TCI Permanent Magnet Starters

Nothing kills a man’s ego and pride quite like the sound of a starter struggling to turn over his expensive new high-compression, big-cube engine in the cruise night parking lot. Worse yet is a round lost at the dragstrip when the motor just won’t fire. Hot starts and modified engines put added stress on the starter, and stock units just aren’t up to the task. Fortunately, TCI is there to help with starters able to keep up with any muscle car enthusiast’s high horsepower demands.

TCI Automotive started building torque converters in 1968 in Memphis,Tennessee with two goals in mind: performance and reliability. In the mid ‘70s, TCI expanded their business and began building complete racing transmissions. The company expanded once again in the ‘80s and ‘90s to add flex plates and starters to their product line. The latest advances in their starter technology are permanent magnet motors that are lighter and more compact than standard field coil models, making them perfect for performance and racing applications.

TCI Permanent Magnet Starters

TCI has many different starter types available for various applications. For tow rig and street applications, their high-torque starters are remanufactured OEM units with four full field windings that provide 20% more torque than stock, and high temperature solenoids designed to resist heat soak from exhaust headers. TCI’s racing starter line is composed of all-new (not rebuilt) units, with the standard version’s field coil motor developing 1.9 horsepower, and the “extreme” starter cranking out 3.0 horsepower, making it capable of spinning engines running 11.5 to 1 compression or even higher. The Permanent Magnet Racing Starter we’ll be showing you today uses a more compact electric motor that, thanks to its permanent magnet design, develops more torque per amp than a conventional field coil motor. In particular, we’ll examine one specific application for GM engines – the LS series.

GM LS Engines

Both Gen III and Gen IV GM LS engines have become popular starting blocks for engine builds, with many big power upgrades available for street/strip applications. In our case, we installed the TCI LS Series starter in our ’71 Nova that we equipped with an LS3. The aftermarket oil pan and headers that we installed put clearance at a premium, and combined with the desire for a starter that could handle anything we threw at it, we felt that the TCI Permanent Magnet Racing Starter was definitely called for.

TCI's Permanent Magnet Racing Starter offers big torque in a small package.

TCI’s LS Starter: A Closer Look

A quality starter begins with quality components. “TCI’s starter is based on a Hitachi starter with different components added,” says Scott Miller of TCI Automotive. A 6 to 1 gear reduction drive multiplies the high-speed motor’s torque, and a 12-position mount lets you “clock” the solenoid to provide the maximum clearance. TCI says their starter can work on engines with a compression of 12:1, while stock-style starters begin to check out once you exceed 9:1. “You can use this starter with a higher compression set up; it just puts more load on it which will decrease the life of the starter,” Miller explains.

TCI's billet starter mount offers 12 different mounting positions to allow the solenoid to go where the headers and oil pan aren't.

The big advantages of the permanent magnet design are reduced weight and low amperage draw. The LS starter tips the scales at only 7.5 pounds, approximately 50% lighter than stock. “You can hold it in one hand and get the bolts started with other hand,” Miller pointed out. The difference in weight means the starter is a lot easier to install, and it helps take weight off the nose of the car.

Because permanent magnet starters have no field coils, they draw a little bit less power than an equivalent conventional starter. Per Miller, “The difference is about 2 or 3 amps.” Every little bit available to the ignition helps, especially when running a total-loss electrical system.

TCI perfects their products by putting them through rigorous tests to make sure you get the quality you expect. “Before being shipped out, every starter is put on the dyno to get precise functionality tested,” explained Miller. “We also make sure the solenoid is not drawing too many amps and that the pinion gear is spinning correctly.”

Starter Ingenuity

Starters are generally pretty straightforward parts to install, and the TCI Permanent Magnet Racing Starter’s adjustable mount doesn’t appreciably complicate the process. Simply unscrew three hex head bolts and you can then easily remove the mounting plate and turn it clockwise or counterclockwise to get the desired position. Miller says, “People were installing different oil pans and headers, and the stock starter would get in the way. So, we came up with this design so you can put the solenoid in any position to clear the headers and oil pans.” Once you find the position that works for your application, the LS Series starter is mounted just like the stock one.

Three hex head bolts are removed to allow the solenoid to be repositioned relative to the starter mount.

There are two bolts that go through the mounting plate and into the block. With the starter mounted to the block there should be a clearance of .100” +/- .040” between the pinion and the ring gear. If there is a clearance anywhere outside of those numbers, the starter needs to be removed and the mounting plate and block need to be checked for nicks or burrs.

After checking the pinion-to-ring gear clearance, the backlash needs to be checked. This is done by pulling the pinion gear out into the ring gear and checking the clearance. There should be a 0.35” to .060” clearance. Miller stated, “It’s a bolt-in deal. There is no shimming or anything like that needed.”

Unlike the typical "white box" auto parts store special, the TCI starter goes in with no shimming necessary to get the proper pinion-to-ring clearance.

TCI Tip: When hooking up the wires to the starter, you have to be careful not to over-torque the nut on the upper stud. A battery connection to the main terminal, a second positive wire to the ignition switch, and a ground connection are all it takes.

A Reliable Performance Starter

The TCI Permanent Magnet Starter turns over the high performance LS3 engine in our Nova with ease time after time. With applications for both LS-style and traditional mouse motors, there’s no excuse for owning a small block Chevy of any vintage that goes “RRRRRrrrrrRRRRRrrrrr” instead of “Vroom!” High compression, hot starts, and tight quarters are no obstacle to reliable starts thanks to TCI.

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About the author

Mark Gearhart

In 1995 Mark started photographing drag races at his once local track, Bradenton Motorsports Park. He became hooked and shot virtually every series at the track until 2007 until he moved to California and began working as a writer for Power Automedia. He was the founding editor for its first online magazines, and transitioned into the role of editorial director role in 2014. Retiring from the company in 2016, Mark continues to expand his career as a car builder, automotive enthusiast, and freelance journalist to provide featured content and technical expertise.
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