Underdrive pulleys are often one of the first modifications many people make to their Mustang. There’s a good reason for this, as they’re a relatively cheap upgrade when comparing performance return per dollar spent. Aside from the power-related benefit, you’ll possibly gain an appearance improvement under the hood as well. Certain years of the Mustang use a crankshaft pulley that is designed to flash rust as a protective coating. While the rust doesn’t affect the strength of the pulley, it certainly doesn’t enhance the appearance of it, and your vehicle.
Underdrive pulleys have been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the mid-to late 80’s when they came to the attention of mainstream enthusiasts. Prior to that, underdrive pulleys were only commonly seen in purpose built race cars dating back to the 50’s and 60’s. These cars used highly modified engines that ran at a high RPM for longer periods of time than just a simple trip down the drag strip. The pulleys were used to prevent the vehicles accessories for being driven too hard at the higher RPM’s, which would damage them. A damaged accessory, such as an alternator or water pump, could potentially cost the driver the race.
With the introduction of a single serpentine belt becoming common in the 80’s, the idea of using underdrive pulleys to enhance the performance of street cars was born. While the underdive pulley is most commonly associated with the 5.0 Fox-Body Mustang, they were also available for several other vehicles as well.
It’s common knowledge that your engine powers your car. Many tend to forget, however, that the engine performs other functions as well. It charges the battery by spinning the alternator, cools the engine by spinning the water pump, and makes steering easier by turning the power steering pump. The end result is that you lose a little bit of horsepower to your wheels due to the fact that the engine also has to power these accessories as well.
Obviously, you can’t avoid powering these accessories on a street car; at least not without adverse side effects. So you’re left with the possibility of reducing how much power the engine uses to turn the accessories. This is exactly what an underdrive pulley is designed to do.
There are two ways to reduce the power the engine is using to turn the accessories. These methods would be to either increase the diameter of the accessory pulley, or decrease the diameter of the crankshaft pulley. To break this down so that’s easier to understand, let’s use the following diagram that shows a simple, two pulley setup for illustrative purposes.
In this simplified example, we see a two-pulley setup, where both pulleys are the same size. If the crankshaft (the drive pulley) makes one revolution, the belt will spin the accessory pulley (the driven pulley) one complete turn as well. So, you have a true 1:1 ratio between the two pulleys.
Now, let’s move onto the second example…
This time, the crankshaft pulley is smaller than the accessory pulley. For simplicities sake, even though this diagram isn’t to scale, we’ll say the crankshaft pulley is half the size of the accessory pulley. Since the crankshaft pulley drives the accessory pulley, it must fully rotate several times before the accessory pulley rotates a full turn. So as the engine is turning at 3000 RPM, the accessory is being rotated slower, which in turn, reduces parasitic drag from the accessory, as the engine doesn’t have to spin that particular accessory as fast.
As mentioned earlier, to accomplish this, you can change either the crankshaft pulley or the accessory pulleys. As there is more than one accessory that often needs to be underdriven, pulley kits start with a smaller crankshaft pulley. This gets all of the accessories close to the underdriven goal, with a single pulley change.
There’s a little more to the equation, however, than simply changing a single pulley and being able to tear up the road while enjoying your newfound power. This is why kits include more than one pulley. You can only underdrive your accessories to a certain point without potential side effects. So, in order to fine tune the ratio between the crankshaft and accessories, you are often provided with one or more additional pulleys, to either bring the accessory speed back up slightly, or reduce it down a little more than the other accessories, if it’s still possible to do so and still have them operate properly.
So now that you understand how a set of underdrive pulleys work and you’re ready to place an order. Before you load up your Shopping Cart and whip out your credit card, first step back and analyze your situation a little.
For most automotive enthusiasts, underdrive pulleys should not cause any issues at all. This is due to the fact that the auto manufacturers provide a certain level of accessory operation that exceeds normal needs. If you have installed aftermarket parts that would force the accessories roles to be more important, however, you may be utilizing more of that extra “buffer” than the manufacturer provides. A perfect example of this would be high-powered aftermarket stereo equipment, which can tax the factory alternator or even require a higher-powered alternator. So it’s important to weigh your particular situation first.
When it’s all said and done, most people will find that there is no downside to installing underdrive pulleys. For those enthusiasts, a pretty straightforward pulley swap is all that stands between them and a car that has an increased responsiveness, as well as a little more power!