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Rebuilding The Ford 3.8L Engine
Back in the late 1970s when we had our first oil embargo and fuel mileage suddenly became a really big issue in this country, Ford engineers had a problem.
By Doug Anderson
They needed an economy engine that would fit in their new cars, and they needed it fast. They had a couple of old inline sixes and a small German V6, but none of them were designed for fuel economy or the coming emissions standards, and the 250 cid engine was so tall that it wouldn’t even fit under the hood of the new Fairmont or Mustang. Ford needed a 90 degree V6 and they didn’t have one, so they had to design, test and build a new engine and get it to market in record time.
Some clever engineer at Ford figured out that the quickest way to solve the problem was to copy an existing design that worked, so that’s just what they did. They picked the Buick V6 because it was big enough for their mid-sized cars, but it had a very light, rigid block with all the accessory drives in a lightweight aluminum cover, and it was a 900 V6 so it would fit in all their new cars.
With this background in mind, the similarities between the two engines become more obvious, along with a few differences. Take a look at the following comparisons between the two engines:
Both engines have a short, rigid block and an aluminum front cover that houses the oil pump and the water pump. This was the first time Ford had put the oil pump in the front cover.
The bore and stroke on both engines is virtually identical. The Buick measures 3.80˝ x 3.40˝ and the Ford is 3.81˝ x 3.39˝.
Ford used a rolled radius on the mains, just like GM did on the Buick. That’s especially interesting, because it was the first time Ford had used a rolled radius on a domestic engine.
The dimensions of the rods and the mains on the Ford 3.8L were almost the same as the ones on the Buick 3.8L, although they actually ended up being the same diameter as the ones in the 351 Windsor.
Buick split the rod pins to make the engine into an even-firing design and underbalanced the crank in 1978 to reduce the vertical imbalance and so did Ford, but they used 39.2 percent on the bobweights instead of the 36 percent Buick used on its even fire engines.
Ford copied Buick and used a spring-loaded thrust button to hold the cam in place, but replaced it with a thrust plate two years later to get rid of the "chucking" sound that was common to both engines with the spring and button.
The most notable difference between the two engines was Ford’s decision to use aluminum heads on the 232 instead of the cast iron ones that were used on the Buick 231. Our best guess is that Ford was willing to spend the extra money for the aluminum heads to save some weight, because less weight meant better fuel economy and that was very important during the time this engine was being developed.
When the 3.8L V6 was introduced in 1982, it was installed in most of Ford’s mid-sized, RWD cars along with some of their F100/F150 pickups. It has been used in most of their RWD cars since then, and it has found a home in all of their FWD cars and vans at one time or another. There have been nearly 4 million of these engines installed in Ford cars and trucks over the last 10 years and they’re still being used in some high volume applications today, so it’s worth knowing how this engine has evolved over the years.
Ford has changed every major component on the 232 since 1982, so there are 10 different blocks, four cranks, four completely different cams, four pistons, two different rods, two balance shafts and eight heads, not counting all the variations or the special components for the supercharged engines that aren’t included in this discussion. With all that in mind, let’s take a walk in the swamp and see what Ford has done to change this engine year by year:
There have been 10 distinctly different blocks used for the 3.8L from 1982 through 2000. Some of the changes are relatively minor and others are pretty significant, but all of them are specific to certain years and applications, so none of them can be interchanged.
1982 Through 4/1/83
The original block was unique because it had a two-piece, rope rear seal that required a slinger on the crank and a corresponding groove in the block. It was an E2AE casting.
1983 After 4/1/83
In April 1983, Ford switched to a one-piece, rear seal, so the slinger on the crank was eliminated along with the groove in the block. The new block was an E3AE casting. Everything else on the block stayed the same, so most rebuilders combine both the E2AE and E3AE short blocks and sell them under the same part number, even though they have a different rear seal.
The cam thrust button was replaced by a half-moon thrust plate as a running change very early in 1984, so there were two drilled pads added to the front of the block to accommodate the change. Look for an E4AE casting.
1988 FWD And RWD
Ford installed the 3.8L in its FWD cars in 1988, so they made an all new block that had the FWD bellhousing pattern on the back and different mounting pads on the front and on both sides. They also added a balance shaft to cancel out the primary vertical imbalance that was present in all of these engines. Both of these blocks are quite different than any of the previous RWD castings because the #1 main was moved back about .125˝, and the front of the block was inset by nearly .500˝ to make room for the balancer gears. There were also two bearing bores added above the cam for the balance shaft, one in the front of the block and one in the back of the block. The FWD block was a E8DE casting, and the RWD block was a E8SE. These two blocks are easy to tell apart because they have either FWD or RWD cast on both the front and the back of the block.
1989 - ’95 FWD
Ford put a roller cam in the 3.8L in 1989, so they added four bolt holes in the valley for the lifter guides and three more holes in the front of the block for the chain tensioner. There was also a big boss added for a large hex plug that was located a half way back on the passenger side and two inches up from the pan rail. Some of the plugs had a small (10 x 1.5 mm x 1-1/8˝ deep) hole drilled and tapped in them for the knock sensor that was used in certain applications. These blocks were either E9DE or F1DE castings.
1989 - ’95 RWD
There were several changes made to the RWD block in 1989, too. The roller cam and chain tensioner were added, so there were four more bolt holes in the valley and three more in the front of the engine. The big boss found on the FWD blocks was added to the RWD blocks, too, but we haven’t seen one drilled for a knock sensor for any of these applications.
There was one other notable difference compared to the 1988 RWD block though: The balance shaft wasn’t used in the RWD motors in 1989, so the bearing bores weren’t finished, and the oil holes weren’t drilled. Apparently, Ford decided they could mask the primary imbalance in the RWD cars by underbalancing the engine and tuning the motor mounts, so they saved both the weight and the expense of the balance shaft for the RWD cars until they finally put it back in the Mustang engine in 1999. These blocks were either E9SE or F1SE castings.
1996 - ’98 FWD
In 1996, the FWD 3.8L was upgraded to 200 horsepower and used exclusively in the FWD Windstar minivan.
The sides of the block were contoured around the cylinders, the bolt bosses on the sides were revised, the pan rails were wider, and the supports between the pan rails and the mains were much thicker. The deep, heavy duty, main caps like the ones that had been used on the supercharged engines were installed on this block, too. All of these changes were intended to reinforce the block and help reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).
The F68E block that came out in 1996 was replaced by the F78E in 1997, but they were identical castings so they can be used interchangeably.
1996 - ’98 RWD
The RWD block was revised in 1996, too. The sides of the block were contoured around the cylinders and there were two ribs added on each side of the block above the holes for the freeze plugs. The pan rails were reinforced, the supports between the pan rails and the mains were thicker, and there were two ribs added on each side of the block in the lifter valley. All of these changes made the block stronger and helped reduce NVH.
The only RWD blocks we have seen have all been F6ZE castings, but there are some F7ZE castings, too, according to some other rebuilders, so watch for both casting numbers.
The 1999 FWD block was an XF2E casting that was identical to the ones that were used from 1996 through 1998. The bolt holes were all the same and this block still had the deep mains, so it can be interchanged with the F68E and F78E castings.
The RWD engine was used in the 1999 Mustang that was competing directly with the Camaro and Firebird that came with the new Buick 3800 Series II V6 that had 200 horsepower, so Ford finally put the 200 horse Windstar motor with the balance shaft in the Mustang to make it more competitive.
The block is the same XL3E casting that was used for 4.2L RWD pickups, but it came with the short main caps and four long, studded main bolts that were used to hold a stamped steel windage tray in place. There were four long spacers installed between the main caps and the windage tray that kept the crank from hitting it.
The XF2E casting was carried over into the 2000 model year, but the deep main caps were replaced by the shorter ones. That isn’t a problem in itself, but it could create one in the field, because there are four long studs on the main bolts that are needed for the stamped steel windage tray that’s bolted to the bottom of the engine. There are four spacers that go between the main caps and the windage tray that move it down far enough to clear the crank and the rods.
The XL3E block was carried over from 1999, but it had six, long, studded mains and the thick girdle that had a windage tray in the middle.
The 2001 FWD block is a 1F2E casting that has the short mains, but it has six studded main bolts that are used for the stud girdle that has a windage tray in the center. This girdle is much thicker than the earlier designs, so it clears the crank and rods without the spacers that were used under the windage tray in 2000. It may or may not be the same as the XF2E casting.
The 2001 Mustang came with a 1L3E casting that had six studs for the thick girdle that had the windage tray in the middle. We don’t know if it’s the same as the XL3E casting, so be sure to compare them before substituting one for the other.
There have been four different variations of the crank used in the 3.8L over the last 17 years. There’s also a new casting in 2001 that we haven’t seen yet, so there may be a fifth one. Each one is unique, but some of the early ones can be converted into the later ones with a little machining.
1982-’83 (Before 4/1/83)
The original 3.8L engine had a rope seal, so there was an oil slinger in the front of the rear main that stuck down into a corresponding groove in the block and kept most of the oil away from the rear seal. Look for a E2AE casting number on the crank.
1983 (After 4/1/83) -’87
In April 1983, Ford converted the 3.8L to a one-piece rear seal, so the slinger was no longer needed on the crank. This revised E3AE casting originally came with the shorter front main that measured 1.298˝ +/- from the front to the very back edge of the machined area.
1988-’95 FWD and RWD
The length of the front main was increased from about 1.298˝ to about 1.414˝ in 1988 because the front main was moved back about 0.125˝ when the front of the block was inset to make room for the gears for the balance shaft. There were a few of the earlier E3AE castings that came with the longer front main, but most of them were E8AE or E9DE castings. Some rebuilders used to make the early E3AE cranks into the later ones by machining the front main wider, but there are plenty of late cores available now so it’s probably not worth taking the time to convert them anymore.
1996-2000 FWD And RWD
Ford updated the crank in 1996 by adding rolled fillets on the rod journals. This increased the strength of the shaft and allowed the engineers to use a longer rod bearing because they didn’t have to be concerned about the possibility of edge loading the bearing on the cut radius. We have only seen the F68E casting, but some rebuilders claim they have seen F65E and F6ZE castings with the rolled rod radius, so watch out for all three of these castings.
There was another new crank in 2001. It’s a 1F2E casting. We suspect it’s the same as the F68E, but haven’t seen one yet so we haven’t been able to compare them side by side.
There have been two rods with four different identification numbers used in the 3.8L since 1982.
1982-’95 FWD And RWD
The original E2AE rod that was used from 1982 through 1986 was replaced by the E7DE that was used from 1987 through 1993 and the F4DE that was used in 1994 and 1995. Some people say there were some powdered metal rods used in 1995, but we haven’t seen any of them and it doesn’t seem likely that there were any, because all of the powdered metal rods were the longer ones that were used with the later pistons that had the pin moved up closer to the top.
These rods are all interchangeable, but the weight pad on the small end of the F4DE is a lot taller than the earlier ones, so it may hit the bottom of some replacement pistons. Be sure to check it out before hanging the piston.
1996-2001 FWD And RWD
Ford switched to a powdered metal rod with a cracked cap at the same time the new high output 3.8L for the Windstar was released in 1996. It was longer, (4.425˝ vs. 4.248˝ from bore-to-bore ), lighter (626 grams vs. 671 grams), and it had a smaller pin bore (0.9035˝ vs. 0.910˝), so it’s really an all-new design. This rod was used in both the 3.8L and the 4.2L up through 2001. All of these rods had the number F6TE-BB printed on the shank, but it’s usually pretty well gone by the time it gets to the rod department, so rebuilders will have to learn how to recognize it by sight.
There have been three completely different pistons and two versions of the latest one used in the 3.8L Ford since 1982.
The 3.8L engine originally came with an open chamber head, so the piston had a small, shallow cup that was about 2.160˝ in diameter and .060˝ deep. It also had two shallow valve reliefs.
The piston was revised in 1984 when Ford switched to a different chamber to improve mileage and lower emissions. The new, heart-shaped chamber was a lot smaller, so the cup in the piston was much deeper (about 0.190˝) and the valve reliefs were enlarged to provide enough clearance for the valves that were moved down closer to the crown of the piston.
The latest piston was an all new, lightweight (584 grams vs. 692 grams) design with a short skirt and narrow rings. The compression height was reduced, too, because the pin was moved up higher so the piston could be shorter and lighter. The new, longer rod made up the difference.
The piston was changed slightly again in 1999. The top ring was moved up closer to the combustion chamber and the rings were narrower. Other than that, the basic design of the piston stayed the same through 2001.
There have been four distinctly different cams in the 3.8L along with four different profiles used on the roller cams since 1989. Here’s what Ford did:
The original flat-tappet cam was the E2DZ-6250-A. It had a hole machined in the front that had a steel sleeve in it that centered the spring-loaded thrust button. The short snout had an integral distributor gear machined on the front of it, and there was a cast, oblong flange with two bolt holes in front of the first journal that was used to mount the timing gear.
The cam button was replaced by a thrust plate that was bolted onto the engine early in model year 1984, so the E4DZ-6250-A cam came with a 0.155˝ groove machined between the flange for the timing gear and the No. 1 cam journal. The hole was still machined in the front of the cam, but it wasn’t sleeved because the thrust button and spring were no longer used.
1988 - FWD and RWD
The 1988 flat-tappet cam was completely different. The snout had to be increased in length to make room for the gear that drove the balance shaft, so the front journal was moved back about 0.680˝.
The balancer gear, timing gear and distributor gear were all keyed to the cam and bolted on with a special bolt and washer. This cam is a part number E8DZ-6250-A.
1989-’95 FWD and RWD
Roller lifters were installed in the 3.8L beginning in 1989, so the cam was upgraded to a steel billet. There were two different profiles used during these years. The most common one was the E9SZ-6250-B that came in all of the FWD cars and vans and in the RWD cars with automatics, but there was also a E9SZ-6250-A that was used in the 1990 Thunderbirds and Cougars that came with a manual transmission. The E9SZ-B can be identified by the letter "A" stamped on the barrel of the cam behind the front journal. We don’t know what’s stamped on the barrel of the E9SZ-A, because we’ve never seen one.
1996-2001 FWD And 1996-’98 RWD
The revised roller cam, part number F6ZZ-6250-A that has been used in all the FWD engines since 1996, was used in the RWD engine from 1996 through 1998. It can be identified by the letter "D" stamped on the barrel right behind the front journal. Although this cam is similar to the E9SZ-B, there are some noticeable differences, so it shouldn’t be interchanged with either of the earlier roller cams, especially with OBD II looking over our shoulders.
Ford added another roller cam when they put the 12 port, 200 hp engine in the Mustang in 1999. It’s more of a performance grind than any of the other cams, so it shouldn’t be used for any other application or vice versa. It’s a XR3Z-6250-CA that can be identified by the letter "F" stamped on the barrel behind the first journal (according to a sample of one).
There have been several balance shafts used since 1988, but they all fit into one of two groups; they’re either light or heavy, depending on the application.
1988 RWD And 1988-’95 FWD
The balance shafts used in all of these engines were the heavy ones, because the pistons and rods were heavy. They can be identified in three ways:
1. They measure abut .950˝ across the “Dee” that’s the weighted part of the shaft.
2. They weigh about 3360 grams, +/- 10 grams with the drive gear and thrust plate installed on the front of the balance shaft.
3. There will be a E6DE-AA, a F0DE-6A306-AA, or a F4DE-6A306-AA casting number on the balance shaft itself.
1996-2000 FWD and 1999-2000 RWD
These balance shafts were lighter because the pistons and rods both weighed considerably less. They can be identified in three ways, too:
1. They measure .920˝ across the “Dee” that’s the weighted part of the shaft.
2. They weigh 3230 to 3250 grams with the drive gear and thrust plate installed on the front of the shaft.
3. They will have a 6A311, 3.8L/4.2L F65E-6A311-BA or XF2E-6A311-AA casting number.
There is a machined groove cut into the raised band in the center of the balance shaft on some of the lightweight versions, so it’s easy to identify them. Unfortunately, there are some of the lightweight ones without the groove, though, so all of the rest have to be checked to see if they’re heavy or light.
There have been seven cylinder heads used on the 3.8L. A few of the changes have been minor, but most of them are significant, so there aren’t many that can be interchanged.
The original aluminum head came with a conventional open chamber and gasketed spark plugs. It was either an E2AE or an E3SE casting.
Ford introduced a new head with heart-shaped chambers and taper seat spark plugs in 1984. This new E4ZE casting was used all the way up through 1987.
1988-’95 RWD And FWD
(Except Lincoln Continental, Taurus Police Car and 1995 Windstar)
The heads were revised again in 1988. They still had the heart-shaped chambers, but there were three holes added above the intake ports for the injectors. Ford could have put the injectors in the intake manifold for the regular engines, but then they would have needed a special head for the supercharged engine that was coming out in 1989, because there wasn’t enough room for the injectors in the intake manifold when the blower was installed. So, they chose to put the injectors in the heads for all of the 3.8L engines.
Look for a E8DE, a E9DE, a F3SE or a F4SE casting. These heads can all be interchanged, although the E8DE and most of the E9DE castings have a 1/4˝ rail for the rocker gasket while some of the E9DE and all of the F3SE and F4SE castings have a 3/8˝ rocker rail.
1991-’95 FWD Lincoln Continental, Taurus Police Car And Windstar
Ford used a special, open-chamber head on the 1991-’94 FWD Continentals and the 1991-’95 Taurus police cars. This head was also installed on the FWD Windstar in 1995.
The original F15E casting was replaced by the F35E in ’93. Both are interchangeable, although the width of the rail for the rocker cover gasket varies from 1/4˝ to 3/8˝, depending on the year. The rocker rails on the F15E are 1/4˝ wide and the ones on the F35E are 3/8˝ wide.
1996-’98 FWD Windstar
The 3.8L FWD engine was replaced by the 3.0L DOHC in the Taurus/Sable in 1996, so the 3.8L was upgraded to 200 horsepower and used exclusively in the Windstar minivans after that. There were some internal changes that added some horsepower, but most of it came from the new heads and the split port induction system that was used along with them. The chambers were opened up again, the exhaust ports were round and smaller for better exhaust velocity, and there were six intake ports feeding three intake valves. These heads also had conical springs with small, lightweight retainers. It was an interesting combination that worked good on the 3.8L. This head is a F65E casting.
1996-’98 RWD Mustang
The RWD head was also modified in 1996. The exhaust ports were slightly bigger and squared-off in the corners, the intake bolts were 6.0mm instead of 8.0mm, and there were two blind holes added in the upper corners to hold the intake gasket in place during assembly. This head still had the conical springs and small retainers, too. It’s a F6ZE or a F7ZE casting.
1999-2000 FWD And RWD
The RWD Mustang got the 200 horsepower motor with the 12 port heads in 1999, so both the FWD and RWD vehicles shared a common head again. The XF2E casting was the same as the earlier F65E FWD casting except for the addition of one more threaded hole that’s located just behind and above the #1 exhaust port when the head is installed on the driver’s side.
Apparently there’s another bracket attached to the head, so they needed another bolt boss. This casting could be used instead of a F65E if you’re willing to trade a late casting for an earlier one, but you shouldn’t use the earlier head to replace this later one unless you’re absolutely sure that the extra hole isn’t needed on either side of the engine for that particular vehicle.
2001 FWD And RWD
There’s a new YF2E head casting on both the FWD and RWD applications in 2001. There are no apparent external differences between this head and the previous XF2E casting, so they appear to be interchangeable.
That’s the story on all the castings. The pictures and captions illustrate many of the differences. The chart on page 42 lists the casting numbers along with their distinguishing features and tells how they have been used for various applications over the years, so it should all make sense.
There are a few things every rebuilder should know about these engines before deciding to rebuild them.
A lot of the early heads cracked on the outer flanges, just below the exhaust ports, because there was a radius that was machined too small. Ford solved the problem by going to a bigger radius in 1988 when they revised the head for port injection.
RWD Cam Spacer
The RWD engines that came without a balance shaft (1989-’98) used a machined spacer that took the place of the drive gear on the front of the cam. It was the same thickness as the balancer gear (0.861˝), so the timing gear and the distributor gear were still located in the right place even though the balancer gear wasn’t there. If the back of this spacer is glass beaded, shot blasted, nicked or damaged in anyway, it will gall on the thrust plate and cause an engine failure, so treat it with care.
The holes in head gaskets for the FWD and RWD engines are different because the coolant flow in the heads is revised, depending on the application. Don’t mix them up or the engine will overheat.
These engines tend to blow head gaskets because the gasket is very narrow adjacent to the fire ring on the back cylinders. The problem is aggravated by the coolant that slowly wicks into the edge of the gasket and causes it to deteriorate over time. Rebuilders should use only the head gaskets that have been approved by Ford to help avoid warranty problems.
The metal guides and holddowns that kept the lifters perpendicular to the cam were replaced by a pair of plastic holddowns that did it all in 1996. They are interchangeable with the earlier setup.
The 1988 and up engines that have the cams with the long snout use a special bolt that has a drilled oil passage along with a special washer that has slots to provide oil to the front of the engine. Be sure to use the right bolt and washer to avoid tearing up the gears and the chain.
The cracked rods can’t be reconditioned by cutting the caps, but there are aftermarket bearings available in common undersizes with a .002˝ oversize outside diameter that work fine.
Be sure to use a crank with a slinger if you’re building an early block with a two-piece seal. It’s easy to make a mistake if you go by just the casting number because the E3AE crank comes with and without a slinger, so check the crank visually before using it in an early block.
The rod bearings that are used along with the cracked rods that came out in 1996 are longer. There was more room on the rod journal because of the new rolled radius, so Ford was able to increase the capacity of the rod bearings by increasing their length.
Using the late bearings with an earlier crank with the cut radius will create edge loading on the bearing that will lock the engine up in assembly, if you’re lucky, or cause a premature failure in the field if you’re not.
Ford has used only four or six studded mains on the 3.8L. The number of studs and their location depends on the year and application of the engine. The following list is a good guideline, but rebuilders should always check both the core and the application before selling one of these engines.
1982-’98 RWD All of the RWD cores appear to have one studded main located on the passenger side of the #3 main cap.
1988-’99 FWD All of the FWD cars except the Continental seem to have one studded main on the driver’s side of the #2 main cap. We have seen some FWD Continentals with a single stud on the passenger side of the #3 cap, but that may not always be the case, so check the core before selling the engine or tell the customer he may have to move the studded main.
1999 RWD The 1999 Mustang had four long studs that were used to mount the windage tray and the pickup tube. There were two in the #2 cap, one on the passenger side on #3 and one on the driver’s side of #4.
2000-2001 RWD These RWD engines have six long studs with two in each of the three back caps.
2000 FWD The Windstar motor used four long studs for the windage tray and pickup tube, just like the 1999 RWD engines
2001 FWD The FWD engine had six long studs located in three back caps.
The Large Plug
There was a large, threaded boss added to the passenger side of both the FWD and RWD blocks in 1989. The big plug that screwed into it may or may not be drilled for a knock sensor.
Most of the early plugs that were drilled had a 10 x 1.5mm hole that was about 1-1/8˝ deep, but the size and the depth of the holes in the later ones can vary, depending on the year and the application. Some of the later ones still have an external hex head and others have a recessed, internal hex that makes them very hard to remove.
It’s almost impossible to know exactly which one the customer needs, so it’s probably best to leave them out and hope that the customer can get his out. Rebuilders should be aware of the problem and have a few spare ones on hand so they can help the customer solve the problem when the phone rings.
That’s the 3.8L Ford in a nutshell. It has been used in almost all of Ford’s cars and trucks at one time or another over the last 20 years, so there are lots of variations, but they all make sense when you see what Ford was trying to accomplish. It’s an easy engine to build and it’s had it’s share of problems, so there is plenty of business for the rebuilder who knows how to identify these engines and build them right the first time.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks goes out to Roy Berndt at PERA and Milt Olson from Engine Power Components for their help with the information in this article.
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