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Project Big White: Performance Improvements on a Budget

Power Principles

Trent Riddle
Dec 13, 2016
Contributors: KJ Jones
Photographers: KJ Jones
What would you say if we told you we’re going to start giving the older diesel engines some shine? Would you call us crazy or believe we’ve completely gone off the deep end? Or, would you applaud the move and admit you’ve been hoping we would finally get around to including that type of coverage in these pages?
Before those questions get misconstrued and transmitted across cyberspace like a four-alarm blaze, let’s clarify: Diesel Power is NOT changing format to “old school, all the time.” However, for this report and a few that will follow, the older platforms are being put in the spotlight. “Why?” you ask? We’re doing this because despite how undeniably wonderful the newer oil-burners are, we believe old diesels still have plenty of relevance in the diesel arena.
And, based on the comments and questions about Ford 7.3L Power Stroke, GM 6.6L Duramax LBZ, and 12-valve 5.9L Cummins engines we read in diesel enthusiast forums and our own social media, there’s no reason we shouldn’t revisit their performance every now and again and detail what some of the options are for increasing a classic’s horsepower and all-important torque.
Photo 2/50   |   Our early ’95 OBS F-350 is equipped from Ford with essentially the same 7.3L Power Stroke diesel engine as the one introduced in the ’94 model. However, small improvements were made to the engines throughout the OBS era from ’94 to ’98. Additional engine enhancements were introduced with the new-body-style Super Duty rigs for the ’99 model year. The aftermarket also jumped in to offer power-improving parts for the Super Duty. Sadly, not all of them are simple bolt-on upgrades for the 7.3L-powered OBS trucks. With help from the team at ATS Diesel Performance in Arvada, Colorado, we’re modifying Editor KJ Jones’ OBS truck, Big White, with an ATS Aurora 3000 turbo system and several ancillary pieces that will make the old F-350 run better, thanks to more horsepower and torque than it had when it rolled off the assembly line.
When Ford partnered with Navistar to offer the 7.3L Power Stroke engine in 1992, it was a vast improvement over the previous 7.3L IDI diesel. The biggest advantage was that the new engine was equipped with a turbocharger. Basically, it was a new powerplant with the same displacement as the earlier IDI, but it also had several other improvements. The early 7.3L-powered trucks were the last of the F-Series ¾- and 1-ton pickups. In 1999, Ford introduced the Super Duty name for its new line of F-250 and F-350s. Of course, there was some overlap during the Super Duty’s early production years, and both the old-body-style (commonly referred to as OBS) F-250/F-350 and new-body-style trucks existed with 7.3L powerplants. As a ’95, our truck, the F-350 better known as Big White, is an OBS rig.
We want to turn up the power of our F-350’s stock 7.3L. Of course, the turbocharger is arguably the main piece of the performance puzzle, especially for an engine that theoretically isn’t known for being a diesel with “hot-rod” potential, as the mechanical 5.9L I-6 Cummins engines are. However, the challenging thing about upgrading an OBS Ford’s turbo is that finding a higher-performance replacement is not easy.
Photo 3/50   |   While largely stock from an engine perspective, Big White has received a few upgrades in the years prior to this experiment. The exhaust brake is visible in this before shot, but since it is not compatible with the new ATS Diesel Performance Aurora 3000 turbocharger, it is being deleted.
We explained our idea and interest to Clint Cannon, owner of ATS Diesel Performance in Arvada, Colorado. It’s a well-known fact that Ford’s 7.3L Power Stroke is a veritable workhorse in stock trim. But, as it is for most engines, there’s additional horsepower and torque that can be gleaned from the original powerplant. For the sake of work efficiency (Big White tows a well-loaded enclosed race trailer, hauls parts, and carries your editor to Diesel Power Central every day) and general driving fun (on the freeway or at the dragstrip), we’re interested in bringing the best out of our project truck’s original engine.
Clint suggested we install ATS’s Aurora 3000 turbo kit for 7.3L Super Duty trucks, as it’s almost a perfect fit for the earlier 7.3L-powered rigs. In truth, only a few things need to be modified (intercooler tubing, downpipe, and such).
Of course, while swapping the turbo, we’re also upgrading other components that must be improved for a complete performance makeover. For example, just prior to starting this exercise, the high-pressure oil pump was replaced with an Adrenaline HPOP from DieselSite, and the low-pressure fuel pump is being replaced with a frame-mounted lift pump system from Bean’s Diesel Performance. Larger injectors are also a must, and Performance Injection Systems 160cc 30-percent-over squirters are the pieces we’ve selected to replace the original 98cc single-shot injectors. To ensure longevity for Big White’s engine, the original cylinder-head bolts are being swapped with ARP head studs.
Photo 4/50   |   Here is the original Garrett turbine housing and compressor. This old hardware is fine and it gets the job done, but, it’s time to say goodbye and step up to the Aurora 3000.
Once the turbo and fuel system upgrades are complete, we’re remapping the ECM’s fuel and timing strategies with a Hydra Chip from Power Hungry Performance. This versatile, user-friendly chip and software bring tuning pre-’96 OBD I Ford diesels into the modern age of using the Internet and a laptop computer to download tunes to the chip.
It’s quite clear the truck is old, and its 7.3L Power Stroke engine is designed more for low-rpm consistency than it is for being able to easily pump out four-digit horsepower. With the purchase prices for many of the newer diesel pickups being as high as $80,000 for some top-of-the-line models, investing between $7,000 and $10,000 (as budget permits, and sometimes less) in an older truck’s performance is a very popular trend.
We’re hopping up Big White’s engine with an upgrade package that isn’t really “new” for 7.3L Power Strokes. It’s a tried-and-true combination of parts that has been featured in these pages before, as well as discussed in many online forums and social media. According to Clint, the established “safe” performance threshold for stock 7.3Ls is approximately 450 hp and 850 lb-ft of torque. Yes, those parameters can actually be stretched a little farther, but keeping the values below 500 hp/900 lb-ft helps ensure the engine’s towing performance and acceleration remains consistent for a long time—and the changes aren’t so radical that we’ll need to watch for connecting rods suddenly exiting the engine block whenever we go hard on the skinny pedal.
We drove the F-350 1,000 miles from Los Angeles, California, to the ATS headquarters, where the stellar technician team of Mark Sanders and Devin Dahlin handled a surgery that aligns our old rig’s performance with the stock power and torque of many popular later-model diesels.
Photo 5/50   |   Mark Sanders, one of two Race Shop technicians at ATS, removes the stock turbo setup to prepare to pull the engine. Unlike the Super Duty, the cab on an old-body-style Ford truck can’t be removed to make deep engine work easier.
Photo 6/50   |   Mark also removes the engine fan and fan shroud before taking the engine out.
Photo 7/50   |   Removing the 7.3L engine is a two-man job; Mark and Devin Dahlin use a forklift to pull the Power Stroke out of Big White.
Photo 8/50   |   This is the ’95 F-350’s original 7.3L engine. While it has almost 150,000 miles on it, it still runs strong and does not leak a drop of oil. “We usually don’t see 7.3Ls this clean,” Mark says.
Photo 9/50   |   This is the complete ATS Diesel Performance Aurora 3000 turbo system, which was actually developed for ’99-to-’03 Ford Super Duty pickups with 7.3L diesel engines. While this kit is not a direct bolt-on for OBS trucks, it only requires a little ingenuity and a few custom pieces to fit perfectly in the early rigs.
Photo 10/50   |   The Aurora 3000 turbo offers a great power improvement for stock 7.3L engines.
Photo 11/50   |   Here is a comparative look at the Aurora 3000 (left) and the stock Garrett turbocharger. While very close in physical size, the Aurora 3000 features upgraded impellers that move more air than the original unit.
Photo 12/50   |   Project Big White New Turbo Compressor Side
Photo 13/50   |   This photo details the difference in the compressor side of the ATS Aurora 3000 and stock turbochargers. The non-wastegate Aurora 3000’s 55mm compressor impeller features two additional blades (seven versus five), an 83mm/14-blade exducer, and slightly different blade angles for greater efficiency.
Photo 14/50   |   013 Project Big White New Turbo
Photo 15/50   |   On the exhaust side, the ATS turbo’s 74mm impeller carries one more blade (11 versus 10), and its housing features an .085 A/R, which helps promote quicker spooling than the Garrett.
Photo 16/50   |   This is the ATS turbo pedestal (bottom) compared to the stock 7.3L turbo mount. The new, larger piece flows more air, thanks to its slightly bigger diameter and markedly longer runners.
Photo 17/50   |   The Aurora 3000 kit includes new up-pipes that feature flexible bellows to help prevent the tubes from cracking and true welded flanges and stainless steel gaskets instead of stock-style doughnut connectors, which are prone to losing their seal and creating exhaust leaks.
Photo 18/50   |   Although installing head studs is a great upgrade for any Ford diesel, it isn’t something that is an absolute must for 7.3L Power Stroke engines. However, for peace of mind, as we know the turbo upgrade brings greater cylinder pressures, we’re adding ARP’s fasteners to ward off blown head gaskets.
Photo 19/50   |   The stock head bolts (right) are torque-to-yield fasteners. This means they are one-time-use items, as they stretch when torqued down. ARP head studs are not only reusable, they also maintain consistent torque for the life of the engine.
Photo 20/50   |   Mark uses ARP’s Ultra-Torque bolt lube and antiseize to get more uniform torque across the head studs.
Photo 21/50   |   Project Big White Studs
Photo 22/50   |   Studs can be installed one at a time on engines with good head gaskets. By starting at the inside of the heads and working outward, Mark is able to replace all the original bolts and properly torque the new studs while keeping the original gaskets in service.
Photo 23/50   |   Project Big White Old Oil Pump
Photo 24/50   |   Before we started this upgrade effort, the engine’s original high-pressure oil pump was replaced with DieselSite’s Adrenaline HPOP. The pump offers both the volume and pressure needed to feed larger injectors, but even stock diesels will see a difference (improved starting, throttle response) compared to the original pump.
Photo 25/50   |   The ATS Arc-Flow intake bridge (left) is pre-drilled and tapped with 1/8-inch NPT holes to accept water injection nozzles, as well as a boost gauge. Of course, the original sensors are also accommodated. The Arc-Flow is designed for use with the larger intake plenums on the late ’99-to-’03 7.3L engines (right). Fortunately, the later plenums are a virtual direct replacement for the earlier powerplants.
Photo 26/50   |   The later intake plenums have two extra holes in one end, which are not found on the early 7.3Ls. While some diesel technicians say you can leave these open, Mark recommends welding them closed and grinding the mating surface flat.
Photo 27/50   |   Project Big White Plenums
Photo 28/50   |   After modifying the plenums, Mark uses silicon sealer on each one before installing it. The manifolds for ’94-to-early ’99 7.3Ls have a 2-inch opening. The later engines were updated with 3-inch plenums.
Photo 29/50   |   The Aurora 3000 turbo system features a T-3 pedestal, which uses studs as opposed to bolts for securing the turbocharger. A stainless steel gasket is included in the kit.
Photo 30/50   |   Mark bolts the new turbo to the engine and prepares it for reinstallation in the truck.
Photo 31/50   |   Project Big White Engine
Photo 32/50   |   Before buttoning up the engine, we installed a set of Performance Injection Systems’ 160cc 30-percent-over Tow Master injectors. To clear up confusion about what this means, the “160/30” reference that’s commonly used in dieselspeak stands for 160 cc of fuel per 1,000 shots (firings) of the injector. The “30” refers to the 30 percent increase in fuel flow compared to stock. What this means is the maximum capacity is increased from 98 cc to 160 cc, a 60 percent increase in available fuel. The 30-percent nozzle can inject this larger amount of fuel in the required amount of time. Too long of an injection event creates poor performance, high EGT, and excessive smoke. The faster fuel is injected, the better—to an extent. Fast injection events can also cause poor atomization, which can can lead to the same unfavorable conditions if the engine is not tuned properly. Finding the sweet spot makes the biggest difference, and we’ll do that with Power Hungry Performance’s Hydra Chip.
Photo 33/50   |   Mark guides Big White’s refreshed 7.3L into the engine bay.
Photo 34/50   |   Project Big White Exhaust
Photo 35/50   |   ATS doesn’t offer downpipes for its 7.3L turbo kits. While ATS Fabrication Shop foreman Zach Stapleton created a 4-inch tube for our project, your local diesel or exhaust shop is the best source for having a new piece created for your application.
Photo 36/50   |   The Aurora 3000 fits the OBS truck as if it was made for it—and, essentially, it was.
Photo 37/50   |   Project Big White Fuel System
Photo 38/50   |   A frame-mounted, low-pressure, high-volume lift pump and dual-filter water-separator setup from Bean’s Diesel Performance is replacing the stock cam-driven, low-pressure pump.
Photo 39/50   |   While OBS Ford F-250s and F-350s didn’t receive intercoolers until the ’97 model, Big White is upgraded with an air-to-air unit. Since the Aurora 3000 kit’s cold-side tubing is technically designed for new-body-style (’99-to-’03) Super Duty Ford pickups, Zach modifies our tubes accordingly so they will work with the Arc-Flow bridge and repositioned turbo.
Photo 40/50   |   The Bean’s return-style electric fuel system includes lines, fittings, and a Fuelab pressure regulator and gauge.
Photo 41/50   |   The EGT probe from the original setup is retained.
Photo 42/50   |   With the engine back in the truck, we were ready to begin dyno testing and see what the power improvements are.

Photo 43/50   |   Here is the Power Hungry Performance Hydra Chip set. Unlike traditional piggyback chips or handheld ECM tuning devices, this programming system features software that is manipulated using a laptop PC. The chip stores 17 custom tunes that can be changed on the fly.
Photo 44/50   |   In some cases, the stock ECU chassis requires slight modification to create sufficient clearance for installing and removing the Hydra Chip.
With updates completed, we ran Big White on ATS Diesel Performance’s chassis dyno. As you can see per the graph, the results are definitely impressive. It’s important to note that we dyno’d the truck using pre-programmed, “canned” ECM calibrations that are included with the Hydra Chip for 7.3L Power Stroke engines. Big White’s chip has since been upgraded with custom programs, one of which (140hp Xtreme) has taken the modified engine to the 425hp, 850–lb-ft-of-torque zone.
Photo 45/50   |   Project Big White Usb
Photo 46/50   |   The Hydra Chip has a USB lead that creates communication between the ECU and laptop and facilitates data transfer from the computer to the chip, without having to remove the chip from the truck.
The proof is definitely in the dyno results. Before receiving any of the upgrade parts, our ’95 Ford F-350 laid down baseline dyno numbers of 224 hp and 425.96 lb-ft of torque (note that Big White was previously equipped with a K&N cold-air intake system and an air-to-air intercooler), slightly better than Ford’s claim of 210 hp and 425 lb-ft for ’95 7.3L Power Strokes.
Photo 47/50   |   Project Big White Controller
Photo 48/50   |   This dash-mounted controller allows drivers to select from as many as 17 custom tunes on the fly. Here you can see the Power Hungry Performance sheet for our 7.3L rig. It provides lots of options and more usable power than we had before.
With the ATS Diesel Performance Aurora 3000 turbo and other upgrades installed, power was up significantly. During our first dyno run with the modifications and the Power Hungry Performance Hydra Chip set on the “Stock” ECM calibration, gains were an impressive 305 hp and 610 lb-ft of torque. This jumped to a whopping 395 hp and 787 lb-ft when the Power Hungry Hydra chip was added to the mix using the 60hp “Daily Driving” setting. While we did load Power Hungry’s pre-programmed 100hp tune into the processor and performed a “glory pull” that produced 410 hp and 830 lb-ft of torque, the program was immediately dialed back after the dyno hit for daily driving.
Photo 49/50   |   Project Big White Chassis Dyno
Photo 50/50   |   Project Big White Dyno

Road and Track

While seeing performance gains from upgrades on the dyno is always cool, the proverbial “buck” really stops in the driver seat. As we noted earlier in this report, Big White was driven to and from Arvada, Colorado, from Editor KJ Jones’ home in Southern California, a 1,000-mile journey each way.
In stock trim (with the exception of a K&N cold-air intake system and intercooler), our ’95 Ford F-350 made the trip to Colorado without experiencing any problems, with an average speed of 60 mph and 14.5 mpg fuel economy. On the return trip and using the 60hp tune, average speed increased to 70 mph, with the truck now feeling more willing and almost eager to go faster, even on all the steep grades in the thin air of the Colorado Rockies. Fuel mileage for the circuit remained 14.5 mpg, which is very impressive, considering the upgraded fuel system and injectors.
Driving Big White “hopped up” is a dramatically different experience, especially with custom ECM calibrations that were created after consulting with Power Hungry Performance a few weeks after KJ’s return to Southern California. Throttle response, acceleration, and turbo spooling are all improved (with only the Hydra Chip’s “Towing” tune engaged, the needle on the boost gauge literally snaps past 25 psi the moment you step down on the hammer). The truck is very quick on the street, and now, with greater ability to pass traffic without running out of steam, Big White is a lot of fun to drive on long freeway runs—with and without a loaded trailer.
Since dragstrip performance is also a major qualifier for power and torque gains, KJ tested the F-350 at Auto Club Dragway, a quarter-mile track in Fontana, California. After running an 18.25-second e.t. at almost 77 mph (before the upgrades), using Power Hungry’s custom 80hp “Performance” tune, our 8,400-pound truck’s quarter-mile time dropped to 15.97 seconds at 86.57 mph! It’s important to note that the dragstrip runs were not made in any competitive/race manner. The transmission was left in Drive and shifted automatically, and we did not hold the brakes to build boost before launching or try and cut a killer reaction time. The run probably could have been quicker and faster had those and other variables (140hp “Xtreme” calibration, etc.) been different.
Big White has been consistent and reliable for towing and everyday commuting. The truck is typically driven using the Hydra Chip’s “Stock” setting, unless a trailer, heavy payload, or a need to drive with a little more “spirit” gives us good reason to turn things up.

Sources

ARP (Automotive Racing Products)
Ventura , CA 93003
805-339-2200
www.arp-bolts.com
ATS Diesel
Arvada, CO 80002
866-209-3695
www.atsdiesel.com
DieselSite
Crystal River, FL 34429
888-414-3457
www.dieselsite.com
Bean's Diesel Performance
844-237-7467
http://bdpshop.com
Power Hungry Performance
678-890-1110
www.powerhungryperformance.com
Performance Injection Systems
863-698-7935
http://performanceinjectionsystems.com/

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