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Are Cheap Headers Worth It? Here’s What You Need To Know

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Close up of an exhaust header not a manifold in a red car

Replacing the original exhaust manifold with a performance exhaust header is something many car performance enthusiasts opt for. Whereas an exhaust manifold connects all cylinders at once, the exhaust header has a dedicated pipe for every cylinder. It’s designed to elongate back pressure—a symptom of the piston having to work harder to push exhaust gases out. This leads to enhancements in the horsepower and torque of an engine.

Cutting shortcuts on headers can have disastrous implications. It may even render the header useless. No enhancements in performance, just a modification that gives you more problems than you had when you started. The downside is that headers can be pricey. Cheap headers are more readily available and are typically made with lower quality materials, such as steel rather than stainless steel construction.

In the article below, the differences between cheap exhaust manifold headers and more expensive ones will be explored in full detail.

How Much Do Exhaust Headers Cost?

Ok, now let’s talk about money. This is a bit of a labor-intensive project. So you will incur labor costs if you want to enlist the help of someone who knows what they’re doing.

The components will cost anywhere from $300-$900, but labor costs from the installation can drive total costs upwards of $1,000.

Here are the two factors that can complicate installation:

  • Free space available: you may need to move some components and weld them together to make room for the header
  • Ground clearance: the header will likely be the lowest part of the vehicle, you need to make sure that you have enough ground clearance

You can learn more about exhaust headers through this helpful video.

V8 aluminum racing engine with exhaust headers not manifold removed from the car on a pallet

Are Cheap Headers Worth it?

Properly designed, manufactured, and installed headers will save you a lot of the hassle that is usually associated with cheaper headers but will usually end up costing more.

There’s also the matter of what’s included, for example, the gaskets and hardware that comes with a header when you purchase it. With a cheaper header, the quality of those parts including the header itself as well as the mounting hole positions can sometimes be questionable.

Here are the driving forces behind costs:

  • Header type
  • Material selection (steel vs. stainless steel, etc.)
  • Pipe length and diameter
  • Quality of Flanges and Connectors

In the section below, the above factors will be expanded upon in further detail. It’s also important to note that pricing can vary widely by vehicle make and model. Some parts may be more difficult to track down.

Here’s How To Save Money On Headers

Several factors can drive down the cost of a header. But is it worth compromising on any of these?

Choosing Header Type

There are a couple of different types of headers. You’ll need to consider this before committing to an installation. There are several key differences.

For example, if you have a 4-cylinder engine:

  • 4-1 header: each cylinder has its exhaust pipe, which meets at a single collector
  • 4-2-1 header: each cylinder has its exhaust pipe but the exhaust pipes meet at a collector, rather than all 4 meeting at one collector

This has some implications for engine performance. A 4-2-1 header, for example, has been shown to have increased torque at a lower RPM versus a 4-1 header. This is a good subject to discuss with a qualified technician.

Choosing Header Material

Headers are typically made out of steel. While steel is cheap, it is also the least durable. Stainless steel is an upgrade, and most customers will report that these look better as well.

The priciest option is a header with ceramic coating. The coating helps the header to withstand higher temperatures. It may also help preserve the overall aesthetic appeal of the header.

Pipe Size: Affects Torque & Horsepower

The primary pipes are the portion of the header that carries gasses from each cylinder to the collector. Pipe size, both in terms of length and diameter, has an impact on engine performance.

  • Larger diameter pipe: horsepower increases, torque decreases.

Shortcuts here would essentially render your header useless. So a cheap header may not be properly sized to fit the demands of your vehicle. There are special formulas and guidelines for pipe sizing that can be found here.

Quality of Flanges & Connectors

With cheap headers, you may also compromise the quality of the flanges and connectors. You certainly want to avoid distortion or gasket leaks. There’s also the potential for the flanges to interfere with your access to spark plugs and bolt access.

Ideally, here’s what you want to look forum a header:  a thick flange and a solid weld bead.

Close up of exhaust headers in a car

What Are The Best Cheap Headers?

Below is a brief buyer’s guide on headers. As you scroll through the choices, be sure to catch the key differences between the more expensive header and the two more affordable products.

Patriot Shorty Headers

Patriot shorty headers have been described as the best option for quick and easy drop-in replacements for stock cast-iron manifolds. The Patriot brand is perhaps one of the most durable options at this price point.

Speaking of Patriot Headers, you will find that they are easy to order online. Take for example this Patriot Exhaust Header:

  • This header is available in 3 different finishes (uncontested, chrome finish, or metallic ceramic coating)
  • It also has 18-gauge tubing.

Patriot Exhaust H8433 1-5/8″ Clippster Exhaust Header for Small Block Ford 64-73

Patriot Exhaust H8433 1-5/8" Clippster Exhaust Header for Small Block Ford 64-73

ZBPRESS Exhaust Header

The exhaust headers in the ZBPRESS lineup are among the most affordable options available. This exhaust header is forged from stainless steel, but there are some significant differences between this and the pricier models.

Look at this header for select models of Chevy V8 engines:

  • The connections are not OEM Style connections.
  • Installation may be more challenging. The company even recommends professional installation in the listing.
  • The manufacturer does not claim the flanges being laser-cut.

ZBPRESS Exhaust Header, Universal LS Swap S10 Conversion Headers (LS1, LS2, LS3, LS6, LS Engines) Truck & SUV, 4.8L, 5.3L, 5.7L, 6.0L, 6.2L Engines, V8 engines ONLY

ZBPRESS Exhaust Header, Universal LS Swap S10 Conversion Headers LS1, LS2, LS3, LS6, LS Engines - Truck & SUV, 4.8L, 5.3L, 5.7L, 6.0L, 6.2L Engines, V8 engines ONLY

What You Get With A Premier Header: Gibson GP129S

Gibson manufactures a line of stainless steel headers for roughly twice the price of the Patriot header mentioned above and more than three times the cost of the ZBPRESS lineup. Take a look at this Gibson header here:

Gibson GP129S Stainless Steel Performance Header

Gibson GP129S Stainless Steel Performance Header

What’s the difference with the more expense header?

  • It has OEM Style Connections.
  • Heavy-duty laser-cut port flanges
  • Stainless steel construction is more durable than just unfinished steel.

If you value the above features, then you will likely skip over cheaper headers. It all depends on your budget.

Conclusion

Cheap exhaust headers owe their lower price points to a few key construction compromises. They may be made of steel rather than stainless steel. Cheap headers may also have non-OEM style connections.

Durability and ease of installation are key factors here. You shouldn’t be immediately dismissive of cheap headers though, as there are some manufacturers, such as those mentioned above that are known for producing quality at a relatively low price.

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References:

Engineering Explained

Speedway Motors

Choosing the Right Headers

Motor Trend

Understanding The Different Types Of Headers On The Market – Streetable Rods

The Correct-Sized Headers Will Give You the Best Performance

JEGS High Performance

A Buyer’s Guide to Exhaust Headers

Amazon

Patriot Exhaust H8433 1-5/8″ Clippster Exhaust Header for Small Block Ford 64-73

ZBPRESS Exhaust Header, Universal LS Swap S10 Conversion Headers (LS1, LS2, LS3, LS6, LS Engines) Truck & SUV, 4.8L, 5.3L, 5.7L, 6.0L, 6.2L Engines, V8 engines ONLY

Gibson GP129S Stainless Steel Performance Header

Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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