The Ford big-block story centers around two primary engine families: the FE-series, and the 385-series engines. There is also the MEL-series big-block (Mercury- Edsel-Lincoln, displacing 383, 430, and 462 ci), which is not covered here because it is not a performance engine. Similar in design to the 385-series big-block, the “MEL” was primarily a Lincoln engine, although it did find brief application in the Thunderbird. The MEL was a large passenger- car big-block designed for low-end torque and quiet operation.
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The FE series big-block was introduced in 1958 as the 332-ci V-8 with a 4.00-inch bore and a 3.30-inch stroke. The 332 debuted with the larger 352-ci big-block. The displacement increase was accomplished by stroking the 332 to 3.50 inches. The FE-series big-block was a hardy Y-block design that lived in many different forms during its production life, which ended in 1976. Use of the FE-series big-block in passenger cars ended after 1971 with retirement of the 390. In passenger cars, the 400M small-block replaced the 390 for 1972.
The 332 and 352 used the same 4-inch-bore block. Early in production during the 1958 model year, these engines had mechanical lifters, which means these early blocks were not designed for hydraulic lifters. Hydraulic blocks were drilled with oil galleries to feed the hydraulic lifters. Ford upgraded the 332 and 352 to hydraulic lifters to meet large passenger-car standards of the era. Few customers who purchased large passenger cars wanted the frustration of periodic valve adjustment in an era when competitive vehicles had maintenancefree hydraulic lifters.
A number of revisions occurred in the FE engine blocks to further improve quality and reliability. It is important to pay close attention to casting numbers when searching for a 332/352 block. If date coding isn’t important to you, then look for the improved 1961+ block, which has deeper cylinder-head and main-bearing cap bolt holes. This gives the head and main-bearing cap bolts a deeper thread grip, which is important in high-performance applications. Because this block has the oiling passages for hydraulic lifters, you have a choice of mechanical or hydraulic lifters.
With the introduction of the 332/352 was the 361, an FE big-block available only in the 1958–1959 Edsel and 1958 Ford Police Interceptors. The 361 had the 332/352’s 3.30-inch stroke. However, it had a larger 4.05-inch cylinder bore—the same as the 390 to come later in 1961.
The 360, 390, and 410 are grouped together because they share the same basic block with the 4.05-inch bore. Increases in displacement come from increasing the stroke on the 4.05-inch bore. The 390, introduced in 1961, is likely the most common of the FE-series big-blocks because it was used in so many applications. Where the 390 differs from the earlier 332/352/361 is its longer stroke—3.78 inches. The 2- and 4-barrel versions of the 390 were most common, seconded by the high-performance versions that made Ford a hit in 1961–1962. The 390-6V High Performance V-8 delivered a whopping 401 hp, thanks to 6-barrel Holley carburetion and improved heads. This engine has heavier main-bearing caps and webs, and oilingsystem refinements that make the engine more reliable. Because the 1961–1962 390 High Performance engine has mechanical lifters, it lacks the oil galleries common to hydraulic-lifterequipped 332/352/ 361/390 engines.
There were many variations of the 390 besides those just mentioned—Police Interceptor, Thunderbird Special, and the Special. There were also industrial, stationary, and marine versions. Each is distinctive, and I discuss each later to help you dial in the right combination of parts.
The 410 was a Mercury-only engine option available in 1966–1967 with the 390’s 4.05-inch bore and the 428’s 3.98- inch stroke. Ford achieved 410 ci by fitting the 390 block with the 428 crank. Keep this in mind for your 390 hop-up endeavors. Stroking the 390 with a 428 crank is easy.
A soul mate to the 390 is the 360, introduced in 1968, which has the same 4.05-inch bore with the 352’s shorter 3.50-inch stroke. Otherwise, the 360 and 390 are virtually the same engine. The 360 was used exclusively in pickup trucks while the 390 found use in both cars and trucks.
The 406 came along in 1962 with the 390’s 3.78-inch stroke, but with a larger 4.13-inch bore, thicker cylinder walls, and heavier main-bearing webs. Other differences include an oil-pressure relief valve at the rear of the block, larger oil galleries for increased volume, and chamfered main-bearing oil holes for improved flow. Toward the end of the 1962 model year, Ford crossbolted the 406’s main-bearing caps for structural integrity under severe-duty conditions.
Engine failure and marginal performance in NASCAR competition are what led Ford to the legendary 427 of mid 1963. The 427, aside from the obvious cubic-inch advantage, has a stronger, better-lubricated block born of racing necessity. It was through Ford’s desire to win that the 427 was conceived at all. The 427 has the 390 and 406’s 3.78-inch stroke with a huge 4.23-inch bore. But it is not the same block by any means. What makes the 427 better is the block’s high-nickel content and stress-relieving during manufacturing. Stress-relieving the blocks during manufacturing was nothing more than slowly cooling the iron casting after the block was cast.
After casting, 427 blocks were machined and assembled on a 427- specific line at the Dearborn, Michigan engine plant, where additional attention was paid to detail. Each 427 was hand-built with high-performance use in mind. The 427 block has a greater deck thickness to successfully handle the horrific compression ratios. Like the last of the 406s, the 427 employs crossbolted main-bearing caps and heavier main-bearing webbing. Block construction like this kept the bottom end together on the track, vastly improving reliability and thrusting Ford into the winner’s circle worldwide during 1963–1967. The 427 side-oiler came along in 1965 as a means for getting more oil to the main and rod bearings.
What’s nice about the 427 is Ford’s attention to improvements as a result of information learned from the harsh racing environment. The best 427 blocks, for example, are 1965–1966 vintage because they have all of the improvements— solid refinements to the casting that netted Ford a better block. Finding good, undamaged examples of the era is the greatest challenge.
Also extremely rare and certainly exotic is the 427 SOHC. Known as the “Cammer” in Ford circles, the 427 SOHC is a single-overhead-cam big-block originally conceived for NASCAR racing. NASCAR didn’t approve the Cammer for competition. However, the 427 SOHC did find its way into drag racing. This engine has a unique FE-series block with special oiling holes. This block is interchangeable with wedge heads. However, Cammer heads are only compatible with the Cammer block.
Finding an undisturbed 427 block is both rare and expensive. Because this block takes the cylinder bores to the limit at 4.23 inches, it can only be bored out to a total of 4.26 inches—that’s a .030-inch overbore limit. If the block has already been bored .030 inch, it must be sleeved. Overboring beyond .030 inch puts you into the water jackets. Unique to the 427 is a steel forged crankshaft, although cast cranks were also used. All other FE-series big-blocks (except the FT) had nodulariron crankshafts.
Ford introduced the 428-ci FE bigblock in 1966 as a low-revving alternative to the big-bore, short-stroke, high-revving 427. The 427 was a powerhouse but, for motoring a heavyweight luxury car through traffic, it lacked torque on the low end where it was needed most. The 428 provided plenty of low-end torque for the large luxury cars like the Galaxie and LTD, thanks to its long 3.98-inch stroke and 4.13-inch bores. The 428 shares its stroke with the 410-ci Mercury big-block and its bore size with the 406.
Ford warmed up the 428 with nothing more than off-the-shelf parts to achieve the legendary 428 Cobra Jet of 1968. The 428-4V Cobra Jet was available in two basic forms: with and without Ram-Air. There was also the 428 Cobra Jet and Super Cobra Jet; horsepower ratings were the same with both. Where the two differed was bottom-end construction. The Super Cobra Jet was fitted with cast pistons and the stronger cap-screw C7AE-B LeMans connecting rods. There’s a small counterweight on the crank forward of the timing cover and an electronically balanced and modified cast crankshaft. These features improved reliability under severe racing conditions.
The FE-series big-block has a tougher twin brother called the Ftseries (meaning “Ford Truck”), designed for use in medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Displacing 330, 359, 360, 389, and 391 ci, the FT-series engines share a lot of interchangeable parts with the FE, including a steel forged crank. Some FT parts can be interchanged into an FE to improve performance, even though they are truck parts. Some of these parts, such as engine blocks, weigh more, which doesn’t always make sense for a performance application. Because the FT was designed for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, block design sometimes limits use in a passenger car or pickup truck. Increased weight is likely the single, greatest disadvantage. However, with increased weight came heavier main-bearing webs designed for reliability.
Items like cylinder heads, crankshafts, and even blocks have some interchangability potential. Later on, I discuss interchangability with these engines.
The 385-series big-block debuted in 1968 as the 460-ci powerplant offered in large Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln luxury cars. Along with the 460 came the 429, which had the same bore size (4.36 inches) with a shorter stroke of 3.59 inches compared to the 460’s 3.85 inches. Lincolns received the 460 while mainstreamers, like the Thunderbird, received the 429. The nice part about the 429 and 460 is interchangability.
The 429 and 460 engines are stout, hardy engines in base form. Unlike the FE/FT big-blocks, the 385-series bigblock is not a Y-block. There is no block skirt, but instead a design very much like the small-block Ford. These engines can accept a lot of punishment as stone stockers. If you are fortunate enough to locate a 429/460 Police Interceptor or Cobra Jet, performance and reliability are virtually unlimited. The aftermarket offers the 429/460 enthusiast greater selection than those building FE engines. This doesn’t mean you can’t get power from an FE big-block. It means the 385-series big-block is a powerplant for the performance enthusiast on a budget.
Though very few of us have a need for direct knowledge about the rare hemi-head, 385-series Boss 429 engine, it is fun to learn all that you can about this unusual powerplant. The Boss 429 began life as Ford’s “Blue Crescent” big-block designed exclusively for the NASCAR circuit. Later on, after extensive research and development, the Blue Crescent was re-named the Boss 429.
The Boss 429 was a purpose-built racing engine intended for the NASCAR 1969 Torino Talladega race cars. In full race form, the Boss 429 is a brute performer. Detuned for the street, it leaves much to be desired. In order to compete in NASCAR competition, Ford had to produce a specified number of streetable Torino Talladegas and Boss 429 engines. Ford boss Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen looked for a way to achieve more bang for the buck from this powerplant/vehicle duo. To improve the Mustang’s declining sales and meet NASCAR requirements, the street version of the Boss 429 engine was stuffed into at least 500 Mustangs.
A limited number of Torino Talladegas, at least 500, were also built with 428 Cobra Jet engines. And this is how Knudson, and Ford, met NASCAR’s homologation requirements for 1969.
The 385-series Boss 429 engine employs a high-nickel Boss 429-specific block with four-bolt mains and screw-in freeze plugs. It is the only 385-series block with screw-in freeze plugs. It is also the only 385-series engine designed to operate without cylinder-head gaskets. Instead, it used Cooper rings and O-rings to seal combustion within the dry-deck block. Although I call the Boss 429 a “hemi-head” engine, only the race versions were true hemis. Street versions had a semi-hemispherical chamber.
If you are building a Boss 429, there isn’t much to tell you that you probably don’t already know. This book doesn’t go into depth on this engine because so much has already been published about this unusual powerplant. However, I cover some of the basics.
Written by George Reid and Republished with Permission of CarTech Inc