Enjoying a car show can mean different things to different people. Maybe you just like to see cars that remind you of your childhood. Others may go to see the rare antiques from the early days of motoring. Some just want to be around car people. After being locked-down for the best part of 2020, we certainly understand that.
For us, visiting the local NSRA season-closer in Tampa, Florida was a chance to wander through the rows of cars looking for the oddities. Those special builds that you don’t see every day. We’re not saying that looking at a red first-gen gets old because we’ll go to a show for that seven days a week. It is nice to spot the unique, however.
It was at this event when our eagle-eyed photographer spotted something that looked different to him. The cameraman believed he spotted an old sprint car engine in a street rod. Typically speaking, sprint car engines are fire-breathing beasts that do not have enough manners to drive on public streets. Their mechanical fuel injection works best on a track where the driver is wide-open, then completely off the throttle, working to get back to wide open as soon as possible. Not very practical for a street rod.
The photo shooter was correct, he did spot a sprinter engine in a hot rod, but not just any sprint car engine. This one was a Barnes small-block Chevy, and it was a long way from home.
Al Barnes was a machinist that cut his teeth working in the automotive industry. Before starting his own company, Barnes worked for the legendary speed merchant Howard Johansen of Howard’s Cams. Both men were geniuses when it came to making horsepower, and they were both passionate about going very fast.
In fact, Barnes honed his engine-building skills by racing his own car at Bonneville, attempting to set speed records. He ran his Model A roadster in Class B at Bonneville in 1951. It was fitted with a 249ci Ford, running Cummings cylinder heads, and a Barnes home-built fuel injection unit. Al drove the car to a speed of 143.084 mph to take second in class.
Al Barnes was also the man behind the idea of the wing on the “Winged Express” AA/FA. How these cars were designed, the handling was squirrelly at the top-end, so Barnes came up with a spring-loaded wing and strut system that would load the rear at speed and flatten out. The system has a solid mount to satisfy the tech people but it was adjustable.
Barnes later started a company with his son, John, building dry-sump oil pumps in their family garage in Redondo Beach, California. Barnes Systems Incorporated is still in business and family operated to this day. Al continued to work on cylinder heads and racing engines, most of which ended up in sprint cars during the 1980s and 90s.
John focused on the smaller four-cylinder midget car race engines. These midget engines have done very well and have accumulated many wins and accolades. Midget car owner Andy Bondio has won three Chili Bowl Nationals (1991, 2003, and 2006), and the Belleville Midget Nationals in 1992 with Barnes midget engines. The Bondio cars continue to show up with Barnes engines at the Chili Bowl Nationals through the 2020 season and we expect to see it again this year.
As for Al’s SBC Barnes engines, many oval tracks and series attempted to find reasons to ban them. Barnes saw the value in higher compression and built the engines that way. The engine blocks were coupled to a cylinder head of Barnes’ own design. The Barnes’ cylinder heads featured a symmetrical port layout and in-line valves with a 10-degree valve angle and smaller combustion chambers. The Barnes head integrated the individual runner ports directly to the intake throttle body. This eliminated the need for an intake manifold. All it needed was a cover for the lifter valley.
Rumor has it, Barnes designed and built two different style cylinder heads. The original cylinder heads described above, and an updated cylinder head with more head and valve cover bolts. The updated cylinder head was also rumored to have beefier rocker arms.
What Happened To Barnes’ Original Heads?
Barnes developed these cylinder heads the way hot rodders did in the ’40s: trial and error. It was seat-of-the-pants engineering at its finest. Only someone as talented as Al Barnes could have pulled it off. Shortly after, companies using computer-aided designs were able to capitalize on compression and performance followed. That’s when the demand for Barnes’ SBC cylinder heads fell off.
Barnes Systems Inc. still produces dry-sump and high-volume, high-efficiency oil delivery systems to support the increased power levels generated by competitive racing engines. They are highly respected in the racing industry, and you can still find them in NASCAR, World of Outlaw, USAC National Sprint Cars, and other major racing series.