, and especially in drag racing.  "Howard" equipped cars set many records, set many firsts and were leaders in innovations, as well as at the finish line.  We would like to refer you back to VOL. 1, ISSUE 3 of "The 12 Port News," and the fine interview of Howard Johansen, done there by our editor, Don Kincaid.  There are so many aspects to the "Howard" story, that we cannot touch all of them here, so we'll only mention a few.  Your author would like to thank Mr. Art Benjamin of Fresno, Calif. for his assistance in doing this segment of "The 12 Port Story."  Art is an old friend of Howard Johansen and has provided me with many valuable pieces of information as well as photos, dyno sheets, price lists, etc.

    The Summer of 1951, was certainly a busy time for the designers and builders of 12 Port heads, especially those for the GMC.  One afternoon, Art Benjamin was visiting Howard Johansen at Howard's shop in Los Angeles, on south Main Street, right where it still is today.  Art Benjamin was successful stock head GMC racer, and had a 1950 270 block with a 302 cylinder head on it.  It was bored out, to give him 298 cu. inches.  This engine ran a "Howard" 5-carb log manifold with Stromberg 97s on it, a Howard F-7 cam that had an intake timing of 30-80 with .500" lift.   This engine, in full stock bodied `37 Ford coupe, turned 121 m.p.h. on alky with 10% nitro in the quarter mile drags, running only a 3.78 rear end and 7.00 x 16 tires.   This 13.5 to 1 compression engine with over size valves was turning over 300 h.p.   It was on account of this engine that Art was in to see Howard Johansen that summer afternoon.  They had decided to run this stock head engine in a belly tank car that coming Fall at Bonneville.  Howard had estimated the belly tank would reach the 190-200 m.p.h. bracket, and exciting prospect to say the least.  Howard's top estimate of the h.p. of Art's stock head engine was 318 h.p. making it one to the most potent stock head GMC's of that time, or any time for that matter.

    What Art Benjamin found that day at Hoard Johansen's shop, was Howard looking over one of new cast iron 12 port heads for GMC, recently manufactured by Harry Warner.  Howard had purchased on of the now famous "Wayne" GMC 12 Port heads.  It was of flat combustion chamber crossflow design, and had the same size valves Art's big stock head engine.

    As was his custom, Howard Johansen was about to make some dyno tests on that Wayne GMC 12 Port head.  He was always a firm believer in dyno testing, full and complete dyno testing, previous to any actual field testing.  The discussion that afternoon centered around Howard's comments about the Wayne head.  Howard said it should be made out of aluminum and he further thought a different angle on the intake ports would be good idea. (Later, Harry Warner went to all aluminum production of the Wayne 12 port head).

    So, the dyno tests on the Wayne head got under way, and they several readings over the 300 h.p. mark with the 298 cu. in. "Jimmie" in the "B" roadster owned by Mr. Al Barnes and driven  by Bob Rounthwaite, to a record setting 159.29 m.p.h at the last meet of the 1951 season for the Russetta Timing Association.  In December of that year, "Howard's Racing Cams" was advertising that he was able to  get 318 h.p. from a 298 cu. in, GMC, running methanol, with a 5-carb log intake and Howard cam.  I wonder whose engine that was?   This was accomplished without the use of the then popular roller cam, which was remarkable.  Art Benjamin wasn't able to make a trip to Bonneville that Fall as he and Howard had planned earlier that Summer.  The shipyard where Art worked closed down and he was laid off.  (Boy does that sound familiar.)

    By the late Fall of 1951, about 3 to 4 months after that day Art was down to see Howard about the Bonneville car, Howard Johansen had gone ahead and produced just such a cylinder head; like the one they had talked about that afternoon.  In producing his first 12 Port head for the GMC, Howard Johansen chose 356 aluminum.  He not only patterned his combustion chamber after Harry Warner's GMC head, but also after the earlier, flat chamber of the 1928 Chevy four.  Howard also decided he was right concerning the intake ports.  On his 12 port head, he inclined the intakes to about 45 degrees for better flow, straight down to the valves.  In doing this, he was looking back to the intake design of the Riley 4, and engine Howard has successfully campaigned around the country with Jim Rathman at the wheel in a car owned by Andy Linden.

    The new Howard 12 port head for the GMC had 1 7/8" intake valves and 1 3/4" exhausts.  The intake ports were 1 7/8" x 1 11/16" and the exhaust ports were 1 19/32" x 1 28/32".  The head had bronze valve inserts and bronze valve guides.  A stock GMC rocker arm assembly was used and Howard reground a stock steel cam for the head.  With a Howard F series cam, these Jimmies revved into the 5,000 to 5.500 r.p.m. range and up to 6,500 r.p.m with a Howard M series cam.  Howard also had special tubular pushrods available for the GMC.  In April of 1952, "Hot Rod" magazine ran Howard's first ad for the new 12 port head for GMC.  Art Benjamin, who was often over to Howard's shop and who was a distributor of Howard cams and speed equipment, recalls that there were from 10-12 of these heads produced, all in aluminum.  This conflicts somewhat with other estimates of around half dozen heads produced, but Art is very confident in his estimate.

    The dyno tests proved out Howard Johansen's thinking on the design changes he envisioned after looking over the Wayne 12 port that summer afternoon.  In an advertisement for "Howard's Racing Cams," h.p. levels of 303 h.p. form a 297 cu. in. GMC with the Howard 12 port head and using straight methanol were obtained.   When the fuel was beefed up with the addition of 25% nitro, the h.p. jumped to 351, that's right, over 350 h.p. form a 297 cu. in engine.  I have in my files copy of a Howard GMC engine testing report, in which a 298 GMC fitted with a Howard 5 carb manifold, Howard F-7 cam, 12:1 compression and Howard pistons, running methanol and of course the Howard 12 port head, turned out a top h.p. rating of 355 h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m., and amazing figure.  These 12 port cylinder heads were first offered at $270, and later were raised to $290.  What deal, that was a very low price even in 1952.

    In August of 1952, Howard Johansen was working hard to get ready for Bonneville.  However, some problems with the connecting rods and some other small things put a hold on his Bonneville efforts for that year, regarding the 12 port Howard GMC.  It must be remembered that Howard was into all manner of racing ventures.   At the end of the 1952 season, Howard equipped cars held 12 of 13 available records at local drag strips in Fontana, Santa Ana, Saugus, and San Diego; and 5 of 11 records of the Rusetta Timing Association.  He was involved in many things at the same time.   While working on that engine for Bonneville, Howard was struck by another idea for the GMC 12 Port cylinder head.  You see, Howard Johansen was always looking, always trying to come up with a new way, a better way for more power, faster speeds and he was a real genius in the area of engine and engine component design.  Once, he even tried to get the NHRA to sanction a cable steering setup for one of his rails.  This was a pretty radical design, and while Howard informed them that it had been used for sometime by the aircraft industry, and was obviously perfectly safe they said no way and outlawed it.  Howard Johansen was always an innovator.  His next innovation for the 12 Port GMC head, was finally produced in 1952.  Howard had once again decided to try out those ideas he had thought of while working on the `51 Bonneville car.  He had been looking at the newly released (Fall of `52) 1953 Cadillac wedge type combustion chamber.  He had decide earlier that wedge type combustion chamber was necessary, to get the most for the GMC 12 port head.  He knew a wedge shaped combustion chamber would provide adequate quench area and possibly larger intake valves.  Howard cast one of these wedge shaped combustion chamber 12 port heads for GMC out of aluminum.   The combustion chamber was patterned after the 1953 Cadillac combustion chamber and this fact was mentioned in ads for the head.  This "wedge" head still retained the inclined valves and also featured a then radical idea of very short and very lightweight rocker arms.  Howard had also planned to make this head available in SOHC form as he had made the first 12 port Howard GMC head available in a SOHC version, but he never produced any of the overhead cam versions of the wedge head.

    As we just mentioned, Howard produced only one of the wedge shaped combustion chamber 12 port heads.  Howard Johansen wasn't one to remain with anything too long, if a better way to go was clear to him.  At this time (starting in 1951 and then more so in 1952), the Chrysler and DeSoto V/8's were out, and Howard Johansen decide that this was the future and he went toward it.  One of the first things that Howard produced for the DeSotoV-8, was naturally, a set of aluminum cylinder heads, which sold for $450.  Howard was able to get 350 h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m., from a small 263 cu. in. DeSoto running all Howard equipment and 11 to 1 compression with Howard fuel injection.

    Howard Johansen was also leading the field when the new Chevy V-8 came out, and sure enough, he produced a set of aluminum heads for the V-8 Chevy, a first in that field.  Howard also later produced, in the late1960's an aluminum V-8 Hemi engine; a monster 590 model.  Form the early 1950's he produced magnesium rocker arms.  I'd like to mention just a very few of many accomplishments Howard was involved in: Howard was the Top Elinmator at the very first ever held, drag race, (sanctioned drag race) at Golete Drag Strip in Santa Barbara, Calif.  He won in a `35 Ford, powered by a Howard-equipped Marmon engine.  When Howard wasn't happy with available dyno machines in the late 1940's, he built one himself.  His famous, or shall we say, notorious 266" DeSoto engine, ran in the speed boat "Mix-master," ran an unbelievable combination of 5 stock DeSoto pistons, one Dodge piston and 2 Harley motorcycle pistons and "miked" out at 265.9 cu in.   The "Mix-master" set a record of 139 m.p.h. in 1954 and other competitors in that class could not touch it and they left droves.  Perhaps the most famous of all the "Howard" cars that made racing history was the "Bustle Bomb," the first drag strip car to break the 150 m.p.h. barrier.  That was in 1955, and the "Bustle Bomb" had two engines one in front of the driver and one behind and was owned by Lloyd Scott.

    Howard Johansen was, in the words of Art Benjamin, "A racer's racer, a soldier's soldier, one of the racing's greats."  Howard retired around 1967.  His business is still going strong today under the able leadership of his son, Jerry Johansen.  The business is no longer called "Howard's Racing Cams," but is now known as "Howard's Power and Racing Equipment."  It is still at the old location of 10122 South Main Street in Los Angeles.  Howard is now out in the countryside doing a little ranching.  His accomplishments speak for themselves.   While his involvement in the 12 port head business was perhaps brief in some ways, his contributions as far as design innovation and peak power development were concerned, certainly have put him at the top of the field.

    Next issue: perhaps the story of where the "Wayne" Chevy and "Wayne" GMC 12 port head patterns went, their production after Harry Warner and their current ownership, or perhaps an even more exotic 12 port head that has been hiding away in the north woods of Minn.?  Can't say for certain, we'll all have to wait and see.

ptsix_1.jpg (71041 bytes) This add appeared in the June,
1955 issue of "HOT ROD"
magazine. It was the first dragster
to exceed 150 m.p.h. in the quarter mile drags.  Howard believed in
announcing his racing
accomplishments in publications
such as "HOT ROD."
ptsix_2.jpg (47461 bytes)