It’s Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away: The History of the Ford 351 Cleveland

It’s Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away: The History of the Ford 351 Cleveland

1969 not only marked the end of a decade virtually unparalleled in modern history, but it also marked the beginning of the end of an era in motorcar history: the American Muscle car. While American automakers still churn out sports cars today, never again will we see the likes of those muscle machines made back in the day.

With the end of the 60s also came the end of the devil-may-care attitude consumers and insurance companies had towards the gas-guzzling “death traps” manufactured in America. While the reign of muscle cars as we knew it at the time was on its demise, they were not bowing out of contingency gracefully. No, they were going down swinging.

In 1969, Ford began marketing its last great muscle car engine that would debut in 1970: the 351 Cleveland. Releasing what would be one of its most extensive marketing campaigns to date, Ford let the buying public know what was coming down the pike: an engine so big and powerful that they had to build an entire edition onto Ford’s Cleveland plant to house what Ford was about to throw down. A machine for the new decade was on its way, and muscle car enthusiasts were ready for it.

The 1970 351 Cleveland

Wanting to usher in the new decade with a completely revolutionary engine, Ford decided that even though the well-loved 351 Windsor line wasn’t broken, they were still going to fix it.

Bringing plenty of horses to the party, 300 to be exact, the 351 Cleveland was not just more compact than its predecessor. This bad boy was virtually different in every way.

The cylinder block was low and wide. The air intake was revolutionary, allowing it to breathe in and exhale with all it had, keeping the engine cooler in the process. A new exhaust manifold promoted a quicker warm-up time. A lightweight crankshaft was also another of the Cleveland’s fine selling points.

The Cleveland 351 came in two versions: a base model with a 2-barrel carburetor and a performance version with 4-barrels featuring a closed combustion chamber.

As cars became larger, their engines needed to keep up with the change in times. The 351 Cleveland was a great fit in vehicles like the big-bodied Gran Torino, offering a small-block V8 that was ready to show up and show off.

While readily found in other cars at the time, including the Mercury Cougar XR7, the 351 Cleveland found its true home in a pony: the Mustang. In the Mustang, this engine shined.

The Cost to Be the Boss

The following year, the 351 Cleveland had its shining moment in its short-lived days of glory. While the 1971 Mustang came in multiple incarnations, from the basic model to some of the highest performance found on the road, there was only one version of the Boss. And it featured the 351C. This version of the 351 Cleveland was the hottest to roll off the assembly line and delivered performance seldom seen before or since.

Featuring higher compression, an improved intake manifold, and a modified cylinder head giving it lots of room to breathe, the Boss 351 showed up to the races with 330 hp. Made from a lighter weight material than past models, the Boss provided more stability than earlier performance engines when revved up.

The Boss 351 was the playboy of the engine world in '71. Its extensive upgrades to the prior year's 351C had the Boss 351 primed to be the next great performance engine of its time. Ford cranked out just under 2,000 of them, making their proud owners the envy of every carpooling poppa in the country. Longevity was almost a given for the Cleveland. Almost.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

The Cleveland 351 held on for a couple of more years. 1972 brought about more changes to the engine. But this time, those changes were more about meeting emissions standards than boosting performance. Its horsepower was diminished from the proud 330 of the Boss 351 to a paltry 275 hp.

In 1973, the latest version of the 351C, like a once wild stallion, was broken and bridled, stripping it of almost all that made it the raw piece of machinery that rocked the muscle car world just a few short years before. And with 1973 also came the oil crisis. It was all over but the crying for the great American muscle car. There was no going back.

The Cleveland 351 made its last stand in 1974 and was heard from no more.

The Cleveland 351: The Legend Lives On

Though the reign of the Cleveland 351 was short-lived, these engines are still highly sought after by muscle car enthusiasts who are looking to add some magic to their cars.

This engine is thought of fondly by those who lived through the end of an era. The 351C made the cars grumble a bit louder. They made them run a bit faster. They flexed the final actual muscle in American muscle cars.

The Cleveland 351’s refusal to go quietly into that good night gives credence to the saying, “it’s better to burn out than fade away.”

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