Vintage Views: Ford Mustang SVO


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Story by David S. Wallens • Photos as credited

What was old is new again–yacht rock, rising gas prices and even turbocharged Mustangs.

Today you can buy a brand-new Mustang powered by a turbo-four engine that produces 310 horsepower. That’s V8-like power from just 2.3 liters.

The 1984–’86 Mustang SVO was similarly potent for its time. Its turbocharged 2.3-liter engine delivered about 200 horsepower–again, a V8-level number back in the day.

That SVO was based on Ford’s Fox body which was, as we all know, the coolest Mustang ever–cool enough for Vanilla Ice, Indy 500 pace car duty and countless high school parking lots.

Before the SVO made its debut, though, that Fox chassis was already nearly six years old. Ford’s V8-powered Mustang GT was good but not great, and the imports from Germany and Japan were coming on strong. Ford hoped the SVO package would revitalize the Mustang while introducing a new generation of pony car.

The SVO’s heart was the turbocharged engine from the then-new (and then-hot) Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. An intercooler boosted the engine from 145 horsepower to 175, tying outputs with that year’s 5.0-liter Mustang GT. The SVO only came with a five-speed stick.

More tricks: stiffer suspension with Koni dampers, a limited-slip differential, 16-inch alloys and four-wheel disc brakes. The SVO received five-lug hubs, not the four-lug pieces found on every other Mustang. The interior featured a Hurst shifter, power accessories, and a nicely bolstered seat that sported pump-up lumbar support.

The SVO was easy to spot thanks to its biplane rear wing, offset hood scoop and smoother nose treatment. The grille opening was smaller than the standard Mustang piece, and the headlamps were single units instead of double. Unique taillights and sail panels further set it apart. And unlike the other Mustangs, the SVO was available solely as a three-door coupe. Ford offered only four color options: Black, Silver Metallic, Medium Canyon Red and Dark Charcoal Metallic.

When the SVO was released, the press went nuts. Road & Track put one on its cover: “Outruns the Datsun 280ZX Turbo. Out-handles the Ferrari 308 & Porsche 944.” Their review ended on an equally glowing note: “This may be the best all-around car for the enthusiast driver ever produced by the U.S. industry; we just hope it’s the start of an era.”

The new era didn’t quite pan out as expected, however. Ford upped the engine output to 200 horsepower partway through 1985, but by the end of 1986 the SVO was gone, simply eclipsed by hotter versions of the 5.0-liter V8. The Fox-body Mustang itself soldiered on until 1993.

Despite not fulfilling its broader mission, the SVO remains an important footnote in Mustang lore–call it a refined take on an old favorite. Today we’re seeing cars fetch $5000 to $20,000 on Bring a Trailer.

Practical Guidance

None

Roger Kleiber is both an SVO owner and a member of the SVO Club of America.

The cars built after the model’s mid-1985 update have a hotter camshaft, altered tuning and a different turbo, making them the fastest and most powerful SVOs right out of the gate. And thanks to their flush headlamps, they’re better-looking, too. The most desirable SVO setup is a late car with 36-pound/hour fuel injectors; to spot one, look for the letters “TE” or “PE” marked on the engine computer.

Uncracked iron cylinder heads are becoming scarce. These turbo fours, also found in the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and Merkur XR4Ti, have V-shaped combustion chambers–different from the common-as-rocks naturally aspirated versions. These heads tend to crack at the exhaust seats. An all-new aluminum one from Esslinger Engineering would give great performance and save 30 pounds, but it won’t come cheap.

They can handle the boost, though. Forged pistons are the sole upgrade in the bottom end of the engine, and the legendarily robust Pinto engine can take abuse. Crank up the pressure and tune your fuel and ignition appropriately, and you’ll be making 400 horsepower on stock internals.

The front lower control arms are unique cast-steel pieces that must be replaced as a unit when the ball joint wears out. Ford no longer manufactures them, though, and neither does any aftermarket supplier. Finding new-old-stock ones is incredibly difficult. One option is to have a machine shop remove the old ball joint from the casting and enlarge the pocket to accept a press-in joint from a Lincoln Mark VII or SN95-chassis Mustang.

Sourcing replacements for the rest of the car is a challenge, too, since the rear spoiler, much of the interior, and every part from the fenders forward are specific to the SVO. The outer right-hand turn signal lens, for example, is not in production. In fact, the tooling for this unique clear lens has never been found.

Fenders from other Mustangs may be drilled to fit, but they’re easy to spot as unoriginal. The SVO wheel well has a notched lip at its front edge that makes it fit flush with the bumper. Non-SVOs don’t have that notch.

This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

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Comments
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z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
2/14/19 8:42 a.m.

At one point when I was younger, my dad a Turbo T-Bird, an '85 Mustang GT, and my uncle had an '86 SVO. 

We used the SVO for a couple of road trips to go see races at Heartland Park. Needless to say, I was more than upset when I found out my uncle sold the SVO my senior of college!

jimbbski
jimbbski Dork
2/14/19 2:32 p.m.

I once came across a 11K miles example for sale back in 1997. I would have bought it but for the fact that it was to nice for a daily driver, which was what I was looking for at the time.

spacecadet
spacecadet Reader
2/14/19 9:35 p.m.

I am still disappointed Ford has yet to call any version of the ecoboost mustang a SVO mustang. 

A friend made up SVO stickers and put them on the rear of his green 2015 Ecoboost mustang. 

Great cars then, and great cars today. Love the turbo 4's in the pony cars. 

just too bad more people don't realize they slot in above the twins in performance and below a lot of the mid 30's cars in price and offer similar performance. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/15/19 2:37 p.m.

Yeah, kinda sad that name has been allowed to fade away.

True story: Tim prepped a legit SVO for the $1500 Challenge. 

sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
2/18/19 6:43 p.m.

I succumbed to the lure of the SVO in its first year, 1984, when its advertised 175 bhp was TEN MORE than the same-year GT. Plus kewlness.

Mine had the dash-mounted switch that you could put in low-boost (145 bhp) or high-boost (175 bhp) mode, depending on what octane gas you put in it. We determined, through watching the boost gauge, that nothing would make the car give the advertised higher level of boost.

The dealer was successful, after several visits which eventually ended up pulling out the dash and transmission tunnel, in discovering that the problem was that the switch had a faulty ground. The first drive after 92 octane plus working boost gauge was worth the effort.

As a first-year model, mine had teething pains and disappointments; I had one of the early versions WITHOUT the four-damper rear end, using traction bars instead of the trick horizontally mounted Konis that were introduced mid-year, and of course I found this out AFTER buying the car. Note to self: look under EVERY car you buy, even new ones on the dealer lot. As my son once said, "Wow, Dad, you sure learned a lot of things the hard way."

Probably the most unfortunate thing about the SVO was that gas prices dropped precipitously in 1985, and Ford's V8 team bumped the 5-liter to ever higher output and economy, matching the SVO's 175 later in 1984 but with V8 throttle response, and exceeding it until the end of the SVO's run. When the SVO offered 4-cylinder economy (I saw 29 on mine many times on road trips) with more-than-V8 performance, it almost made sense. We are seeing the fruition of the principle in, well, every car, truck, and SUV that has a 2-liter turbo today. Rucksprung durch technik, anyone?

 

 

AnthonyGS
AnthonyGS HalfDork
2/18/19 7:51 p.m.

This is one of the few cars I had and miss.  I had an 85 in rare medium charcoal metallic.  I sold it to a friend that really wanted it.  

I’m strongly considering getting another, going IRS and ‘15+ GT ecoboost and other mods.  It’d be a CAM autoX / track toy and cruiser.  It’s kind of my dream Mustang.

stukndapast
stukndapast New Reader
2/18/19 9:39 p.m.

Just so you know they are still around, I have been building my 85.5 SVO as a track, autocross and, most recently, vintage road race car for several years.  I just completed the SVRA three day school at Roebling Road leading to my license.  I will be at the SVRA event at Road Atlanta at the end of March.  My car is detailed as a tribute car to the Mac Tools sponsored cars that were campaigned in the SCCA Showroom Stock classes in the 80's.

There is a lot of interest in these cars in various groups on Facebook, and there are two old-style forums dedicated to the car too.  They are fairly rare, but get very little respect in the collector car world.  Even the few super low mileage, factory fresh examples that have shown up at the various auctions in recent years can barely bring the original 1980's sticker price.  To most people, they are just another Fox Mustang.  To a few others, they are a really cool and interesting variant that was way ahead of it's time.

This was me at Road Atlanta earlier this year.  It has a fair amount of suspension work, while keeping the OEM front end, spindles, brakes, and such.  Watts link/poor-mans-three-link rear.  Original 85K mile engine and trans (soon to be freshened).  I did put in a Pimp (Megaquirt) computer and went to speed density for tunability, but the powerplant is otherwise stock. 

AnthonyGS
AnthonyGS HalfDork
2/18/19 10:37 p.m.

In reply to stukndapast :

Very nice and inspiring.

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