Eric English
February 17, 2010

At the heart of most great automobiles, lies a great engine. The two simply go together like bread and butter-neither being complete on their own, but perfectly complementing each other when offered in tandem. It could even be said that a beautiful body which lacks a compelling powerplant is easily doomed, while conversely, the right engine can turn a turd into legend-witness certain Chrysler Max Wedge and Hemi cars. Ford has a rich history of building quality V-8 engines, most of which have a high-performance variant that left a mark on history-or at least on a group of enthusiasts who call it their own. Here, we present 10 of them; what we believe to arguably be the most significant production V-8s in Ford history.

Probably more than any other manufacturer, the sheer variety of Ford V-8s produced over the last 78 years can make your head spin. Take 1970 for example. In addition to the FE big-block that was still available in ponycars and trucks, Ford had the 2-year-old 385-series big-blocks (429 and 460) for its intermediate/fullsize offerings, not to mention two distinct small-block lineups-the Windsor, and the new Cleveland. Factor in two different deck heights for the Windsor series (302 and 351), along with an engine that combined parts from both lineages (Boss 302), and the lineup could be deemed downright confusing. But never fear, this is all just part of the Ford fanatics' lot in life-you learn about each engine's attributes, choose the one that works for you, and end up realizing it's not as complicated as it may seem.

As we reviewed some of the players that could be considered for this story, some were decidedly evident. Others were more difficult to call, so we asked ourselves "what makes a great Ford V-8?" It's certainly not just which engines make the most power, though output is a legitimate consideration. Some of the following also ended up in our criteria. "Was it a 'production' engine?" While we debated including pure racing engines such as the revolutionary '64 DOHC Indy effort, we decided to limit our discussion to engines actually installed in mass-produced cars-and in volume such as would be available through most Ford or Mercury dealerships. Other questions we asked included the subjective "Was it truly significant?" "Did it change the 'rules' of the game?" "Is there a notable racing history?" We didn't consciously place a given value on each question; rather we came to realize that engines in the running would answer yes to some, or possibly even all. Now it's time to sit back and see how our list jives with yours-and do recognize there are differences that might be found in a "10 favorites" list, as opposed to this "10 most significant" story. There is no ranking from 1 to 10; rather the order is simply chronological.

Flathead V-8
It's hard to imagine how revolutionary the flathead V-8 was when first introduced in 1932. In one single blow, Ford had created the first mass-produced V-8, and the powerplant that would power a generation of racers and rodders. Though initially sporting just 65 horsepower, a high-performance aftermarket quickly sprang up in support of the "flattie," eventually developing a huge variety of performance parts that was essentially the beginning of the aftermarket speed industry we know today. You name it, and the speed parts were there; carbs, intakes, camshafts, headers, and cylinder heads-even the Ardun overhead-valve Hemi heads by none other than Zora Arkus-Duntov-later of Corvette fame.

The first generation of flatheads measured in at 221 cubes, but by the third distinct iteration from '49-'53, had grown to 255 cubes in Mercury form, and rated at 125 horsepower. Outclassed by modern overhead-valve V-8s which appeared in the '50s, the flathead largely faded from view for years, only to roar back to relevance in the last decade as rodders took a new interest in doing something different, and speed parts returned in abundance. Today, with bigger cubes, EFI, and superchargers available, alongside newly manufactured traditional speed parts, there has never been a better time to be a flathead fan!

289 Small-Block
If ever there was an engine associated with early Mustangs, it's the 289. We're not speaking solely of the High Performance K-code variants, rather all 289s down to the most mundane 200-horse two-barrel versions. Available into 1968, production of the 289 predated Mustang by more than a year, however the new ponycar platform literally accounted for hundreds of thousands of this small-inch Windsor. As such, they will forever be linked at the hip, each contributing to the other's ultimate success.

Of course the 289 proved a reliable workhorse on two fronts-the pedestrian everyday Ford, and the subject of our greater attention, high-performance applications. The K-code Hi-Po was built in limited quantities from 1963-1967, and featured beefier block hardware and a reciprocating assembly, along with a solid-lifter valvetrain. It's hard to say what kind of impact the engine might have had on motorsports if it hadn't been for Carroll Shelby, but together, the results were golden. Without a doubt, it was the Shelby connection which placed this small-block in the limelight, where it powered Cobras, G.T. 350s, and Trans-Am racers to a variety of championships. Prized today for their rarity and pedigree, the Hi-Po 289s remain one of our favorite V-8s of all time-and did we mention they're easy to work on?

427 FE Medium Riser
Why pick a particular variation of the 427 when we considered the 289 in all forms? For starters, there was no such thing as a pedestrian version of the high-minded 427, so there is really no opportunity to credit this engine for what it did for the masses. On the contrary, the 427 is solely about low production high-performance, and the Medium Riser was arguably the best iteration of the production versions.

We all know the story of the 427-how it was NASCAR-bred, became an instant drag race success, and powered Ford's ultimate muscle cars of the era. Early 427s were Low Risers, and then in 1964 came the "tall and terrible" High Risers that appeared in Thunderbolt Fairlanes and lightweight Galaxies. So what's the Medium Riser version all about? The MR was introduced in mid-1965, and like the 427s that came before, it's name stemmed from the rise (height) of the intake manifold. High Riser top ends were great for enabling the intake charge to have a near straight path to the valves, but were a race design that required a rather large 'scoop or bubble on the hood to clear the assembly.

As the name implies, the MR was a lower profile affair that actually tucked under the stock hoods of cars that could be factory opted with such engines (i.e. Galaxies, Fairlanes, and Comets). And yet despite being much friendlier for street applications, MR heads retained much of the flow of the High Risers, in part by using the same 2.195/1.733 valve package. Still, our pick of the MR as the ultimate production 427 stems from more than just the head/intake combo. Along with those impressive parts, the MR also benefited from Ford's new sideoiler block and forged steel crank. In short, it was a near bulletproof performer.

428 Cobra Jet
The other FE in our top ten is the 428 Cobra Jet. Dreamed up by Bob Tasca and his team of performance minded cohorts, and debuting in mid-1968, the CJ immediately gave Ford some much needed street credibility. So much so, that for the moment in time that was March 1968, Hot Rod magazine's Eric Dahlquist proclaimed it "the fastest running Pure Stock in the history of man."

The 428 Cobra Jet was Ford's muscle car engine for the masses, and due to its genesis from affordable passenger car pieces, it was built in relative quantity-more than 20,000 in '68 1/2-'70 Mustangs alone. As if the street cred wasn't enough, 428CJ-powered machines immediately established themselves as tough competitors in the Stock and Super Stock drag racing ranks, and may well be the most successful Ford engine to campaign in such over the long-term.

From Al Joniec's Super Stock Eliminator victory at the CJ's 1968 Winternationals debut, to John Calvert's national records and wins in very recent memory, the engine has been a force to be reckoned with for 40 years.

Boss 429
Too bad Ford didn't have everything together when it came to the homologation effort for the Boss 429 engine, the Mustang Boss 429. It could've been the nastiest factory muscle car of all time, and yet still probably qualifies as the most exotic. Nevertheless, the big Boss was a big winner in the arena it was built for-stock car racing. FoMoCo dominated the 1969 NASCAR season, as Boss 429-powered Torinos and Cyclones did the heavy lifting that resulted in 30 victories out of 54 races, another driver's championship for David Pearson, and the manufacturer's championship for Ford.

Since we're speaking of production engines, we'll return to the iterations seen in the Boss Mustangs of 1969 and 1970. Rated at 375 horsepower, the Boss 429 held the highest factory horsepower rating (tied with '71 429SCJ) for a Ford-built Mustang until eclipsed by the 2000 Cobra R and it's 385-horse 5.4L Four-Valve. No matter the performance, the Boss was also a bulletproof piece, consisting of a four-bolt main bearing block, and particularly in the early stages, a brutally tough reciprocating assembly that was truly designed for 500 miles at over 7,000 rpm. These first 200-some engines are known as S-code assemblies, and used massive connecting rods with 1/2-inch bolts. T-code engines came next, and while still using a great forged steel crank, employed much lighter connecting rods with 3/8-inch bolts. S-code Boss Mustangs seem to hold sway with collectors due to their lower production numbers and more direct NASCAR heritage, but in truth, the T-code cars should be better street and drag race platforms. Not only did they have a quicker revving bottom end, most T-motors were fitted with a far superior solid lifter cam than the early motor hydraulic bumpstick. In all, the Boss 429 Mustang is a rare breed no matter which engine variation-just over 1,300 were built.

Boss 302
Winner, Winner! It's hard to levy much criticism at the '69-'70 Boss 302, for it truly was a magical piece of machinery. OK, you could say that the original pistons had a habit of cracking, but that's water under the bridge in an age when any hard running Boss has been rebuilt with the latest and greatest slugs.

This is a tough engine to separate from the car it came in-primarily the Boss 302 Mustang-as it was as magical as the engine itself. The Boss 302 Mustang was purpose-built as a homologation effort to legalize the high-winding small-block for Trans-Am racing, and yet it turned into one of the most successful Ford muscle cars of all time-with some 8,600 total Mustang units built. Ultimate power wasn't the name of the game here, rather max power and reliability for the given 5.0 liters of displacement per SCCA rules. To that end, the Boss started with a specific four-bolt main bearing block and forged steel crank-the only production Windsor small-blocks ever to use such. Solid lifters teamed with massive port and valve dimensions to make the 302 a screamer at high rpms, while a high-rise aluminum intake and 780cfm Holley directed the fuel mix. For the street, the '69 production 2.23/1.71-inch valve sizes were soon deemed just too big, and were revised for 1970 to 2.19/1.71-inch.

Our sister publication, Hot Rod, just ran an enlightening story that quantified what Ford fans have known for years. With the dyno gurus at Westech Performance, Hot Rod orchestrated a face off between a '69 Z/28 "DZ302," and a '69 Boss 302. Equalized with like-dimensioned 750 Holleys and 1 3/4-inch headers, the Boss peaked at 372 horsepower at 6,800 rpm compared to the Chevy's 356 at 6,700. Peak torque favored the Chevy by a small margin, 333 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm vs. 325 at 4,200, but the Boss surprisingly produced more torque down at 3,000 rpm, so there seemed plenty of give and take in the torque department. Of particular note, the test was performed with factory spec cams and compression-the Chevy's being a bit more aggressive in both departments. In the free wheeling world of Trans-Am racing where cam and compression was wide open, you can imagine the power differences would be magnified. This was proven out in a very competitive debut year in 1969 and the Trans-Am championship in 1970.

Boss 351
Is it any surprise we've included all three Boss engines in our top ten? The Boss 351 may be slightly disadvantaged on the surface due to just one year of production and no factory supported race effort, and yet it stands on its own as perhaps the best performer of all time in the category of small-block V-8. It had the goods from top to bottom-decent cubic inches from a four-bolt block, those awesome flowing four-barrel Cleveland heads, 11:1 compression, and more.

Few laments surround the 351-although the Boss 302's Holley 780 would've been nice, the Autolite 4300D carb did flow an adequate 750 cfm. Maybe the biggest knock on the Boss 351 wasn't the engine itself, rather that it was installed in the heaviest Mustang platform of the vintage era. Just think what the thing would've done in a '67! Nevertheless, Boss 351 Mustangs vie for the title of quickest classic Mustang, with period magazine tests even scoring a couple high 13-second performances.

Here's one more item to consider that helps cement the Boss 351 in our lineup. This is our only engine that is fully representative of the Cleveland architecture, which clearly has a rich performance tradition in Ford history. By the mid '70s, the 351 Cleveland was the choice of Ford NASCAR teams and by the mid '80s would turn in dominating performances. As well, Clevelands were a mainstay in NHRA Pro Stock for years, with the likes of Wayne Gapp and Bob Glidden winning multiple national championships. And perhaps to end any debate, Hot Rod recently faced off a Boss 351 against several other notables including the LT1 350, L76 327, DZ 302, and Boss 302. The end result? The Boss 351 was proclaimed "the baddest small-block of the muscle car era."

EFI 5.0L HO
To our knowledge, it was 1978 when Ford first began using the European-style 5.0L nomenclature on its venerable 302ci V-8. Unfortunately those were the dark ages for performance cars, and the 5.0L didn't have any positive connotation until 1982, when a High Output (HO) version accompanied the return of the Mustang GT. Improved almost yearly for the next several years, the 5.0L HO moved from a two-barrel carb to four-barrel Holley, picked up factory headers, a roller camshaft, and finally in 1986, EFI across the board.

Funny that in hindsight we'd consider the EFI 5.0L HO to be one of Ford's most significant engines, for at the time, performance junkies thought the world had come to an end. It wasn't that the new computer controlled engine was a disappointing drive, for it had throttle response that the Holley-equipped 5.0 could only dream of. It's just that this seemed to be as good as it would get. The carburetor had gone the way of the dodo bird, and its electronic replacement was deemed unfriendly almost before we got a chance to say hello. In truth, it was the beginning of a brave new world, one that would soon support a performance aftermarket that some have likened to that of the small-block Chevy. That's high praise folks, and we're here to praise the EFI 5.0L HO as well.

As built, the '86-'93 5.0Ls didn't quite stack up on paper compared to the muscle era engines of yore. They represented small displacement, were rated at 225 horsepower for most of the era, and even had iron truck cylinder heads. There was no deep breathing, no high rpm rush, and no exotica to be found. But teamed as they were in the lightweight Fox body Mustang-often with five-speed sticks, 5.0L HOs ran with most of the heavy hitters from days gone by. Add rock solid reliability, grocery getter idle characteristics, and legitimate 24 mpg highway capability, and it was a compelling combination-or in some eyes, just a starting point. That's really what the EFI 5.0L is all about, a starting point. Bring in the aftermarket, and this engine turned into a legitimate game changer.

Ford GT 5.4L
Ever hear of having champagne taste on a beer budget? Well, we've got it here with the supercharged 5.4L modular engine from the '05-'06 Ford GT supercar. This is the highest horsepower production Ford V-8 of all time, and no doubt the most expensive. Those with a taste for suds may enjoy the closely related Mustang Shelby G.T. 500 5.4L for far less money, but the supercar powerplant is just a bit more super. Consider the power numbers of 550 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque. Consider the design specifications of all aluminum construction, 32 valves, dual overhead cams, twin fuel injectors per cylinder, and dry sump oiling. This engine is truly in a class by itself, as is fitting for the powerplant of Ford's highest performing street car of all time.

A few more bits and pieces will tickle the fancy of any hot rodder. The GT's 330 cubic inches featured Manley H-beam rods, Mahle forged pistons, billet main bearing caps, and an intercooled Eaton 2.3L twin-screw supercharger pullied for 12psi of boost. The crazy thing is that this isn't a super low production effort that stretches the definition of "production" (i.e. the '64 427 HR), rather more than 4,000 of these were hand-built on the Romeo niche assembly line. Yeah, we're suckers for this one.

4.6L Three-Valve
We know some of you are scratching your heads right now, while others are totally on board with this most modern V-8. C'mon, the 4.6L Three-Valve? Remember our selection criterion was not based purely on performance, though there's little to complain about with the now 315-horse SOHC motor. It's enough to have the '10 Mustang running in the high 13s, and let's be honest about how many earlier Fords could do that-few.

A major reason we've selected the Three-Valve is due to its connection to the '05-current Mustang. Much like the original '65 Pony was greatly complemented by the 289, we know the newest Mustang wouldn't be the success it is if not for a truly competent engine. Sure, we'd all have loved a few more cubes (cough, 302, cough) but the truth of the matter is that the platform/engine pairing has made for a terrific combination. Even with the recent debuts of Challenger, Camaro, and their more powerful V-8s, magazine tests have universally found the Mustang to be holding its own; some giving it an edge. The contribution of the 4.6L Three-Valve to this is undeniable. Sewing machine smooth, accommodating of significant power adder boost, and four-time winner of a Wards "10 Best Engines" award (2005-2008), we feel the 4.6L Three-Valve stands tall. Besides, you wouldn't expect a top ten list to be without controversy!