Mustang Camshafts vs Crankshafts Explained

April 2, 2021

Camshafts vs Crankshafts

Whether you're a budding amateur mechanic or prefer to never touch a wrench, knowing how your Mustang's engine works is essential. This can be helpful if you are considering aftermarket engine upgrades or are trying to better understand a repair estimate. In this article, we'll look at Mustang camshafts vs crankshafts.

While these are two separate engine components that each serve a unique function, a camshaft and crankshaft must operate together for the proper performance of your Mustang engine.


Engine Types Camshafts Crankshafts Camshafts vs Crankshafts Timing Chain/Belt Upgrade



Mustang Engine Types

Mustang Engine Types

Depending on the age of your Mustang, the car's powerplant will have either a "pushrod" overhead valve (OHV) or overhead cam engine (OHC) configuration. While engine setup will determine camshaft location, the overall functions of and interdependence between the camshaft and crankshaft will remain the same regardless if your car has an OHC or OHV engine. Be sure to check out a related Steeda article, Mustang Pushrod vs Overhead Cams, for more engine information.

A single cam in an overhead valve engine is located between the engine's cylinders. Using a set of pushrods, the camshaft engages the intake and exhaust valves. This is why OHV engines are called pushrods. Pushrod engines were popular in the Mustang until the 1990s and continue to be popular in some General Motors models.

Depending on the OHC engine configuration, a single camshaft or multiple cams be used with each bank of cylinders. The camshafts are located on the top of the cylinder heads and engage the intake and exhaust valves during rotation.



Mustang Camshafts

Mustang Camshafts Explained

You may ask, "what is a camshaft?" A camshaft, or cam for short, is a metal rod intersected with various sized metal lobes that may look like a teardrop or similar shape. When the lobes rotate, they engage the intake and exhaust valves with rocker arms in an overhead cam engine or through pushrods in an overhead valve engine.

Modern Mustang engines rely on a multiple camshaft configuration to help improve performance and fuel efficiency--this is the appeal of OHC engines as automakers can highlight more powerful cars while meeting or exceeding government fuel economy mandates. This "quad-cam" design happens through a single camshaft controlling the intake and exhaust valves on each bank of engine cylinders. Known as variable camshaft timing (VCT) or Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT) in Ford speak, this technology allows the camshafts to change the speed of the intake and exhaust valves as needed.

Keep in mind that camshaft "lift" is generally a good thing, to a point. More lift allows for greater airflow through the valves, which usually means improved engine performance. However, excessive lift causes "valve float," which can cause the engine to over-rev and lose performance. Ideal lift permits the optimal amount of air as the valve travels in sync with the camshaft. Also, there are multiple aftermarket crankshaft options that enable turners to modify lift and improve engine performance.



Mustang Crankshafts

Mustang Crankshafts Explained

Next, let's answer the "what is a crankshaft?" question. At the base of your Mustang's engine, underneath the cylinders, is the crankshaft that moves the engine pistons. The pistons are joined to the crankshaft by the connecting rods, so the pistons move up and down as the crankshaft rotates. As the pistons move up, the mixture of air and fuel is compressed and ignited in the cylinder. This creates a reciprocating motion that then forces the pistons down to draw in more air and fuel.

This is the four-stroke cycle that defines the essential operations of most internal combustion engines. For a crankshaft to properly operate—as well as the engine itself—the camshaft controlled intake and exhaust valves must function perfectly as well.



Camshafts and Crankshafts Mustang

Mustang Camshafts vs Crankshafts

The precise operation of the intake and exhaust valves along with the pistons, camshafts, and crankshaft is all about timing. This is accomplished through a timing belt or timing chain that connects the camshafts and the crankshaft. Don't think of this as camshafts vs. crankshafts, but rather how all these vital components work together.

Comprised of a rubber composite, timing belts are more cost-effective for the manufacturer than a timing chain. Also, these belts tend to produce less engine noise than a timing chain. Similar to what you'd find on a bicycle, timing chains are a roller-style chain that offers more durability than a timing belt but requires continuous lubrication.

First-generation Mustangs used timing chains. However, some Mustang II and Fox Body models were equipped with timing belts as a cost-saving move by Ford. Starting with the mid-1990s and the SN95 generation launch, Ford switched all Mustangs to a timing chain configuration to improve durability, especially as the more complex OHC engines (Ford's modular V-8s) replaced the pushrod powerplants.

Check the factory maintenance schedule or contact a Ford dealer to determine your Mustang's timing configuration and service requirements.



Timing Chain on Mustang

When To Replace The Timing Chain Or Timing Belt

A malfunctioning timing chain or timing belt should be looked at right away. A chain or belt failure can cause a piston to strike a valve resulting in significant and expensive engine damage. Pay attention to frequent backfiring, rough engine idle, or a high-revving engine that produces minimal movement. These are all signs that the timing between the camshafts and crankshaft is no longer synced. Get this checked out immediately.



Upgrade Camshafts on your Mustang

Upgrade Your Mustang Camshaft(s)

While not as showy as some aftermarket body parts or rims, a performance-enhancing camshaft can help deliver a power upgrade to your Mustang. Aftermarket camshafts incorporate different-shaped lobes that are designed to create a higher lift. As we mentioned earlier, it's all about finding the perfect formula for increasing air and exhaust flow without overwhelming the engine.

There are several important factors when considering a camshaft upgrade:

  • Not all replacement camshafts are compliant with local emissions regulations.
  • An aftermarket camshaft may require other engine updates to take advantage of potential power upgrades.
  • Your engine's aspiration (regular, turbo, or supercharged) will affect what type of camshaft to use.
  • The wrong camshaft choice can reduce engine power and reliability.
  • A new camshaft will affect your car's exhaust note.

Always consult with an aftermarket expert or experienced service technician before moving forward with a camshaft replacement project.





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