The Origins Of The 3.8L Essex V6
The origins of the 3.8L Essex V6 are shrouded in mystery (primarily whether it was a modified version of their 5.0L V8 or a copy of GM’s 3.8L “Fireball” V6). While the truth is that it was probably a bit of both, there is no question that by 1982, GM was using a version of a V6 with effectively good results. (GM had originally abandoned the V6 to Kaiser-Jeep but sought to buy back the rights from AMC in the mid-seventies when it needed a six-cylinder engine to power much of its lineup). By the time the eighties had arrived, GM was already turbocharging the engine and dropping it in most Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile models.
Ford needed an engine that would compete with its rivals regarding reliability, fuel economy, weight, and performance. While the engine was designed with many aluminum components (cylinder heads, intake manifold, front cover, and water pump, to name a few), the block was cast iron. Ford felt the rigidity of the iron block could better manage the engine stresses more efficiently. Prototypes were ready by 1979, and Ford execs were pleased with how well the engine met its target goals.
The First 3.8L Essex In Production
The first 3.8L Essex V6 was introduced as an option for the 1982 Ford Granada. The engine had a bore of 3.8 inches, with a 3.39 stroke producing a relatively pedestrian 112 hp (almost identical to the Buick V6). While the engines shared several components, Ford decided to retain the aluminum cylinder heads (as opposed to the Buick’s cast iron). The Ford model achieved better fuel economy (in the low thirties on the highway), which pleased Ford execs even further. Ford was happy enough with the motor to start offering it in vehicles like the Mustang, F-100, Mercury Cougar, and Capri. A couple of years later, Ford added central fuel injection, which helped to boost the engine’s power output (120 hp) and expand its usage.
One of the most significant aspects of the Ford V6 during the early eighties was that it offered Mustang and Cougar owners a mid-level engine option to go with the wimpy 2.3 OHC four-cylinder and the much larger 5.0L V8. While Ford didn’t offer it on every Mustang model, early reviews of the engine were positive, and customers seemed to gravitate towards it as its use began to spread to other models like the Thunderbird, LTD, and Mercury Marquis.
Ford Drops The Essex V6 For The Mustang
Ford dropped the 3.8L V6 for some of its models in 1987 (Ford Mustang and LTD, Mercury Capri and Marquis), preferring to streamline the engine options for its customers. (Ford had recorded a couple of solid years with mega-profits in the mid-eighties and felt that the 3.8L V6 offered only with automatic transmission was redundant). Ford anticipated being able to offer a new supercharged version shortly, but instead of using it on the Mustang, the ‘89 Thunderbird Super Coupe and Cougar XR7 ended up getting the motor.
Ford wouldn’t keep the supercharged engine for long, dropping it out of the XR7 after a couple of years (the Thunderbird Coupe would hold on to it until ‘95). Ford would even increase the output in ‘94 to 230 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, but it didn’t sell well enough for Ford to make it a part of their next-generation Mustang or continue producing the engine.
At one point, Ford experimented with a high-output version for Police Interceptors in ‘91 - but with Mustang sales slumping, the HO engine never made it into the Mustang. Ford was looking toward the new fourth-generation Mustang with a complete redesign and contemplating returning to the reliable V6.
Ford Brings The V6 Back
When Ford introduced its fourth-generation Mustang in 1994, it was the first remodel of the Mustang in fifteen years. The new style was reimagining the Fox body platform with retro styling that harkened to the early muscle car days of the late sixties. The 3.8 V6 was offered as the base engine, producing 145 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque. The reborn 3.8 liter V6 had sequential fuel injection and a 9.0:1 compression, and with a new upper intake manifold, plug wires and other modifications, Ford attempted to design the new car with less engine vibration, which pleased Ford Mustang owners greatly.
Ford mated the new base engine to a five-speed manual or optional automatic. To highlight the new model, Ford trumpeted the power of the V8 engines but kept the 3.8 liter V6 for cost-conscious buyers who didn’t want to pay over its $17k sticker price. With only six cylinders, it wasn’t very fast, performing 0 - 60 mph in the low nine seconds and a limited top speed, but it was the closest thing many owners could afford to enjoy the Mustang name.
In 1999, Ford used a split-port induction system instead of a single, which immediately kicked up the power quotient to 190 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. With the use of split port cylinder heads and low friction piston coatings, the car’s performance improved, which Ford quickly highlighted in its 1999 brochure.
The End Of An Era
Ford replaced the 3.8L V6 with a 3.9L version of the Essex engine in late 2004. The engine didn’t perform better than the 3.8 had (even though Ford hoped it would). When 2005 rolled around, Ford had abandoned the 3.8L engine for its 4.0L Cologne SOHC V6, which produced 210 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque.
What Were The Issues With the 3.8L Essex V6 Engine?
While the 3.8L V6 is generally considered a reliable engine, and an easy motor for modifications, one primary issue has been known to plague the motors that came from the factory.
Blown Head Gaskets
One of the most prominent complaints about the engine was its propensity to blow head gaskets. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that many independent repair shops had a “booming business replacing them.” Part of the issue with the 3.8 was using a cast iron block with an aluminum head. While the heads were cheap to make, they also tended to expand more quickly during excessive heat events than cast iron. Ford did agree to warranty specific stock 3.8L V6 engines, namely Taraus and Sable, but refused to do anything about other owners who might have trouble with other models. The average repair cost for replacement was between $800 - $4000, depending on how much damage the engine encountered. The gasket on the exhaust side of the manifold can also rupture.