1986 Ford Mustang SVO
1986 Ford Mustang SVO. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

When the sporty Ford Mustang appeared on the scene in mid-1964 it was an immediate success. It established a whole new class of vehicle called the Pony car. And because it was based on Ford Falcon and Fairlane components, the price could be kept reasonable. The base engine was an in-line six, but buyers with more sporting pretensions ordered the optional V-8.

Over the years Mustangs have been fitted with fours, sixes (in-line and V-types) and V-8s, but to most enthusiasts, “real” Mustangs had big, brawny V-8s under the hood.

There is, however, a small but enthusiastic group of Mustang owners who value finesse over brute force. Their period of glory came in the mid-80s when Ford produced the Mustang SVO. It was the creation of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations department, from which it took its name, and was an attempt to produce a home-grown, small displacement, high performance sporty car in the “European” idiom.

Special Vehicle Operations was created in 1980 to provide “corporate image enhancement” through the development of competition cars for Ford. SVO, really a euphemism for “racing department,” was headed up by German race driver Michael Kranefuss, formerly director of Ford’s European racing operation.

The group’s job was three-fold: to supervise Ford’s North American racing activities; to develop competition components; and to transfer racing lessons and technology to special edition street cars. The Mustang SVO was a natural for the group.

The third-generation, Fairmont-based Mustang arrived in 1979 to replace the somewhat uninspired Mustang II, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The second “oil crisis” was upon us, fuel economy legislation was biting deeper, and engineers were just learning how to use electronics to meet increasingly stringent emission laws.

To compound the situation, North American manufacturers (except Cadillac) were still clinging to the antediluvian carburetor after most Europeans had switched to superior fuel-injection systems.

These problems, plus an economic recession and the deepening incursion into the North American market by the imports – particularly the Japanese with their fuel efficient cars – made the early ’80s terrible years for the American car industry.

1984 Ford Mustang SVO
1984 Ford Mustang SVO. Photo: David Newhardt’s Mustang 40 Years book. Click image to enlarge

Ford and Chrysler were especially hard hit. It was into this scene that Ford decided to try injecting a little fun; the Mustang SVO was the result. A turbocharged 2.3 litre four had arrived in the Mustang in mid-1980. But in the SVO the engineers set out to build a sportier car with performance, handling and braking that would be competitive with good European Grand Touring cars, but would cost less.

The SVO arrived for 1984 and seemed to be an enthusiast’s dream. The 2.3 litre (140 cu in.) single overhead cam four had been tweaked to produce a lusty 175 horsepower, thanks to turbocharging, an air-to-air intercooler, and electronically controlled boost control (an industry first) which peaked at an unusually high 14 pounds per square inch. Peak torque was a healthy 210 pounds-feet at a moderate 3,000 rpm.

This power went to the rear wheels through a five speed manual transmission stirred by a Hurst shifter. A limited-slip differential controlled wheelspin, and effective stopping was assured by four-wheel vented disc brakes.

Suspension modifications included stiffer springs, a rear anti-roll bar and a larger front one, Koni shock absorbers, and quicker steering. Meaty 225/50VR-16 tires insured that all this chassis tuning was put to the road.

To set the SVO’s appearance apart from lesser Mustangs, the stylists added an unusual “bi-plane” rear spoiler, two square headlamps rather than the standard four, a grille-less front-end, and foglights integrated into the air dam. An offset hood-mounted scoop fed fresh air to the intercooler. There was no mistaking that this was a different kind of Mustang.

SVO performance was excellent. Car and Driver magazine (10/83) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 206 km/h (128 mph).

In spite of the SVO’s relative sophistication, however, and the buff books’ praise, the vast majority of Mustang buyers looking for more speed opted for the V-8 powered GT. It cost some $6,000 less and provided about equal performance. Only 4,508 ’84 SVOs were sold, a real disappointment to Ford, which was geared up to produce three times that many.

The SVO was revised in mid-’85 in an attempt to generate more interest. Engine vibration and harshness were reduced, and horsepower was increased by 30 to 205. Covered aero headlamps presented a smoother face to the wind.

In spite of these changes, 1985 sales slid to 1,954. When only 3,382 SVOs found buyers the next year, Ford discontinued it. While the SVO had demonstrated that a high-tech small engine could perform like a big one, most North American enthusiasts still preferred a V-8.

Over the three years total SVO production was 9,844. Although they never met their sales expectations, the technically advanced engine, good performance, and rarity, make them a good bet as a collectible.

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