How Ford could have built a domestic Nissan GT-R competitor

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1984 Ford Mustang SVO Ford

Ford does not leave much money on the table when it comes to monetizing special edition Mustangs that leverage the names of famous performance models from the car’s past. There are GTs, Cobras, Mach 1s, and Bullitts galore to satisfy every Mustang buyer’s fantasy.

But what about the Mustang SVO, the company’s 1984–86 experiment with using a turbocharged 205-hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine to power a model with suspension tuned to exploit the handling potential of a fast car with an engine that is lighter than the usual V-8? As it turns out, Ford’s SVO tuner division could have matched the Thunderbird’s supercharged V-6 with the SN95 Mustang Cobra’s upgraded suspension to build a domestic Nissan GT-R competitor.

Today’s version of the Mustang SVO is the lyrically named 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost High Performance Package. It features a 305-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, plus big brakes from the GT and the upgraded Performance Package suspension and aero bits to create an excellent modern analog to the original Mustang SVO.

That car’s nomenclature came from Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations team of the 1980s, which aimed to infuse European-style handling capabilities in Ford’s North American vehicles. Ford had a chance in the intervening decades to build a second-generation Mustang SVO by mixing and matching off-the-shelf parts. The SN95-platform Mustang was an upgraded version of the Fox body that debuted in 1994.

1995 Ford Mustang Cobra coupe
1995 Ford Mustang Cobra coupe Ford

As Ford does, it celebrated with the introduction of a high-performance special edition, the Cobra, which in 1996 marked the debut of a 305-hp 4.6-liter DOHC modular V-8 engine in the Mustang in place of the venerable 5.0-liter pushrod small-block Windsor V-8. It provided more power than the GT’s 215 horsepower, but it was also bigger, heavier, and more expensive.

For handling-focused drivers, Ford had a missed opportunity at the time of swapping in a supercharged 3.8-liter Essex V-6 from the Thunderbird Super Coupe to create a second-generation Mustang SVO. At launch in 1989, the engine was rated at 210 hp, and that climbed to 230 hp by the end of the SC’s run in 1995.

The Super Coupe employed an Eaton Roots-type supercharger of the sort that we see today on the Dodge Hellcat and Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ford characterized it at the time as the company’s first true supercharged car.

The 1957 Thunderbird previously had a supercharged engine option, but that Paxton vane-type supercharger “really wasn’t much more than a belt-driven turbocharger,” sniffed Eaton’s engineering and marketing manager John Yakimow.

The Super Coupe was a bigger, heavier car than the Mustang, so its supercharged V-6 would have produced more speed in the pony car. And the V-6 was smaller and lighter than the twin-cam V-8 in the Cobra.

1994 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe
1994 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe Ford

Ford’s opportunity was to build a Mustang SVO employing all the suspension and aerodynamic body parts from the SN95 Cobra and the Thunderbird Super Coupe’s supercharged V-6 engine that would have been the domestic equivalent of the now-renowned turbo inline-six Nissan GT-R of the same time.

Thunderbird fans knew that the Super Coupe’s engine was built conservatively, and they commonly changed the supercharger’s pulleys to create more boost. By the 1990s, Ford had replaced its Special Vehicle Operations high-performance group with the much different Special Vehicles Team, which was responsible for the Cobra and the F-150 Lightning pickup.

These SVT hot rodders, which later produced the second-gen supercharged 1999–2004 F-150 Lightning, could easily have developed and tested production-worthy upgrades on par with those aftermarket mods to give a Mustang SVO a power bump over the T-Bird’s 210–230 horsepower. A Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords magazine article found that a conservative 5 percent faster supercharger pulley, free-flowing exhaust, enlarged mass airflow sensor, and K&N low-restriction air filter boosted rear-wheel output from 192 hp and 265 lb-ft at 11.9 psi boost to 230 hp and 332 lb-ft (!) at 14.6-psi boost.

Motor Trend got the 1994 Mustang GT to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.2 seconds. A lighter Mustang SVO with better power should have been quicker still, while leveraging its reduced mass to produce better ride and handling.

Ford hasn’t missed many chances with special Mustangs, but we have to wonder what might have been if they’d considered an SN95-generation SVO.

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