I have a soft spot in my heart for the Mustang SVO. More precisely, it’s the one Mustang that I could actually have seen myself buying, as my soft spot encompasses its two main qualities: high tech and superb handling. Yeah, yeah; I know the 302 was the better car for 95% of Mustang buyers, but then I didn’t exactly fit the Mustang buyer profile.
The SVO was an attempt to build the Mustang of the future: using high tech to optimize efficiency, by making a turbocharged four as fast or faster than a V8, and by optimizing its handling prowess by all the means available at the time. For that, Ford gets kudos from me. And it did from Road & Track at the time, which was duly impressed, not surprisingly.
Not surprisingly, the SVO sold in very limited numbers, although that was largely by design. But it developed a cult following, and it most certainly predicted the future where turbo-four Mustangs (and so many others) are the norm, not the exception.
Road & Track, which always prioritized all-round handling over straight line prowess, had been waiting for the SVO since 1964, since there never had been a proper GT Mustang, regardless of what badges it wore. Yes, the Shelby GT350 Boss 302 were attempts at this, but both suffered from the intrinsic limitations of the original Mustang’s Falcon underpinnings. No amount of firmer springs and harsher shocks could make for a cohesive sports-GT car of global caliber. The SVO was the first.
Given that I did buy an ’83 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, I was particularly interested in what Ford’s Special Vehicle Ops had wrought here. With the addition of an intercooler as well as variable boost, controlled by Ford’s very high tech EEC-IV engine management system, not only was maximum power increased to 175 hp from 145, but the boost also came on sooner, expanding its useful powerband considerably. That was definitely a well-needed improvement, as the one in my TC was very short indeed. Too much like an on-off switch. The SVO was the first of its kind to make a meaningful step in the direction that made hi-po turbos so much more palatable. And the later versions of the SVO upped the ante to 205 hp. And today there’s folks running SVO’s with well over 400 hp.
I’d forgotten about Ford’s little sleight of hand in using a speedometer that read up to 140 mph even if the numbers stopped at 85, as was the standard of the times.
The SVO’s interior was business-like, and made the most of its very plebeian Fairmont origins. The seats were good, the instruments were clear, the quality was high for the times, and the accommodations were better than the Camaro, thanks to its boxy hard points, also inherited largely from the Fairmont.
The SVO’s performance was excellent. It was a good two seconds quicker to 60 than the T-Bird Turbo Coupe, and a full 10 seconds quicker to 100. It was a bit faster than the 177 hp Mustang GT too, albeit just a bit. Or more like a tie, realistically. But straight line performance was not the SVO’s calling card; its substantially upgraded suspension, bigger wheels and 4-wheel disc brakes as well as its much better front/rear weight balance would easily leave a GT in its wake on almost anything but a straight line. And for some of us, that was well worth the trade-offs.