Brad Bowling
December 1, 2006
Photos By: Jerry Heasley

Kevin & Carmel Doolittle's 1996 Saleen S-281 Convertible
Car guys get attached to engine families with the same ferocity a city displays for its baseball team or the way a political party defends its candidates. 'Discussions' about the differences between, say, Chevy's 350 and Ford's 302 often require referees if bloodshed is to be avoided.

Ford Motor Company knew it would ignite a firestorm of criticism when it phased the beloved cam-in-block 5.0-liter V-8 out of the Mustang family at the end of 1995. That year's 302 was the end of a royal line going back to the 260-cid engine that powered Mustang number 000001 - a white convertible built on March 9, 1964, that now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. The first 302 appeared in 1968, and up until that point, only in the years 1974, 1980 and 1981 were Mustangers deprived of a 302-cid option.

Its replacement for '96 was a single-overhead camshaft version of the modular V-8 powerplant that had been reliably serving Lincoln customers and many police and government types for five years before Ford tapped it for Mustang duty. Ford's engineers considered the SOHC Mustang engine to be "modular" because a range of powerplants could more efficiently share major components and designs with it. In other words, everything from a gas-sipping four-banger to a thundering V-10 truck motor could spring from the same drawing board.

At 281 cubic inches, it displaced 31 cubic inches less than the outgoing 302, but the free-spinning overhead camshafts gave it a redline 1500 rpm higher. Eliminating those 16 pushrods meant a reduction in valvetrain inertia and a more direct transfer of cam rotation. Lightweight pistons and connecting rods further reduced parasitic drag, and a compact plastic intake manifold increased runner length for greater performance, while reducing weight and improving heat transfer. Greater deck height meant engineers spent a lot of time moving and redesigning components so everything would fit under the flat hood. The '96 281 was rated at 215 horsepower at 4400 rpm, and it produced 285 lb/ft of torque at 3500.

On paper, Ford was able to make favorable horsepower comparisons between the 5.0 and 4.6 engines, but the buff books were condemning the new V-8 before the first test drives. Enthusiasts were upset that so many high-performance parts had been developed for the 5.0, and that it might take years to build a similar catalog for the SOHC. When the inevitable comparisons were made between the '95 and '96 GTs, acceleration numbers were close enough for government work, although old school Mustang owners complained the new car 'felt different' and it didn't have enough power.

Hindsight tells us the SOHC and DOHC 4.6-liters have become some of the most popular V-8s to modify for performance since the smallblock Chevy. What could have been Ford's 'New Coke moment' turned out (in the end) to be a wise investment in the Mustang's future.

Steve Saleen was betting the new mod motor would find acceptance among Mustang fans. His 1994-95 S-351 had been wowing the car magazines with its acceleration and top speed numbers, especially in supercharged form, but price tags in the neighborhood of $40K made the 351-cid V-8 model a low-production, premium-priced sports machine. Saleen was looking to add an entry-level car to the lineup with all of the aerodynamic and handling upgrades of the S-351, but with Ford's stock 4.6-liter V-8. Thus was born the S-281, which at $28,990 in coupe form and $33,500 as a ragtop, was one of the most stylin' Mustang models available for the money.

There was some extra performance built into Saleen's version of the 4.6-liter. It was upgraded with high-performance sparkplug wires, a high-flow air filter and Borla mufflers - enhancing it to a claimed 220 horsepower.