Starter clearance is a unique situation for many header installations, especially when we're installing headers on a classic vehicle application. Just imagine how many times the starter may have been replaced on these applications. Was the correct, originally specified starter installed at each replacement? Not likely!

Do Headers Always Fit Using a Stock Starter?

Yes and no, and yes is often with a caveat. For example, every Sanderson header set is designed on engines using OEM starters. Does that mean that every (original equipment manufacturer) OEM starter is equal, or the proper starter is installed on the engine? No! However, if your vehicle is a late model application using a direct-fit header (common for computer-controlled, emission-regulated applications) such as a JBA, Gibson, or similar brands, then yes, these systems are designed to work with OEM starters.

Sanderson headers, for example, fit on stock-starter applications "If" the starter on the application is equal or less in size---and with the proper clocking---as the starter originally installed on the application that the headers were built upon. If you wish to use an OE-style starter on your application, find one that fits! You may end up searching through dozens of boxes of newly rebuilt starters at your local parts store (or over many different parts stores) to find the correct one. I'll explain below.

But How Do We Know If We Have The Correct Starter?

If we're talking about a Sanderson or other header set brand for a classic street rod, you won't know if the starter you have fits until you try to install your headers. We know this sounds like a cheesy response. Please continue reading....

Why is this a problem?

Most automotive electric rebuilders (those companies who take used starters and rebuild them for resale) have long lists of every vehicle and every OEM starter number. However, instead of offering a specific starter for a specific vehicle in every possible application, they make efforts to merge together as many part numbers as possible. This explains why we can go to the local parts store and have the counter person pull out a stack of starters for our vehicle (all the same rebuilder part number on the box) and notice clear differences between each one. The difference could be the clocking of the starter solenoid, the overall length, armature diameter, or something else. Maybe it is the actual OEM part number on the unit itself that is different, along with the visual differences. By merging part numbers, the rebuilder can offer the parts store a smaller number of products that cover a wider variety of original vehicle applications. They do not take into account aftermarket exhaust components or anything else. All they care about is that it bolts to the engine.

For example, is the starter for a 1967 Ford Galaxie hardtop with an 390 FE the same as the 1967 Ford Galaxie convertible? No, the original OEM installed starters are quite different. In fact, the 352, 360, 390, 427, and 428 Ford FE engines in varying applications (cars, trucks, vans) often had different starters. This is often true for any vehicle manufacturer on every engine group they offer. However, the rebuilder who just rebuilt one of these starters and put it in the box for the part store to sell as an exchange lumps them all together as one part number that fits all of the listed factory-style applications. For example, the much larger, often called "coffee can" starter on the Ford convertibles will not clear any Sanderson header for the Ford FE.

Both of the starters below are for Ford FE applications, and are stated to fit the same vehicles by the rebuilder. The top starter is closer to common dimensions of the Ford passenger car FE engine starter. However, the lower one may not fit a variety of OE passenger cars, especially if that application is using headers. The rebuilder 'usually' verifies the available space on applications using OE components (exhaust manifolds, steering, etc.).

Or how about this shortlist of small block Ford starter styles? Three of these five are labeled as the same, meaning they will all fit the same OE vehicle applications, in most rebuilder catalogs.

Header Design

When Sanderson designs their headers, they are built on vehicles using the OEM starter for that application. Therefore, if someone tries to install the header on an application using a starter with dimensions different from the OEM starter, there may not be adequate clearance. Ford applications might have issues with the size of the starter. In GM applications, there might be an issue with different clocking of the solenoid or the offset differences between flywheel diameters. These variations in what starter is installed on a particular application are out of our control.

Why is an Aftermarket Mini-Starters Recommended for ALL Header Applications?

I'm fairly comfortable that the suggestion of upgrading to an aftermarket mini starter has been explained above---if simply for the dimensional issues of OE starters on classic vehicles. Header manufacturers have no control over what OEM-style starter a customer has on their vehicle. We have no control over the electrical rebuild process, or the part numbers the rebuilder has decided to merge into one "fits all" replacement number. The header manufacturers cannot build every header for every possible starter a customer may use. However, we can recommend aftermarket mini-starters to alleviate all clearance problems while providing additional benefits. Yes, we also understand the cost involved in purchasing a quality aftermarket starter. However, it is important to understand that this recommendation does not lie solely on header clearance. Other benefits of mini-starters include:

  • Less weight
  • Gear reduction (more cranking power and torque)***
  • More torque (easier starting of high compression, high timing applications)
  • Less energy demand
  • Smaller overall size
  • Multiple (or infinitely adjustable) clocking locations
  • Virtually eliminates "heat soak" issues
  • Longer life
  • ... and of course, increased clearance for headers***

Do yourself a favor and install an aftermarket mini starter.

*** Mini starter manufacturers often offer a variety of starter designs. It is important to discuss the two most common styles, the standard mini starter, and the offset gear reduction starter. It is best to use an 'offset gear reduction' starter, but all are not created equal. First, the offerings with the best warranty usually include the highest quality components and manufacturing. Choose wisely!

Common lower-priced mini starters are manufactured with the armature shaft inline with the starter gear. Gear reduction starters may use an internal planetary gear set/clutch system and the gear and shaft are inline. Other gear reduction starters use an offset armature. Early designs used a second offset gear within or just behind the mounting block. Modern offset gear reduction starters offset the entire housing, allowing for even more space and adjustments for component clearance (headers, oil pans, chassis, etc.). The straight shaft starters, although offering a substantial improvement over common factory-style OE starters, do not offer as much improvement in header clearance. This is especially true on Chevy applications using 168-tooth flywheels over smaller 153-tooth.

Here are a couple of comparisons using Powermaster starter offerings for small and big block Chevy engines.

The first is part #9100, offering 170 ft/lbs of torque for up to 14:1 compression. Note that it has just 4 clocking adjustment options and is a straight-shaft starter. This is a fairly common choice for many street rodders and racers.

The next starter, part #9100 offers 12 clocking positions, 160 ft/lbs of torque, and up to 11:1 compression.  Although a slightly smaller overall size, the only benefit is the additional clocking. Otherwise, the 9100 is considerably better.

The last example is a true offset, gear reduction starter, part #9600 that offers infinite clocking and maximum header clearance when clocked properly. 1.8 horsepower and 180 ft/lbs of torque for applications up to 14:1 compression.

Here is a Powermaster 9100 starter on a big block Chevy engine using the Sanderson C6 full-length header set. This is a manual transmission application using a 168-tooth flywheel. Note that there is plenty of space between the header tubes and the starter.