Steve Baur
Former Editor, Modified Mustangs & Fords
August 1, 2009
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The year 1996 had a lot of Mustang enthusiasts scratching their heads. The body of their beloved ponycar looked the same, but under the hood was something quite unfamiliar. It was the debut of the overhead-cam modular V-8 engine in the Mustang, and many enthusiasts wrote the little 281 i mill off from the get-go. Add in OBD II computer programming and it would seem the fun days were over.

In Dearborn, Team Mustang continued to improve the overhead-cam engine design, as did John Coletti's SVT division and Carroll Shelby's snake charmers. Most enthusiasts are well aware of the modular engine's fondness of unnatural aspiration, but these days, there are plenty of tuners/builders extracting unreal horsepower from naturally aspirated 281ci and 330ci engines.

It was dark times for Mustang GT enthusiasts in 1996. Though the Two-Valve 4.6L was less than awe-inspiring, the ray of light was the '96 Mustang Cobra, whose Four-Valve 4.6L showed that the modular engine family had great potential.

Yes, the once-maligned modular engine family has come a long way in its relatively short lifespan. The term modular was given to the engine family due to the manufacturing process used to produce them. Giving V-8 and V-10 engines the same basic design/architecture allows Ford to build several different engines on the same production line with very little change. Even a V-6 was considered part of this design at one time.

Certain vehicle designs necessitated a tight bore spacing, which keeps the block short in overall length, to allow Ford to mount the V-8 transversely in some of its products. This left enthusiasts with relatively small displacement engines powering increasingly larger vehicles; the Mustang was no exception. Ford got creative with the engineering though, and has continually improved the modular engine family.

One could write a book about Ford's modular family of engines, so we've largely condensed the details to bring you a brief look at its history. What may surprise you is that the modular engine showed up in other production Ford vehicles long before the 5.0L pushrod-powered Mustang ever saw them.

Though it debuted in the Lincoln Mark VIII, the normally aspirated Four-Valve engine saw several revisions over its lifespan. Pictured is the '99-'01 Cobra powerplant, which received a revised intake manifold and cylinder heads. All normally aspirated DOHC 4.6L engines feature an aluminum block with six-bolt main caps.

Two-Valve Tussle
Many Ford enthusiasts pinpoint the Lincoln Mark VIII as the beginning of the modular revolution, but that is incorrect. In fact, the first modular engine showed up as early as 1991 between the fenders of the Lincoln Town Car. The new 4.6L engines featured cast-iron blocks and a single camshaft resting on each of the aluminum heads. If you look hard enough, you can find one of these early 4.6L blocks that feature a 302/5.0 bell-housing bolt pattern. In 1992, the Mustang minions continued to enjoy pushrod power from the 5.0L, while the 4.6 showed up in the Crown Vic and Grand Marquis platforms, as well as the Lincoln Town Cars.

The 4.6-powered fullsize models were followed by the Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar twins in 1994, which both received the 4.6L as a replacement for the good ol' 5.0L. When 1996 rolled around, the Mustang finally received the Two-Valve 4.6L in all its 215hp glory. Ford had finely tuned the modular mill since it only had a relatively small displacement motor to make horsepower. Gone were the leaps and bounds that the DIY weekend-wrencher could make with the pushrod 5.0L. None of the old tricks applied, and the fact that Ford introduced the more stringent second-generation onboard diagnostics only further deterred enthusiasts. Gearheads being creative people, it only took a bit of time and experience to find ways to improve on Ford's foundation.

The same year that the 4.6L debuted in the Mustang, Ford's prolific F-150 platform also received a pair of modular engine options. A Two-Valve 4.6L making 231 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque was the standard V-8, and knowing that F-150 owners liked to haul heavy stuff, Ford offered a larger 5.4L that put out 300 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque.