Ford 302 Review

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One of the most iconic Ford small-block engines ever made was the 302. But what makes the Ford 302 from the late sixties so great? Let’s review this classic.

The Ford 302 5.0L V8 is a part of the small block family of V8 engines. The 302 began production in 1968 and was part of the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury lineup for over three decades. The engine is best known for being a part of Ford racing in the ‘69 - ‘70 Boss Mustang and Mercury Couga- a rs.

Facing ever-increasing engine competition in the late sixties, Ford started scrambling for more powerful engines. The success of the small 289 in the early Mustangs had worn off, and with the development of big blocks by Chevy, and Dodge, Ford needed something fresh. Since new regulations limited displacement to 5.0L and all the racing engines had to be rooted from its production line, the 302 was made available for domestic manufacturing. Little did Ford know that this small block would be the bulwark for most of its vehicles for the next thirty years. With careful analysis, let’s discover the 302, and learn why so many restorers search for it as a crate or a racing engine for their classic cars.

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What Was the History of the Ford 302?

The Ford 302 small-block V8 has its roots in early 1968. Initially designed to replace the popular 289 V8, 302s were produced at the manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ontario. After a  couple of years (1970), production was opened at Cleveland, Ohio plant to keep up with demand. When the Ford Racing team won the Trans Am Championship in 1970, Americans’ love affair with the Ford 302 small block skyrocketed.

The first vehicle to receive a 4.9L Windsor V8 was a Ford Fairlane, but soon the Ford 302 appeared in many other vehicles across the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury lineups. The standard 302 production engine offered a hefty 220 hp (164 kW) at 4,600 rpm and 300 lb/ft (407 N⋅m) at 2,600 rpm (2bbl). (The optional 4bbl version bumped the horsepower to 230. This was a definite increase from the 200 hp rating the 289 had put out). The ‘69 sales brochure described the engine as “spirited” with its 4-inch stroke, 3-inch bore, and a compression ratio of 9.5:1.

The engine block was cast iron (also had cast iron cylinder heads), with hydraulic lifters and intake valves of 1.773 inches (45.0 mm). The exhaust valves were a hefty 1.442 inches (36.6 mm). The connecting rods were shaved down to allow the same 289 pistons to be used.

Over the ten years of production, there were several modifications, like borrowing a water pump design from the 351C, which created a left-hand inlet to help improve the circulation inside the radiator. The designers went to a four-bolt pattern (instead of three) to hold the crank pulley in place for additional strength.

Over the next ten years, the Ford 302 would make its way into almost every vehicle Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury made. (The F-Series, Bronco Bronco, and Mustang were the longest production cars, with the 302 variants from the late 60s until the mid-90s). The last Ford to receive a 302 V8 was a 2001 Ford Explorer.

The Downfall Of The Ford 302

Unfortunately, the days of the Ford small block were numbered due to increasing federal emissions, an oil embargo, and a national speed limit. Americans began to pull back from gas-guzzling V8s, exploring other more fuel-efficient vehicles. The rise of the import autos began to take hold as Toyota topped the US market in 1974 with its best-selling four-cylinder Corolla.

Ford and other manufacturers began to design vehicles that could be more functional with better fuel economy. For example, in the 1974 model year, Ford trumpeted the release of the Mustang II, which it labeled the “right car for the right time.” (The new Mustang did not even offer the 302 V8 motor. The company printed unique sales literature to convince dealers of the merits of selling the 283 V6. Luckily, after a public outcry, the company realized its mistake and returned the 302 V8 as an option for the 75 Mach 1).

Over the first ten years, engineers continually decreased the compression ratio of the Ford small block, robbing the 302 of its power. By the time 1978 arrived, the engine was an option for the King Cobra, but it only produced 139 horsepower with a compression ratio of 8.4:1.  

The Boss 302

The 302 is best known for its application in the 1969 - 70 Mustangs and Cougar Eliminators. The modified engine differed from the standard 302 in using cylinder heads from the new Cleveland 351. With an increased bore and stroke, the compression moved from 9.5:1 to 10.5:1, which elevated the horsepower to 290.  The increased horsepower gave the Mustang and Cougar 0 - 60 times under seven seconds (6.9). The time was faster than the ‘69 Dodge Charger (7.3) and even the Camaro with its 396 V8 (7.8).

The cast iron deck was thicker, and the manifold had to be raised to accommodate the heads. There were eight bolts on the valve cover rather than the usual six, and you could instantly tell the Boss by the chrome valve cover (1969) or the cast aluminum one used in 1970. (Either way, the car was impressive when you raised the hood).

Only Autolite spark plugs could be used (they were small enough to fit next to enlarged valves),

The intake and exhaust valves were enlarged (2.23 inches/56 mm) (in) - (1.7 inches/43.2 mm) (out). The valve size dictated that only smaller Autolite spark plugs could be used.

The Holley 780 CFM 4-barrel carburetor sat neatly on top of the engine with a choke that could be adjusted. The engine growled when it came to life due to heavy lifters, and when revved, it screamed like many higher-capacity Big-block engines.

The 302 Re-lives Now

Some classic restorers believe the 302 engine is the best small block v8 ever built. With the proliferation of production and the ease of parts, many companies, like Ford Performance Parts, offer crate engines with various capacities. (Follow the link for more information on the availability of a crate engine or other parts like a rear sump oil pan or cylinder heads from Ford Performance Parts).

In preparation for Mustang’s fiftieth anniversary, the 302 V8 was brought back in 2012 with a newly designed 302 featuring aluminum cylinder heads, improved throttle body fuel injection, and a larger intake manifold. The engine was an enhanced 5.0 V8 that sported 440 hp and was offered as a part of the Mustang GT. (If you own one, hold on to it because they have a substantial Hagerty value as a future classic). Ford Performance Parts used the Boss 302 name for a few racing Mustangs (not street legal), the Boss 302S and Boss 302R. (They weren’t cheap. The S model had an MSRP of $79k, and the R was over 50 grand more).