Though still reeling from the blows that were part and parcel with what would later become known as the Malaise Era, the early ’80s proved to be an interesting time for the automotive industry. Fuel costs, government emissions regulations and other significant obstacles had essentially erased legitimate high-performance offerings from showrooms across America by the close of the previous decade – but signs of life were slowly beginning to re-emerge.

Due to the constraints that automotive engineers were working within at the time, this lead to some unlikely stories of innovation which saw domestic performance defined in ways previously unseen. By leveraging emerging technologies, engineers were starting to discover that there were ways to make reliable power while maintaining a semblance of efficiency, which in turn led to some models that broke with the traditionally held mindsets about high performance.

Though the third-generation Mustang offered a renewed sense of purpose to Ford’s pony car, with the carryover engine options from the Mustang II, it still lacked proper motivation; a problem which was only exacerbated by the 5.0-liter V8 being replaced by the 4.2-liter mill for the 1980 and 1981 model years. In the meantime, development of the turbocharged version of the 2.3-liter four cylinder mill started to show real promise. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

Such is the case with the Mustang SVO – a turbocharged, four-cylinder-powered model which, for three model years during the 1980s, usurped the eight-cylinder Mustang GT as the king of the late-model Blue Oval pony cars.

Development

The Comp Prep Option

While the SVO stood as the top dog in the Mustang hierarchy from 1984 to 1986, it wasn’t actually the most performance-focused iteration of the car that enthusiasts could get their hands on at the time. To get that, customers needed to specify the Competition Prep package (41C) on the options list.

Doing so instructed the factory to build the car in as close to race-ready form as they could, deleting all air condition components, power accessories, and the audio system in the process in order to cut down on weight, since these luxuries would be essentially useless in a car truly intended for competition. Only a handful of the 9502 Mustang SVOs produced in total would get the 41C treatment, making these rare machines highly collectible today.

With the debut of the Fox platform for 1979 and the Pinto-based Mustang II slowly fading in the rear-view, at the turn of the decade Ford was ready to start putting an earnest effort into performance once again, but it would prove to be an incremental process.

With federal regulations continuing to be at odds with engineering, the once-mighty, naturally aspirated V8 had been choked to within an inch of its life, and Ford’s 5.0-liter Windsor V8 – the top-spec powerplant in the Fox Mustang’s inaugural year and a carry-over from the Mustang II — offered a mere 140 horsepower.

However, close behind it was a new version of the 2.3-liter, inline four cylinder engine that had also previously seen use in both the Pinto and Mustang II. Not only did this turbocharged, 132 horsepower four-pot dish out nearly as much grunt as the V8; the smaller mill could be located behind the front axle for better weight distribution, thereby improving the car’s handling — advantages not lost on Ford’s performance engineers.

Though the Fox-body platform showed promise, the carry-over motors that were offered for its 1979 debut were fairly underwhelming. When the V8 offered could only muster 120 horsepower the following year, the issue reached a tipping point. Image: Ford Motor Company

Not long after the Fox Mustang landed in showrooms in 1979, the world faced another oil crisis which caused Ford to drop the 5.0-liter V8 from the Mustang lineup and replace it with the more fuel efficient 4.2-liter V8. When it debuted for the 1980 model year, this sleeved-down 5.0 made 120 horsepower and was only available with a three-speed automatic transmission. This marked an all-time low for V8 power in a Mustang that left performance enthusiasts to turn to the turbocharged four cylinder when looking for new thrills.

Though initially plagued by reliability concerns that kept it off the options sheet in 1982, Ford continued to develop the turbocharged 2.3-liter motor over the follow years. It would re-enter the fold in 1983 under the hood of the new Turbo GT model, sporting fuel injection and dishing out 145 horsepower.

A few years before the Mustang SVO would be put into production, 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 1982 race was less about Ford’s interest in IMSA endurance racing as it was a proof-of-concept that this fairly radical departure from Mustang performance tradition would yield a model that could be competitive against sports cars from Europe and the Far East, and a second place finish proved it. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

But Ford already had bigger plans in the works for this force-fed power plant. Back in the fall of 1981, Ford had created the Special Vehicle Operations division, a group who would be tasked with overseeing the company’s efforts in motorsport along with the development of limited-edition high performance models for the street.

In 1982, the group developed two Mustang-based prototypes for endurance racing use in the IMSA series. Designed to take on sports cars like the Mazda RX-7 and Porsche 944, the car needed to be nimble while managing fuel reasonably well (to prevent excessive refueling pit stops), making the turbo four cylinder a natural choice for development. Moreover, the SVO team was out to prove a point that these diminutive motors could go toe-to-toe with the competition – despite the lack of big displacement – and after successful outings in the 1983 race season, the SVO team decided it was time to bring the car to the masses.

Balanced Performance

The Mustang SVO’s four-cylinder powerplant did, in fact, out-muscle the GTs when it debuted 1984

Offering 175 horsepower — or 10 horsepower more than the fuel-injected V8 that year – the Mustang SVO’s four-cylinder powerplant did, in fact, out-muscle the GTs when it debuted 1984. But from the outset of the Mustang SVO program the emphasis had been on handling rather than straight-line speed, so along with the turbocharged motor, Ford’s new top-spec Mustang got a host of performance upgrades that were focused on carving corners rather than owning the drag strip.

The Mustang SVO’s visual package was fairly subtle, but unique enough to make it immediately recognizable for folks in the know, particularly with offset hood scoop and dual-plane rear spoiler. The SVO was also the first Mustang to receive five-lug wheels, in this case 16x7-inch aluminum numbers that were wrapped in either Goodyear European NCT radials or Goodyear Eagle Gatorbacks. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

To that end, the Mustang SVO was outfitted with a substantially reworked suspension system that boasted new geometry, along with Koni adjustable front struts and rear dampers; stiffer bushings and springs; and larger front and rear sway bars. Aiding grip further were a set of Goodyear European NCT radials (later models switched to Goodyear Eagle Gatorbacks) mounted on unique 16×7-inch wheels, and disc brakes were installed at all four corners to provide bolstered stopping power, while a 15:1 ratio power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system replaced the stock components.

To help it stand out from the rest of the Mustang lineup the SVO received a handful of aesthetic alterations as well, including a unique hood with a functional offset scoop, unique headlights and taillights, a dual-plane rear spoiler, and other exclusive touches.

Along with an SVO-specific steering wheel and leather wrapped touch surfaces like the emergency brake handle and shift knob, the Mustang SVO also got sport seats with more aggressive side bolstering. The 2.3-liter mill was small enough to be mounted behind the front axle, which aided in weight distribution. (Photo Credit: Ford, Wiki Commons)

The interior saw its fair share of attention too. Though only available in charcoal color on SVO models, the cabin featured an SVO-specific steering wheel, a new gauge cluster that included a boost pressure readout, sport seats with more aggressive side bolstering, and a pedal setup designed to facilitate heel-toe downshifting, among other tweaks.

A Shifting Landscape

The SVO sat firmly at the top of the Mustang performance food chain from any perspective

After a mid-year update in 1985 that saw the motor get bigger injections, a new intake manifold, a new exhaust system, and increased boost pressure due to turbocharger revisions, the SVO sat firmly at the top of the Mustang performance food chain from any perspective, delivering 205 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque. Despite being a somewhat polarizing proposition for some enthusiasts (and more expensive than the Mustang GT) the SVO had sold well too, with nearly 10,000 examples sold across three model years by the end of 1986.

However, rumors began to circulate that the Mustang might be replaced altogether through a joint venture with Mazda, due to concerns about meeting emissions and fuel economy requirements.

Though Ford would eventually change their mind about replacing the Fox Mustang with this offshore-built coupe (which would eventually become the Ford Probe) due in large part to pressure from the UAW and the revelation that many domestic autoworkers would lose their jobs as a result, the SVO program would become one of the casualties of the infighting.

Legacy

By 1987, Ford’s 5.0-liter V8 was producing 225 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque – far more respectable numbers than it had been posting in the earlier part of the decade.

The long development period had proven worthwhile for Ford’s venerable 302, as the mill was now both reliable and receptive to aftermarket modification. As a result, it would prove to be a staple of Blue Oval performance for decades to come, while the turbocharged SVO motor would quickly be relegated to obscurity after going out of production.

However, recent years have seen a renewed interest in these boosted Mustangs as both Ford and enthusiasts have once again turned to turbocharged four cylinder power as an option for performance with the introduction of the Mustang EcoBoost model in 2015, and well-kept original examples are becoming increasingly sought-after in the collector car market.