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.

The '99-'04 SVT F-150 Lightnings laid the groundwork for future supercharged Fords. Its 5.4L Two-Valve engine offered as much as 380 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Tuner shops have been able to triple that number in recent years.

The all-new Ford Expedition debuted in 1997, and it offered the 4.6L with 215 hp/290 lb-ft of torque. Ford also optioned it with a 230 hp/ 325 lb-ft 5.4L engine. Ford's E-Series vans were also offered with the same engine choices. A year later, the Mustang saw power output rise to 225 hp and 286 lb-ft of torque. For 1999's New Edge Mustang, however, Ford's engineering squad heaved the old cylinder heads and intake manifold for a "power improved" set. Commonly known as the PI engine, the new Mustang powerplant improved to 260 hp and 302 lb-ft of torque.

In 2002, the redesigned Explorer, Explorer Sport Trac, and Mercury Mountaineer SUV's received the 4.6L with 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. The Two-Valve 4.6L would remain largely unchanged through 2004, after which it was phased out of the Mustang for the Three-Valve 4.6L engine. Ford continued to use the Two-Valve in many of its other models for years to come.

Joe Cermin's Ford GT set the bar ridiculously high with over 1,400 very streetable rear-wheel horsepower. Though Cermin's ride utilized a twin-turbo arrangement to make its boost, it's not uncommon for modified supercharged GTs to make between 700 and 1,000 rwhp reliably.

Three-Valve Thunder
The Mustang was all new for 2005 and so were its engine options. The Two-Valve top end was ditched in favor of a new 300hp/320-lb-ft Three-Valve induction setup. The powerplant still utilized a single camshaft over each cylinder head, but the added intake valve, variable camshaft timing, charge motion control valves, and advanced engine management improved every aspect of performance. The Three-Valve heads found their way onto the 4.6 and 5.4L truck engines in the later half of 2004 beneath the hoods of the redesigned F-150s. One can also find Three-Valve 4.6L engines beneath the hoods of later-model Explorer and Explorer Sport Trac SUVs. The latest Mustang, the '10 model, continues to use the Three-Valve 4.6L as its base V-8 engine.

Four-Valve Fury
When 1993 rolled around, it was apparent that Ford's engineering team had been working hard to pump up the 4.6L's performance. This year ushered in the latest Lincoln coupe, the Mark VIII, which was the company's flagship luxury performance and touring machine. We all saw the television advertisements where the Mark VIII slipped under the limbo bar at speed, demonstrating it's new speed-sensitive ride-height control. As much as the suspension technology had improved, there was a new growl from the tail pipes too, as the 4.6L engine received a number of upgrades, including an aluminum block, and cylinder heads sporting four valves per cylinder and a pair of camshafts per head, which equated to 280 hp-a far cry from the Crown Vic's 235.

The Ford GT supercar was propelled to its top speed of 204 mph by this 5.4L Four-Valve engine that produces 550 hp.

Things continued the same until 1995, when the Lincoln Continental received the transversely mounted InTech Four-Valve 4.6L. While picking up these particular engines used is tempting given their bargain price, they won't work in a rear-wheel-drive application because the engine blocks are different from their Mark VIII and Mustang siblings. The Mark VIII continued with the Four-Valve engine until the model was discontinued after 1998.

Meanwhile, the Mustang Cobra received the Four-Valve 4.6L in 1996. Rated at 305 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, the modular-powered Cobra packed a bit more bite than it's earlier 302-powered models. For 1999, the Cobra 4.6L received new cylinder heads and a new intake manifold. Power output rose to 320 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque. This year was also the debut of the 5.4L Four-Valve engine in the Lincoln Navigator, which churned out 300 hp and 355 lb-ft of twist.

For 2000, it was all about the Mustang Cobra R. The standard Cobra was sidelined for the model year, and the limited-production Cobra R stole the spotlight. Its 5.4L Four-Valve engine rocked the masses with 385 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque, as did its racecar-like handling. Ford finally had a Mustang that could run mid-12s out of the box without a blower. Like the R cars before it, Ford used the '00 model to introduce new technology. The cylinder heads would eventually be the design model for the later Cobra cylinder heads, and the IRS was used on the later Cobras. The standard Cobra Mustang returned for 2001 with few modifications, but horsepower and torque remained unchanged.

Want to know how much power you can make from a supercharged Lightning engine? We've seen upwards of 800 rwhp, which is enough to yank a two-ton truck's front wheels off the ground.

In 2003 there was a lot going on. The new Lincoln Aviator sported a Four-Valve 4.6L engine, as did the new Mercury Marauder. Also new was the popular Mustang Mach 1, which offered a naturally aspirated Four-Valve 4.6L making 305 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. With more models utilizing the Four-Valve engine, SVT had to step it up. Truthfully, it was more of a giant leap, as the '03 SVT Cobra debuted Ford's first supercharged Mustang powerplant. The Four-Valve 4.6L engine utilized a cast-iron block for extra strength, and an Eaton supercharger pressurized the cylinders to give the little 281ci mouse big-block-like torque. All told, the 390 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque was a huge upgrade over previous Cobra models.

As the SN-95 chassis was replaced with the S197 unibody, the Four-Valve-powered Mustang went on hiatus for a few years. The big news for 2005 in addition to the debut of the new Mustang was the debut of the Ford GT supercar. This mid-engine rocket featured a supercharged, all-aluminum 5.4L DOHC powerplant that pounded out a smooth 550 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque, and propelled the GT to a top speed of 204 mph. The GT's engine utilized a dry-sump oiling system and cylinder heads, camshafts, and a supercharger that were all GT-specific. Eventually, many people purchased the GT blocks from Ford dealers and had them machined for conventional wet-sump oiling. Ford Racing Performance Parts now sells them already machined. In addition to the GT, you could still get a Four-Valve Aviator or Navigator from Lincoln, but it wasn't until 2007 that you could get a Four-Valve Mustang again.

SVT's Super Stallion project showed that the Blue Oval was tinkering with a supercharged Mustang engine in 1998. Its blown DOHC 5.4L engine made over 540 hp on premium gasoline, and upwards of 580 on ethanol. This ride was green before being green was cool.

Carroll Shelby and Ford once again rekindled their romance with the S197 Shelby Mustangs, and 2007 marked the return of the Shelby GT500 Mustang. The Four-Valve 5.4L powerplant benefited from an Eaton M122 Roots-style supercharger, which also made it the most powerful Mustang engine ever with 500 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. Ford followed up the GT500 with the 540hp GT500KR shortly thereafter, and Shelby returned the volley by offering Super Snakes with over 700 hp-crazy times indeed.

For 2010, the Shelby GT500 pounds out 540 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, all from a silky-smooth modular engine that people once cringed at the sight of.

V-10 Madness
Yes the 6.8L (413-cid) Triton V-10 is part of the modular engine family, and there have been a few fanatics that have been crazy enough to shoehorn these behemoths into a Mustang chassis. They can be found in both Two-Valve and Three-Valve configurations in a number of Ford F-Series Super Duty trucks, E-Series vans, and Ford Excursions. In addition to their immense size, they are also quite cumbersome, as all of them used a cast-iron engine block. Given how much power can be extracted from the Three- and Four-Valve 4.6L engines, they're more of a novelty than a genuine way to make good street power.

Head Games
Over the years, the modular engine family has continually improved, and one of the key areas modified for improved performance is the cylinder head. The Two-Valve 4.6L received its first upgrade in 1999. The Four-Valve 4.6L started out with the IMRC-equipped swirl port castings on the '96-'98 Cobras and '93-'98 Mark VIIIs. The intake-manifold runner-control (IMRC) plates were discontinued with the new tumble-port castings used on '99-'01 Snakes, and then the further improved U231 castings were implemented for all '03-and-newer Four-Valves. The '00 Cobra R and Ford GT both employed unique castings, though many of the features can be found on the tumble-port and U231 heads. The GT heads eventually showed up on the '07 GT500, but with a different intake-bolt pattern.

Ford's Romeo Engine Plant recently shipped its 10 millionth engine-a Three-Valve 4.6L destined to power a '10 Mustang GT. The Romeo plant operates a high-volume line for standard V-8 engines, as well as a niche line for special engines like the Shelby GT500's Four-Valve 5.4L.

Pushing The Envelope
The new modular engine program left many scratching their heads at first. Eventually that scratching led to tinkering, and pretty soon full-blown modifications were happening. Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords magazine has documented the plethora of aftermarket speed parts for Ford's modular engines. We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't tell you that it was the hot-rodders that helped develop these products.

People like Sean Hyland, John Mihovitz, and Al Papitto have all been at the forefront of modular performance. Where Sean Hyland delved into the inner workings of the modular powerplant, it was racers like Mihovitz and Aeromotive's Steve Matusek that harnessed the modular power and put it down on the track, their highly modified, twin-turbocharged chassis cars capable of running well into the 6-second range.

Shelby picked up where SVT left off with the Mustang, as it's 5.4L-powered GT500 also utilizes a supercharger to make its 500-plus horsepower. Its cast-iron block is its only real fault, and most are willing to accept the extra weight so they can comfortably drive around with 700-plus rear-wheel horsepower, or they just swap in a Ford GT block when they get a chance.

Al Papitto's Boss 330 Racing shop in Vero Beach, Florida, has extracted over 500 normally-aspirated horsepower from a 5.5L DOHC motor, and Justin Burcham of JPC Racing in Glen Burnie, Maryland, has set the standard for street horsepower. Burcham's '05 Mustang testbed has set numerous elapsed time records for the S197 Mustang. The simple fact that he has extracted over 1,000 hp from a 4.6L Three-Valve shows the potential of both the hot-rodder and the modular engine family.

While the Ford GT is automatically expected to make huge power because of its supercar status, no one expected it to be capable of over 1,400 rwhp. Joe Cermin's Ford GT, equipped with a Stage 6 Motorsports twin-turbo system and tuned by the wizards at HP Performance, did just that, making it an Internet icon. Even the Ford engineering team thought it was pretty cool, drifting it around their top-secret proving grounds. Even with all of that horsepower, it was so easy to drive that your grandmother could take it to the store and bring home the groceries.

Available through the Ford Racing Performance parts catalog and its host of dealers is this Romeo 605 5.4L Four-Valve crate engine, which offers a stout 605 hp and 554 lb-ft of torque. FRPP also sells a control kit so you can drop this beast into just about anything.

Although most people opt for the Four-Valve heads-and more recently, the Three-Valve heads in a high-performance application-there have been plenty of people making astounding power with the Two-Valve engine combinations. Both JDM Engineering and Johnny Lightning Performance have made huge strides in building horsepower with the SVT Lightning's 5.4L Two-Valve engine. It's not uncommon for these trucks to turn out 700-800 rwhp and over 1,000 lb-ft of torque.For the average street guy and his daily driver, we can offer our '01 Mustang GT project Ice Box as the perfect example. We've logged some 40,000 to 50,000 miles while making 580 rwhp-over 620 with race gas-with our supercharged, 298-cid mill.

The Future
Our sources at Ford tell us that the biggest news for the future is the 6.2L truck engine. The big-block modular will most likely debut with Two-Valve cylinder heads in the Super Duty F-Series trucks, and we may see limited use in the F-150 and some passenger cars. We'll be sure to keep you up to date as the news comes in to MM&FF headquarters.