9 June 2016

Tom Langdon is the inline-6 expert

It's a decades-old story: Someone gets hold of an old General Motors car or truck from the '50s, '60s or '70s, and immediately replaces the original inline-6 for a small block V-8 (I've done this myself). And why not? For the money, nothing produces more power for less money than a small block.

But not everyone goes this route. There are many people who either want to keep the vehicle's original engine or like the idea of getting performance out of something other than the ubiquitous V-8. Most people who look into making improvements – major or minor – to a GM-built inline-6 will eventually encounter Tom Langdon’s name. Simply put, he's the Chevrolet inline-6 engine guru.

From its introduction in the 1950s until the oil crisis two decades later, the modern overhead valve, small block V-8 enjoyed cultural dominance across the American auto industry. By the mid-'60s, everything from compact cars to light trucks could be had with one. Their popularity in motorsports since then has been unparalleled.

But a handful of enthusiasts, dedicated to inline-6 restoration and racing, have persevered. Langdon caught the six bug early in life, attending races in the 1950s at the US 30 Dragway, in York, Pa., not far from where he grew up.

"There was a guy racing a '39 Chevy coupe with a big GMC six-cylinder in it," he said. "It sounded different from the V-8 cars and was really fast on the first half of the track. I just really loved the way it sounded and fell in love with it."

His older brother drove an inline-6-powered '53 Chevrolet Bel Air, and Langdon said he talked him into letting him hop it up with dual exhaust manifolds from an early Corvette (they all came with inline-6 engines) and dual glasspack mufflers.

"When we fired it up for the first time, our mother came out and said, 'What have you done to that car? Turn it off before you break the windows,'" Langdon recalled, chuckling. "A six-cylinder engine with a split exhaust has a really unique sound quality. Some people really love it and some people don't like it at all. My mother was one of the ones that didn't like it."

It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with inline-6 engines. Langdon went on to become an engineer, spending his 36-year career with General motors, testing and developing engines.

"A large part of my experience was dynamometer and durability testing, spending time in the dyno cells with technicians and inspecting the results of failed engines," he said, explaining that he liked to take a hands-on approach to his work. "I didn't do it singlehandedly, but I supervised the operation."

He joined GM in the early '60s, so working with small block V-8s was unavoidable. But in his personal time, he went racing, his passion for inline-6 engines honing his understanding of a unique powerplant. One feature that couldn't be avoided, he said, was harmonics. Langdon said that at a certain rpm – close to 6,000 – vibrations in the engine cause the crankshaft to twist back and forth in opposite directions at each end. The motion can cause the flywheel to come off and the rubber ring in the vibration damper mounted on the front of the crankshaft to melt. In racing, this meant crankshafts had to be replaced frequently, a problem not seen as often in V-8 racing.

"The Ford guys had a much better design on the crankshafts, but when they get really competitive, they start to feed the engines crankshafts throughout the racing season," he said.

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From Fanatic to Guru

All those years of engine testing, number crunching and recreational racing weren't for naught. Several months before Langdon retired from GM, in 1999, he found out through his membership in Inliners International – a club for inline engine aficionados – that a business specializing in inline Chevrolet parts was for sale.

"The guy who owned it basically couldn't make a financial go of it," he said. "I was nearing retirement, so I thought it would be a perfect match of my background and interests."

Langdon and his wife, Joyce, bought the business – Stovebolt 6 – and its remaining inventory. Thus was born Langdon's Stovebolt Engine Parts Company. The Langdons have been running it out of their house, in Utica, Mich., ever since.

Google anything about inline-6 engines – Chevrolet models in particular – and his name is bound to pop up. He doesn't do anything V-8-related, and won't even spend time offering advice on how to set them up, but he does sell hard-to-find parts for GM and Mopar inline-6 engines. His cast-iron exhaust manifolds, which he has manufactured for Mopar flathead and Chevrolet engines, can't be found anywhere else. His small company also builds unique ignition upgrades for the engines. Plus, Langdon is always willing to go into great detail about what works and what doesn't for any particular inline-6 application.

"We're always getting calls from Australia and California," he said, "I'm the guru of inline-6 cylinders and I get communication from everywhere. There's probably no one else involved with inline-6 engines with the engineering background to be able to understand what's going on with them."

Looking forward, Langdon has gotten his son, Steve, his daughter-in-law, Doni, their children and a couple of Joyce's brothers involved in the business, too. Langdon said he still works 10-12 hours a day, but Doni puts in four hours a day helping out with paperwork, emails, building the company's social media presence and working in the shop.

"She's getting very technically competent, and she's able to answer 75 percent of the questions people ask," Langdon said, adding that his son will step in when he retires in 5 years. "I'm 74 now, so hopefully I'll make it until then."

The children help out in the shop, with Doni's 12-year-old son, Michael, building carburetor linkage kits, soldering pigtail connectors and disassembling distributor cores. His younger brother, 10-year-old Carter, helps out with the linkage kits. Bruce and Elmer Stange, Joyce's brothers, take care of shipping and paperwork. Even Langdon's neighbor, Doug Turner – who, although he's not a member of the family, has known the Langdons for 40 years – helps out.

"Tom's so busy that everyone pitches in," Doni said. "Everybody's very comfortable with each other."

It helps that everyone in the family is a gearhead. Doni Langdon said that between the bunch, they have about 20 old cars. Michael is already building himself a 1950 Chevrolet 3/4-ton truck. That he has the best technical help anyone could dream of doesn’t hurt either; Langdon is assisting the boy in building a GMC 302-ci engine for a truck much like the ones he saw when he watched drag racers tear down the York, Pa., strip so many years ago. Doni said that Carter is beginning to collect parts for a similar project.

"That's our family; this is our life," Doni said.

32 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Bruce C CO June 15, 2016 at 13:01
    Pretty cool. I always liked the slant 6 in my first car, a 1965 Plymouth Valiant. It was dependable and easy to work on. I sold my 2008 Jeep Wrangler and replaced it with a 2005 model because the I liked the straight six better than the new V-6.
  • 2
    Bill Jackson Dallas TX June 15, 2016 at 13:19
    I've always loved inline 6s since my first car, a 1950 Chevy. Years later I got a '50 Chevy pickup, and when a rod bearing went out I wanted to replace the 216 with a 235 with bearing inserts. Problem was there was only one year and car that used this motor with the same water pump as on the 216. I believe it was a 54 sedan with automatic. I was finally able to find one at a junkyard near my home in Springfield, MO. Took me awhile to rebuild it, but, it was a great engine! No longer have that truck, but, still love the inline 6 engine. My current car in is a '78 Mercedes 280E with an inline 6 with dual overhead camshafts and stock split exhaust manifold. There's just something anout these inline 6s that makes me smile every time I drive it!
  • 3
    JD Anacortes Wa June 15, 2016 at 13:49
    Great to see you feature Tom he is a gift to the inline community Glad he is passing the knowledge and passion on American at there best Thanks Tom Atownkustom
  • 4
    Ron Robinson Clifton, Tx. June 15, 2016 at 14:27
    My first car was a 1970 Chevy Nova with the 230 c.i./140 HP straight six. The modern Chevy sixes made better "vehicles" for racing virtue of seven-bolt mains that reduced crank harmonics (over the previous four-bolt main sixes). I broke the Nova in like I was gonna drive it, then put an aftermarket air cleaner and a glass-pack muffler on it. Over the course of the next 2 years I lowered the track record at the local drag-strip in R/Pure Stock class over TWO SECONDS (from 19+ seconds to 17.11). Also outran many of the more common 250 c.i. Chevy sixes and several V-8's in street races. The only six to beat it was an overhead-cam Pontiac that produced about 235 HP. Sure wish I had that Nova now!
  • 5
    Jim DiLisio Towson, Maryland June 15, 2016 at 14:45
    Tom Langdon is not only the expert on the inline 6, but he is also a great guy. I have a 37 Chevy half ton pickup with a 235 ci motor from a 1960 Chevy pickup. Tom sold me a wonderful rebuilt T5 transmission last summer. While visiting family in Maryland, Tom found the time to come to my house to look at my project, talk about Chevy trucks, and offer suggestions about components. I will never forget the visit and just how gracious and generous Tom was with his time and advice. The project is coming along nicely...T5 tranny, rear from 89 Jeep, new driveshaft, and now the motor is being completely rebuilt at a local performance shop.
  • 6
    Bob V. California June 15, 2016 at 14:53
    It's good to see someone keeping the 6 cylinder flame (blue flame that is) burning. I have a '54 Corvette with the 6 and 3 side draft carbs. I wonder if he has expertise in tuning those carbs as well.
  • 7
    Sarah W Vancouver, BC June 15, 2016 at 14:56
    My first sports car was a Triumph GT6 with a 2 litre six. I then bought another one and installed a 2.5 litre six out of a TR6. I seem to naturally gravitate to sixes due to the low rev torque and that lovely sound. Currently I own a 65 Austin-Healey, a 68 Triumph TR250 and an E-Type Coupe, but my daily driver is a Volvo with a 5 cylinder. Who would have ever thought that they would own a car with 5 cylinder engine? I never saw that coming!
  • 8
    CHARLES LAMB GRAND PRAIRIE, TX June 15, 2016 at 15:12
    Love the article and the GM High Thrift 235 Inline Six. I had a heavy '58 Chevy, four door Biscayne. Literally blew the engine up after opening it for 6 months. Bought a new block that I had inline bored for new cam ground to a little over 3/4, new crank with chromed main and connecting rod journals. Bore it to 40 thousands over size, and added High compression Pop-up pistons. Milled the heads and had to regrind the oil ports, and shorten the valve stems, Oversize Valves and recessed seats to clear the pistons. Double sprung the valves and added solid lifters adjusted to 65 thousands clearance. Added a McGurk Intake but it was not a fancy as the one in you picture, but it supported 3 Stromberg 91 Carbs with custom linkage (hand made by me). Had a cast dual exhaust from an early Corvet. I replaced the distributor with a Mallory Photo Electric setup and High Tension coil. The first run down the track I sheared the Powerglide Trans off the Bell housing. Replaced it with an adapter and converted to a Olds Hydromatic with a shifter kit and a Hurst Flour Shifter so I could manually shift the gears when I wanted. It ran away from 99% of the cars in my class at the drags and cruised fast enough that it easily buried the 120 MPH Speedometer. It would light up the old style tires even after moving to a wider tire. Never tried slicks since it was my daily driver. Loved the car but had to sell it when I joined the service and have hated doing that ever since. Great engine, and can certainly understand the love.
  • 9
    Tom Anderson Prescott, AZ June 15, 2016 at 15:56
    I wished I had him for a neighbor! I've got a little speedster with an inline 5 cylinder Chevy with dual Strongbergs and have a hell of a time getting it to run right.
  • 10
    William J. McHale Stockton, CA June 15, 2016 at 15:58
    My first car was a 1961 Chevy Biscayne with a 235 six and a powerglide. Slow as a glacier. Couldn't climb an ant hill! I got 13 mpg in town and 11 mpg on the highway. It constantly overheated. Burned oil at 60,000 miles because Chevy never make provisions for an oil filter from the factory. Chevy discontinued that engine I believe in 1962, but not soon enough for me! I haven't owned any inline 6 since! On the other hand, I have heard nothing but praise for Chrysler's 225 slant six. Unless you need a great boat anchor, stick with the bullet-proof small block V8!
  • 11
    Broan G. Ontario (ON) June 15, 2016 at 16:39
    I am having a 1956 Belair restored and we are keeping the original Blue Flame 140 motor and three on the tree transmission. Both have been rebuilt to factory specs and are ready to go, just waiting for the body restoration work to catch up. I am looking forward to completion.
  • 12
    Brian G. Ontario June 15, 2016 at 16:40
    I am having a 1956 Belair restored and we are keeping the original Blue Flame 140 motor and three on the tree transmission. Both have been rebuilt to factory specs and are ready to go, just waiting for the body restoration work to catch up. I am looking forward to completion.
  • 13
    George Frederick, MD June 15, 2016 at 17:09
    Tom is a wealth of knowledge to us inliners. I bought some headers for my 250 powered 68 Camaro from him and talked for an hour about my engine plans. great guy. here's a pic of my 6: https://i.imgur.com/MRxtWKEl.jpg he kept me from making a mistake and going down the wrong path on fuel injection.
  • 14
    Ken S Colorado June 15, 2016 at 18:02
    I do like the I-6's and have had a chance to own several of them. The old GM's and Ford car 6's were no ball of fire and neither was the Mopar slant 6. I did have a '76 Ford F150 with the 300 I-6. That was a motor for sure. I wound up putting a Clifford dual exhaust and Clifford intake with a small 4 bbl carb on it. This motor came to life and cruised over Vail Pass in COLO like nobody's business. I am a fan of the old 4.0L Jeep motors. Geared right they are both reliable and peppy. My Dodge has the 2001 Cummins I-6, Now that is an engine that will knock your socks off cruising or pulling 8000 lbs. The I-6's are torque monsters. Some better than others. Overall I found that opening up the exhaust side will gain the most performance upgrade to these motors. Nice to see some attention paid to these great I-6 engines.
  • 15
    SPRINT 6 VA June 15, 2016 at 18:29
    Good Stuff about a Good Guy! One aspect of Tom's career not mentioned is why I personally became aware of him. He ran a very successful Anglia Powered by one of my favorite engines, a Pontiac Overhead Cam Six. Look up HOLE SHOT 6.
  • 16
    Craig Penny Portland,Or June 15, 2016 at 18:55
    I have a '59 ford PU, that has had several different small block chevy's. I got tired of having the same thing under hood and built a .60 over 292 Chevy, 4 bbl, headers, mild cam with a four speed behind it. It,s fun to drive and surprises a lot of people.
  • 17
    Don Frederickson canada June 15, 2016 at 19:02
    I've never seen a GM straight 6 that would hold 4000 rpm before blowing a rod i about 10 seconds. Sorry, Ford had it all over them.
  • 18
    Brian G. Ontario June 15, 2016 at 19:52
    I am currently restoring a 1956 4 door BelAir sedan. We briefly considered a V8 transplant but ultimately decided to keep the original Blue Flame 140 and the column mounted 3 speed manual transmission. Both have been rebuilt to factory specs with modern internals. Overall the car will remain largely stock but will have key safety and creature comfort upgrades all installed in a manner consistent with the stock parameters. All my other tri fives are small blocks so this one will be an interesting departure. you can see it at lastchanceautorestore.com It is in galleries, current projects, 56 chevy.
  • 19
    Shawn Linn Fort Bragg CA June 15, 2016 at 20:33
    What about the Dude from Sac. raced them, has a museum, I think. Probably has passed, had a body shop downtown.
  • 20
    Bob Finn Windsor, CA June 15, 2016 at 22:50
    I have had a complete opposite experience with Mr. Langdon as Brian Donahue. In my conversations with Tom, he has been more than generous with sharing his expertise and offering suggestions to my inquiry. I have a Chevy 250 in my 66 Chevy pickup with Langdon’s split cast iron headers and I have used his tuning advice. AWESOME! I am now delivering 150 HP at the rear wheels and pulling 200 lbs of torque. Thank you Tom Langdon!
  • 21
    Wayne Graefen Under the X in Texas June 15, 2016 at 11:24
    6 cylinder performance took a giant step forward in 1916 when Hudson did the first fully balanced crankshaft in their Super Six cars. Factory went to Pikes Peak that year and WON !
  • 22
    Brian Donahue Ohio June 15, 2016 at 12:21
    I have tried to have conversations with Mr. Langdon in the past regarding in-line engines and his expertise. My experience was that he isn't very friendly and seemed rather put off by my lack of knowledge. That's why I called him, I was trying to learn. There are other sources available not as condescending.
  • 23
    Luke Lucas Davenport, IA June 16, 2016 at 13:08
    I'm sorry that Mr. Donahue feel that way. I met Tom many years ago and have been a customer of his. I have alway found his advise to be good and his products to be the best. They fit and work well without having to make modification that he hasn't told me about in advance. Tom has always answered my questions. Sometimes he would tell things I didn't want to hear about something I would want to try. But I always got good advise from a person who really knows Inline engines. In my opinion a Great Guy and a Great Family.
  • 24
    Mike Eaton Florida June 16, 2016 at 14:52
    Have to add my two pfennigs. The BMW sixes were always a favorite of mine, both the small M20 and large M30 slant sixes. Very smooth and rev happy. Younger brother is the Dodge slant six guy (In Darts, no less. Go figure).
  • 25
    Bill Hartwig Nebraska June 16, 2016 at 10:25
    I run Langdon's mini HEI on a '54 235. Also, many of the internal rebuild parts that my engine builder used came from Tom. Phil, (engine builder) commented what a pleasure it was to work with Tom! I personally have talked to Tom when my dizzy failed. I tried telling him it was my fault, probably failed due to me not catching the dizzy hold-down bolt not properly tightened. Tom would not let me take the blame. He said he had never had one fail, and replaced mine with overnight shipping so I would have it in time to drop it in, time it, and make it to Des Moines GoodGuys show. TOP NOTCH people at Langdon's. Thanks for the family and the friends to prepare for when Tom decides to retire. Thanks Tom, for helping me enjoy driving my Six Cylinder backed by an S-10 5 speed, all over the Midwest.
  • 26
    Gary Voleshen Hamlin NY June 16, 2016 at 11:08
    I have owned and worked on many vintage American inline sixes. The Chrysler 225 slant six has the best design of the lot from 1960 till the early 80s. With its 12 port head, long sweeping intake manifold and legendary durability. Not to mention the factory slant six "Hyper-pak" performance package, making 200 HP in 1961. How about a little credit for the best performance oriented American inline six of its era. ... Thanks, Gary
  • 27
    Dave Geil / Dave's Auto & Truck Svc. Inc. Florida June 17, 2016 at 09:53
    I'm a child of both worlds. I have owned small block V8's & inline 6 cyl chev. When I met my wife in 1982, I bought her a 74 malibu 2 door, w/250 cid 6 cyl. It only had 40,000 miles on it. She loved that car & when we sold it 27 years later, it had some 300,000 miles on it & still ran great & didn'y use but 1 qt. oil every 3,000 miles or so!. I put a V8 radiator w/ a 7 blade fan & non- thermal fan clutch & 160* thermostat along w/ a with a heavy duty water pump out of a van (that cured the water pump bearing failure rate to 0) The only reason we sold it was that she needed something w/ac due to her medical conditions. She still is on me for not keeping her beloved "Betsy"! Also I believe in the late 70's, a Gremlin w/a 300 hp 6 cyl. won the Daytona 500,some times 6's produce as much HP as a V8 with a lot more torque. Gotta get back to work now, if me, myself & I don't do it, no cars get fixxed today, Happy Motoring in the Modern Madness my friends!
  • 28
    George MD June 17, 2016 at 10:01
    I bought my first classic car in 2013. I'm far more familiar with modern cars and how they work. My "toy" is a 1968 Camaro with a 250 and powerglide. Not exactly the performance model by any stretch but I've added quite a bit of pep to it thanks to Tom and the guys at inliners.org. My original plan was to pull the old 250 and drop in a crate LS. Just like everyone else. ...but that changed when I started taking my little 250 to car shows. Turns out everyone else didn't get the attention I did. It was at that point that I decided to start looking into the 250 a bit more. I found the inliners website and through them found Tom Langdon. The first performance modification I did was a set of Tom's cast headers and a single 2.5" exhaust. Boy did that wake her up! I was hooked. When I ordered the headers Tom and I talked for a good hour. He helped me figure out a real plan for my build. She's never going to be a race car by any means but she now keeps up just fine with modern cars. I don't cringe when merging onto a highway anymore. Here's a quick pic of the engine as it stand now: http://i.imgur.com/MRxtWKE.jpg?1 So far I've increased the horse power by about 100 and made the car much more fun to drive. -Langdon headers -2.5" exhaust -Offy intake. -Holley 390 CFM carb -Mild Cam -HEI -Electric cooling fan Couple other minor things as well. Tom really steered me in the right direction on this build. We went from a show winner to a show stopper with a 6 banger Camaro! Trophies to prove it: http://i.imgur.com/agRUU8N.jpg Tom is a great guy and a true savior of the old 6!
  • 29
    Andrew Schulz Sugar Hill, GA June 18, 2016 at 09:18
    We have a 1963 Chevy C10 Step side with a inline 6. It has headers with glass pack mufflers. The header configuration, front 3 cylinders to one collector back three to another collector. Dual exhaust with glass packs, very different sound and loud. People can not figure out what engine is in the truck. I get more attention in the truck than my 69 Chevelle.
  • 30
    JB HAMLIN Virginia June 18, 2016 at 09:37
    Good blurb on a Good Guy, Just to bad no Mention of his accomplishments with racing his Anglia :-( Google; HOLE SHOT 6 Cheers
  • 31
    Thomas Allison San Antonio June 19, 2016 at 12:48
    I have had a 1950 Chevy- 6, a 1953 Bel Air- 6, and a 155 210- 6. In very single one the valves collapsed due to lifters. The 1955 had new lifters put in three times, once by the factory. They finally gave me a new engine. Guess what?? Collapsed valve lifters. I had that car only 51 weeks and traded it off and have never had an inline 6 since. New lifters, new hydraulics, new oil, nothing would save the engines in any of them. I realize this is a one in a million or so case but it soured me on an inline six. Later on I got a 1984 Chevy S-10 with a V6 and it was OK.
  • 32
    joe holloway parsonsburg md October 24, 2016 at 23:34
    I the process of restoring a 1968 g 10 chevy van how do I tell whether I have a 230 ci engine or a 250 ci engine . The vin only tells me that I have an inline 6. also any ideas on were to pick up a brake master cly

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