(first posted 11/21/2016) Welcome to Part 6 of our never-ending journey exploring relatively small displacement engines used at various times in automotive and light truck history. While this is the newest we’ve covered thus far, this is offset by appearing to be one of the more desperate attempts by the manufacturer.
The era of the late 1970s and early 1980s is rightfully described as being the Malaise Era. This malaise, like a gastrointestinal virus, didn’t limit itself to just passenger cars as it easily and rapidly spread to the intermingling pickups from these same manufacturers. Despite having different emissions and mileage hoops to jump through, pickups successfully succumbed to this affliction in their own, unique ways.
It started seemingly innocent enough in 1981. After introducing a new, more aerodynamic pickup for 1980, Ford was under the gun to increase their fuel mileage ratings. Their smallest engine for 1980 was the 300 cubic inch (4.9 liter) straight-six. As your author had to endure a 300 of 1984 vintage while in high school (along with a few others along the way), he will happily vouch that while the 300 of this era was many things, efficient (and powerful) it was not.
So Ford had to do something.
What they did was a two-step approach, both of which were lacking.
This two-step dance started in 1981. Ford had had their 255 cubic inch (4.2 liter) V8 available in the Thunderbird starting in 1980. This 115 to 120 horsepower wonder also found a home between the front wheels of Mustangs, Fairmonts, Granadas, and LTDs.
In an effort to help fuel economy, someone’s Better Idea was to place the 255 under the hood of a Ford F-100.
To Ford’s credit, they limited the availability of the 255 V8 to the F-100. At the time Ford was also building an F-150, another half-ton pickup with a slightly higher gross vehicle weight rating due to its somewhat beefier suspension that was most easily differentiated from the F-100 by the larger spacing of its wheel lugs.
The 255 engine was simply a 302 cubic inch (5.0 liter) V8 with a bore reduced to 3.68″. This engine was of suspect popularity; cancelled after 1982, Ford only built around 250,000 of them for use across their entire product range. The 255 was simply too meager in its output.
With the lack of success with the 255, Ford still had to do something to address fuel economy concerns. Whether or not this remedy was an improvement is highly debatable.
Look at the second point down on the right hand column. That’s right; for 1982, Ford started dropping their 3.8 liter V6 under the hood of their F-100. This is the same engine that would later be found in various Fox-bodied cars, some Taurii, and a bunch of minivans.
As installed in 1982 model year passenger cars, it was rated at 112 horsepower.
Just like the 255, Ford was wise enough to keep the 3.8 limited to the F-100, with it being unavailable in anything heavier duty.
With two years of tenure, the 3.8 stuck around twice as long as the 255. After 1983, the 3.8 vanished as did the F-100, with the base engine again being the 300 straight six.
While it likely worked well enough for its time, these engines might perhaps be considered an early foray into Ford’s current lineup being predominantly composed of V6 engines. But times have certainly changed.
Why didn’t Ford didn’t simply revive the old 260? Was it about logistics, or were the dimensions not conducive to emissions compliance? Anyway it wouldn’t have helped much.
They are the same block, only the 260 had a slightly bigger bore.
It was the lack of a fuel injection system that caused the dearth of power, not the displacement.
I know it wouldn’t have been any more powerful; my guess is, the expense of re-adapting the 260 for emissions might’ve exceeded that of merely reducing the bore of the 302.
You are making the big assumption that Ford kept the mold cores for the 260’s bore size around. Chances are those were thrown away shortly after the stopped making the 260. The 255 block is not just a 302 block that hasn’t had as much material removed. There is an ultimate cylinder wall thickness that balances heat transfer, strength and the ability to rebore an engine for the rebuilding process. So for what ever reason they decided on a bore that gave them 255 cu in and built the mold cores accordingly. The 255 also got unique heads with smaller intake ports that required a different intake manifold. I believe the valve sizes were different as well.
Not picking a fight here–just a little personal experience to share. I worked at Ford’s Cleveland Foundry (now demolished) in the early 1970s, in the pattern shop where master production patterns for blocks, heads, manifolds, and smaller stuff were maintained and stored (if not in use on the casting lines at the moment); even then there was an amazing backlog of production equipment (including all the associated sand-core production stuff) for the obsolete V8s and sixes, truck and tractor engines-as well as the really cool things, like 427 and even the Indy 255. Given that, I’ll suppose Ford also hung on to the mundane 260 stuff (a management guy explained that getting all the approvals to actually scrap something was very involved, and so old stuff used to sit on the shelves there for years and years).
I’d like to hear more about your time at the plant. A few years ago I met a guy who worked a summer at Chevy’s Tonawanda Engine Plant in 69. His job was installing intake manifold gaskets. So naturally I had to give him some crap about my Dad’s 69 Chevy truck having to have the gasket replaced under warranty! And don’t forget, Hemmings “Classic Car” magazine has a section called “I Was There” where those who worked in the auto industry can write their story and get it published. Might be something to think about.
I had a 1989 F-150 SuperCab with the 300 cu. in. six (fuel injected) and a 5-speed manual transmission. Canucknucklehead is right, for what I used it for the performance was just fine. I didn’t tow anything and only loaded the cargo bed with camping gear or the occasional load of mulch.
The only saving grace of the 255 is that the flat top pistons fit the 250 six and raise the compression because stock 250 pistons are dished.
Hey, that’s probably the reason for 255 instead of 260. Common piston rings &cetera… Every dollar saved is a dollar profit.
I have a friend who still has a ’82 F100 with the 3.8 V6. Did the clutch in it for him several years ago. And for a while back in late ’91,early ’92, I actually entertained the idea of a 3.8 swap for my Ranger for a brief time. Happily I pulled my head out of my arse and went with the 302. Probably why I still have and drive it today. IIRC, the 255 also had different heads, and intake manifolds were not interchangeable. Have never actually seen a 255 in the wild, so I can’t confirm that.
Yes the intake ports in the 255 heads are smaller and the intake matches those unique port sizes.
Sounds like the same idea as Chevy had with the 267 at around the same time (1979 to 1982). Same stroke as the 350 but with the smallest bore of any “small block” Chevy V8. As it was a short-lived emissions special, very little aftermarket ever appeared for it, despite its similarities to the 305 and 350.
On paper Ford’s idea of a smaller V6 engine in their base F series truck was a good idea. A lot of delivery services (auto parts, various goods etc) used full size trucks (this was several years before the small Ranger truck and the Courier was not handy) in the early 1980’s and a smaller engine in the truck would save them gas and be practical as they were not pulling or hauling a lot of heavy crap.
In practice with the carb and emissions crap it sucked.
In the late 1980’s when Fuel Injection became common, GM revived the concept of a V6 in a fullsize truck and started sticking 4.3l V6 (of the Vortec and TBI kind) in the Chevy 1500 and the V6 in a full size truck became viable.
The 4.3l V6 1500’s were no rocket but it was powerful to motivate the metal. My trusty steed when working at a Chevy dealership and delivering parts was a 1993 Chevy Cheyenne 1500 4×4 with the 4.3l V6 with the TBI system and it was a very good driver.
How well did 225 /6-powered Dodges perform during this era? ’60s D-100s were OK but unexciting.
The 225 slant sixes in several of my early 70’s era Darts / Scamp & Valiant I owned weren’t too spiffy performance-wise and forget it if the A/C was on.
I would assume you’d better not be in a hurry if they were in a truck.
I drove a Dodge Pick UP w/ a V-6 that was company owned. In Albuquerque traffic, it was foot to the floor always. They didn’t keep it for very long.
We had a 1984 Dodge Van, D-150, with the 225 slant six and a 4-speed manual. It wasn’t sprightly, performance-wise, but it got driven everywhere, camping, in the hills. It achieved very good gas mileage for what it was, and was driven on the freeway all the time at 70-80 mph. But going up a hill, be prepared to use the slow lane.
6 years late I know, but these Reruns will do that for ya… The V6 fullsize was an absolute great idea even in smog dog years, for the right job. Like you said auto parts or delivery or even construction if you are in the city…. Better millage, cheaper maintenance and purchase price for the exact same functionality if you never see north of 55 mph… And often too out at 40…..
I always wondered when the F-100 ended and the F-150 began. Didn’t know they overlapped for a bit.
The F150 started in 1975 along with GM’s Heavy Half and Internationals replacement of their 100 series with a 150 series and switching the Scout II to the Scout II XLC. They all had GVWR’s of over 6,000 lbs which put them in an emissions class that didn’t need a Catalytic Converter. Of course the gov’t eventually raised that cut off closing the heavy half ton loop hole.
The F100 stayed around as a CAFE buster with a GVWR that was more than 1000lbs lighter than the F150. That allowed a lot of smaller and lighter chassis components to be used which made those smaller engines more viable.
The truck currently known as the global Ranger was originally intended to come to the US as a revival of the F100 name. It would have been a mid size line addition not a replacement for the US Ranger.
Of course today’s “1/2 ton” weighs more than the GVWR of the early 80’s F100.
I wasn’t really paying attention to pickups in those years, and don’t remember ever noticing these oddball powertrains. Of course, it wouldn’t have seemed so strange in 1980-82 since oddball powertrains were going into everything then in an effort to squeeze some extra MPGs out for CAFE (and some extra sales out to those afraid of fuel costs.)
I had a friend at that time who bought a 1980 F100 Lariat demonstrator. Short bed, with seemingly every option available, silver and black, It was one of the best looking trucks I’ve ever seen. But it had the problematic overdrive automatic, and a sadly breathless 302. But it sure looked great……until my friend stuck a goofy looking camper shell on it, then jacked it up at least a foot and replaced the nice alloy wheels with some cheap, blingy truck wheels. That truck sure looked great when new, too bad about everything else.
I am currently the owner of a 1984 Ford F-150 with the straight six engine. No, it’s definitely not the fastest, nor the most fuel efficient, but it is super dependable and rather pleasurable to drive. My uncle (dad’s brother) bought the truck brand new, and it has stayed in the family ever since. Currently has a total of 55k original miles.
Our thoughts about the 300 are pretty close, although you are more charitable than I! 🙂
It was an ’84 that I drove a lot in my younger years. Like yours, it was super dependable, ran extraordinarily smooth, and it was quite robust. However, the 10 to 12 mpg appetite and being dogged down hauling more than a few hundred pounds grew old quite fast.
I’ve no doubt the older versions had a lot more bite; emission controls did these engines no favors – nor did the one barrel carburetor.
Had a nephew who had an ’84 F150 4 speed stick. It really was an amazing combination of total gutlessness combined with horrible fuel economy. He spent a lot of money trying to get it “fixed”. It took a while for him to finally agree it was operating as designed. My ’70 307 stripper 4 speed C10 had performance that would run circles around the Ford and got better fuel mileage as well. He finally sold it. It was a durable engine, though.
I had a 96 F150 300 six FI with the Mazda 5 speed, wasn’t fast but it would haul anything I asked it to. I would start at an intersection and be in second before reaching the other side, unfortunately a rusted out frame finally did it in.
A friend had a ratty ’84 Bronco 4X4 with a 300 and three speed with creep gear. He hauled a car on a heavy flatbed trailer about 100 miles for a friend. It was slow up the hills, but the truck did the job and survived.
I pulled my old Galaxie a time or two with the ’84 F-150 my father had (the one I referred to in the article). It was geared just like your friend’s Bronco.
It did what was asked but it was painful. Having to downshift to third (second in actual use) going up hills was dreadful on 55 mph roads. That old pickup ran great but simply made dreadfully little power for its displacement. I would love to experience an older 300 to gauge that engine in its prime.
It sounds like yours was equipped with a low geared transmission. With highway gears the 300 could easily get at least 18mpg.
Why did Ford do away with the F-100 anyway?
The F150 was introduced as a “heavy half ton” with a 6050 lb. GVW to avoid the catalytic converter and unleaded gas requirement. I believe that the F150 outsold the F100 to the point that there was not reason to keep producing after a few years.
Once the Ranger came on line there wasn’t much need for the CAFE dodge of the small displacement engine in a full size truck. At that time CAFE was applied to a mfg’s “domestic” and “imported” fleet separately. So the Courier didn’t help them offset the full size line while the Ranger did.
1982 saw the return of the 302 to the Mustang GT and was the beginning of the end of ‘Malaise Era’.
I’d say 1980-81 model years seemed to promote the end of performance, but the light was lit by the 302 return.
I may be showing my ignorance here–but rather than developing a whole new engine in the 255, would it not have been possible to use some combination of carburetor/FI/intake/heads to create a lower-output, more fuel-efficient version of the 302?
It would have been possible, but more expensive.
The 255 was for the F-100 – which was priced lower than the F-150 – so there was no doubt a desire to keep the production costs at or below those of the 302.
I certainly leaned something new today. I had no idea about these engines.
Owned a 1982 ford F100 3.8 manual trans short-bed for 11 years. A complete strip-o..Wimbledon White, red vinyl interior, no head liner. 187,000 miles. It was a real workhorse, and a good-looking basic truck, the kind you don’t see anymore. Living here on Cape Cod( Salt Air) it literally began to dissolve, it was reasonably quick, and rode well….not much for hauling though. The 3.8 gave up the ghost on the way back to the Cape,hauling a load of cabinet debris. I still miss it, it was simple, easy to work on, and only left me stranded once….when the engine grenaded…..I’d buy one again in a heart beat.!
Detroit seemed loathe to develop and invest in proper fuel injection systems in the late ’70s-early ’80s and it showed. The result was engines like the 255. BIL had an ’81 Cougar sedan with it and while the car looked nice and was comfy, it was very slow, you had to really flog that thing to get it going. Electronic fuel injection would have solved most of the problem with these engines. When the Big Three did attempt EFI it was generally a disaster (ie the 1981-83 Imperial) which was noting but problematic. I have also heard that first-gen Sevilles had issues with their fuel injection, too.
We’ve come a long way since that dismal time.
Computer tech wasn’t quite there yet at that time.
Yes but didn’t some European makes have reliable fuel injection systems at the time? How come they were able to do it?
Either frugal Middle American buyers couldn’t be persuaded to pony up the extra dough, or they didn’t trust Detroit to do it right. The cost of licensing/importing Bosch technology might’ve been deemed unacceptable (NIH & exchange rates), although Bendix already had a system by the late ’50s.
Mea culpa: When I was shopping the Accord in 1988 (admittedly a different time frame), I balked at the LXi’s price & got the much cheaper, carbureted DX instead. As it happened however, I had no drivability issues anyway.
Bosch D-Jetronic, which was the first commercially successful electronic injection system, was actually based on the late ’50s Bendix system, which Bosch either bought or licensed.
The most advanced system at the time was probably Bosch L-Jetronic, used on some high-end European and Japanese cars. People a lot more knowledgeable than I about the many permutations of L-Jetronic will tell you some variations of it were a lot more trustworthy than others, and I assume it was quite expensive.
(Toyota, oddly, decided there was still life in the older D-Jetronic system, so some early ’80s Toyota engines used updated versions of that instead. It wasn’t a cost thing; Toyota had some complicated arguments for why mass air pressure was better than airflow for metering.)
Since European emissions standards were a lot less stringent than in the U.S., Japan, or Australia, a lot of European cars stuck with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical injection.
The first Cadillac system of the 70’s used on the 500 was a pretty good port system but it was expensive to produce. IRRC it was a $500 or so option.
The next system Cadillac’s Digital Fuel Injection while a throttle body system was a massive leap frog of anything on the market at the time. It included the first implementation of OBD. Punch the right combo of trip computer or ETAC buttons and it will spit out its limited set of codes. You can also read the actual live data as you drive on parameter at a time. Their next system brought new levels of available live data but a tool was needed since it was intended for mass market vehicles that wouldn’t have a digital display.
Ford then leaped past them with EEC-IV that dramatically increased the information available in the OBD and no one came close to its capability until they were required by law with OBDII requirements.
The other thing that’s worth adding with regard to fuel injection is that what ultimately made the biggest difference in terms of power and drivability was the combination of electronic injection with feedback control using a lambda sensor to continuously adjust the mixture continuously based on the O2 content of the exhaust. This technology was available — the first to use it in production was Volvo, in 1976 — but it was still new and quite expensive, since it involved the extra cost of the lambda sensor as well as the injection system.
This is why there various interim kludges, like feedback carburetors (which didn’t work nearly as well as feedback injection, but wasn’t quite as expensive).
New a guy many moons ago that bought an ’82 Mustang with the 255, got to drive it one. What. A. Dog. That thing couldn’t pass gas let alone another motor vehicle. Can’t imagine how bad one would be in an F100. I seem to remember years ago reading that Ford was going to put the 3.8L in the E100 but for whatever reason they decided to do otherwise. Good choice IMHO.
Funny to think that the 4.2 V6 (a stroked 3.8 basically) became the base power plant for the F150 from 1997-2008.
That appears to be actress Kelly Harmon in the 1980 Thunderbird brochure. Not appearing to show much allegiance to Ford, as she appeared in commercials for Dodge by 1982. 🙂
Lovely lady, but somewhat saddled with looking like her more-famous brother in a wig 😉
Hahahaa…..I was just going to mention something like that. Didn’t know that her brother was Mark Harmon, but considering the last name and that she looks a lot like him, they could be twins.
She is also the former wife of John DeLorean, so that gives her a connection to all of the big three…
And she was the Tic-Tac girl from the TV commercials of my youth! That’s where I remember her from (our TV broke in 1979 and we didn’t get another one until 1985 so I missed her later TV ads).
Totally-unrelated Tic-Tac story: I’m old enough to remember when they first came out. I used to collect the empty plastic containers and keep tiny things in them (think I still have one somewhere filled with BBs).
When a local department store was going out of business, they had one of the original green display stands at the register – I asked if it was for sale, and the cashier gave it to me! The way the stand is designed, you can drop a small-diameter (as used in old Chinese Checkers games) marble into the top and it will cascade all the way down to the bottom. I had marble races between a black and white marble on each side of the stand, with inverted bottle caps taped at the bottom to catch the marbles.
I still have that stand, for some reason. With computer games, my two young children have zero desire to play with it! Now, back to cars . . .
I remember working on a fuel-injected Crapalier in the winter of 1985 back in Indiana. It wouldn’t start. It had a spectacularly-crude control system: it continually pulsed the main injector every second when the key was in the “on” position (probably as a function of outside air temperature). This resulted in massively flooding the engine if you left the key on w/o quickly starting it.
At first, I couldn’t even figure out why it was doing this (I was only just becoming familiar with how fuel injection worked at the time). But once I put 2+2 together, I had the owner hold the accelerator pedal to the floor and crank it until it cleared the engine, and then it started just fine.
Another GM fail. [EDIT – just realized that I should have posted this on the cavalier deadly sin post which I just finished reading – oh well!]
A co-worker had a 3.8 F-100. He said it was hard to convince the guys at the parts counter that it even existed. The engine had a bad end before 100,000 miles.
My dad bought a 81 F100 Ranger XLT new with the 300/3+od transmission. I don’t remember it being too thirsty. And it kept up with traffic. But it wouldn’t pull a trailer which is why it was traded for a new 88 Suburban.
Car and Driver magazine used the 4.2 liter V8 in a 1980 Mercury Capri as a project car, back in 1980.
The byline was “130 mph from 4.2 liters? No problem”.
As we know the Capri at the time was virtually identical to the Mustang. C&D were dismayed at the Malaise- era and somewhat disgusted that Ford would de-tune the promising Fox-body Mustang by replacing the 302 with a 255.
So they decided to see how easily the 255 could be made to go. They applied traditional hot rod techniques such as headers and duals (cats-only, no mufflers). I can’t remember what they did for cam and intake but it was nothing exotic. The car, with the SROD 4 spd trans made 130 mph.
This might seem like a hopeless project now, but at the time people had no idea if the 302 would ever come back or if the Malaise era would ever end. Projects like this were just a spark of hope for the enthusiasts of the day.
Starting in 1983, the Ford F250/350 can be had with a 6.9 liter diesel sourced from International Harvester. That engine was an economical alternative to the 351 or 460 and put out more horsepower and torque than the 6.2 diesel that was used in Chevrolet/GMC trucks since 1982. And it was more reliable. By 1988 The 6.9 became a 7.3 which lasted until 1994 when it was reborn at the 7.3 Power Stroke diesel.
A modern V6 in a half ton truck is a good idea. My ’07 F150, 8 ft. bed, access cab, truck with the 4.2 V6 is rated at 200 hp. Rated to tow a max of 6,000 lbs. It was fine on level ground but it barely made it over the top of Cuesta Grade on US101. It was great with about 1,500 -2,000 lbs. Unloaded it will hit 100 mph, cruise at 85, and return 20 mpg. at 65 mph. It rides and is as quiet and comfortable as a Lincoln. Just a great truck.
The anemic 255 V-8 and 3.8L V-6 were not the only problems these early 80’s F series trucks had. Many were built with what was euphemistically referred to as the ‘Swiss Cheese’ frame:
This ill-conceived attempt at weight reduction resulted in a truck that was limber to say the least. Thankfully neither GM nor Dodge tried something this drastic.
The opposite of a fully-boxed frame!
It is interesting to compare the Ford 255 with the local Holden 253 V8 which had a slightly smaller bore (3.625″). The 253 was rated at 134 hp or 154 with a dual exhaust. I remember a friend’s brother had a WB Holden ute (80-84 model) with the 253 and a 4-speed, and was very disappointed that his brother’s 250 ci Ford ute (1990 5-speed) left him in the dust.
I was in high school in ’82, and I recall thinking how nice these trucks looked in an era when weak chested FWD cars were supposed to be good for you. My compatriots also noted this, and some of the ’70s GM A bodies they were driving began to be traded for trucks. The end of the car as we knew it was on.
JPC addressed this, and I’d have to agree with him that the 255 engine gambit was a play for buyers that were fearful of future fuel costs. I don’t believe that CAFE applied to these vehicles, and when fuel costs leveled off, stuff like this began to disappear.
Appropriate that the lead photo is an ’82 brochure. Just more evidence that ’82 was peak malaise.
In the early 90s while home on summer break from college, I worked for a Coca-Cola bottler. My job was to load and haul those ubiquitous Coke trailers to special events like fairs and grand openings. Although I can’t account for the gearing, we had several trucks in our fleet. At the time they were all late 80s vintage. One was an F-250 dually with a 7.5L V-8, another was a Chevrolet 1500 with a 4.3L 6. The final choice was an ’87 Ford with the 4.9L inline 6 and a manual tranny.
For whatever reason, the Ford inline 6 was my favorite ride. It wasn’t bulky like the dually, but its inline 6 was geared for towing, and it performed well at that task. It was no speed demon, and top gear passing abiity was nil, but the low end torque was phenomenal. Its days were numbered after a new F-150 with the 351 came on the scene.
This article was about trucks, but I remember Ford making the 3.3 inline six standard in the Thunderbird around 1981 which would have been horrible to drive.
Trucks and pickups had traditionally been slow. Oh sure, some with HP, but many with 6 cylinders and 3 on the tree or an auto. Some were, but many domestic cars weren’t slow in the 60s, but many/most pickups or even real truck were. GM had a V6 they used in pickups for a couple of years in the early 60s, but then started using them in what, 2.5 ton and heavier trucks?
Anyway, so the real problem wasn’t the lack of power, it was that they were marketed and people were using them as a heavy, high profile car with a single bench seat, but started to expect car like performance out of them. How long did UPS use 6 cylinder delivery trucks? Yeah, power is nice, but with gears you really don’t need much in a light truck if you’re using it as a light truck.
The obstinance of US manufacturers regarding fuel injection is really amazing, I suspect it was the “not invented here” syndrome more than cost that delayed it widespread use. The smog carbs had become just absurdly expensive, not to mention they didn’t even work very well. I’m sure on fleet sales another hundred bucks would have been a deal killer, but on individual sales would that hundred bucks or something really have been that big a deal for more power and better fuel economy? By our current 2022 standards gas was cheap back then, but nobody thought that then.
The selling point of 255 was “it’s still a V8!” to older buyers [then] who couldnt fathom buying a 4 or 6 cylinder car. To them they were ”cheap, lumpy, noisy”.
I still know some people who refuse to get a 4 cyl, claiming “they don’t last”, ignoring Asian cars.
Bringing back the Mustang GT with 302, and Chevy adding more HP to motors, ended Malaise era. Gas prices settled, car sales went up, and v8’s were given a “stay of execution”. All the doom and gloom of 1979-80 was over.