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.

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