Keeping The Art Alive: Meet The Man Who’s Dedicated To Hand-Tuning Cylinder Heads
Photography by Erik Olson
History dictates that the outgoing generation will always be concerned about the incoming replacement. There’s no current shortage of worry when it comes to the subject of “millennials” (or whatever they’re calling the younger crowd lately) and how differently they approach the world—growing up surrounded by such rapidly changing technology, it’s only natural. Concerns along these lines extend to the car community as well, leaving many of us to wonder how our precious machines will fare in the hands of those next in line. Will they even care? At least among the soon-to-be-licensed-drivers, interest in older machines from a more analog time seems to be fading a bit. Thankfully, all hope is not lost, and there are some that plan to do something about keeping the dying arts alive for at least one more generation.
Jason Anderson has been around cars and machinery for his entire life. As an infant, his naturally talented dad was fabricating and restoring anything and everything, an activity that he continues to do today. Anderson and his brothers were always lending a hand—whether they wanted to or not—but eventually they realized they had the same talents and interests. Funny how that happens.
It was the mechanical side of the cars his dad was working on that finally resonated with Anderson, and with his new company Janderson Heads, he’s fine-tuning his skills beyond anything he learned at home or in the garage. That’s not to discredit his roots though, as he learned a lot with his dad so many years ago, but when the opportunity came up during high school to take classes at a vocational college in engine machining, he signed up immediately. Apart from the practical decision to get college credits while still in high school, this was a great opportunity to be learning skills far in excess of typical auto shop class amongst a bunch of bored kids. Suddenly there was access to machining equipment, math classes with practical applications (the elusive answer to “When will I need to use this?”), and a group of students motivated to make engines perform.
It was around this time that he found a job at Total Engine, a very unassuming shop in Minneapolis known for building very solid engines for a an array of interests and uses. Owned and operated by a couple of old hot-rodders that learned by doing, they’re busy practicing their own dying art. Total Engine has been at it a long time now, and unfortunately, they’ll probably close the doors for good when the guys decide to retire.
Anderson started out by sweeping the floors and disassembling dirty engines at their shop before finally getting to try a little cylinder head work. One day while cleaning up the workshop, he came across a dusty flow bench, a machine used to measure how well air is traveling in and out of a cylinder head, and thus, through an engine. After learning that most of the cylinder head work at the shop was farmed out, Anderson decided to try to rework some of his own heads, along with a few for family and friends to get a little extra practice on top of that. In the process, he also decided to dust off the flow bench to measure his results. As it turns out, his results were good, and his bosses couldn’t have been happier. Consumed with his new-found skill, Anderson poured through every book he could find on aerodynamics and cylinder head porting.
So why is airflow through a cylinder head so important? Anderson explains that engines are basically big air pumps, so getting air in and out as efficiently as possible is where some of the biggest gains in power can be found. Bolt on all of the exhaust, turbos, or whatever else you want—none of it will matter if the air isn’t moving properly. He found that it’s a lot of trial and error, but also done completely by feel and experience, and he spends hours with a series of hand grinders with different bits, smoothing metal and redirecting air until it flows just right. Sometimes it can be counterintuitive, and bigger isn’t always better.
Customers bringing their engines in for rebuilds started asking Anderson to try to rework their cylinder heads in the process, in hopes of finding some hidden power. More often than not, he’d find it. Despite making solid gains for a loyal following, he also felt that there was a lot more to learn, so in 2008 he reached out to drag racing legend Joe Mondello for advice. He got more than that though: he went off on a week-long private course at Mondello’s shop in Tennessee where he learned many of the old drag racer’s secrets and left with experience Anderson says has been instrumental in shaping his career. He took those secrets and pushed them even further, building a solid base of customers and finding horsepower for everything from diesel tractor-pull engines to vintage Mini Cooper club racers. He won’t share many of said secrets for obvious reasons, and he’s taken things a step further using a flow bench he designed and built together with his dad.
Finding horsepower was one thing, but finding time was another challenge. Between a growing customer base at work and a growing family at home, he knew something had to give. Anderson realized that he was responsible for a craft that few were doing quite like he was, and apart from enjoying his work, he also felt a responsibility to keep the craft alive. After a lot of thought and talks with his family, the decision was made to start Janderson Heads, his own company that would focus solely on cylinder head porting.
While visiting his shop, it’s easy to see how diverse his days can be. His work list includes pre-war MG engines, several American V8s, a Maserati inline-six, even a few Datsun lumps, all being prepped for an upcoming racing season or simply getting back on the road in better shape than originally designed. He’s taken old heads and cut them in half to see the internal structure and understand their original design, much like the way a med student dissects a cadaver. Also similar to the med student, he’s just plain old busy, but he’ll find time for them all, and work them until he’s satisfied. The hours are long, but the results are rewarding, and his customers couldn’t be more appreciative when they stop him at car shows or the racetrack. Thankfully Anderson has no plans of stopping anytime soon and actually feels as though he’s just hitting his stride.
One thing’s for sure, if you see a Janderson sticker on the car next to you, expect it to put up a fight when the light turns green, because you know it’s been tweaked by one of the best.