Trying to keep the performance flame flickering in the late ’70s wasn’t easy. Big-cube, high-powered V-8s had been all but outlawed. Only a handful of smallblocks were still gimping along, their power output reduced to pathetic levels by emissions control and fuel economy considerations. Ford’s once-proud 302 V-8, for instance, had been reduced to a 120 horsepower embarrassment by the mid-late ’70s. And the Mustang legacy was free-falling into economy car hell.
While it would have been no problem, engineering-wise, to beef up the Mustang’s V-8 engine to respectable levels, the two-fisted stranglehold of OPEC and the EPA made that strategy a non-starter. But turbocharging a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine might be the road to high-performance salvation. On-demand power, with good economy the rest of the time. GM’s Buick division had been developing its 3.8 liter V-6 to work with a turbo to produce V-8 power with six-cylinder economy since about 1978. Ford engineers would soon take the Mustang down the same road, for the same reasons.
This redirection of thought about modern, post OPEC/mileage and emissions conscious-performance was the Genesis Point for what eventually became the Mustang SVO.
“SVO” was the acronym for Ford’s in-house tuner shop, the Special Vehicles Operation Department. It still exists today – even though the SVO Mustang has been gone for more than a quarter-century.
Formed in 1980 under the direction of ex-racer and Ford Europe motorsports honcho Michael Kranefuss, SVO’s original purpose was to develop high-performance/track-ready vehicles and parts to showcase Ford technology – with an eye toward possible production examples of those cars and parts.
Hints of what was to come could be seen in the initial batch of Ford SVO racing vehicles, such as the IMSA concept put together for the ’81 season – and in the very limited run of McLaren Mustangs, which featured highly turbocharged four-cylinder engines and a claimed output of 175 hp. Just 250 McLaren Mustangs were ever built – with a price tag of more than $25,000 each. Most were farmed out to professional racers, but conceptually, these cars helped establish the path for what eventually became the production model SVO Mustang in 1984.
The SVO Mustang would be American in style and attitude – but competitive with European sporty cars in terms of technology. That, of course, automatically ruled out the decades-old 5 liter, 302 cubic inch OHV V-8 used in the Mustang GT – with its simple layout, including four-barrel Holley carburetor that would be used through the mid-1980s. The Five-point-oh was an effective power-producer and a great muscle car engine – but it was about as subtle and sophisticated as an Andrew Dice Clay love poem.
Instead, SVO engineers turned their attention to the Ford 2.3 liter, 88-hp “Lima” four – an engine that had seen service in the lowly Pinto as well as countless other Ford vehicles, in both the European and North American markets. Envisioning this utilitarian sump pump as a credible performance engine took some long-distance vision, but SVO engineers were up to the task.
Like the earlier IMSA and Mclaren competition cars, a personality change was effected via high-boost turbocharging complemented by fuel injection and air-to-air intercooling – a technological Great Leap Forward for an American car during the early Reagan Years. There was even an adjustable boost control set-up for the AirResearch T03 turbo, which could develop as much as 14 psi, depending on available fuel quality. An “eek four” EEV IV engine processor controlled the whole works, with peak output registering at 175 hp. This was a big number for 1984 – near the top of the class for an American-made car – and dead even with the same-year Mustang GT’s 5.0 liter V-8, which also produced 175 hp.
But the GT’s 5.0 V-8 needed more than twice the 140 cubic inch SVO’s displacement to do it.
The first-year SVO’s performance was excellent: 0-60 capability of 7.7 seconds and mid-high 15s in the quarter mile through the standard Hurst-shifted 5-speed manual transmission, heavy-duty clutch and 3.45 geared Traction-Loc axle. It sounds slow today – and it is, compared with modern cars. But in 1984, a mid 7 second 0-60 run was quick.
The SVO also ran with the V-8 GT on the top end – both cars running solidly into the 130s, all out.
But the SVO (unlike the more blue collar GT) was always more than just a straight-line car. Indeed, one of the SVO team’s specific goals was to deliver a handler and braker as well as a runner. To that end, the SVO Mustang featured a suspension that was highly modified relative to the more conventional set-up used in the V-8 GT. Among the standout features were: Koni struts and shocks (pre-set to the “city” setting at the factory by Koni), a specially calibrated rack and pinion steering system with a fast-ratio box designed for the “on center” feel craved by enthusiast drivers, as well as 16-inch (and 5-lug) rims fitted with VR-rated (130-plus) 225/50-series Goodyear NCT tires designed specifically for the car. (Later cars would get Goodyear “Gatorbacks.”) All SVOs also came with high-capacity four-wheel disc brakes, too. Everything was set up to make full use of the SVO’s curb weight (and weight distribution) advantages relative to the V-8 GT, which like all traditional American muscle cars was nose heavy due to the 600 pound lump of cast iron sitting over its front axle centerline.
On the outside, SVOs stood apart with a unique front-end treatment capped off with grille-less beak and flush-mounted aero-style headlights; integrated foglights, functional off-center hood scoop which ducted outside air to the intercooler underneath, SVO-specific tail-lights (later adopted by the V-8 GT) and a “twin-deck” rear spoiler were also unique to this model.
Inside, there were Lear/Siglar sport buckets with side bolsters and pump-up lumbar supports, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gauge package with 18 psi boost gauge and an “illegal” 140 mph speedo that got around the federal law then in force at the time which required speedometers read no higher than 85 mph by simply leaving off the numerals once you got going faster than that. But the SVO’s speedo had non-numeric markers all the way to close to triple the double nickel – a nice touch of outlaw thinking at a time when few cars had any guts at all.
SVOs were loaded cars as they sat, too – with the few options one could order confined to a leather seat package and a sunroof. There was, however, a way to delete some of the car’s otherwise standard equipment via a Competition Prep package. Cars so ordered came through without the otherwise standard air conditioning, power windows, door locks and other amenities that added weight at the expense of maximum performance capability. No official performance numbers are available for the Competition Prep cars, but shaving several hundred pounds off the SVO’s weight should have translated into improved 0-60 and quarter-mile scores, possibly cutting the car’s time to 60 into the high six-second range.
Four exterior colors were available initially: Black, Dark Charcoal Metallic, Silver Metallic and Medium Canyon Red. The ’84 SVO’s interior, however, was only offered in one color – Charcoal.
Ford upped the ante considerably in mid-year 1985 – when the SVO’s engine was modified to produce 205 hp via an upgraded, water-cooled turbo capable of 15 psi of boost, a new intake manifold, 35-lb. per hour injectors (vs. 30 lbs. per hour the previous year), a freer-flowing exhaust system with dual mufflers and tailpipes – and a more capable EEV IV computer. The rear axle ratio was also more aggressive at 3.73:1, while the Koni shocks were now dialed in to the firmer “cross country” setting. Zero to 60 times dropped by almost half a second, to 7.2-7.3 seconds – while quarter-mile capability was closing in on 15 seconds flat.
Tuners were getting their cars into the 14s by adjusting the boost and other minor tweaks
The SVO’s handling was exceptional; vastly better than the GT’s. Many considering it the finest handling American-built car of its era. Autoweek magazine’s reviewers were especially effusive, writing: “All we can say after driving both [the BMW 320i and the Mustang SVO] is, ‘No contest’ and ‘Congratulations SVO’.”
Without doubt, the SVO Mustang was a daring, impressive package – particularly for Ford; but two inter-related factors conspired to strangle this high-tech hot rod in its crib.
The first was the SVO’s sphincter-tightening price tag of $15,970 (for the inaugural year ’84 model). This was almost $6,000 more than the base price of the just-as-fast V-8 GT that year.
Perhaps if the SVO had offered a clear straight-line performance advantage, the extra $6k Ford was asking might have gone over. But the typical Mustang buyer wasn’t about to pony up a sum sufficient to hot-rod his V-8 GT into a 400 horsepower street terror and leave plenty left over for gas and insurance for a turbo car that wasn’t any quicker than a V-8 GT in showroom stock condition.
The second – and ultimately fatal – problem for the SVO and turbo performance cars in general was the resurgence of the tried-and-true V-8 as the powerplant of choice for latter-day American muscle cars like the Mustang and similar models from GM such as the Chevy Camaro Z28, Monte Carlo SS and Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am. By incorporating the same computer-controlled carbs (and later, port fuel injection) along with overdrive transmissions that helpd the turbo engines deliver decent gas mileage as well as high-performance, an old school V-8’s gas mileage could be brought within acceptable parameters – and its emissions kept in check, too. Add into this mix the inherently simpler – and thus less expensive to produce – layout of the cast iron/pushrod V-8 vs. the high-strung/high RPM turbo/intercooled four and it’s easy to see why more than 32,000 buyers opted for the standard GT in 1984 while only 4,508 lined up for the SVO.
As the GT’s power increased in ’85 to 210 (and later 225-hp), the SVO’s market was further cut out from underneath it. Very predictably, Ford cashiered the model after just two years of production. The final ’86 year SVOs were basically carryovers, with the only difference between them and the previous year SVOs being a downrating of the official hp number to 200 from 205, due to fuel quality issues and the addition of the newly mandated Center High Mounted third brake light being added to the rear spoiler.
Approximately 3,982 SVOs left the line that final year – bringing total SVO production to just under 10,000 examples, all told.
The turbo’s brief moment in the sun was over; it was back to the future for Ford – and to the 5-liter OHV V-8 engine, which remained in production all the way to the mid-1990s (before being replaced by a more up-to-date overhead cam V-8.
As a historical footnote, there was solid evidence Ford had been toying with a DOHC/16-valve versionof the 2.3 liter engine for what might have been the ’87 SVO – which was reportedly producing as much as 275 hp. But it never went further than in-house design and engineering studies. As gas prices dropped to cheaper-than-bottled-water levels and the economy surged upward on the Internet and Dotcom boom, V-8s became the favored choice – and the stars of the Mustang lineup.
But the SVO’s memory lingers as an interesting moment in the Mustang’s history – and a reminder of how different the Mustang might be today had gas prices stayed high and development work on the turbo engine continued. Buick’s 3.8 V-6 was making close to 300 hp by the late ’80s and surely Ford’s four would have been in the same ballpark, had it been allowed to live. Carrying several hundred pounds ess deadweight, a 280-300 hp SVO would likely have been capable of high five second 0-60 runs and low 13 second quarter miles – along with close to 30 MPGs.
Ah, what might have been!
Excerpted from “Doomed,” by Eric Peters. Preliminary release date summer 2012.