The FE Ford engine was released into production in 1958. The earliest applications included use in the short-lived Edsel program. The FE was not a replacement for the Y-block; it was a larger companion to an engine family sharing some design features. In 1958, the Y-block was still considered a current design at only four years old.
Starting out at 332 ci, the FE quickly grew in displacement through its first five years of production, with 352-, 390-, and 406-ci variants followed by the now famous 427 in 1963. By 1966, the renowned 428 and the short-lived 410 had been released, and these completed the
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lineup of FE passenger-car engines. And as a result, a lot of high performance engine history was written in a very short time. The 352 and 410 were dropped after 1966, and the 390 and 428 continued as the only FE engines in passenger-car production from 1968 through 1970.
The FE had been dropped from passenger-car use by 1971, but the 360 and 390 versions remained extremely popular in pickup trucks through the 1976 model year. Some commercial applications, most notably U-Haul trucks, had FE power through the 1978 model year. Throughout the 20-year production run, the FE had seen use as a marine, commercial, and industrial engine as well.
The high-performance factory engines were the ones that claimed all the glory, but the vast majority of engines were for more mundane applications. The most popular original FE vehicles were full-size family cars and pickup trucks, and these vehicles contain the engine blocks that are used for many high performance engine builds today.
The beginnings of the FE performance program took place when Ford split the car lines during the late 1950s, going from one basic platform to many as the market developed. The emergence of the bigger cars coincided with a gain in the popularity of racing. The NHRA U.S. Nationals were held at Detroit Dragway in 1959 and 1960, and auto executives were exposed to the rising popularity of the sport. At the same time, NASCAR began the transformation that would take it from being a local-circuit group to a national sport. Television was about to change the way cars were marketed, and motorsports was one of the beneficiaries.
Ford responded to the market opportunity with high-performance iterations of the 352 and then the 390. In this era, a production-based engine could still be equally successful in drag racing and NASCAR.
The FE performance program started out as upgrades to the passenger-car engines, using strategies that had been employed by hot rodders for several years. Higher compression, multiple carburetors, and dual exhaust were initially enough to get attention. But as the rivalry between the “Big 3” heated up, they quickly evolved into performance specific engines. The first of these was the 406, blessed with a larger bore than the 390, solid-lifter cams, and optional multiple carbs. Within a couple years the 427, with a stilllarger bore, cross-bolted main caps, and better cylinder heads, replaced the 406. The 427 became the lead piece for all of Ford’s big-block race development, and remained in that position through the end of direct factory involvement in 1970. When discussing professional racing and FE engines, the 427 is going to be the focus of conversation.
The 428 was originally released in 1966 as a torque-oriented street engine. But in the late 1960s, somebody at Ford finally realized that the low-production and high-strung 427 was not reaching the masses. Ford had a good race program, but it was getting a bad street “rep” because the more-mundane 390-powered cars could not keep up with the GM or Chrysler big-blocks. The response was to blend the readily available and bigger 428 blocks with higherperformance parts, which included heads, cam, and intake. The 428 Cobra Jet package was available from late 1968 until 1970. It delivered on all points and thus provided a reliable, strong, and still-competitive combination in NHRA class racing.
The 429-engine family was slated to replace the FE, but the factory programs surrounding the new engine were short lived, barely making it two years before performance development stopped. Eventually, the potential for the “385” family engine was realized, but that is another book.
The Famous Cars
Ford’s initial platform for FE performance and racing was the fullsize cars, the most popular being the higher-end Galaxie. Many FE engines were installed in full-size cars, most of them 352s and 390s. But the racers got the 427 cars.
The 427-powered Galaxie was a competitive package, but the Chrysler cadre had a distinct weight advantage with its smaller cars. The first response was to develop a lightweight factory drag-race version of the 427-powered Galaxie. It included a high-riser version of the 427 engine, along with a variety of weightreduction strategies, including changes to sheetmetal, interior parts, and even the frame. Always rare, and quite valuable today, the lightweights were only the opening act.
The next step was a factoryauthorized, dedicated drag-race car: the Fairlane Thunderbolt. Dearborn Steel Tubing, a Ford contractor, assembled the T-Bolts. It took the lighter-weight, mid-size, 1964 Fairlane sedan and installed the highriser 427 engines into about a hundred of them. This was never intended as a street vehicle, and everything was modified to enhance the cars’ chances at the drag strip. This included major front-end work to accommodate the large engine, lightweight seats, thin glass, aluminum and fiberglass components, and a race-only rear suspension. The Thunderbolt became a Ford racing icon, and the combination remains near the top of NHRA Super Stock racing 45 years later.
Ford did not install the 427 in production Fairlanes until 1966. The production 427 Fairlanes from 1966 and 1967 are both very rare and very competitive cars, with a solid racing history. But like the lightweight Galaxie that preceded it, it never received the adulation reserved for the Thunderbolt.
Something about the almost absurd combination of small car and huge engine makes anything else seem normal in comparison. The ultimate expression of small car/ huge engine is also FE powered—the 427 Cobra. The Cobra started out as the well-documented combination of a British sports car and a Ford small-block V-8 for road racing. The roadster competed with well-funded efforts from domestic and foreign racers, and the 427 FE, a readily available race engine, satisfied the need for more power. What had already been an attractive sports car morphed into a beauty born of necessity, with broadened and flared fenders for larger tires, side exhausts, and a scooped hood. Brutal in both potential and execution, another automotive icon was born. Today, there are many, many more inspired iterations of the car available than were ever originally made.
NASCAR racing was the primary development and test bed for Ford’s FE race program throughout the 1960s. The 427 was upgraded and altered every year as needed to remain competitive. But while NASCAR served as the engine technology source, the cars themselves were not inspiration for many production performance offerings. Muscle-car enthusiasts and street rodders looked to NASCAR for entertainment, but to the drags for inspiration. So while we use parts that were designed for the high banks, we don’t emulate the cars themselves very often. Street cars have the big tires on the rear, scoops on the hood, but no numbers on the doors—a tradition that still holds true today.
Throughout the late 1960s, professional drag-race programs evolved and the cars got further from a production basis. The hard-core drag racers moved into AF/X cars, with radical modifications to wheelbases and engines. These in turn morphed into “Funny Cars,” which used tube chassis and nitromethane fuel. The SOHC FE or “Cammer” engine remained a common powerplant in these exotic race machines, but it was far removed from the engine you’d get in your car from the local dealer. These cars and engines are certainly worthy of discussion, impressive by any measure, but beyond the scope for this book.
The most famous of the FE-powered cars was never really sold to the public. Ford made a very public and concerted effort to win the 24 Hours of LeMans race in the middle 1960s. Ford put enormous resources behind the effort because the company wanted to break the stranglehold that Ferrari had at LeMans and establish itself on the international racing stage. Enzo Ferrari’s scarlet cars had won the race from 1960 to 1965, but that was about to end.
To start with, Ford used the small-block V-8s to power the GT40 sports racing cars. In subsequent years, the need for more power became apparent. In a situation similar to that of the Cobra, Ford opted for the well-developed 427 FE as a power upgrade to the GT racing program. And the engine delivered; Ford GT40 cars finished 1-2-3 in 1966. But perhaps the most memorable win came the following year, as legendary American drivers A. J. Foyt and Dan Gurney won the 24 Hours of LeMans in an American sports race car, the GT40. Most notably, the FE 427 powered Ford GT40s to four consecutive LeMans wins from 1966 to 1969, an epic achievement for Ford and the FE engine.
So here is the FE engine legacy: It was the engine that was in the most famed Ford racing vehicles of the time in each form of motorsports— NASCAR, the Cobra, the GT40, and the Thunderbolt. This should be the backdrop for comparable fame and popularity on the streets of America, but it never happened. What went wrong?
Mustangs, Galaxies, Fairlanes and Trucks
As a dedicated Ford fan and a Detroit-area FE racer since the 1970s, it hurts to say this but it needs to be said. What went wrong is that Ford put everything into the low-volume, high-dollar racing efforts and comparatively very little resources went toward the everyday cars that made up the greatest volume of production.
The FE was factory installed or available in numerous car and truck platforms. The full-size Galaxie (and sister models) was the recipient of most FE production, from the early 1960s right to the end. Most popular among enthusiasts are the 1963–1967 models.
Ford intermediate cars, the Fairlane, Torino, and Mercury variants from 1966 through 1969 had the FE as a regular production option. Most were 390 powered. A very few 1966–1967 models had a 427, and the 428 CJ was available in 1969.
Mustangs and Cougars were often FE equipped from 1967 through 1970. The 1967 and 1968 big-block models were nearly all 390 equipped. In 1969, there were a few 390s, but the 428 CJ was the engine of choice. The hydraulic-lifter version of the 427 was installed in a few Cougars in 1968, but no 427 Mustang has ever been documented, despite 30 years of rumors.
Ford pickup trucks carried the FE as an available option through 1976. There are probably more FE engines in pickups than in any of the cars. The FE can be installed into any of the cars or trucks where it was an option. Any deserving small-block or 6-cylinder-powered candidate can be converted to FE power using factory replacement components.
When new, a 390-powered Galaxie of 1964 or earlier was a competitive car on the streets and local tracks. But by the 1970s it was common knowledge that the average 396-powered Chevelle was significantly faster than any 390 car. A 428 Mustang could hold its own, but the majority of FE owners simply lost enthusiasm because they were outgunned every Friday night. They moved on to other cars or other hobbies, and the FE-powered cars were left to sit or be used as basic transportation. Interest from the aftermarket never really took off, so the supply of new parts was not there, and the old factory parts were getting used up and worn out.
By the 1980s the FE engine was considered obsolete by all but a few die-hard enthusiasts and racers. No mainstream magazine coverage, no new aftermarket parts, and no real development existed outside of the private effort of a few NHRA Super Stock racers. The engine design that had won Daytona, LeMans, and the Winternationals was considered to be in the same league as the Buick Nailhead, the Chevy 409, the Olds Rocket, and the Y-block.
The FE Reawakens
But there was a difference: the cars. The Cobra was still worshipped, the Thunderbolt was still an icon, and the legacy from those early NASCAR and drag-racing wins still hung on. Stock and Super Stock racers running FE power continued to win with no factory support. As people started to repair, reproduce, and emulate those cars, the demand for FE parts began to build.
Specialty suppliers, such as Dove, carried the FE torch through the slow years, catering to the dedicated racers and restorers. Demand started to build in the mid 1990s when Edelbrock released a replacement FE aluminum cylinder head. Equally important, there were a lot of candidate engines available from the huge truck population, and there were also a lot of candidate cars to choose from.
In 2004, Scat released a caststroker crank for the FE, and Genesis concurrently released the cast-iron reproduction 427 blocks. I built the very first big-inch FE engine that used both parts, topping the 505-ci package with an electronic fuel injection (EFI) system. The engine was profiled in Hot Rod magazine’s July 2004 issue as the “676 Horsepower Dinosaur.”
I entered a similar 505-ci FE in the Jegs Engine Masters Challenge the following year, using the new Blue Thunder cylinder heads. Most of the competitors thought it was pretty cool to see one of those ol’ FE motors in the contest, and at first viewed it as a curiosity. It became apparent that this was not a nostalgia piece when it made 752 hp on the dyno with pump gas. Essentially, it was a modern engine with FE architecture. I finished eighth overall out of 50 entrants, and got another magazine article as a result.
Jay Brown from Minnesota entered his FE-powered 1969 Mach 1 into Hot Rod’s Drag Week competition in 2005. This is a grueling event covering more than 1,000 miles and five drag strips over a five-day period. The best overall-average ET wins, and the Mach took home the class win. He just repeated the feat in an SOHC-powered 1964 Galaxie.
Subsequent FE race wins, engine builds, and project cars have received an increasing amount of media coverage from writers looking for “something different.” With a full array of parts now available, it is possible to build a complete 427 FE from scratch using no original pieces. You can build a 445-ci 390-based FE stroker that’ll get you 500 honest horsepower without breaking the budget. In a few short years, the FE engine has gone from near extinction to mainstream again. This is without question the best time in the 40-year history of the FE to be building one for the street.
Written by Barry Robotnik and Republished with Permission of CarTech Inc