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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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.
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.
“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.”
We set out to do just that. On a quick trip to Michigan last year to check out the Focus RS Drift Stick upgrade and drive home in a Ford Performance-upgraded 2017 Mustang GT, we swung by the Romeo Plant to watch the Voodoo 5.2-liter engines come together on the Niche Line.
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 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.