Halo Horsepower Heaven
Donning safety vests and goggles, and we enter the main floor of the sprawling, Romeo Engine Plant. Remaining vigilant to stay within the painted safety path, we follow Manufacturing Engineer Brad Omaits through the 2,043,778 square-foot facilities. The building is eerily quiet, as the 2.3- and 6.2-liter engine parts aren’t running down the line. That is of little concern. We are on the way to a special place — a place where dreams are constructed.
It’s not that other areas of the company don’t build cool stuff, but there is a place where the company’s elite technicians build the company’s most precision, high-output powerplants. Since 1996, when it was created to build the Four-Valve 4.6-liter V8 powering the Mustang Cobra, the Niche Line remains the place where the Blue Oval’s elite eight-cylinder engines are assembled. From the Terminator to the Trinity and the GT350 to the first-gen Ford GT, the Niche Line is the birthplace of legends.
Despite its stature as the Valhalla of factory horsepower, the Niche Line is a truly hidden gem. As we snaked through the main plant, we saw what many think of when the term “assembly line.” It seemed there were miles of automated machinery designed to put engines together. As we rounded a corner, there was an unassuming storage cabin plastered with stickers, some of which you might see on a racer’s toolbox. On the door next to the cabinet, an ordinary sign hangs. It reads “Niche Line.”
As the door swings open, there is a small break room and upon exiting this sanctuary, visitors are greeted with a group of engines built on this line in the past all the way up to the present. Clear and present are several 760-horsepower 5.2-liter Predator V8s — the impetus for this visit.
The walls of the room are lined with pieces of the engines that power the 2020 Shelby GT500, while the oblong, 21-station assembly line is setup for engines to start from a bare block and orbit around to a complete, fully inspected engine ready to power Ford’s halo Mustang.
While this wasn’t our first rodeo on this line, there are some significant changes that debuted alongside the arrival of the Predator engine. Where the line was once made up of dedicated builders constructing one engine, the Niche Line now splits time between the cross-plane Predator engine and its flat-plane Voodoo cousin.
And, no longer are there two builders, but one builder supported by several stations along the way prepping various pieces of hardware. The support team is made up of other builders, who will rotate between builder and support roles throughout the week. The presence of two engines and two sets of protocols required a completely revamped human-machine interface process, so the line received upgraded software by Controls Engineer Dan Rhein, new barcode scanners, fresh computer screens, and state-of-the-art rundown tools.
This visit took place on the third week of Predator builds, which meant the Voodoo parts were stored in another room to eliminate any chance of confusion and all the stations were labeled and set up for Predator construction.
Both engines benefit from freshly modernized, computerized tools that measure and catalog every step of the build, ensuring the process is followed to exacting standards. However, there is still a human element of feel brought by the builders who know every nuance of these engines.
In all, the mere idea that a massive entity like Ford would operate a compact, boutique engine assembly line for its most potent engines is one of the most underappreciated aspects of the company, and working on this line is a goal of many at the Romeo Engine Plant, but only those who have the top experience and skill get the nod, and they build a complete supercharged 5.2-liter engine in under 210 minutes.
The preponderance of the Niche Line builders are enthusiasts at heart, so they take pride in creating engines that will power some of the company’s most coveted machines. Knowing how much customers will enjoy their efforts makes the task more than just a job.
“I can’t believe I work for a company that let’s me put my name on its products,” Niche Line builder James Williams, who we followed through the process, enthused.
We’d have to agree, it is unbelievable, so next time you peek under the hood of a Shelby GT500 or GT500, make note of that plaque on the engine stamped with the builder’s name. These engines bring new meaning to the company’s ‘Built Ford Proud’ slogan.