Today, we marvel at the rise of the four-cylinder engine. No longer saddled with the reputation of being the universal powerplant of the economy car, turbocharging, electronic systems, and engine tuning has made it one of the most versatile — and popular — engines found in new cars across the board. Of course, the four-banger’s reputation is something of an American hang-up; there have been some brilliant small displacement engines built in Europe and Japan over the years. But until fairly recently, most Americans still held fast to “there’s no replacement for displacement.” With cars like the Ford Focus RS, Mustang EcoBoost, and Camaro 2.0T, we’re glad to see that gearheads are finally coming around, and the walls are finally coming down for small, forced-induction engines.
But there has to be a first for everything, and it may surprise you that the direct ancestor for these cars is now over 30 years old. The Ford Mustang SVO wasn’t just the fastest, most expensive, and most advanced Mustang of its day, it also may have saved the iconic nameplate from extinction. At a time when American automakers were still figuring out how to get power from their emissions-choked V8s, the SVO seemed to hint at a better way. It may have taken decades, but automakers have finally found their way back there, and the results so far have been spectacular.
When the Fox platform-based Mustang debuted for 1979, its base engine was a Pinto-sourced, 2.3-liter 88-horsepower four. It proved to be a popular (albeit unexciting) option, but Ford soon realized that the engine was surprisingly robust, and responded well to forced induction. In 1980, the 2.3 Turbo appeared, making 132 horsepower — just eight shy of the 4.2-liter V8. Like the range-topping eight-cylinder, the Turbo model could be had with the performance-focused TRX wheel and suspension package, making it a formidable sports car. But the new technology wasn’t quite there yet, and the turbocharged 2.3 skipped the 1982 model year so Ford could make emergency revisions. It returned with fuel injection for 1983 as the Turbo GT.
But by the mid ’80s, the Mustang was in serious trouble. Emissions regulations had neutered the surviving muscle cars of their ’60s-era performance, and underpowered versions of the coupes weren’t finding buyers like they used to. Slightly more expensive competitors like the Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Porsche 924 all offered livelier performance, better handling, and stronger fuel economy, and were attracting buyers who might have gone for muscle cars a decade earlier. What’s more, Ford was in trouble. Scrambling to field a lineup of fuel efficient compact cars, and dealing with two of the largest scandals in automotive history (Pinto fires and defective automatic transmissions), the company lost over $3.5 billion between 1979 and 1983. Rumors began to circulate that Ford would kill off the Fox-based Mercury Capri and Mustang after 1983.
One of Henry Ford II’s final orders before retiring led to the creation of the Special Vehicle Operations Department (SVO) in late 1981 with the sole intention of returning to racing, and bringing performance technology to its street cars. SVO saw huge potential in both the Fox platform and the fuel-injected turbo 2.3, and set about re-engineering the car. The SVO Mustang was supposed to fill the spot once held by the Shelbys, and later the Boss Mustangs of the ‘60s: a range-topping high performance version meant to put the Mustang back at the top of the performance car segment. It wasn’t necessarily interested in what Chevy, Pontiac, or Chrysler were doing anymore; the segment had become a global one, and instead of following the conventional wisdom in Detroit, Ford took inspiration from Europe and Japan.
Turbocharging seemed like the wave of the future in the early 1980s. Ford had largely worked the kinks out of the turbo 2.3, and SVO felt that the smaller engine was better suited to a modern performance GT than the aging V8. By 1982, the bigger mill was only making 157 horsepower; the 2.3 could put out 175 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, while weighing 150 pounds less, which aided handling on the nose-heavy car.
On top of power, the SVO had a Borg-Warner T-5 manual gearbox with Hurst linkage, adjustable Koni shocks, revised steering and suspension, ventilated four-wheel disc brakes, 16-inch wheels, and a unique, upscale interior. Up front, the car had a unique front fascia, with a functional hood scoop to feed the intercooler, an aerodynamic nose, fog lamps, and unique headlights. Out back, it had a striking two-tier spoiler loosely based on the upcoming Merkur XR4Ti (known as the Ford Sierra XR4i in Europe). The car was ready by early 1984, and astonishingly, SVO had developed it for a mere $7 million.
Almost immediately, the SVO garnered positive reviews. Car and Driver said “The Mustang SVO is shot through with the look and feel of a car built by car people for car people.” Motorweek’s John Davis called it “a most civilized race machine for everyday use.” But the SVO’s base price was $15,585, putting it firmly in 300ZX, 924, and RX-7 territory — and making it $6,000 pricier than a Mustang GT.
Almost instantly, the SVO began getting squeezed from both sides. Ford only sold 4,508 in its first year, as it found it difficult to woo import buyers back to a Mustang, which still had the reputation for being an outdated, unrefined car, and talking buyers who were used to the traditional V8 into making the leap. And SVO’s objective to bring performance to the rest of the Ford lineup was already bearing fruit. The Thunderbird Turbo Coupe had bowed for 1983 using the same engine. And in the wake of GM’s popular redesigned Firebird and Camaro, Ford made some big changes to the GT model that closed the performance gap between it and the SVO.
For ‘85, the 302 was bored out and became the 5.0, with a four-barrel carburetor, revised camshaft, cylinder heads, and exhaust manifolds. It now put out a conservatively rated 210 horsepower and significantly more torque than the turbocharged car. Big changes for the SVO came in its second year too, including a revised turbocharger and intercooler, flush-mounted headlights, and revised gear ratios for faster shifts. Power was now up to 205 horsepower and 240 pound-feet, and despite a $750 price drop, just 1,951 cars were sold in the second year.
And again the Mustang was in trouble. Ford was using its 25% stake in Mazda to develop an all-new front-wheel drive Mustang replacement based on the Japanese automaker’s midsize platform, slated for 1987. Engineers were furious, and when word leaked about the project, thousands of angry gearheads flooded Ford with calls and letters demanding they spare the iconic ponycar. Ultimately, the Mustang was saved, the Fox platform soldiered on, and the Ford/Mazda coupe debuted in 1989 as the Probe.
But the SVO disappeared after finding just 3,379 buyers in 1986. Ford had originally hoped to sell 10,000 a year; in the end, it had only managed to move 9,844 cars. But the program had paid for itself, and its innovations continued to trickle down to the base Mustang. In 1987, the car got another refresh, gaining the SVO-like flush headlights and a similar front end. And despite an aging platform, the program had brought some much-needed attention to Ford’s ponycar, and sales rebounded through the end of the 1980s.
Now 30 years after the SVO’s demise, Ford’s EcoBoost Mustang — also a 2.3-liter turbo four — is considered to be one of the best muscle cars on the road. Not a range-topper like the SVO (it’s slotted between the base V6 and V8 GT), it brings a unique blend of performance and handling that hasn’t been found in a Mustang since, well, 1986. The SVO may not have been a huge seller, or even much more than a cult car, but its brief, high-profile run brought some much-needed prestige back to the Mustang nameplate, and kept it relevant through some of the car’s darkest years. We won’t go as far as saying it saved the Mustang from an early demise, but it proved to the automotive world that there was plenty of life left in the old ponycar. Today, we know that there’s still plenty of excitement to be had from a turbocharged 2.3 too.