13 November 2014

SVO Mustang marks 30th year

A showroom dud in the 1980s, this intriguing Mustang has a small but loyal following today

All you SVO Mustang owners can now gloat that Ford was ahead of its time with that unique version of the pony car. Thirty years ago, Ford’s better idea was to make a special Mustang that was more road racer than drag racer, more Euro GT than main street tire burner.

The 1984-1986 SVO Mustang that “buff book” Car & Driver and Road & Track magazines liked so much unfortunately did not find the same reception in the showroom. Ford sold just 9,844 SVO Mustangs over three model years.

It was a brave step to put a turbo/intercooled 4-cylinder engine under the Mustang’s hood, especially when the model line’s main attraction was the V-8-powered GT that sold for much less.

Today, the SVO Mustang is a kind of cult classic. It’s also a bit of a history lesson, because that Ford is offering a turbocharged 4-cylinder in the 2015 Mustang, a 310-horsepower model called the EcoBoost.

But 30 years ago… what were they thinking? Ford was thinking that it was high time to broaden the Mustang’s appeal, that’s what. Its Fox-platform mechanicals were already underpinning the Lincoln Mk. VII, so why not tweak a Mustang to take on import sports cars?

Developed by Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations, the 1984 SVO Mustang was powered by a 2.3-liter turbo four with fuel injection and an intercooler. It was rated at 175 horsepower, which seemed tame in comparison to the 210 hp from the 302 cu. in. 4-barrel V-8 that came in the Mustang GT. In a drag race, it was no contest – the GT could run the quarter-mile in just under 15 seconds without power-shifting. The SVO was more than a second behind.

But the number that really hurt the SVO was its price – nearly $16,000 when the faster GT started at about 10 grand. Lots of love from Car & Driver and Road & Track magazines helped stoke initial interest in the newfangled Mustang. Both magazines had driven SVO prototypes in the 24-Hour Longest Day at Nelson Ledges race, a kind of development exercise for Ford. And both compared the SVO production model favorably to sports cars like the Porsche 944 and Nissan 280 ZX.

But the road race cred did not make the SVO a latter-day Boss 302.

The rest of the SVO package was top-notch, however. Ford borrowed four-wheel disc brakes and suspension bits from the Lincoln Mark VII parts bin and gave the SVO a Quadra-Shock rear suspension to tame axle hop. (The V-8 models got Quadra Shock starting in 1985.)

The SVO looked “foreign” compared to the Mustang GT. Its functional hood scoop was off-center, and its trunk lid carried a bi-plane spoiler. Alloy wheels had smooth, flush surfaces rather than more traditional spokes. Inside, the SVO also showed a European influence in its form-fitting bucket seats with lumbar support. One of the most interesting bits was a turbo boost-control switch on the dash. You could dial it back to run on regular gas.

Late in the second season, Ford introduced an upgraded SVO that became known as the “1985.5.” Turbo boost was hiked slightly to 15 psi, up from 14 psi, and there were other improvements. Horsepower jumped to 205, matching the V-8, and its 248 lb.-ft. torque ratting was just a bit lower than the V-8’s.

Just 439 of those mid-year models were made. The enhancements carried into the 1986 model year, though the engine was rated at 200 hp and 240 lb.-ft. of torque. The zero-to-60 fell to seven seconds flat – competitive with imported sports models. But it was still a no-sale to muscle car buyers, and sports car drivers weren’t exactly falling over themselves to buy an expensive Mustang.

Today, you don't buy an SVO Mustang to drag race, but you’re pretty much assured a lot of attention at car shows, along with a fun ride.

As for the 2015 Mustang, maybe the time for a turbo-4 has finally come. On the other hand, if budget allows, get the 435-horsepower V-8.

23 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Don Watson Saint John NB, Canada November 13, 2014 at 16:31
    I test drove an SVO, and that thing could move, and handle.The price kept me from buying one, but I"d make room in my garage for one now
  • 2
    Stephen Caron Monterey Bay, CA November 20, 2014 at 14:36
    I bought a 1986 SVO off the dealership floor while a Grad Student at Univ. of Illinois using my Research Fellowship. Moved to CA 2 months later so it was spared bad weather. Drove the car for 8 solid years, finally sold afer it sat around for another 2 or so. I totally bought into the "road-race" approach versus brute force Pony Car (came out of a 70 Mach 1 into the SVO!). Loved the car and miss it - a bit..... Have tried to always continuously improve, so went from SVO to M3... on to air-cooled 911 and Boxster...People who "get it", got a SVO (if they could)!
  • 3
    Walk Okieland November 20, 2014 at 14:46
    I had a '96 model, it was a great drive, a perfect blend of power, handling and the seats were the most comfortable I have had in a car. In my dreams one day I'll have another
  • 4
    Rich Tweedle Clinton Twp, MI November 20, 2014 at 15:11
    I ordered my '85.5 SVO in April, it was built in July and I got it, after a truck hauler strike, in mid-August '85. Still have it and love owning it. It's a lot of fun on road courses, pulling away from V8's in the corners.
  • 5
    Jim Rohn Scottsdale, AZ November 20, 2014 at 15:41
    I owned MANY of them in the late 80's, just when they were turning 3 years old. The dealers hated them as used cars, so they were cheap to buy and easy to flup. They were one of "THE" cars to have for G Stock in SCCA Solo and Pro Solo events. My 1st one was a one of one 85 1/2, I was able to find another 85 1/2, a competition prep (no air) car, but my 1st one was the best. Sold in the 90's to someone in Montana, not sure if it has ever surfaced since. Great handling cars. The ONLY good ones were the 85 1/2's and the 86's
  • 6
    Mike hawaii November 20, 2014 at 16:06
    I own a '84 SVO, good to see the original getting some press with the release of the new one. As for brute HP, all you have to do is drill tiny holes in the waste gate hose until the over boost buzzer comes on at full throttle (about 19psi). You'll leave the GT owners crying. Then you go clean up at the "Import drags" where they're obliged to let you run since the 2.3L blocks were cast in Brazil.
  • 7
    Tim Blackburn Springfield, OH November 20, 2014 at 16:40
    In '84 I was a Ford sales rep in sw Ohio. We went to Indianapolis Raceway park for a seminar on the then new T-Bird Turbo Coupe and the SVO Mustang. Got to drive them on a solo course around pylons, and were taken for a ride with a pro driver around the race course. They were both very impressive. Learned an interesting tip from one of the engineers too, for those of you who have an SVO. He said that the intercoolers were so efficient, if you took the windshield washer hose off the nozzle and directed the (water, not washer fluid) onto the fins of the intercooler, you could have an extra 25 HP or more at the push of a button!
  • 8
    Red Hamilton Fort Bragg CA November 20, 2014 at 16:42
    I have owned two '86 SVO's; lots of fun, great handling and decent gas mileage even while having fun. Too bad that they did not sell more of them......
  • 9
    Dean NJ November 20, 2014 at 16:56
    I too chose the 86 V8 over the 4 back in the 80's. Fast forward to about 1998 or so and I finally bought an SVO. This was the funniest car I have ever owned. With a little more boost and allowing the car to breathe better, it kept up with most and beat a lot of V8's. To drive it was a blast. Nothing like the spool of the turbo and it handled like a go kart. I have had all makes and models and this was the funnest.
  • 10
    Craig Milius Rockford, Illinois November 20, 2014 at 19:47
    We had the Mustang's cousin, the Turbo T-Bird. It not only smoked the tires in first gear but also second gear. One of the most fun cars to drive. Our two older children learned to drive in that car (5 speed). They still talk about the car.
  • 11
    pete johnson Rochester Hills Mich November 20, 2014 at 21:18
    I remember going to the local Ford dealer for a test drive in one of these, the salesman said he had to come with.....so much for burning off those Goodyear Eagles....
  • 12
    Joe T Mass November 21, 2014 at 08:43
    Drive my 86 SVO every day during Apr-Nov. I've had it about 10 years now, it's a great driver's car with modern day brakes, excellent handling, good power, and a comfortable ride.
  • 13
    Mike Florida November 21, 2014 at 09:43
    Let us not forget it's predecessor. When the new model was released in 1979 an option for the 2.3 turbo existed without the FI or intercooler. I had it in a Cobra (yes, complete with that hood decal) and it was a fun car. Not enough power to scare you but it handled nice compared to the norm at the time. We lusted after the SVO but that price was a bit much at the time.
  • 14
    Mike_E_V San Diego November 21, 2014 at 12:06
    I was fortunate enough to have a friend who entrusted me with his new1983 Ford T-Bird Turbo Coupe while he was away on business. What a rocket! On the freeway it was difficult to catch and I was in more races with that T-Bird than any other vehicle I have driven.
  • 15
    Larry Demers Merrimack NH 03054 November 22, 2014 at 10:22
    I'm 72 @ my SVO is 30, we both have fun doing autocross, at NHISonce a month, we don't win but it's a blast
  • 16
    Ray Ford Canada December 1, 2014 at 23:35
    I have 85 svo and I love it , I test drove one back in the day 1984 , and said I will own one some day and am 60 takes me back , she is a keeper
  • 17
    Kendal Coker North Alabama February 22, 2015 at 20:35
    I have a couple of the 84 SVO's that raced in SCCA SSGT Showroom Stock in 1984.
  • 18
    Steven Rowe Denver May 7, 2015 at 14:49
    i purchased an 84 back in 85. It's been parked since the clutched went out, marriage, and 3 children later for 23 years now. need a new flywheel, have a centerforce clutch from back in the day that was going in, until i saw the condition of the flywheel. now that the flywheels seem readily available this looks like a good summer to put this back on the road and finally have some A/C. My 67 coupe is a blast to drive, but the SVO is smoother, more comfortable, safer, stops, and has A/C.
  • 19
    David Lanman OH July 30, 2015 at 17:58
    I own 4 SVO's 1 early 84 traction bars, 2, 85's , and 1 86. They are fun to drive and were ahead of thier time. By the way the 85.5 was never listed by Ford as 205 hp. The mith was started by magazine editors. Both the 85.5 and 86 used a PE ecm.
  • 20
    Barry SC December 1, 2015 at 00:59
    I lusted over these cars while in college. I loved the high tech performance. When I graduated in 1985, 4 months later I bought a 1985 SVO. I blew many 5.0 Mustangs, Firebirds and Camaros of the same year off the road. Friends could not believe it was a 4-banger. I still own this car... will never let it go.
  • 21
    Cameron AR January 11, 2016 at 16:01
    I just bought an '86 model a couple of days ago. I've always thought it was an interesting car and I couldn't pass up the deal when I saw this one. Handles like crap right now, but I'm hoping a new steering rack will fix it. Love the turbo. It even sounds pretty good, especially for a 4-cylinder.
  • 22
    Kent DeJarnett Monroe NC March 6, 2016 at 13:13
    I bought my 86 SVO straight out of collage. Was family hauler for several years. Finally able to run car for fun. Ran SCCA autocross for 12 or so years beating all in pony car class G stock, then F stock, then on to ESP. The little 4 is a blast to drive and still competitive today. With very few mods 260hp 300# torque, 2900 lbs, great car. Will never let go of it.
  • 23
    Kraig Ogdon Albuquerque March 26, 2016 at 04:06
    I have a 1984 SVO, a beautiful car, and Fantastic shape, runs great,.. this SVO will be going to the c Super Nationals Car Show in February 2017....will show very well...

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