Whether or not you were around to experience it, those familiar with the era all seem to agree that the 1980s was a weird time. Not just in terms of automotive performance, but in general. While the latter part of that assertion has made for countless books on the subject, we’re going to focus on the former – specifically Ford performance.
Compared to the GT, the SVO flew under the performance radar of many enthusiasts, as its subtler body kit and offset hood scoop gave the SVO’s visual aesthetic a rather non-traditional look that was somewhat polarizing.
By traditional standards, the Fox body Mustang GT was Ford’s muscle car of the time, and with its light weight and incredibly healthy selection of aftermarket modifications to choose from, the 5.0-liter pushrod V8 was a performance icon of the time. But in 1984, Ford unveiled another performance variant of the Mustang, called the SVO, which stood for Special Vehicle Operations. And while the SVO sported half the cylinders of the GT model, the model’s turbocharged four cylinder mill made essentially identical power to that of the naturally aspirated V8.
As fuel economy and emissions regulations continue to tighten, we’re currently seeing a bit of a turbocharging renaissance in modern performance cars. And the Mustang EcoBoost – which sports a turbocharged four cylinder power plant – can trace its lineage back to the SVO. With that in mind, we’re taking a look back at what made this idea such a compelling package to begin with.
Innovation Through Necessity
While skyrocketing insurance premiums, tightening government regulations, and the Arab Oil Embargo all contributed to the death of the first muscle car era by the mid-1970s, the automotive industry was still reeling from the blow well into the following decade.
While it might’ve lacked the grunt and sense of occasion that performance enthusiasts yearned for when it debuted, the third generation Mustang did have one key feature above and beyond the outgoing car: It was not a gussied up Pinto. Image: Ford
After tossing the Pinto-based Mustang II in the dumpster, Ford sought to reclaim some of their former performance glory with the introduction of the third generation Mustang in 1979. But engineers were still struggling to figure out how to maintain federal compliance while offering legitimate performance, and the top-spec motor offered in the Fox body Mustang’s inaugural year was a 5.0-liter Windsor V8 making an anemic 140 horsepower.
While the majority of the drivetrain offered in the new Mustang carried over from the Mustang II, one new engine also debuted – a turbocharged version of the 2.3-liter inline four cylinder, which made 132 horsepower, or about fifty percent more power than the naturally aspirated version of the 2.3 offered. It came within spitting distance of the V8, and Ford looked to this offering to usher in a new era of domestic performance, offering the four cylinder models with up-rated suspension and tires.
In 1979, another oil crisis prompted Ford to drop the 5.0 for the 1980 and ’81 model years entirely. It was replaced by a 4.2-liter V8 (which was essentially a detuned five-liter) that made 120 horsepower – the lowest power ever offered on a V8 Mustang.
A second oil crisis that stuck in 1979 hit the V8-powered Mustang GT particularly hard. By 1982, Ford had put the 5.0-liter V8 on the shelf and replaced it with a 4.2-liter version of the motor that made a yawn-inducing 120 horsepower.
Suddenly the turbocharged four cylinder motor started a look a lot more appealing on the options sheet. Though reliability problems were rampant with the first batch of turbocharged 2.3-liter engines – which led the company to drop the engine from the lineup for the 1982 model year in order to further develop it – Ford was determined to revitalize their performance division.
As part of that initiative, in the fall of 1981 Ford formed the Special Vehicle Operations division, which was assembled to oversee both the company’s motorsports efforts as well as the development of limited edition high performance street cars using technology derived from the racing program.
In 1982, two Mustang SVO prototypes competed in the 24 hour endurance road race at the Nelson Ledges track in Ohio, where they went up against the likes of the Datsun 280ZX Turbo, Triumph TR-7, and Alfa Romeo Veloce.
The following year a group of SVO engineers built two Mustang SVO prototypes. Designed to compete in the IMSA endurance racing series, these four cylinder Mustangs went toe to toe with the likes of the Camaro Z28, Porsche 944, and other race-prepped heavy hitters of the day to prove that this new approach could be competitive against vehicles motivated by engines which much higher displacement.
By late 1983, the road-going Mustang SVO was ready for public consumption. The SVO’s shifting duties were dispatched by a Borg Warner five-speed manual gearbox with a Hurst shifter which sent the power to a limited slip differential with 3:45:1 gears. And while its engine was rated at 175 horsepower – or ten ponies more than the top-spec V8 that year – the SVO team’s development emphasis was on handling.
The 2.3-liter mill’s small size versus the V8 gave it an inherent weight advantage that the team wanted to capitalize on, so they tapped performance suspension supplier Koni for the shock and adjustable struts and gave the SVO stiffer bushings, up-rated springs, and beefier front and rear sway bars.
The SVO name might not have had the gravitas of the GT, but there was no denying that during its production run, it outperformed the V8 variant both in handling and straight line performance.
These suspension modifications, along with four wheel disc brakes, Goodyear high-performance tires, and a quick ratio steering rack gave the SVO the handling prowess to match its straight-line performance.
The Mustang SVO also offered a handful of unique aesthetic tweaks as well. Offered only in the three-door hatch configuration, the SVO sported unique flush-face 16 x 7-inch all-aluminum wheels – the first to sport the five-lug configuration on any Mustang. It also featured a functional cold-air induction hood with an offset scoop that fed the engine’s intercooler and a subtle but unique body kit that help set it apart from other Mustang variants.
Not only did the Mustang SVO offer compelling performance out of the box, it also offered adjustability not found in the GT in the form of an adjustable boost-control system as well as Koni adjustable shocks, the latter of which came preset for compliance but could be stiffened for track work.
A Sudden Change Of Plans
By the middle of 1985, the Mustang SVO sat decidedly at the top of the Mustang performance food chain. The turbocharged four cylinder now sported 205 horsepower and nearly 250 pound-feet of torque due to increased boost pressure, a new intake manifold, bigger fuel injectors, a new dual exhaust system and additional turbocharger refinement.
And while the SVO team’s limited-run experiment had proven successful with nearly 10,000 SVO Mustangs sold by the end of 1986, rumors had begun to circulate around Ford that the Mustang would be killed off entirely to be replaced with the Probe in order to help the company meet CAFE fleet-wide fuel economy requirements.
Though Ford would later change its mind about discontinuing Mustang production due to pressure from the UAW (and the revelation that the offshore-built Probe would put many Dearborn-based workers out of a job), the SVO project was ultimately scrapped after the 1986 model year. Rumors reported by enthusiast site SVO Club of America indicate that the team may have been developing an all-new DOHC 16-valve head with an estimated output of 275 horsepower.
Alas, the 1987 Mustang SVO never came to be and the V8-powered Mustang GT reclaimed its position at the top of the pecking order, by now producing a far more respectable 225 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.
By the early 1990s, Ford’s fuel injected pushrod 5.0 liter V8 had become a staple of domestic high performance, proving both durable and receptive to aftermarket tuning, and the four cylinder SVO Mustangs quickly faded into obscurity. But in recent years, collectors have been turning their sights toward this relatively rare performance variant, with Hemmings giving the model a “buy” rating in 2013.
Production of the Mustang SVO only lasted for three years with just under 10,000 examples built, but the car and the concept of forced induction as a viable substitute for displacement made a lasting impression.
While perhaps not as immediately charming and recognizable as its V8 brethren, the SVO was undoubtedly a unique and interesting chapter in Mustang history. Its existence also helps us contextualize the high performance variants we’re sure to see of the current Mustang EcoBoost in the coming years, itself powered by a turbocharged four cylinder motor making 310 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque.
While that may pale in comparison to the output of the 435 hp Coyote V8, if Ford’s new twin turbocharged V6-powered GT supercar is any indication of future Blue Oval engineering efforts, it might not be long before another SVO-like variant is slotted at the top of the Mustang performance totem pole.