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Y-Block Power Tech
by Larry D'Argis
One way to wake up the performance of your Y-Block powered 272, 292 and 312 Ford, is with the installation of a 1957 or later distributor and modern carburetor.  First off, all of the Ford and Mercury Y-Block engines built before 1957 relied on a distributor that used vacuum only to advance the spark for acceleration.  Even the 1956 models with the (rare and costly to replace), dual vacuum chamber distributor are fairly sluggish in acceleration.  Slow spark advance also can contribute to poor fuel economy and an engine that tends to run hotter.  1957 was the performance year for the Y-Block engine and the factory made some advances that not only got you down the road faster, but it helped you pick up some fuel economy too.
The 1957 and newer distributor has a vacuum advance as well as a mechanical centrifugal advance located under the breaker plate.  Special weights dampened with small coil springs advance the breaker plate when required by increases in engine r.p.m.  A used distributor can be found in any Y-Block built after 1956 or a newer style rebuilt distributor can be purchased outright at Piston Ring Service.  Now the bad news, as the distributor is only part of the upgrade.  The new distributor will only work properly when paired with a newer carburetor.  The old small Holley two barrel and teapot four-barrel carburetors do not have the appropriate vacuum circuit to work the new distributor's advance.  There are adapters available that will allow you to mount the newer style carburetor onto your existing intake manifold and with a little tweaking you should be able to get the linkage working.  A better option would be to change up to the later intake manifold.  They have far superior breathing characteristics than the older manifolds and the newer carburetors simply bolt on.
The 1957 and up two barrel intake manifolds are fairly easy to find at swap meets and are usually available for as little as $20.00.  This would allow you to use any of the wide-base Holley or Ford two-barrel carburetors.  These carburetors are easily purchased used, or available rebuilt from parts houses.  Most can even supply a rebuild kit if you'd like to do it yourself.
Blue Thunder also makes a new aluminum four-barrel intake manifold that will outflow the cast iron original and help you shave a few pounds of weight off, but at $350 US, they're a bit pricey.  I know there are aluminum three-two barrel and dual four manifolds out there and while they have that trick hot rod look, none can match the performance of the Blue Thunder four-barrel intake.  For most the cast iron '57 four-barrel will suffice and provide the best performance per dollar.
You'll notice our performance upgrade didn't include the '54 Ford 239 or '54 Mercury 256 Y-Block in our conversion.  The early engines have a different camshaft and require a distributor with a 14-tooth gear instead of the later 13 teeth found in the '55 and up distributors.  While you can swap the gear and use an intake manifold adapter to mount the newer carburetor, you can't use the newer intake manifolds.  The intake ports in the early heads are a mismatch with them and will provide nothing but vacuum leaks.

The best thing these upgrades is that you can enjoy your car's added performance and save the original parts to convert back if you want to return it to stock condition. 
If a four-barrel is more to your liking, the wide-base four-barrel manifold can be found on Fords and Mercury's and even some of the larger trucks produced from 1957 to 1964.  Here you can use any Holley, Carter or Edelbrock carburetor from the parts houses, speed shops, or mail orders.  Try to choose a carburetor in the 450 to 550 c.f.m. range, anything larger will only hurt performance and don't try to run a four-barrel equipped engine through a single exhaust system.