Curbside Classic: 1985 Ford Mustang SVO – A Turbocharged Tribute To Philip Caldwell And Donald Petersen

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not original SVO wheels


(first posted 7/18/2013)    For Ford, the eighties was the most miraculous decade for any American automaker since Chrysler’s first magic ten years (1924-1933). After nearly going bankrupt in 1981 trying to prolong the Great Brougham Epoch for way too long, Ford arose from the ashes of vinyl-topped barges with a fervor and spirit of innovation unheard of in the industry, except perhaps AMC’s final years. It was all thanks to the first leadership team without the surname Ford: recently-deceased Philip Caldwell (CEO, Chairman) and Donald Petersen (President and CEO/Chairman after Caldwell’s retirement in 1985).

Although the Taurus was the greatest commercial success that arose from their tenure, the Mustang SVO–despite being a commercial flop–perhaps best epitomizes the risk-taking spirit of Ford at the time. The whole notion of creating an über-Mustang with a turbocharged four cylinder Pinto engine was counter-intuitive, but the SVO has become a living legend and a testament to Ford’s golden decade.

Mustang 1980 Cobra

Admittedly, Ford’s renaissance started a few years before its near-collapse, with the all-new 1978 Fairmont and the 1979 Mustang, which shared its Fox platform. The Fairmont (CC here) was unusual for being so straight-forward and un-Broughamy for a Ford in the seventies, and became the platform upon which that Ford pinned its survival on, at least until the FWD Taurus and Tempo came on line.

The first few years of the new Mustang were a bit shaky, literally and metaphorically. Its birth and childhood we’ll cover another time, but one of the more unique aspects was the option of a turbo four. But Ford’s first shot at this was a dud, utilizing a carburetor and primitive boost control. It left a bad taste in those that were tempted by its Day-Glo graphics.

ford mustang GT 1982 _gt-pic-41356

By 1982, the Mustang found its traditional legs again in the form of the GT, with a revived 302, packing 157 hp in its first year, and 175 the next. It was the best performance deal in the land, and put the Mustang back in the winner’s circle. But it was still riding on a lot of Fairmont under the skin, which meant the Mustang was reasonably capable, but hardly a world-class handler.

Petersen Donald

Donald Petersen was soft-spoken but a real car guy, and spent time at Bob Bondurant’s racing school honing his skills behind the wheel of a Mustang GT. I’m not sure where and how exactly the idea of the SVO first originated, but I’d like to think the seed was planted during those track days as Petersen wrestled his GT through the turns. Of course, Bondurant’s fleet of GTs had some special preparation, and perhaps that helped spark what became Ford’s high performance skunk works, the Special Vehicle Operations unit, which of course was the source of the SVO’s name.

Mustang svo-ad

The SVO arrived to considerable accolades in 1984, sporting an intercooled version of the completely revised 2.3 Turbo four that first appeared in the 1983 T-Bird Turbo Coupe (CC here).  This engine was a pioneer in the use of Ford’s new EEC-IV engine management system, and except for its propensity for NVH, was state of the art. The addition of the intercooler boosted power to 175 hp @ 4400 rpm, and torque to 210 lb ft @3000rpm. Power was (literally) boosted to 205 hp for the 1985.5 version, and 200 hp for the 1986. Please not that 4400 rpm power peak; there still folks out there who think small turbo engines need to rev like mad to make power. The opposite is the case, actually; turbos invariably make their power at lower peak rpm than comparable normally-aspirated ones.

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The SVO got a completely new aero front clip, and was all set to use flush headlights, but federal regulations were not updated quick enough, and the resulting front end is rather unfortunate.

Mustang SVO 1986

That finally was fixed for the 1985.5 revision. The featured CC is also not wearing the original 16″ SVO alloy wheels, which were very handsome and really helped make the SVO look distinctive.

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The decision to use the turbo four to create what was somewhat comparable to the original Shelby Mustang GT350 is a controversial one, given the 302’s potential. But the decision to create the SVO was done right around the time of the all-time highest energy prices, and Ford was pinning a lot on the premise of downsized and turbocharged engines; Eco Boost V1.0.

And as this picture makes clear, the little four tucked up against the firewall made for near-perfect weight distribution, which reinforced the focus to make the SVO more of an all-out handler rather than the ultimate straight-line machine. To that end, the SVO received major suspension modifications, including a re-engineered suspension featuring adjustable Koni shocks, revised front geometry, faster steering ratio, five-lug hubs, top-line performance tires, rear disc brakes, and “Quadra Shock” rear suspension with horizontal shocks on the rear axle to tame its unruly ways, as GT drivers were all-too familiar with.

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The result was a superb handler, one Road&Track called “perhaps the best all-round car for the enthusiast driver ever produced by the U.S. industry…Given the existing Mustang platform, the Ford SVO team could hardly have done a better job of improving [it] to world-class GT standards. “.  Performance in a straight line was brisk for the times, with 0-60 coming in a tick over seven seconds, and the 1/4 mile in about 16 seconds. The later versions improved upon that.

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And if that wasn’t fast enough, the 2.3 Turbo four’s output is very readily boosted further, and 400-450 hp (or more) are just a few mods away (bigger injectors, more boost). That’s one of the more obvious reasons this engine has developed such a cult following.

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The SVO’s interior, available only in business-like gray came in cloth or leather, and included a specially-positioned brake pedal to facilitate heel-and-toe shifting, as well as foot rest. This particular car came with the Comp-Prep option, which deleted the radio, power windows, A/C and a few other amenities for weight reduction. The standard SVO already was a sub-3000lbs car (listed at 2,992 lbs), so these were light-weights in the best sense of the term.

Mustang SVO 1984_Ad2

Enough for the good stuff. The SVO’s downside was its over-boosted price, which at $16,000 ($35k adjusted) represented a mammoth 60% premium over a GT. No Sale. Well, some 9,844 SVOs were sold over its three-year run, but undoubtedly the program was a bit of a disappointment. But Ford learned from the lesson, and the SVO did pave the way for numerous future higher-performance Mustang derivatives, all with V8s and generally priced at more reasonable premiums.

Caldwell Ford

But the SVO is a testament to the leadership of Caldwell (left) and Petersen in showing the world that Ford could build a sophisticated world-class GT that also wasn’t fragile. Caldwell originated Ford’s “Quality is Job #1″ program, and during the eighties, Ford really did make great strides given from what a low level they were coming from.

Caldwell’s famous quote ” We may go out of business. I hope we don’t, but if we do do I want people to say ‘What a shame! They were building the best cars and trucks in the world'” is a bit ironic in the case of the SVO, given its commercial failure. But it did burnish Ford’s reputation in a number of ways; it was an exercise well worth the effort, given the halo effect.  And the SVO did live up to Caldwell’s expectations in being world-class.

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The SVO enjoys a cult following today, but they’re hardly commonplace on the streets. This is the first one I’ve encountered since starting the great CC Treasure Hunt. I was very attracted to the SVO in its day; it was exactly along my own ideal of the cross of American and European approaches to a sporting GT. The high tech engine and superb handling sang to me, even if the coarse sounds of its engine above 4ooo rpm didn’t. I could have seen myself behind the wheel of an SVO; I still could.

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