The Ford Mustang SVO

In 1980 Ford formed the Special Vehicle Operations to develop performance parts closely related to Ford's racing programs. They decided to build their own special model with a blend of American and European styling and performance to showcase these race bread performance parts. Handling wise, Ford was targeting the BMW 318i. Performance wise, I don't even think Special Vehicle Operations knew what kind of monster they were creating.

Using an existing platform to build on was only the first challenge faced by the SVO team, as they were restricted by a limited budget and even less support by opposing groups within the Ford ranks. They used off-the-shelf parts to further  cost management goals, like the 2.3L 4-cylinder Lima short block; in use since 1979 in the turbo charged Mustang, and Lincoln suspension and brake components. Also found on the SVO were performance specific items like an intercooler, a Borg-Warner five-speed with Hurst designed shifter, Koni gas-charged 3-way adjustable shocks and struts,  four-wheel disc breaks, and  16-inch wheels. The only other American performance car on the road with 16 inch rims in 1984 was the Corvette.

These performance parts; along with a newly designed engine management system providing electronic fuel injection and rudimentary timing advance control, propelling this boosted beast to 174BHP. That was a power increase of nearly one-hundred percent to the normally aspirated inline 4. To handel the increase in power, the engine was treated to forged pistons and rods. The standard crank assembly was retained, believed to be near bullet proof by Ford engineers.

The SVO débuted in 1984 with that underrated 174 crank horsepower running 14PSI of boost. It remained much the same in 1985, but went through a number of changes, released as a mid year 85.5 update. The EEC was updated to operate 35# injectors and 15PSI boost, the idle was smoothed out with the aid of a faster processor and refined fuel table, and the rear gear ratio was changed from 345:1 to 373:1. An oil and water cooled center section and a smaller .48AR turbine was mated to the Garret T3 compressor to foster quicker spooling and eliminated already near non-existent boost lag. This netted 205BHP and 248lb-ft of torque for 85.5 and a change in published numbers to 200BHP and 240lb-ft for 1986 due to gas quality issues. As usual with Ford, these horse power numbers were underated.

Built on the FOX platform and wearing Mustang sheet metal, much of the SVO's uniqueness comes from the European bread styling queues and the reworked road race suspention. Single headlights framed by inner and outer markers were set into a wraparound bumper. This was a temporary solution to the totally flush Euro front end the car would eventually wear while Ford waited for government approval on flush headlights. The hood curved smoothly down the lines of the inner marker lights and was topped with an off-center functional hood scoop, guiding fresh air through the intercooler fins. Narrow side moldings lay between the wide moldings of the front and rear bumpers, further distinguished the car from its LX and GT brethren, as did the rear side spats, single louvered quarter panels, and biplane spoiler.


In this side by side comparison of the SVO prototype built on the 82 GT platform and the 1984 production version it's easy to see the differences in syling just from the front view. From the unmistakable off set hood scoop that pushed air past the intercooler fins to the single headlights and grill-less frond facia, the SVO stood appart from it's bretheren.

With published power output not quite as strong as it's GT counterpart, the front to  back weight distribution, increased track width and more aggressive gear ratio could lead this car down the 1/4 mile right along side it's big brother. But the SVO was not built as a drag queen. Despite the lack of four doors, this was a true American touring car. It was Perhaps the first purpose-built mass production road cource cars in the history of the automotive industry on this side of the pond. For a parts bin special, it was indeed the most fully equiped and best handling pony car ever built, and would remain that way for almost a decade.

Production ended in '86 with less than 10,000 units rolling off the line over the three year run. There is a mix of stories behind the demise of the SVO. Some say low sales due poor marketing. Others feel the under education of sales people also impacted sales figures because the less savy had a tendency to use this car to sell GT's; priced some $6000 less. Politics played more than a moderate roll in, perhaps the premature demise of the SVO. There was fear all through Ford that the Mustang production would be ending all together with the proposed closure of the Dearborn plant at the end of the 86 model year. Though sales were seriously low in terms of the SVO teams goals, there is more proof to the later.

It was clear with evidence of a prototype 275HP DOHC 2.3L engine that the SVO could have seen an 87 model year had the team not been dissolved earlier in 86 due to the talks of ending the Mustang "FOX" run for good. With the combination of factors coming to light today, it's clear that the biggest problem was something Special Vehicle Operations did so well with the development of this car, but failed misserable on the sales end of the spectrum; proper planning and execution. That is something today’s SVT devision has done extrodinarily well since its formation in 1991.

As sad as it is that the SVO did not continue, I am grateful the Mustang itself has survived.

Ahead of it's time

If you look at the past two years 2002/3, you have undoubtedly noticed an increase in popularity of supercharged and turbocharged performance. The small import cars of today are putting out respectable horsepower numbers in both N/A and turbo configurations in proportion to engine size. The recent release of the Dodge SRT-4 is a testament to Ford in that they were on target, just 20 years too early. My hat is off to Dodge. This little car has been engineered in much the same way the SVO was... the entire neon platform, from chassis to power plant, was looked at to ensure balance, drivability and reliability worked well with turbo power. The only thing going against it is the front wheel drive.

So Does the SVO Measure Up?

Getting back to the past... In 1982, The SVO Team put it's engine, some of the drivetrain, suspension and chassis refinement to the test in the shells of two 82 Mustang GT's. To see if the whole was indeed greater than the sum of it's parts the SVO was off to the races. The test; The Longest Day of Nelson, a 24 hours race pitting the two prototype SVO's against the likes of V8-powered GM's, their Big Brother prototype Mustang V-8, Porsche, Datsun - the list goes on with 40 entries in all. I've read conflicting reiterations of this race, but purchasing the R&T article from eBay, I'm happy to report that both Mustangs were able to finish regardless of some major problems. Fuel and power issue plegued the R&T car and a blown engine in the Car and Driver SVO cost that team over 70 laps and 30 places. The R&T team put up with having to refuel the car every hour and escaped disaster with the help of a quick pit crew when spilled fuel caught the car on fire. Remarkably, when all was said and done the cars accumulating the exact same number; 664 laps, when they crossed the finish line at the end of the 24th hour.

The problems stemmed from the fact that the ECU was not finished, timing advance and retard control were not available, the knock sensors were not yet employed and the gas tanks were off the shelf units rigged to work with fuel injection. Despite all this, these two cars were running an amazing 185BHP at only 10PSI of boost. For the SVO team, It was enough that the cars finished, but with lack of published numbers and going by the way the story itself reads, I can only guess they were likely to have place in the 30's.

  The Longest Day of Nelson - 1983    

I had previously written that I could not find info on the SVO's entrance into the 24 hours of Nelson for 1983, but that has changed. The article I did find in R&T seemed a little biased, as the SVO is only casually mentioned despite finishing 2nd overall behind a questionably water injection rigged Camaro. According to this article, Porsche was originally awarded first place, but that was given over to the Camaro after Porsche was eliminated due to being under weight. In an article written by Jeff Fisher available HERE, the Porsche team actually bunted the SVO off the track. It’s a great read and I recommend taking a look. He did not have information on how the SVO placed, but I’m guessing that since R&T listed them 3rd, they may have actually come in 2nd. As for the Camaro; it was rigged with water injection via shoving one of the windshield washer hoses into the intake to combat a vapor lock problem. Don’t know how that flies even in a prototype class.

A bit more press on this would have helped Ford and the SVO team, so I have no idea why they didn't flood the air waves with it.

Little did they know...

Regardless of the power the SVO produced even in a modified state, the cars potential not only remained a well kept secret throughout its production run, it's relatively unknown even today. As I stated above, there were a number of factors that led to its end - Promotional problems, poor marketing by dealers and a hefty sticker price all played a roll. I'm still a firm believer that if not for the mid year decision by Ford to end the Mustang, there very well could have been an 87 SVO with a more suited price to performance and the beginning of extreme performance SVT type vehicles we've been blessed with today. By the time the decision to close Dearborn was reversed, Special Vehicle Operations was already pretty much disbanded. Some of the under-hood wonders produced by the team were being adapted to the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and the Mustang lineup would benifit from the Euro body styling. Poor sales was probably the final nail in the coffin as to why no real effort was made to revive the program.

Blast From The Past

Today SVO recognition and popularity is gaining ground. With the help of some amazing people and their belief in this car, several sites exist to support owners in their efforts to keep the cars running and in some cases out-performing some of the fastest street legal cars on the road today - including the SVO's closest relative and first production Mustang utilizing forced induction in 19 years, the 2003 Supercharged SVT Cobra. There are more than a handful of SVO and SVO inspired 2.3L Turbo powered vehicles in the 400 Horsepower range, and a few even beyond that. A 9 Second 1/4 miles, though a product of significant modification, is not out of reach for these amazing machines.

John Dell Blair's 700 HP Mustang SVO                



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