Striding down a long corridor, we pass a line of eight engines on stands. These are the children of Ford’s Romeo Engine Plant. It’s a walk down modular memory lane for sure, but as we cross the threshold into the plant’s working floor we are en route to Ford’s current pinnacle of naturally aspirated performance.
They also have a lot of pride in what they do because their names go right on the engine. — David Cantagallo, Ford
The team leads us safely through the cavernous plant where mainstream engines come together on a massive assembly line. The huge building is alive with the whirring of engines coming together, but this is not our ultimate goal. As we step out the back door of the plant and cross over to a smaller building, we have reached Voodoo Valhalla.
Motivated by a really special engine, the 2015-2019 Shelby GT350’s flat-plane-crank 5.2-liter V8 produces 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque. Built by elite two-person teams on the Niche Line at Ford’s Romeo Engine Plant, this engine carries the codename Voodoo. We visited the Niche Line to watch the magic happen.
On the door is a small sign that read “Niche Line.” If you aren’t familiar with this place, it is where all of Ford’s most powerful V8 engines have been built since 1996. Before the Four-Valve 4.6-liter engine first filled the engine compartment of the Mustang Cobra it was built here. Since then two-person teams have built Terminator, GT500, and Cobra Jet engines on a small assembly line in this building.
While the Romeo Engine Plant looks like many other plants in front, inside behind the Niche Line door is a special place where high-performance engines are built by two-person teams. This is no hot-rod shop, however. These are production engines. We entered this domain to see how the Voodoo 5.2-liter V8 comes to life.
The Niche Line is a truly special place that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Even though the Shelby GT350 continues into the 2019 model year, its vaunted Voodoo 5.2-liter engine is nearing the end of its lifecycle. So last year we stopped in to see how these skilled builders cast this high-performance spell.
“When the design came in, it was as an all-new process and a brand-new engine,” David Cantagallo, Human Resources Manager at Ford, explained. “Ford never really had a mass-production engine like this with the flat-plane crank and all the high-performance features that you usually see in much more expensive cars.”
The process begins with fresh, clean Voodoo 5.2-liter blocks, which features those vaunted Plasma Transferred Wire Arc cylinder liners, which allow for larger displacement and cooler engine temps. These blocks are fitted with dowels, cup plugs, and the carrier brackets that will help them move through the Niche Line.
A pioneering effort when it was developed to power the 2015+ Shelby GT350, this engine became the longest-stroke, flat-plane crank engine ever mass-produced. Not only is the Voodoo powerplant an engineering feat, it required a completely revamped process on the Niche Line.
Not only is the Niche Line still producing Ford’s highest performing eight-cylinder engines, it also serves as its own museum of sorts. Near the beginning of the line, there are stands holding one of each of the engines produced on the line thus far, including the Terminator 4.6-liter, the Shelby GT500 5.4-liter, the Ford GT 5.4-liter, and the 2013-2014 Shelby GT500’s Trinity 5.8-liter. These children of the Niche Line are some of the most storied engines in Ford’s long history.
“We ironed out a robust process. We check all the fasteners to make sure everything is buttoned down,” DaveShadik, manager at Ford, explained. “We are doing all kinds of checks along the way to protect our customer at the end. We want to build quality into the process, so that’s what we try to do here.”
Next the engine gets its oil squirters and main bearings installed before the heralded flat-plane crank is lowered into the block. Each part is scanned as it moves through the process, so issues can be traced back should they arise. With the crank in place, the main caps and oil pump go on, and the vertical main bolts and side main bolts are torqued.
In advance of switching the the Voodoo 5.2 builds from the outgoing 5.8-liter engines that powered the 2013-2014 Shelby GT500s, the Niche Line updated its process and even some of its equipment, including upgrading the multi-spindle wrenches that digitally verify the torque ratings on every fastener.
The high-tech equipment utilized on the Niche Line is but one way that the process helps ensure quality. That standard starts with the teams of builders, which are selected based on their experience and ability. They know their stuff, and take pride in creating some of Ford’s most storied engines.
The piston process is similar to the prior engines. The pre-cracked rods are cracked and oiled before the piston-rod assemblies are loaded into the engine and the rod bolts are torqued.
“With the two-person team, they help check each other’s work, and as one is completing a process the other can set up the next process,” David Cantagallo added. “But, the overall quality benefit is that you have two sets of eyes on everything that you do. They also have a lot of pride in what they do because their names go right on the engine. You can see it in their work ethic and how they function as a team.”
Next the head gaskets go on and the high-flow Four-Valve heads are bolted into place atop the block. Then they are torqued by the computer-aided multi-spindle rundowns, which check the torque setting at each step in the torque pattern. If the proper setting isn’t verified, the engine won't go on to the next step. Then the oil pump stud gets torqued and the rear seal is installed before the lash adjusters and camshafts are set into place.
After timing the cams and torquing the cam caps, it’s time to bolt on timing chain guides. Then the teams manually verify the roller finger followers are functioning properly. After testing the torque required to turn the crankshaft 16 times and verifying the lash adjuster setup, on go the Ti-VCT mechanisms, the timing chain guides, and the timing chains. A little something we learned during this process is that the R-model Voodoo engines receive unique lash adjusters, VCT mechanisms and cam covers, and these engines carry code 151.
Just as with your scribe’s previous trips to the line to watch engines come together, we observed with reverence as special people built special engines. These builders stamp their signatures onto plates that adorn the modest Shelby engine covers, and if they were ever to walk around a car show and were spotted, they might just get the celebrity treatment because people love their work so much.
After a bead of sealant is applied to the block, the timing cover is bolted on.
After following the process with us, you too will have that same respect for these people and this process. When you step back and realize that a giant car company like Ford operates a specialty assembly line just for high-performance engines, you just have to be filled with respect.
Then the cam covers are bolted on.
Another bead of sealant is applied before the oil pan is bolted up, the damper bolted on, and the oil cooler assembly is installed.
The the spark plugs go in an the engine gets pressure tested to ensure the oiling system is leak-free.
The process is almost complete as the intake manifold is bolted on. Then the fully assembled Voodoo 5.2-liter engine is mounted into a test stand where its pressures are tested and verified for about two minutes. Leaks are quite rare.
The two-person build teams definitely take pride in their work and the physical manifestation of that pride are the engine plaques stamped with the signatures of the builders. After the engine comes off the Niche Line, the builders hand stamp these plaques and adhere them to the modest engine cover.
Something being tested on the Niche Line during our visit was this digital photo test stand that verifies all the wiring harness connections. The builders still manually verify the connections, but in the future test stations like this may do the job.
After stops of about five minutes at each station, an engine comes off the Niche Line ready for shipment to Flat Rock for installation in a new GT350. The line produces 28-32 engines per day, which is impressive for the small production line.