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What engine is a Barra?

Haltech’s Scott Hilzinger walks us through the Barra’s history and development, which actually started back in the 1960s. “The Barra 6 was manufactured in Australia between 2002 and 2016 in Victoria, at the Geelong Engine Plant,” Hilzinger explains. The name “Barra” is actually the shortening of the name of a fish, much like “‘ Cuda” is. “It’s named after an Australian fish called ‘Barramundi’, not the Barracuda,” clarifies Hilzinger. While being named after a sea bass doesn’t immediately conjure up predatory images, in no way does that diminish the ferocity of this engine.

“The Barra can trace its roots back to the 2.4-litre (144 cubic inches) ‘Thriftpower 6’ from the North American 1959 Ford Falcon,” says Hilzinger. From there, the six-cylinder design was modified by Ford Australia and evolved into the iron-headed Cross Flow engine of the 1970s, the aluminium-head Cross Flow engine of the 1980s, and then the single overhead cam I-6 that came on the scene in the late ’80s and carried through until 2002.

While discontinued in 2016, in its 14-year run, it was available in a number of configurations with a wide array of performance characteristics. “It was available in both naturally aspirated and turbocharged configurations,” Hilzinger says. “They ranged from 209 horsepower in the LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) taxicab version to 436 horsepower in the FGX XR6 Turbocharged Sprint edition. That even had an ‘over-boost’ feature, which increased power to 496 horsepower for up to 10 seconds at a time.”

Japan was long seen as the home of high-performance turbo six-cylinder engines, while companies like BMW made building in-line sixes an art form. But Ford of Australia blew everyone away on July 1, 2002, when they unleashed the Barra 4.0-litre in-line six on the world.

The Ford Barra engine has become a hot topic on the Internet today as ‘Barra’ has become a byword for serious power and performance. Barra is short for Barramundi, a fierce Aussie fish and perfect codename the Aussie engineers used when developing the engines for the all-new BA-series Ford Falcon, including the 5.4-litre three-valve V8s.

But the famous Barras is the in-line six cylinders. Representing the culmination of 43 years of development of the straight-six, Ford Australia’s new-age six brought the BA-series Fords into the 21st Century with a bang. And had local rival Holden on the run, trouncing even its imported Chevy LS1 V8s!

Sporting twin overhead camshafts in an alloy head, with four valves per cylinder and variable cam timing, sitting on a 4.0-litre bottom-end, even the base Barra produced 182kW. Gas-only (LPG) motors initially produced 156kW, upgraded in 2011 to 198kW, which made it more powerful than even the last naturally aspirated 195kW 4.0L petrol engines.

The twin-cam engines made the BA-BF-series Falcons, Fairlanes, and Territory SUVs smoother, more efficient, better sounding, and much nicer to drive. But the hot news in 2002 was an all-new turbocharged, intercooler high-performance Barra making 240kW on introduction, but eventually producing 325kW in the final high-performance six-cylinder Aussie Falcon, the 2016 FG-X XR6 Sprint.

Both turbo and NA Barra-sixes sport a 3984cc displacement, running a sturdy iron block that makes the Barra engine very boost-friendly. It doesn’t help with engine weight, and that is one key problem of the platform– Barra engine weight.

Common Ford Barra engine problems also include oil pump gears and valve springs failing, but they are generally considered to be exceptionally robust motors which is one reason they’re beloved for engine swap jobs. There are Barra motors now fitted to classic Aussie Fords, Mustang muscle cars, or Patrol and LandCruiser 4x4s.

Companies like South Australia’s Tuff Mounts, or Victoria’s Castlemaine Rod Shop, or Sydney’s RRS all offer ways to fit the mighty Barra into cars which were never fitted with them from the factory, including Holdens and even the legendary Chevy Camaro muscle car from America!

There are numerous reconditioned Barra turbo six engines producing more than 1000hp (745kW) as their blocks are super-strong and the general engine design very efficient. Added to this there are a lot of Barra conversion kits available to put them into other cars, and although you can’t find Ford Barra crate engines as easily as some V8s, they are incredibly cheap to buy second-hand – some motors can be had for under $100!

Don’t think these cheap engines are junk. Finding a Barra engine for sale under $100 and ready to have a turbocharger fitted is a common way to make an ordinary cheap Falcon seriously fast. One issue can be fitting the huge motor into cars it was never offered in as the Ford Barra engine dimensions are much longer, wider, and taller than other, smaller, turbo six engines from Japan.

Early turbo Barras features a compression ratio of 8.7:1, although some high-performance models used 8.8:1 (8.47:1 in the Barra 310T), while non-turbo motors ranged from 9.7:1 up to 10.3:1. These specs are important as the lower numbers help engines handle boost-pressure from turbos, saving the need to buy a more expensive turbo engine.

The last word surely has to go to Gordon Barfield, the engineer in charge of turbocharging the Barra six. “I named the [turbo motor] ‘Gull’, as in ‘Seagull’, because we knew it was going to [crap] on everything.”

Barras isn’t just stupidly capable with a built bottom end either. A factory-bottom-end XR6 Turbo will run nines with just head studs, valve springs and fuel system upgrades. Our turbo Taxi full-weight FG Falcon ran 11.0 on a weaker stock-bottom-end LPG motor and running on LPG fuel. It went 12.0 on just a factory aspirated petrol Barra – the weakest of all the Barra motors.

Because the Barra was only offered in Australia, it doesn’t have the huge aftermarket support of something like an LS engine where you can get a Dart or similar strengthened aftermarket block, or even the 2JZ and RB-series six-cylinders. However, interest in the Barra has been growing in America, and that’s only set to increase with cars like the Mighty Car Mods Cresta and Ben Paganoni’s FPV F6 ute competing in Hot Rod Drag Week this year.

Haltech has also recently released a plug-and-play ECU for Barra-powered Falcons, which controls all of the car’s ordinary functions while providing the tuning scope of a traditional Haltech ECU. Another Australian company big into Barra tuning is Plazmaman, which makes everything from stunning intake manifolds to valve springs, intercoolers and pipework.

Sick of LS V8s? The Barra straight-six Is The Swap For You

If your build is wanting for power and has to room for an upgrade (and sometimes even if it doesn’t), an LS V8 is usually the go-to. But what if you don’t want the obvious option? What if you need to stand out?

The answer comes in six-cylinder, easily turbocharged form from Ford Australia. The Barra straight-six.

Sort of like an Australian 2JZ, the Barra is a workhorse engine with enough simplicity to make it easy to work with, but enough capacity to turn it into a monster with the right accoutrements. Reengineered from earlier sixes for the BA generation of the Falcon and used through the end of Australian Ford production in 2016, the engine is at once robust and thoroughly modern, new and wrenchers in Australia are already singing its praises as one of the best swaps out there. Now it’s time for you to get acquainted.

Displacing four litres in stock form, the Barra (short for Barramundi, not Barracuda or the CEO of GM) is a stout straight-six that went into the Ford Falcon and Territory. Sure, there were wheezy LPG versions for cabbies and sedate versions for station wagons and utes, but cars like the Falcon XR6 would get a lot of juice from them. More than 430 horsepower in the most puffed-up iteration, in fact. That’s serious power, especially if it’s going to go into something like a Fox-body mustang.

But the real draw of the Barra isn’t what it can do stock. It’s what bolts on. The durable block is capable of turbocharging to upwards of 600 horsepower when done right, even with the stock bottom end. Change that up, and you can find yourself close to 1000 horsepower if you’re careful. Coming out of a smooth straight-six, that sounds like the perfect antidote to LS fatigue, right?

If you’re going to mod an engine, especially one from another market, it would be great to have some community support too. Luckily, there’s an active Facebook group that’s got advice and help with wiring harnesses, ECU flashes, and all sorts of other crucial stuff that might be a little beyond the reach of many wrenchers. The crew seems pretty nice, too, which is more than you can say about many communities out there on Zuckerberg’s farm.

Most of the Barra swaps I’ve seen online are into cars designed for the quarter-mile, and the results largely speak for themselves. Have a look at this XE Falcon sleeper, this F100 pickup, this Fox-body, or the Cresta build in the video above. The engine seems right at home on the drag strip, and I think it would be an interesting challenger to bring to American competition by someone trying to come out of leftfield.

If the strip isn’t your goal, the Barra still could be a choice swap anyway. The dudes at Tuff Mounts who built the Fox-body linked above have a kit coming to make the motor basically slide right into those Mustangs (and likely any other Fox-body model), perfect for the street, autocross, or making a terrible mess leaving cars and coffee. And if a Fox-body isn’t your thing, check out this list of other swaps people have done. There are lots of options out there.

Of course, there are one or two drawbacks I can’t omit. The Barra isn’t small. It’s long and tall, so some engine bays aren’t going to accept it without some architectural changes (oftentimes involving a shallower oil pan to keep things within clearance). Also, this was an Australia-and New Zealand-only motor, so while they’re plentiful down there, getting them (and the inevitable spares) up and out to America or Europe could be a pain.

Still, for someone looking for an alternative to the usual swaps, the Barra is a ringer. It’s smooth, it can take pretty much all the turbocharging you can throw at it, and it sounds excellent too. I’d love to see some more of them up here, and I think you’d probably agree.

Key Points to Look for When Buying a Barra

Right, about now, you’re probably thinking: yep, I need me an XR6 Turbo. The catch is, of course, that you’ll be buying a car that somebody else has thrashed before you. That said, they’re pretty damn tough, and there’s a wealth of knowledge out there that can predict what’s going to go bang.

Pretty much any XR6 Turbo with its share of kays on board will almost certainly be ready for new spark plugs and coils unless the seller can show you proof that these have been done recently, budget for replacements. The factory iridium spark plugs cost a bomb, but the hack is to use a ‘normal’ plug and re-gap it a bit smaller. But when it comes to coil-packs, the experts we talked to reckon the ones with the factory part numbers are the only way to go.

All XR6Ts are hard on their diff bushes, too, so check them for play and check the service book. Ideally, the previous head-banger has changed the oil and filter at 10,000km intervals, not the 15,000 ones listed in the handbook. Sludgy oil can eventually block the oil feed to the turbocharger, which then starves and fails.

Early XR6Ts experienced the odd piston failure, but it was rare, and running changes fixed it. Valve springs were also a bit underdone in those early cars, and intake gaskets could fail. A lot of cars were left with no go when the cam-angle sensor wire in behind the cylinder head got cooked over time, became brittle and snapped. It’s a common fault. Stock brakes on the XR6T were seriously underdone and would warp on a warm day. Aftermarket replacements are needed.

The six-speed automatic introduced with the BF can cause a few headaches, too. Apparently, sand and swarf from the engine-block casting process can find its way into the car’s cooling system and shot-peen the thin transmission cooling pipes. At that point, coolant gets into the transmission ruining the bearings and the electronics. Not good.

Centre-bearings in the tail-shaft was always a bit of a problem, too, but the fusion-welded tail-shaft that came in with the FG model is also a bit prone to twisting. A conventionally welded replacement tail-shaft from an earlier model is the go. The FG’s turbo pipe was also notoriously thin in places (due to core-shift in the casting process). The world is full of viable replacements.

Why do Australians love the barra engine so much?

Exclusively manufactured in Australia from 2002-2016, the ‘Barra’ is a straight-six engine developed by Ford Australia, although some three-valve V8s were also given the Barra name. These engines were first built to be shoehorned into the Ford Falcon, a Mondeo-esque saloon that would become a true Aussie legend.

The inline-six Barras is actually a development of a single overhead cam straight-six from the eighties, with the additions being another camshaft and variable valve timing to keep up with the engineering trends of the time. The VVT systems on these engines made for a hike in power over the previous Falcon engines, with the lowest power output of the DOHC units being in the region of 210bhp.

That power output was from the Barra 182, a 4.0-litre straight-six that featured a cast-iron block, an aluminium cylinder head, Ford’s custom variable cam timing (VCT), drive-by-wire and four valves per cylinder. These upgrades over the previous Ford Intech engine also gave any Barra-wielding car a jump over its main rivals, the chief among them being the lower-spec Holden Commodores.

At the top of the Barra, the range was the turbocharged 325T FGX Sprint. With a much more impressive output of 420bhp, this engine was placed in the Falcon FGX XR6 Turbo Sprint that was capable of reaching 60mph in 4.5 seconds thanks to a 10-second overboost system.

The main attraction of these engines is torque as the Barras manage to pull nice and hard from low down in the rev range. The torque figures actually outweigh the power figures in most of the Barra engines, with the turbocharged variants creating as much as 425lb ft from just 2750rpm.

The second factor that makes these units so popular is that intrinsically a straight-six is a balanced engine. The pistons move in-tandem with their mirror image on the other side of the block, meaning that the reciprocating forces balance out nicely, without the need for balancing shafts or counterweights.

Barras is also a fantastic base from which to tune from, with many people either turbocharging NA units or simply replacing the stock turbochargers for something with a bit more meat on the bone.

The main thing to watch out for however is the connecting rods and valve springs, as these are generally the first things to go once the engine is tuned up to any decent forms of stress.

Sadly, these engines that advanced Ford Australia into the 21st Century have now been discontinued along with the Falcon, with the subdivision calling it quits in 2013 and wrapping Barra manufacture up by the end of last year.

Despite the plug being pulled, these straight-sixes are coveted down-under and are right up there with the Nissan RB, Toyota JZ and BMW S54 in terms of performance and tunability. So to all the Barras out there, DriveTribe salutes you.

Aussies reading this are probably thinking, ‘You plonker, Barras has been around for ages and were just as good when they had a single-cam head.’ I guess it’s probably Australia’s best-kept secret or sort of. I mean, a lot of tuners here in Japan have known about the Barra, but as always they have just been far too slow to jump on it and actually try something different. But the Aussies love to experiment, especially when there’s the potential for big horsepower.

Matt, our resident Sydneysider, has a story on an R32 Nissan Skyline GTS-t that’s traded its RB20DET for a Barra coming up next month, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a quick spotlight on this mundane-looking X70 series Toyota Cresta that I found in the World Time Attack Challenge paddock. It was put together by the guys at Mighty Car Mods (MCM).

Their idea was to create a 10-second sleeper, but they went about it in a very cool way, picking the base car up in Hokkaido for AU$2000, before driving it across Japan and then shipping it to Australia where the transformation took place.

The guys sourced the Barra engine and proceeded to upgrade it with the bare minimum components needed to perform reliably while being fed copious amounts of boost. That included the must-do valve spring upgrade, stronger head studs, new oil and water pumps, and an early-gen Barra oil pan with the well at the front to allow them to wedge the massive lump as far back as it would go in the Cresta’s engine bay.

With a bit of persuasion, they got it custom mounted and then set about fitting all the ancillary items including a Garrett turbo and a billet intake manifold running a massive single throttle body. Once the cooling side of the equation was sorted, an appropriate fuel system was pieced together, before a Haltech ECU was wired up to run it all.

For the transmission, a manually-shiftable Turbo 400 was chosen as it would offer the best performance for the strip. Further down the driveline is where the biggest modifications were carried out; the stock rear end was junked in favour of a custom ladder bar layout which required most of the rear floor to be cut out and a ton of custom fabrication work.

I could keep on talking about this build, but you can find out all the other details by hitting play on the video above.

The car made a solid 600hp at the wheels on the dyno and then went on to record a 9.97-second pass on the quarter-mile. Goal achieved, and a total testament to what a semi-stock Barra can be made to do.

OK, so the 2JZ is not quite dead, but keep this all to yourselves – we wouldn’t want everyone to jump on the Barra bandwagon just yet.

What Makes It So Great?

Obviously, any engine making almost 500 horsepower from the factory, let alone one with only six-cylinders, has to be pretty awesome, right? Considering it’s one of the most popular engine swaps in Australia, we’re not alone in that opinion.

“It’s the robustness of the engine that makes it such a great candidate for making big power, especially when boost is brought into the equation,” Hilzinger explains. “The later models are ideal for a huge turbo upgrade. With basic supporting mods, 600 at the rear tires on a stock bottom end is achievable.” That was the number achieved during the Mighty Car Mods’ Toyota Cresta project, which resulted in 9.90-second quarter-mile etc.

Also, because of the under square design and large displacement, the engine makes respectable torque numbers with a very useful powerband. “They make torque from low-down in the rev range, creating as much as 425 lb-ft from 2,600 rpm,” says Hilzinger. “With a built motor, 1000 horsepower at the rear wheels isn’t too big of a task from the engine. The Dyno-Mite Performance Barra-powered drag car, makes over 2,000 horsepower and spins to over 10,000 rpm, and still uses the factory block and cylinder head.”

Getting away from Barra-specific benefits, and wandering into the land of general engine theory and design, the Barra also enjoys the benefits inherent to a straight-six platform. “The straight-six itself is a very well balanced design,” says Hilzinger. “The pistons move in tandem with their mirror images on the other side of the block, causing the reciprocating forces to balance out nicely without the need for balance shafts or large counterweights.”

Nobody Is Perfect

With all these awesome attributes, you might be asking why you might not have heard about this engine before now. Well, the first, and potentially largest drawback, is that they were never offered for sale outside of Australia and New Zealand. While they are quite abundant in that locale, they are practically unheard in either direction across the ocean.

Because of that, it will never enjoy quite the support of the aftermarket like its main competitors, the Nissan RB series, and the Toyota 2JZ series, both of which were offered for sale in Australia, along with the US, in the case of the 2JZ. What Barra aftermarket does exist, is largely based in Australia, more or less clipping the engine’s wings and confining it to the continent.

Another drawback is the physical size of the engine itself. “It’s long, it’s tall, and it’s heavy,” Hilzinger says. However, in spite of those deficits, the Ford Barra Engine has become one of the most popular engines to swap into performance cars in the land down under, and for a good reason.

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