Ford Mustang Camshaft Guide

Ford Mustang Camshaft Guide

Last Updated June 13, 2023 | C.J. Tragakis

"Camming" an engine refers to swapping out the factory camshaft for an aftermarket one. Installing an aftermarket camshaft, or cam, is a popular performance upgrade for pony cars and muscle cars. It’s often the final step in a back-to-front overhaul. You’ll want to start with things like a cat-back exhaust and headers, which will help you take advantage of the new camshaft.

Classic first-gen Mustangs are good candidates for a performance camshaft. But they’re especially favored for the 5.0L engine used on the Ford Mustang from 1985-1995. These V8s have a lot of untapped power potential that can be unlocked with the right aftermarket mods. Camming is even gaining some popularity for the Coyote 5.0 V8 used in 2011-2020+ Mustangs.

Installation difficulty for a new cam ranges from moderate to advanced. This will depend on what tools you have and what other parts you’ll be swapping out. Some cams require complementary mods you’ll need to install at the same time. The last thing to do is add an electronic tune, which is not always required, but generally recommended.

We’ll go over some of these other components below, but first let’s look at the main reasons to add a performance camshaft to your Mustang.

Why Should You Cam Your Mustang?

Increased horsepower and a different sound character are the two main reasons to cam your Mustang. Aftermarket cams have varying lobe lengths and shapes to create different lift and timing than the stock camshaft. Since the valves stay open longer, the engine gets more air to burn. More air equals more power and more exhaust gases (which changes the sound).

More High-RPM Power

Camshafts are popular for cars that need lots of power and speed, like race and drag cars. Mild cams may only offer an increase in the 10 hp range. However, aggressive cam kits with extra mods can easily add over 100 horsepower. This power output can be made even greater with a performance intake manifold, headers, and exhaust.

For many cams, specifically more aggressive ones, you’ll actually see slightly worse performance at low RPM. The tradeoff is having much more high-RPM power, called "top end."

Sound Benefits

Cammed engines are often noted for their "loping" sound (lug-lug-lug) at low RPM. This sound occurs due to the increased amount of time the valves are open.

That cool loping sound actually happens because more than one cylinder valve is open at the same time. For aggressive cams, this can lead to unburnt mixture going into the exhaust, which is bad. A solution is often to raise the idle RPM, which requires a tune and additional parts.

What Mods Should Be Installed with a Cam?

There are a number of parts to consider replacing when you swap out your old camshaft. Some are highly recommended and some are optional. You’ll also want to ask yourself the following questions to pick the best mods for your build:

How aggressive are your cams?

Aggressiveness refers to how much air your new cam will allow into the cylinders. Mild cam kits can sometimes be installed with no other mods needed. You can simply swap out your stock camshaft for an aftermarket one. Others will just require a tune, or at least strongly recommend one. The more aggressive cam kits will require new valve springs, lifters, and even a torque converter or higher ratio rear gears.

Is your engine pushrod or OHC?

Whether your Mustang’s engine is pushrod or overhead cam can also impact which mods you’ll need. Mustang engines made before 1996 are pushrod, while post-1996 engines are overhead cam (modular).

Pushrod engines can have clearance issues with certain cams. Lift and duration, along with rocker ratio and head valve size, can have an effect on which pistons are required for clearance.

For overhead cam engines, you’ll find both NSR and non-NSR camshafts. NSR stands for "no springs required." If a cam is not NSR, you’ll need to upgrade the valve springs as well.

Recommended Camshaft Complementary Mods

Here’s a list of complementary mods to go with a performance camshaft, with the most highly-recommended items at the top. Many camshaft kits will include a lot of these items, so be sure to carefully check each individual product.

Mods to Install With Camshaft
Strongly Recommended ModsRecommended Mods
Phaser bolts (often required) Tensioner arms
Lifters Chain guides
Valve springs Cover gaskets and front seal
Electronic tune (especially for aggressive cams) Primary timing chains
Retainers Primary chain tensioners
Camshaft sprockets Camshaft spacers, bolts, and washers
Cam phasers Crankshaft sprockets
Cam lockouts Fasteners
Rocker arms
Cam position sensor

Mustang Camshaft Options

There are a wide range of aftermarket camshafts, ranging from mild to aggressive in their design. Be sure to check the specs and requirements of any cam kits you’re looking at.

Mustang 289 and 302 Camshafts (1964.5-1985)

There are lots of camshaft options for Ford’s classic motors, the 289 and 302. Cams for these models are relatively affordable. They’ll give you a noticeable power increase, plus improved idle sound and a louder exhaust note. One of the most popular packages for these engines is Edelbrock’s Top-End Power Package. Like the name says, it’s engineered to give you more horsepower and torque at higher RPM.

289 and 302 Camshaft Examples
ProductLevelDuration at 0.050" Lift (Intake/Exhaust)Lift at Valve (Intake/Exhaust)RPM Optimization TargetNotes
COMP Cams XE250H Mild 206/212 0.460"/0.474" 600-4,800 RPM Smooth idle.
COMP Cams 268H Moderate 218/218 0.456"/0.456" 1,500-5,500 RPM Mildly rough idle.
Edelbrock Camshaft and Lifters - Torker-Plus 289/302 Aggressive 214/224 0.472"/0.496" 2,500 to 6,500 RPM Rougher idle.

351 Windsor Camshafts (1968-1970)

The 351W (or 351 Windsor) engine was used in some 1968-1970 Mustangs, plus a host of other Ford vehicles. A new camshaft or cam kit will give you a classic, choppy idle sound. More importantly, you can see serious horsepower gains. For example, Edelbrock has kits designed to provide over 400 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. That’s up from 250 hp and 355 lb-ft in a stock 1968 351 Mustang.

351W Camshaft Examples
ProductLevelDuration at 0.050" Lift (Intake/Exhaust)Lift at Valve (Intake/Exhaust)RPM Optimization TargetNotes
COMP Cams XE262H Mild 218/224 0.493"/0.500" 1,300-5,600 RPM Good mid-range power.
COMP Cams Thumper 283THR7 Aggressive 227/241 0.531"/0.515" 1,900-5,600 RPM Aggressive, choppy idle.
Edelbrock Top-End Kit Aggressive 224/234 0.496"/0.520" Up to 6,500 RPM Large kit, up to 400 hp and 412 lb-ft.

5.0 Mustang Camshafts (1985-1995)

The carbureted 5.0 engine used in Fox Body and early SN95 Mustangs is well-loved. It’s also one of the most popular candidates for camming. This is because of its affordability, sound, and horsepower potential. You can maximize the power to bring it up to modern standards. Plus, you’ll get the unbeatable, vintage sound from the exhaust.

1985-1995 5.0 Camshaft Examples
ProductLevelDuration at 0.050" Lift (Intake/Exhaust)Lift at Valve (Intake/Exhaust)RPM Optimization TargetNotes
COMP Cams 270HR Mild 270/270 0.493"/0.500" 1,800-5,000 RPM Slight lope at idle.
Ford Performance E303 Cam Moderate 220/220 0.498"/0.498" 2,500-5,500 RPM Moderate idle.
Trick Flow Track Max Aggressive 224/232 0.542"/0.563" 2,500-6,000 RPM Fair idle. Recommend 3.55 or higher rear gears.

4.6 Mustang Camshafts (1996-2010)

There are 2-valve and 3-valve options for the 4.6 modular V8. This is a great-sounding motor that many think has an even better exhaust note than the Coyote. You can up the power and give it a wonderful, classic car loping sound with a new cam. The Ford Performance Power Pack with Hot Rod Cams includes a throttle body and intake manifold as well.

4.6 Camshaft Examples
ProductLevelDuration at 0.050" Lift (Intake/Exhaust)Lift at Valve (Intake/Exhaust)RPM Optimization TargetNotes
COMP Cams XFI NSR Stage 1 Mild 214/227 0.450"/0.450" 750-6,200 RPM 2005-2010, works with all stock components.
COMP Cams Mutha Thumpr NSR Moderate 234/254 0.450"/0.450" 750-6,600 RPM 2005-2010, only needs phaser kit and tune.
COMP Cams Xtreme Energy XE278AH Aggressive 278/282 0.550"/0.550" 2,200-6,200 RPM 1996-2004, rough idle. Needs intake, exhaust, tune, valve springs, etc.

5.0 Coyote Mustang Camshafts (2011-2020+)

Though it has plenty of power from the factory, some want the power and sound of a cammed Coyote. We recommend Ford Performance’s camshaft set for 2018-2020+ or this one for 2015-2017. These kits include a wide array of parts, including timing chains, tensioners, and phasers.

5.0 Coyote Camshaft Examples
ProductLevelDuration at 0.050" Lift (Intake/Exhaust)Lift at Valve (Intake/Exhaust)RPM Optimization TargetNotes
COMP Cams XFI Stage 1 for 2011-2014 5.0 Mild 220/223 0.492"/0.453" 1,500-6,800 RPM NSR (no springs required). Requires phaser limiter kit and custom tune.
COMP Cams XFI Stage 2 for 2011-2014 5.0 Moderate 228/231 0.492"/0.453" 1,700-7,000 RPM NSR (no springs required). Requires phaser limiter kit and custom tune.
COMP Cams XFI Stage 3 for 2011-2014 5.0 Aggressive 236/239 0.492"/0.453 1,900-7,200 RPM NSR (no springs required). Requires phaser limiter kit and custom tune.

Enjoy Your New Camshaft

A performance camshaft is a great mod for hardcore enthusiasts. Providing more horsepower and better top-end means that a cammed Mustang is even better at the race track and drag strip. Plus, that classic loping exhaust note is tough to beat.

Once your new cam is installed, you may want to tinker with your electronic tune to find the best settings. If the whole process seems daunting, you can find a performance shop to install a new camshaft for you. It’ll be relatively expensive but can save you a lot of headache if you don’t have the tools or know-how to do it in your garage.

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Sources: Camshaft Selection, Engine Builder | 5 Quick Tips for Replacing Camshafts, The Humble Mechanic

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.