Interview: Tom Tomlinson, Holley Performance

Holley is a company that truly defines automotive performance. Founded in Bradford, Pennsylvania in 1896 by two brothers as a vehicle manufacturer – they quickly turned to carburetors in 1904. By 1905, they were based in Detroit, and before long they were churning out innovative carbs for the Model T. Within 20 years, they owned over 50% of the world wide OEM carb market. Moving to Bowling Green, Kentucky in the mid 1950s, and acquired by Colt Industries in the late 1960s, the company owned the performance carburetor market with an iron first.

In the last 4 years, Holley not only emerged from bankruptcy protection, but has seen a complete resurgence.

Holley went on through the 1970s and 1980s as an automotive powerhouse – especially in performance. The iconic Holley Double Pumper was a favorite for hot-rodders and racers alike – powering street cars, NASCAR, and NHRA Pro Stock racers. In the 1990s, Holley ran into challenges, with the onset of fuel injection and more modern performance upgrades like power adders coming into favor. In 1998, a group of investors bought the company, and invested over $100 million in popular brands like Nitrous Oxide Systems, Weiand, Hooker, and Earl’s Performance.

The company struggled under the debt load. In 2008, Holley filed for bankruptcy, and then later in 2009 for Chapter 11 protection, but the company was starting to get it’s sea legs. In the last 4 years, Holley not only emerged from bankruptcy protection, but has seen a complete resurgence. With innovative new products like a complete line of LSX parts, a new EFI system, new racing carburetors, and even a new NASCAR-spec throttle body, Holley is now manufacturing parts that people want to buy.

However, more impressive than the products, is the team of gear heads Holley has quietly assembled. Led by new CEO Tom Tomlinson and VP of Marketing Bill Tichenor, Holley has brought in a mix of industry veterans, racers, and enthusiasts like Robin Lawrence, John Sonnefeldt, Liz Miles, and Ricky Best.

Tom Tomlinson is no fool. A gear head and true enthusiast himself, he knew that he needed a crew that was used to having grease under their fingernails. We decided to take some time out of our normally hectic schedule to chat with Tomlinson, and see what the past, present, and future has in store for this company with more than 100 years of performance history.

My first LSX car was a 1999 Corvette fixed roof coupe. I have also had a 2005 Z51 C6 Coupe, a 2007 Z06, a 2004 GTO, a 2004 CTS-V, and a 2010 Camaro.

lsxmag: Tom, what you’ve done with Holley has been pretty amazing. How did you know to hitch Holley’s star partially to the LS engine?

Tomlinson: “I actually have a little background on that. I had really fallen in love with the LT1 engines, and when the LS1 was first introduced I thought “Oh no, I can’t believe GM is abandoning this engine I love so much!” So I actually went out and bought a ’97 Firebird Formula coupe so I would have one the last LT1 engines. I obviously had a lot of fun in that car over the years, but somewhere in between I actually got to drive an LS car and I thought “Oh my gosh this is unbelievable.”

So that had led to the love of the LS engine.In fact, I had started an LT1 swap into an El Camino, and I halted that in mid-progress to go the LS route. And you know, one thing led to another and I’ve had a bunch of LS cars now. It really just is the engine of our time, the new Chevy Small Block, if you will.”

lsxmag: What LS cars have you yourself owned? Any favorite engine in the LS series?

Tomlinson: “Well as far as LS-cars, my first one was a 1999 Corvette fixed roof coupe. I have also had a 2005 Z51 C6 Coupe, a 2007 Z06, a 2004 GTO, a 2004 CTS-V, and a 2010 Camaro. I also had a 2003 Silverado that had a blower on it. But ironically, I finally went back and bought a 1999 Formula Firebird with an LS, because I’ve never had an LS1 4th gen. That’s what I’m playing with right now. In terms of engine favorites, my LS7 I would have to say is the most fun I’ve had so far. I haven’t had the opportunity of owning an LS9 or LSA yet.

The Z06 was such a fantastic car, and even on a hot day I would take that car to the drag strip and click off 11.80’s all day. It’s just an incredible car. We’re actually using an LS7 block with an LS9 blower for another Holley project that we’re working on, a 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix. Haven’t driven that yet, but that is probably going to be my favorite. But at this point, based on what I have experienced, the LS7 is my favorite so far.”

Project G-Force is a 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix that will be getting an LS7 engine topped with a supercharger from the LS9 in addition to a host of other modifications

lsxmag: Wow, that Grand Prix sounds like a cool project. Can you tell us more?

I’ve even seen people putting LSx motors into a Rolls Royce. They’re going into everything. So we wanted to offer our customers parts that make it easier, that solve problems with swapping LS motors.

Tomlinson: “Yeah, I think it’s gonna be. It’s going to be a serious Pro-Touring style car with an Art Morrison frame under it. It’ll have a six-speed and big wide tires all around with 265 tires up front and 335 tires out back with Forgeline wheels. I can’t wait to drive it, it should be quick.”

lsxmag: Holley has a lot of new LSX parts, how have you guys tried to stay ahead of the curve on LSX engine technology?

Tomlinson: “Our role in it has been in a couple of areas. Obviously some of the basic modifications to any engine including getting more air in and out. The throttle bodies, headers, and exhaust components certainly have been part of what we’ve been doing But the LSx motor has become such a popular motor to swap into vintage chassis, into just about anything frankly including imports and classics. I’ve even seen people putting LSx motors into a Rolls Royce. They’re going into everything. So we wanted to offer our customers parts that make it easier, that solve problems with swapping LS motors.

That has led us to the oil pan that we did, and that fits a wide variety of chassis. We have some engine mount plate kits to give the customer the option of where they want to engine to go in the chassis. We’ve got some swap headers we’re excited about. But with the revitalization of Holley’s portfolio, we’ve been focusing on the Holley brand and Earl’s, but we’ve got the great Hooker brand too, and we’ve got great things in store for the Hooker brand, starting with LS-powered vehicles.”

Holley's LS Swap Oil Pans allow modern engines to fit into classic chassis without clearance issues.

lsxmag: What LS engine seems to be the most popular with your customers, and what parts are they buying?

Tomlinson: “It’s hard for me to say which specific one is the most popular. There are a lot of people building low-buck engines — just picking up junkyard 5.3 liter engines, and making 400+ horsepower. Those engines are very popular with a certain set of budget enthusiasts. There were so many LS2’s out there in GTOs, Corvettes, and CTS-V’s – that those remain popular.

And now with the new Camaro, parts for the LS3 are very popular as well. As far as parts go, headers remain popular, and our coil covers that give LS engines that big block look have been popular. It’s amazing to me that if you paint them orange it gives the engine a vintage look, and if you paint them black or grey it gives them a modern look. The swap oil pans are popular too, and we’re working on a lot of other parts for the LS as well.”

lsxmag: For a company known for its carburetors, you’ve had a lot of success working with the new Dominator, Avenger, and HP EFI systems. Can you tell us about the EFI options for the LS engines?

Tomlinson: “We’re having tremendous success with the Holley EFI systems. It’s a fully self-learned style system,, and it’s just amazing how quickly it self-learns. We have an EFI system that is fully compatible with the LS motors. It’ll run a a 4l60 or 4l80E automatic transmissions no problem. We’ve got guys with modern cars like the guy running the Texas Mile that did over 200 mph in his Corvette. He was shooting for 250, but the car broke a wheel at speed and you may have seen that video. We’ve had success with high horsepower cars, and it will run a distributor less ignition, the drive-by-wire. It’s a very good solution for the LS motor.”

lsxmag: As you’ve already mentioned, LS engines are extremely popular for vintage vehicle swaps. What platforms are you focusing on to make these swaps easier?

Tomlinson: “As far as individual platforms, there are obviously some platforms from the 1960’s that are very important, and a lot of our parts have been built for those. But we’re taking a look at some of the newer platforms that have come along. This would include the G-Body. We built the E-Rod El Camino and I’ve already mentioned the ’87 Grand Prix with the LS7 motor and LS9 blower. So we think the G-bodies are coming along. We also just completed a late A-body, a 1974 Chevelle wagon. Some other platforms that we think will be coming along will be the late 2nd gen Camaros and Firebirds from ’74 to ’81. There are lots of swaps going into Corvettes, including C1’s, C2’s, and C3’s.

Those are the platforms that come to mind, but we’re also doing a Nissan 240sx kit right now. It’s a swap that has come hugely popular with the import guys. It seems like you can’t pick up an import magazine these days without seeing an RX-7 or Nissan 240sx LS engine swap. We’ve even seen it in some of the Lexus cars. We’re also focusing on trucks, three generations specifically; the 67-72’s, the 73-87’s, and the 88 on up, there are all opportunities in all of these platforms.We’re also working on a swap kit for the early A-bodies.. the 64-67’s. We’ve encountered some issues with those, as the steering gear is different on those then some of the later cars and we don’t have a solution for that yet. But we’re looking into it now, but right now the steering gear interferes with the oil pan.”

This '74 Chevelle Wagon is one of the odder vehicles Holley is making LS swap packages for. This particular project car has a 6.0 liter LS truck motor for now, but the wagon will serve as a test platform for future Holley products.

lsxmag: What is your favorite feature of the LS engines? What new parts are you coming out with?

Tomlinson: “The LS motor just makes incredible power with the tried-and-true pushrod setup. I love the simplicity and robustness of the LS motors. The simplicity makes it affordable to modify, and the robustness is why you can make 1,800 plus horsepower. What would I change? Technology moves on, and I’ve noticed that direct injection seems to be incredible technology. It makes big horsepower, big improvements even in fuel mileage, and I think a direct-injected LS would be awesome.

I think GM really needs a 454 LS block that’s in aluminum too. In terms of new parts, we’ve got our new Hi-Ram intake with a modular design. It has a number of different tops. You can use an EFI top with a front-mount throttle body. You can also use a top for dual 4150 Holley carburetors. And there’s also a different top set up for 4500 carburetors. And either of those can also take an EFI throttle body and use the manifold for fuel injection. We did that because we noticed there were a lot of guys spending a lot of money on these hi-rise sheet metal intakes, and obviously a cast design is a lot more cost effective so it allows us to get a part to more people.”

Holley's modular Hi-Ram intakes can be fitted with carburetors or fuel injection system while saving customers money over a custom sheet metal design.

lsxmag: Sounds like you guys are working on a lot of really cool things over there. Thanks for talking with us. Any parting words?

Tomlinson: “Stay tuned, we’re going to keep working on getting out more LS-related parts from Holley!”

About the author

Chris Demorro

Christopher DeMorro is a freelance writer and journalist from Connecticut with two passions in life; writing and anything with an engine.
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