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Chevrolet Abetting Ford Racers: Spotting a Frontenac cylinder head in the fields of Hershey

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Frontenac performance equipment; image by the author

Until recently, Chevy and Ford battled for supremacy annually, both at the showroom and on race tracks. This decades-long rivalry, in turn, has led to generations of fan loyalty; rarely have the defined lines blended. Modern manufacturing has since resulted in a fair amount of component sharing today; however, in this legendary battle royal’s heyday, it would seem unfathomable that one hand would feed the other. Yet it happened.

Although Louis Chevrolet is remembered for the auto that was to bear his name – and the subsequent fallout that quickly led to his departure from the firm – he was first synonymous with racing. Chevrolet’s infatuation with the sport commenced with bicycles in his youth. After emigrating to the United States, he recorded spectacular victories at the helm of powerful Fiats before demonstrating his mastery of speed with a then-powerful Buick racing team in the latter half of the Oughts. Suffice it to say that racing (and the modification knowledge needed to conquer the sport) was his forte – an arena he would revisit after his split with Durant.

Chevrolet formed the Frontenac Motor Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, to produce race cars (The name Frontenac was taken directly from the bicycle he created earlier.) His brother, Gaston, won back-to-back 500s in 1919-’20 in Chevrolet-prepared steeds. Although Gaston died in a spectacular crash in 1920, Louis – along with his brother Arthur and Cornelius W. Van Ranst – designed and produced a new overhead-valve cylinder head for use on the Ford Model T in 1922. The target consumers were budding racers across the country who preferred the light weight and affordability of a stripped-down Model T. Their new head – the Frontenac – was distributed through the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company, also out of Indianapolis.

According to the firm, the Frontenac head eliminated overheating and vibrations, boasted an increased fuel economy and permitted a burst of acceleration: from 5 to 40 MPH in 16 seconds. In their 1923 catalog, three different styles were available, beginning with the Model T head (for roadsters, touring cars, coupes, sedans and trucks), which came equipped with a “1.25-inch Horizontal carburetor, vacuum tank, spark plugs, ignition wires and exhaust manifold,” all for $115. The Model S head – for speedster-converted Model Ts – was offered with the same accessories and price, while the Model R head, for race-converted Fords, cost $100; racing manifold and carburetor were extra.

Chevrolet’s aftermarket performance Ford cylinder heads, though short-lived, were by all accounts a sales success; some reports indicate that over 10,000 were produced, at one point at the rate of 60 per day. Frontenac heads can still be found today; we spotted this assembly at the 2013 AACA Hershey Meet in October. Unfortunately, the seller’s assistant was unsure of the type (we suspect it’s a Model R), and while we did not notice an asking price, early performance equipment is highly prized by the old-school hot rodding faithful.

This article originally appeared in the January, 2013 issue of Hemmings Motor News.