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An early cam was built into Hellenistic water-driven automata from the 3rd century BC. The camshaft was later described in Iraq (Mesopotamia) by Al-Jazari in 1206. He employed it as part of his automata, water-raising machines, and water clocks such as the castle clock. The cam and camshaft later appeared in European mechanisms from at least the 14th century, or possibly earlier.

What is camshaft

A car camshaft is a rotating cylindrical shaft used to regulate the injection of vaporized fuel in an internal combustion engine. These are occasionally confused with the crankshaft of the engine, where the reciprocating motion of the pistons is converted into rotational energy. Instead, camshafts are responsible for the accurately-timed fuel injections required by internal combustion engines. Camshafts have multiple cams on them, which are used to open valves through either direct contact or pushrods. A camshaft is directly coupled to the crankshaft, so that the valve openings are timed accordingly. For better understanding what camshaft is learn how it works. Let's take a closer look.


How does a camshaft work?

The key parts of any car camshaft are the lobes. As the camshaft spins, the lobes open and close the intake and exhaust valves in time with the motion of the piston. It turns out that there is a direct relationship between the shape of the cam lobes and the way the engine performs in different speed ranges.

Camshaft, how oes it works

When the intake valve opens and the piston starts its intake stroke, the air/fuel mixture in the intake runner starts to accelerate into the cylinder. By the time the piston reaches the bottom of its intake stroke, the air/fuel is moving at a pretty high speed. If we were to slam the intake valve shut, all of that air/fuel would come to a stop and not enter the cylinder. So how does a camshaft work in terms of engine performance? By leaving the intake valve open a little longer, the momentum of the fast-moving air/fuel continues to force air/fuel into the cylinder as the piston starts its compression stroke. So the faster the engine goes, the faster the air/fuel moves, and the longer we want the intake valve to stay open. We also want the valve to open wider at higher speeds -- this parameter, called valve lift, is governed by the cam lobe profile. The way camshafts work may impact on an engine's performance at different speeds.

Performance camshaft

The two important aspects of a camshaft, in terms of engine performance, are camshaft duration, or cam duration, and valve lift. Both cam duration and valve lift are determined by the camshaft lobe.

Cam duration is the time that at least one valve of a cylinder remains open, i.e., off its valve seat, measured in degrees rotation of the crankshaft, while valve lift is the maximum distance the valve head travels from Valve lift is somewhat related to intake valve head diameter:

High performance camshafts
  • an engine with an intake valve head diameter of 1.400in to 1.500in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.395in to 0.475in;
  • an engine with a larger intake valve head diameter of 1.750in to 1.875in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.425in to 0.550in;
  • an engine with a large intake valve head diameter of 2.000in to 2.250in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.475in to 0.650in.

But these are just rough guidelines; ultimately you will need to take some gas flow readings on a flow bench to determine the best valve lift for your particular engine.

A number of factors influence valve lift. The most important being the gap between the intake and exhaust valves, the piston to valve clearance and the intake charge pressure. These factors also influence cam duration. Another factor influencing valve lift is valve spring compression.

Obviously, once the valve springs are fully compressed, it cannot give any more and the valve cannot be pushed further down into the combustion chamber. As I've mentioned earlier, cam duration is measured in degrees rotation of the crankshaft, rather than the camshaft, and the crankshaft completes two full rotations for every rotation of the camshaft. In other words, with a 310 degree camshaft, the valves are open for only 155 degrees of actual camshaft rotation.

Performance camshafts

A performance camshaft for a naturally aspirated engine will have a duration in the range of 270 degrees to 310 degrees or more:

  • 270 degree camshaft described as a 'mild' camshaft
  • 310 or more degree camshaft being described as a 'wild' race camshaft.

A stock camshaft usually has a duration of around 270 degrees but what differentiates a 270 degree performance camshafts from a stock camshafts is increased valve lift and a much faster rate of valve lift. With a faster valve lift rate, the valve reaches full lift quicker and remains at full lift for longer.

How to choose a performance camshaft

A determining factor, when choosing camshaft duration is the purpose of the vehicle. The longer the duration of the camshaft, the further up the rev range the power band shifts, and the rougher the idle. Obviously, as the power band moves higher up the rev range, bottom end power is lost. Also, as cam duration and valve overlap increases, torque is lost. Fuel efficiency also decreases and exhaust emissions increase as valve overlap increases.

Camshaft CompCams

High performance camshafts start at 280 degrees of duration. These performance auto accessories have increased valve overlap but not too much so emissions and fuel economy are not severely affected. These are generally good engine camshafts for modified street cars and produce good power from 2,500 RPM up to 7,000 RPM but they do not have a smooth idle because of the increased valve overlap.

A 290 degree aftermarket camshaft requires more cylinder head work in terms of cylinder head porting and gas flowing as they work better when the engine's Volumetric Efficiency (VE) is improved. As you'd expect, these camshafts produce a fairly rough idle. These camshafts are generally good for rally cars and produce power from 3,000 RPM up to 7,500 RPM.

A 300 degree performance cams require even higher levels of VE, reaching the physical gas flowing limitations of a two valve cylinder head with a single camshaft. These camshafts are good for modified race cars and produce good power from 4,000 RPM up to 8,000 RPM. However, they have a very rough idle.

Performance cams with a duration of more than 300 degrees are race camshafts with a power band in the 4,500 RPM to 9,000 RPM rev range. To make effective use of a 300 degree camshaft, you need to ensure that the engine has a very high VE. You also need to ensure that the engine can rev beyond the red line of most stock engines.