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What Are The Best Mustang Headers?

Written By: Ryan Doyle

Learn all you need to know about Mustang headers here and get the knowledge to pick the right header option for you and your Mustang!

American Muscle

Choosing Between Three Different Types of Mustang Headers

  • Shorty Headers—Preferred when using a turbo setup, but can still be used in a naturally aspirated engine and street builds
  • Equal Length Headers—Allow more equal exhaust flow through the header to the mid pipes
  • Long Tube Headers—Preferred when using non-turbo, performance builds because they produce higher performance numbers compared to cost

Headers, also known in stock form as the exhaust manifold, is the first section of the Mustang’s exhaust system mounting to both the left and right sides of the engine (V8/V6 only). There are many options when it comes to choosing a set of aftermarket headers for your Mustang. With so many choices: long tube, shorties, chrome, ceramic…where do you begin? Let’s take a look at the different types of headers, their benefits and also the several types of finishes available for headers. Depending on your desire in exhaust sound and also your engine setup, the type of header you choose may differ.

BBK Ceramic Long Tube Headers for 1996-2004 Mustang GTs
Long Tube Headers

Shorty Headers: How do they Compare to Long Tubes?

Shorty headers are preferred when using a turbo setup in your Mustang but can still be used in a naturally aspirated engine. Despite the most common uses shorty headers can still give you performance increase regardless of your setup by providing more low-end torque.

BBK Ceramic Tuned Length Shorty Headers for 2011-2014 Mustang GTs
Shorty, tuned length headers

Do I Want Equal Length or Unequal Mustang Headers?

When choosing shorty headers you are given the options of either equal length or unequal length. The difference is that the separate pipes on an equal length set of headers are contoured in a way so that all four pipes converge into one pipe while having the same length. This option is beneficial due to allowing more equal exhaust flow through the header to the mid pipes.

Shorty vs. Long Tube Header Installation

When it comes to ease of installation, shorties are where it’s at. They can be easily installed by removing a few simple components if that and can easily be done at home. In addition, shorty headers can easily mount up to your existing stock mid-pipe with no customization. If installation is not your concern, consider this: Shorty headers, unlike long tube headers, stay close to the engine, virtually giving no chance of bottoming out on lowered vehicles. The down side of shorty headers on a Mustang is that you’re not going to see as high performance gains as compared to a long tube header setup. One of the reasons for this is that shorties do not scavenge adjacent exhaust ports quite as well (savaging is where one exhaust outlet in the combing section of the header in ways causes suction to pull the adjacent port’s exhaust gasses).

Underside of a Mustang with Long Tube Headers
Long Tubes Installed

When are Long Tube Headers the Right Choice for My Mustang?

For non-turbo, performance builds, full length or long tube headers are the more popular choice because of their higher performance numbers compared to the price you are paying. This performance is do to the flow characteristics and how the exhaust flows through the tubes and out of the engine. A good rule of thumb for headers is the longer you can extend the individual tubes going into the combing chamber without the need for bends or twists in the tubing, the better your exhaust’s performance will be. Compared to the shorty header, the long tube header will generally give you more midrange and top end power gains.

BBK Chrome 2011-2017 Mustang GT Long Tube Headers
Chome Long Tube Headers

Drawbacks of long tube Mustang headers

A few drawbacks of long tube headers as mention above are fitment, clearance, and installation. Often when fitting long tube headers into your Mustang an upgraded mid-pipe needs to be installed. Clearance issues—depending on how dropped your Mustang is—can arise on lowered vehicles with long tubes due to their lower exiting design.

TIP: scavenging is the process of pushing exhausted gas-charge out of the cylinder and drawing in a fresh draught of air or fuel/air mixture for the next cycle. This process is essential in having a smooth-running internal combustion engine. If scavenging is incomplete, the following stroke will begin with a mix of exhaust fumes rather than clean air. This may be inadequate for proper combustion and another reason to swap out the stock manifolds for a set of aftermarket headers.

Best Headers For Turbocharged Mustangs

If an engine is likely to see a turbocharger in the future, short tube headers are more beneficial over long tube counterparts. While in naturally aspirated and supercharged applications they are helpful, long tube headers are harmful in turbo applications. This is for a few reasons:

1) Most turbo setups come as a complete kit. This means that they base their plumbing and design around stock/shorty headers. In several kits, long tube headers would not allow for proper installation of the kit.

2) Longtube headers are exactly what they are in relation to short tubes:longer. As a result, this makes the air travel further to the turbo itself, which increases lag and attributes a loss of efficiency.

3) The most basic reason: it makes everything tighter. Turbo systems already take up a large portion of the engine bay, long tubes don't give any additional space; they take it.

Mustang EcoBoost BorgWarner Turbo Kit
EcoBoost Turbo

Choosing Your Header’s Coating

Ceramic--when it comes to the most expensive yet longest lasting headers, ceramic is the way to go. Under hi-heat temperatures, paints and other coatings can begin to break down. With out a proper coverage on your header they can begin to rust and eventually lead to exhaust leakage.

Ceramic Coated Mustang Long Tube Headers
Ceramic Coated S550 Long Tube Headers

Hi-temp Paint--Some headers often are listed as painted. This most often means they were coated with a hi heat paint which in most cases should be rated for the temperature your engine area will be at. Although this does not supercede ceramic, if painted correctly can still uphold the standards.

Pacesetter Black Long Tube Headers for GT Mustangs
Painted Long Tube Headers

Chrome--Another hi-temp coating which gives a shiny stylish chrome appearance. No rated as highly as ceramic, yet not as expensive in most cases still offers rust protection if applied correctly.

Chromed V6 Mustang Shorty Headers
Chromed Shorty Headers for V6 Mustangs

Benefits of Changed Exhaust Flow

This is more beneficial than unequal length headers. Equal length headers will give the car more power. This is due to the equal pulses of exhaust flow, as well as keeping exhaust gases the same due to equal runner length. Equal length will allow the exhaust gases to flow smoothly and consistently.

Road Legal vs Off-Road Mustang Exhaust

Exhaust components are the final piece between the engine and the atmosphere. As a result, the EPA has enacted regulations on what modifications can be done to the exhaust system. The federal government has mandated that catalytic converters must be equipped on all cars and can not be removed.

If they are removed, the vehicle is no longer legal to drive on the street. Some exhaust components delete the catalytic converters, which is nicknamed "off-road." In regard to headers, long tube headers modify the placement of the catalytic converters. While some states allow this, California in particular, does not. California created the CARB (basically a state version of the EPA with harsher regulations). CARB has mandated that the location of catalytic converters must not be changed.

Since longtube headers move the location of catalytic converters, they are all illegal in California. However, certain CARB approved, short tube headers are allowed.

2011-2014 Mustang GT Cat-Delete Pipes
Cat-Delete Pipes

Best Headers For Supercharged Mustangs

While there are some cheaper brands of headers that can suffice, the quality ones truly shine. The best brands are those that are hand made in the USA. For supercharging, long tube headers provide the most benefit. Not only do they increase the amount of power (by increasing airflow), but also lowers the amount of boost (psi) going through the engine. This results in a combination of less stress on the engine and more power.

For the correct diameter size, it depends on the engine itself. Generally speaking, 4.6 and 5.0 pushrod based applications work well with 1-3/4" primaries. On the 5.0 Coyote engine however, 1-7/8" is optimal for a supercharged application. Any smaller primary, while increasing power still, won't have the same effect as their larger counterparts.

2015-2017 Mustang Supercharger
Installed Supercharger Kit

Differences Between 1-3/4" & 1-7/8" Mustang Headers

The debate between 1-3/4” and 1-7/8” sized headers seems to be popping up all over the place, in particular with the 5.0 Coyote Mustang crowd. Is one better than the other, which one should I buy, what are the differences – these are all questions Mustang owners want to know.

Mustang Header Sizing Details

Before jumping into the differences, first let us review some basic header theory. There are three parts to a header; the flange, the primary tubes and the collector. The flange is the flat surface that bolts to the cylinder head. The primary tubes are the immediate tubes welded to the flange (and are 4 distinct tubes). Lastly, the collector is where all 4 of the primary tubes merge into one larger diameter tube to be transported through the rest of the exhaust system and out the tail pipe.

Header size is usually referring to the size of the primary tubes. Therefore, a header labeled as a 1-3/4” (one and three quarter inch) will have primary tube diameters of 1-3/4”. As the diameter of the header increases, so does its flow capacity. Therefore, larger engines will use larger headers as they need to evacuate greater quantities of exhaust at any given time, as compared to a lesser displacement engine (E.g: A Mustang vs a Civic). This does not mean you should put the largest header you can find. There are many more (and complicated) variables at play.

Why Mustang Header Size Matters

To simplify, smaller tube headers provide greater exhaust velocity at lower engine speeds which produces more horsepower and low-end torque. Larger diameter headers have decreased velocity at low engine speeds which results in a lower horsepower and torque.

At higher engine speeds, larger diameters will yield more horsepower and torque than their smaller tube brethren. Smaller diameter primaries work well down low at low speeds. Larger diameter primaries are better at the top end. 

Furthermore, the length of the primary tubes before the collector effects engine performance as well. Longer primary tube headers increase low-end torque while shorter tubes improve top end power.

And then there are stepped headers. Up until this point, we have talked about constant rate headers – a header that has a constant diameter throughout the full length of the primary tube.

Stepped headers gradually increase in diameter throughout the length of the primary tube. The primary tube may have an opening at the flange of 1-7/8” but by the time it has reached the collector, it could be 2” or 2-1/4” in diameter. These ‘steps’ help increase exhaust velocity.

Differences Between 1-3/4" & 1-7/8" Mustang Headers

The main difference between 1-3/4” and 1-7/8” headers is one eighth of an inch. That doesn’t sound like much at all, however, a Mustang's engine will notice the difference. Earlier we said too large a diameter can have a negative impact on engine performance. In fact, over sizing by as little as one eighth of an inch can be enough to change performance.

Why? Recall that engine displacement, primary tube diameter, and exhaust velocity are all related. A larger diameter header can evacuate more exhaust. However the velocity of exhaust flow will be lower.

If the header is too big for the engine, there may not be enough velocity to push all of the exhaust out of the headers. There may be left over exhaust still in the combustion chamber for the next power stroke, or it is even possible for the engine to suck some of the exhaust back into the cylinder head as the fumes were not fast enough to escape.

Neither of these two scenarios are optimal. This means there is less oxygen available, and therefore less power available.

What About Mustang Engine Displacement/Size

The current Mustang packs a 5.0L V8 with an impressive 435 HP. Those are very nice numbers. However, a 5.0L engine is only 302 cubic inches. In terms of overall displacement, this isn’t that big. In the grand scheme of things, 435 HP is great for street duty, but overall not a crazy or excessive amount. With a 5.0L Coyote in mind, both 1-3/4” and 1-7/8” sized headers will add a nice kick in terms of horsepower and torque. However, is one size outright better than the other?

What's the Best Sized Headers For My Mustang?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question. By far 1-3/4” header on a stock or modified 5.0L Mustang will offer plenty of capacity for exhaust gases. They will be neither restrictive nor too big to hinder power. 1-3/4” will add to the top end (over stock headers) but should not lose anything down low either.

Again, a 1-7/8” header is only 1/8” bigger, but this added 1/8” adds a massive exhaust volume capacity. The consensus amongst experts is that unless you have a very large displacement engine or are pushing more than 900 HP, 1-3/4” headers are more than adequate for a 5.0 ‘Stang.

Keep these tips in mind to help you decide what size is right for your Mustang:

  • Headers are categorized by the size of primary tubes/runners
  • The primary tubes merge into a larger diameter collector
  • Smaller diameter tubes produce more horsepower and torque at lower speeds
  • Larger diameter tubes produce more horsepower and torque at higher speeds, but lose power in the low end
  • Shorter tubes improve top end power
  • Longer tubes increase low-end torque
  • Going too large in diameter can be harmful by leaving some exhaust gases in the combustion chamber on the next compression stroke 

For most street/strip duty Mustangs, a 1-3/4” size primary tube header size will be more than effective. Not to say that a 1-7/8” header will not work (it will work, but may not scavenge the exhaust as well), but keeping in mind the overall displacement and horsepower levels of most street Mustangs, a 1-3/4” header is a safer bet to meet your power needs all throughout the powerband. 

If you really can’t make up your mind – call the tech line of the header manufacturer and a representative will be able to tell you exactly what you need.

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