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What are the Best Mustang Headers?

Written By: Ryan Doyle

Headers are a complicated piece of your Mustang's exhaust. Various coating, different tube sizes, different header lengths, and even turbo vs. supercharged engines. You'll want to consider all points before making a purchase, and below we've detailed the pros and cons of the possible combinations.

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 an 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
Ceramic Coated Long Tube Headers for GTs

When are Shorty Headers Worth Adding?

Shorty headers are preferred when using a turbo setup in your Mustang but should still be considered on 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 in comparison to the stock manifolds.

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 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 header 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 you’re not going to see as much performance gains as compared to a long tube header setup. One of the reasons is shorties do not scavenge adjacent exhaust ports quite as well (scavenging is where one exhaust outlet in the combining section of the header in ways causes suction to pull the adjacent port’s exhaust gasses).

Long tube headers have tubing that is much longer than stock manifolds or a set of shorty headers. The downside to this is a standard length mid-pipe will be too long and won’t bolt up properly to long tubes. That being said, you’ll be required to replace your factory mid-pipe to a shorty length mid-pipe. It’s recommended to stick with the same brand mid-pipe as your headers to ensure a perfect fit and a hassle free installation. Header/mid-pipe combos will bolt up to any stock or aftermarket cat-back exhaust, giving you endless exhaust options!

BBK Ceramic, Tuned Length Shorty Headers for 2011-2014 GTs
Ceramic, Tuned Length Shorty Headers for 2011-2014s

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 the separate pipes on an equal length set of headers are contoured in such a way that all four pipes converge into one pipe while having the same length. This option is beneficial due to allowing an equal exhaust flow through the header to the mid-pipes.

Equal length headers will give the car more power over their unequal length counter parts. 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.

Underside of a Mustang with Long Tube Headers
Long Tubes Installed

When are Long Tube Headers Worth Adding?

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 due 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 combining 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.

  • Installing long tube headers on your Mustang will considerably increase the car's power and sound by allowing exhaust gasses to flow more freely. 
  • Long tube headers will improve sound quality and can give your engine up to 20-30 RWHP, depending on your setup and other supporting modifications
  • Long tube headers are available in either chrome, polished, or ceramic finishes
  • With the long tube headers, it is necessary to modify your mid-pipe
  • To maximize the full performance of this upgrade, you will want a Bama custom tune to recalibrate your Mustang’s computer
BBK Chromed 2011-2017 Mustang GT Long Tube Headers
Chromed 2011-2017 GT 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 (such as a short x-pipe or h-pipe). 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 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) Long tube 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.

2011-2014 GT & Boss Twin Turbocharger Kit with Stainless Steel Headers
2011-2014 Twin Turbo Kit with Stainless Steel Headers

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 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.

Choosing Your Mustang's Header Coating

Ceramic--when it comes to the most expensive yet longest lasting set of pipes, ceramic headers are worth the upfront cost. 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. If you are looking for the best of the best, you want to go this route without question. They have the most favorable corrosion resistant characteristics and reduce under hood temperatures more than any other finish on the market which results in maximum horsepower and extended life for your headers.

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 high 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. Not rated as highly as ceramic, yet not as expensive in most cases still offers rust protection if applied correctly. If your main goal is looking good with a side of performance, these are the headers for you. They offer show quality styling that can be buffed regularly. This finish exhibits a mild cooling effect, keeping engine temps down and increases overall horsepower.

Chromed V6 Mustang Shorty Headers
Chromed Shorty Headers for V6 Mustangs

​Stainless Steel--Stainless steel headers are very beneficial. While they don't dissipate heat as well as ceramic, they will not chip and have no issues with rust. They last longer than the life of the car itself and can retain most of the original appearance with cleaning. The primary con to having stainless steel headers is the upfront initial cost which can be substantially higher than rival ceramic headers.

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 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 does not. California created the CARB (basically a state version of the EPA with harsher regulations). CARB has mandated the location of catalytic converters must not be changed.

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

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

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 four (or three for the V6 folks) 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 more (and complicated) variables at play.

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.

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. Too large of 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, and it's also possible for the engine to suck some of the exhaust back into the cylinder head since 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.

2015-2017 GT 1-3/4" Off-Road Long Tube Headers
S550 GT 1-3/4" Long Tube Headers

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 result 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 affects 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.

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.

VIDEO: 2015-2016 Mustang 1-7/8" Long Tube, Off-Road Headers Review

Custom Tuning with New Headers

To utilize the full performance power of a new set of headers, you will also need a custom tune to recalibrate your Mustang’s computer (ECU). This will clean up air/fuel ratios and optimize your power gains. Using a 93 octane race tune combined with these exhaust mods and a CAI, you have the potential of gains of 40-55 HP!

There are lots of decisions to be made when doing exhaust modifications to your Mustang. You really can’t go wrong no matter which path you choose. Just remember, you will need the same brand shorty mid-pipe when installing long tube headers and you can use any brand cat-back of your choice. The required tune for your new powerful beast will sweeten the deal, transferring all available HP and TQ gains hidden within your 'Stang to the pavement.

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