The formation of cytochrome P-450 metabolic intermediary (MI) complexes from a homologous series of alpha-substituted 2-phenylethylamines and corresponding N-hydroxylamines was investigated during NADPH-dependent metabolism in liver microsomes from phenobarbital-pretreated rats. The alpha-alkyl substituent consisted of branched and unbranched alkyl chains ranging from 0-4 carbons and the benzyl group. All the compounds but 2-phenylethylamine generated the complex and double-reciprocal plots of the highest observed rate of complex formation vs. substrate concentration gave linear relations over a defined substrate range. The Vmax(obs) values for complex formation by the amines increased markedly with increasing size of the alkyl group and a good correlation was obtained between log Vmax(obs) and the logarithm of the octanol/buffer partition coefficient of the substrates. With the N-hydroxy compounds, complex formation was a much less selective phenomenon and without exception the rates were quite high with Vmax(obs) values as much as 100 times greater than those of the amines. The disappearance of substrate amines was independent of structure and at an initial substrate concentration of 100 microM about a 50% decrease was noted during a 20-min period in all cases. The results substantiate the previous notion that N-oxidation is a prerequisite for MI-complex formation from primary amines. The results also suggest that C- and N-oxidation have different rate-limiting steps and the microsomal enzymes catalyzing the N-oxidation seem to be deeply submerged in the lipid matrix, as amines with a low distribution are inactive or poor substrates for generating the cytochrome P-450 ligand. Also, it is evident that the MI complex formation does not impair the overall metabolism of the amines.