Today, Ford’s making hay with a turbocharged, direct-injected six-cylinder engines in its trucks, which is amazing to consider when it couldn’t sell a turbocharged Mustang 30 years ago. Sometimes an idea like cylinder deactivation, all-wheel drive, or a turbocharged Ford Mustang SVO is just way ahead of its time.
American performance cars were all but deceased in the late 1970s when an exciting, lightweight, European-styled, third-generation Mustang was under development. It had a lot of promise, but in the first two years of Fox Mustang production – 1979 and 1980 – The 302-cu.in. V8 produced a disheartening 140hp…
…aaaand then it got worse.
Following the second oil crisis in 1979, Ford dropped the 302 entirely for a version of the same engine, but with smaller cylinder bores adding up to just 4.2 liters of displacement, mustering just 120 phlegmatic horsepower.
At the outset, the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine was the middle of the road, offering some remnants of performance while providing better fuel economy than the V8. But with the debut of the awful 4.2-liter V8, suddenly the Pinto’s 2.3-liter turbocharged, carbureted four-cylinder engine available since 1979 was just as powerful as the “performance engine” in the Mustang lineup.
To shift as much emphasis as possible from “economical” to “powerful,” Ford formed an entire new division called Special Vehicle Operations (SVO), which was charged with turning the turbo-four Mustang into something that could challenge the likes of the European imports.
The Mustang SVO featured Bosch fuel injection with EEC-IV (Electronic Engine Control), along with an air-to-air intercooled turbocharger that boosted power well beyond that of the available V8 to 175hp. The car got a switch on the dash to select which grade of fuel you chose to fill the tank, and a Hurst shifter was standard, later shifting the soon-to-be-industry-standard Borg-Warner five-speed manual. Power increased to 205hp, and then dipped slightly to 200 the final year of production in 1986, thanks to water cooling and 15 pounds of boost.
They key to the Mustang SVO wasn’t just turbocharging, though. The intent was to produce a car that handled and braked as well as it left a stoplight. The Mustang SVO had a revised front suspension geometry, 15:1 ratio rack and pinion steering, ventilated four-wheel disc brakes, Koni adjustable struts and “Quad” shocks in the rear, 16-inch wheels and a unique aero appearance. Many of the upgrades wouldn’t appear on the Mustang GT for a decade.
The car’s appearance also signaled the direction the Mustang, and the rest of Ford’s lineup, was heading. The Mustang SVO front end attempted to cheat the wind, but wouldn’t realize its full potential until the late 1985 models, when DOT regulations finally allowed for the use of aero headlamps in place of the sealed beams on the 1984 and early 1985 models.
Even the tires were an upgrade over the rest of the line. The Mustang SVO got sticky, high-quality 16-inch Goodyear tires. When the SVO debuted, the Mustang GT wore Michelin TRX radials on goofy-sized metric wheels, the most universally loathed standard fitment wheel and tire combination ever produced, often referred to as the “Betamax of the tire industry.”
With all this great equipment and attention to detail – much of which eventually made its way to the Mustang GT – why don’t you see Mustang SVOs all over the place? Why did this particular Mustang variant only make up three percent of Mustang production in its best year, and just under two percent the three years it was produced?
Most significantly, the price killed it. A fully loaded Mustang SVO was $6,000 more than a comparable GT. You could justify the added cost when you were comparing it to a GT that was pushing out 120hp, but by the end of the SVO’s run, the GT was delivering the same horsepower, with the low rumble of a V8 through the dual exhaust.
Then think about the average Mustang GT customer: With all due respect, your average GT owner circa 1985 wasn’t exactly James Bond.
From every angle, the Mustang SVO was restrained, mature, sophisticated and (gasp) European. From the aero styled front end, to the XR4Ti-esque twin-spoiler, it suggested composure, finesse and savoir faire.
Your average Mustang GT owner thought “sophistication” was wearing a tuxedo T-shirt before laying down a stinky burnout in the American Legion parking lot.
The SVO was a car ahead of its time, and working well out of its pay grade. Aside from a few early hiccups, it wasn’t reliability that made it a flop, it was its core audience, which ironically made the entire Mustang line such a success.
Image Source: OldCarBrochures.com