Mustang Headers Buying Guide

Mustang Headers Buying Guide

Last Updated August 10, 2023 | Alison Smith

The exhaust manifold is the first step in the exhaust flow process, but it can be quite restrictive. Replacing your Mustang’s stock manifold with performance headers will improve airflow, which translates to more horsepower.

Adding a pair of headers frees up the restrictive factory system. Some long tube headers replace the factory catalytic converter with a higher-flowing cat. Others may require removing the catalytic converter due to space constraints. Shorty headers don’t affect the catalytic converter, except for the S550 models.

Types of Mustang Headers

For late-model Mustangs, there are two main types of headers: shorty and long tube. Long tube headers typically run the full length down to where the catalytic converter connects. Shorty headers replace just the factory manifolds. Obviously, this can differ for different engines and model years, but generally, they’re the same.

Old Mustang stock manifold next to a new set of shiny shorty headers
Comparison of new shorty headers (top) and the old stock headers (bottom).

Shorty vs Long Tube Header Pros & Cons

Header Type Pros Cons
Long Tube Headers - Substantial performance boosts
- Improve high revving cars
- Great sound
- Challenging install
- Not always legal
- Will hurt turbocharged engines
Shorty Headers - Easy to install
- Legal in 50 states
- Great for turbos
- Better than stock exhaust
- Less rev-happy than long tube headers

Tri-Y Headers

Tri-Y headers are an option available to classic Mustangs from 1965-1970. Long-tube Tri-Y headers were first popularized by Carroll Shelby as they were included on the Shelby GT350. These headers are designed to match the synchronization of the engine firing order.

Exhaust Header Coatings

Because the exhaust can reach up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, many exhaust headers are coated for better heat resistance. Here are a few different types of coatings available for exhaust headers:

  • High-Temperature Paint
  • Nickel-Chrome Plating
  • Stainless Steel
  • Ceramic Coating

Exhaust headers showing the different types of exhaust coating including ceramic coated, chrome, painted, and stainless steel

High-Temperature Paint

This is the most basic coating choice for many performance exhaust headers. High-temperature paint provides a barrier between the metal and the atmosphere, preventing rust. This paint is formulated to resist cracking and flaking as well. If your Mustang is a street car with occasional track use, this would be a great cost-effective alternative to some of the more expensive coatings.

Nickel-Chrome Plating

This is the same kind of coating you see on classic Mustang bumpers and trim pieces. Working as a middle-of-the-road option for mild street use, chrome-plated headers are a good option for those that like the shine and dazzle of chrome plating but aren’t exposing their exhaust to high heat on a regular basis.

Stainless Steel

Unlike chrome plating, stainless steel provides sufficient protection against the elements and high heat through the metal itself. There are two main types of stainless steel used for exhaust headers: 409 and 304. The lower the number, the higher the quality of the steel.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with 409 stainless steel, as it’s widely used in factory exhaust systems across the board. But 304 is definitely the better option for longevity. Stainless steel headers are ideal for mild-to-moderate street use and occasional track use.

Ceramic Coating

If you’re looking for the top-of-the-line header coating, it doesn’t get much better than ceramic. The ceramic coating is actually baked onto the metal in a red-hot oven. Once cured, ceramic coated headers offer the best protection from the elements and extreme heat.

Unequal vs Equal Length Headers

Sometimes you’ll see the option for either equal or unequal length Mustang headers. The difference between the two is the length of the header’s primary pipes.

On an unequal length header, the distance to the collector is different depending on the collector’s proximity to each cylinder. On an equal length header, the distance from the cylinder to the collector is equal for every cylinder. This is done by bending each header primary pipe in a particular way to achieve equal length for every pipe.

The best option is to have equal length headers to allow more even exhaust flow as it exits the car.

Mustang Header Sizes

When it comes to header diameter, you’ve got a few different options. The 1 5/8’’ and 1 3/4’’ is a big enough diameter for most Mustangs. But if you’ve got a lot of performance mods, or your Mustang puts out a lot of horsepower, you may want to go with a larger diameter of 1 7/8’’ or 2’’.

Bigger diameters can help the exhaust exit quicker, but they can also be restrictive if you’re not producing enough power to warrant it. You want to try to use the smallest diameter possible that doesn’t limit high-RPM flow.

Classic Mustang Headers (1964.5-1973)

When it comes to headers for your classic Mustang, you’ve got a few options. Unlike modern Mustangs, classics also have the option of Tri-Y headers along with long tube and shorty headers.

Tri-Y Headers

Tri-Y headers have two exhaust ports connected by short Y-shaped tubes and one long tube. They can help provide more torque from off-idle to 4,500-5,000 RPM. You can also get better ground clearance by installing this type of header.

Long Tube & Shorty Headers

4-1 long-tube headers are another popular option for classic Mustangs. They offer larger horsepower gains at a higher RPM, but have less ground clearance than Tri-Y headers. Shorty headers can improve the throttle response and give your pony a wider torque curve.

If you’re engine swapping a classic Mustang or performing a dual exhaust conversion, you may need specialty headers. For instance, if you’re doing an LS engine swap you may need specific LS-swap headers.

Fox Body Mustang Headers (1979-1993)

Shorty headers are smaller, which means they can usually fit in any Fox Body build without modifications. Although they provide moderate power gains, long tube headers can offer more performance benefits. Long tube headers may not meet emissions standards, where shorty headers are usually 50-state compliant.

SN95 Mustang Headers (1994-2004)

The 1996-2004 SN95s with a two-barrel carburetor are already some of the best-sounding Mustangs around. Long tube headers can help any SN95 sound better and provide unrestricted airflow for better performance.

Shorty headers are also great for SN95 Mustangs as they offer improved throttle response and fuel economy.

S197 Mustang Headers (2005-2014)

The 2005-2010 Mustangs are different from the newer S197 models because Ford updated the engine in 2011. The 2005-2010 Mustang GTs had a 4.6L V8 that produced 300 hp, while the 2011-2014 models featured the 5.0L Coyote V8 that put out 412-420 hp.

2005-2010 Mustang Headers

Although headers won’t make your 4.6L as powerful as the 5.0L, they can help narrow the gap by making your engine more efficient. Long tube and shorty headers can drastically improve your early S197’s exhaust flow, improving horsepower and torque.

2011-2014 Mustang Headers

Although the later S197 models have more power from the factory, they can still benefit from a set of headers. A set of long tube headers with a catted X-pipe can provide even more torque and horsepower gains throughout the RPM range. Replacing your factory manifold with shorty headers will increase flow and throttle response.

S550 Mustang Headers: 2015+

On 2015 Mustangs, the catalytic converter is part of the manifold on the driver’s side. So if you want to add a high-flow or off-road catalytic converter, you won’t be able to use a conventional H-pipe or X-pipe like in previous models. Many S550 owners use X-pipes to delete the factory suitcase resonator, though.

You would have to replace the entire manifold or do some cutting and welding to swap out the catalytic converter. Installing long tube headers can help fix this problem along with adding horsepower and torque. Some long tube headers will require an adapter mid-pipe.

Short tube headers can also provide power gains and will be easier to install. You’ll still have to do some cutting and welding to reattach the factory catalytic converter to the new headers.

Do You Need a Tune if You Get Headers?

Once you install your headers, you may need to adjust your ECU’s settings using an engine tuner. Tuning is required if you remove the catalytic converters on Mustangs newer than 1994. While a tune may not be required for all headers, it is recommended since optimizing the air-fuel ratio allows you to get the best performance. You don’t want the engine running lean or rich, as it can negatively impact performance. A tune may also be needed to turn off check engine lights.

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Source: Mustang 360

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.