Reader Question: Headers Worth the Hassle?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Mike asks: I’ve been considering installing headers on my truck, which I think is a truck like yours – last generation (small body) Nissan Frontier with the four cylinder engine. Have you done this to yours and would you?

My reply: I’ve thought about it. I haven’t done it because the reward to cost ratio doesn’t seem favorable. According to what I have been able to dig up in terms of hard data, you can expect to get maybe 5 more horsepower by replacing the factory manifold with the header. This is not much difference. But the cost is a couple hundred bucks in parts – and more if you don’t do the labor yourself.

These kinds of swaps made a lot more sense back in the day, when factory manifolds were both very restrictive and very heavy. You could really open up (and lighten up) a vehicle by making this swap.

It’s less so now. But, the headers  still sound great – and that may make the swap worth it for the both of us!

. . .

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  1. There are some decent stainless headers available for not too much money. What you want to see are thick flanges (5/8″) which most companies do not offer. Most of the budget Hedman/Hooker stuff is just cheap (yet overpriced) trash.
    One big mistake I often see is people cranking one bolt tight (on the 3 bolt flanges) before drawing down the other two, a recipie for bent flanges and exhaust leaks. The other common one is to overtighten (any of) the bolts, snug is tight enough. These problems are made worse when using a set of headers with thin flanges.

    Here is a cheap set I installed that way exceeded my expectations:

    • Hi dbb,

      “The other common one is to overtighten (any of) the bolts…”

      Wait, isn’t proper torque achieved by tightening the bolt until it just starts to loosen, and then backing off a 1/4 turn?


      • Not sure what you’re asking (or if sarcasm). If you tighten the bolt until it just starts to loosen, you will have galled the threads….
        Again, snug is tight enough. About as tight as you could get using a screwdriver handle without applying full force.
        and edit above – should have typed 5/16″ rather than 5/8″

            • Hey dbb,

              Yep, I’m amazed how many people who style themselves bicycle mechanics embrace German specs, “gutenteit” (sound it out, you’ll get it).

              I’m a professional bike mechanic and many of my fellow “professionals” brag about not using a torque wrench, “I go by feel”, they say. Sure, if the torque spec is 30 foot pounds or more, “feel” may be OK, but what about 3 newton meters? Many modern bar/stem systems (the system that transfers steering input to the road) call for 3 – 4 Nm. Most of the bars and stems are carbon fiber, and the threads are often 4 X 0.7 or 5 X 0.8. These are extremely easy to strip, even if the threaded hole is metal, which it often isn’t.

              Oh well, good bike mechanics are undervalued and most bike shops hire inexperienced teenagers and never train them properly (not the fault of the teenager). A good torque wrench is expensive, you don’t need that. Building a wheel, a good tension meter is expensive, you don’t need that.


          • Sarcasm? Jell, I knew a guy who’d do just that: Tighten it till it starts to loosen! He had me fix something on his truck once- I asked: “Why couldn’t you do it?[As I’m doing it]- “Because I always strip the bolts”……..

  2. I used to be a header fan- used them on everything gas powered for 20 years. There is no denying the performance and mileage gains- they may only show a few HP gain, but it feels like the engine is breathing easier- the seat of the pants feel is way stronger.
    BUT- headers crack, and the heat they bleed seems to get everywhere you don’t want it. Plug wires and underhood plastic really take a hit from header heat. Wrapping and ceramic coating help. Ceramic coated premium headers are expensive. But the cracking and exhaust leak noises really get on my nerves these days.
    I’ve found a better approach using late model manifolds and porting them a bit- and doing really good exhaust (including an H or X pipe if you have a V engine.)

  3. How much are the headers? I’d go for it, it adds more power throughout the band as well, and again, sound.

    Just wrap or ceramic coat them first so you can keep the heat in and get more gains


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