From the October 1983 Issue of Car and Driver.
Forty thousand feet. Ground speed, 545 mph. We are boring through the atmosphere eastward, ensconced in the leather-lined lap of luxury in one of the Ford Motor Company’s Grumman Gulfstream corporate jets—which looks like a chopped-and-channeled Boeing 727. This is the rarefied air of the corporate giants, and sitting across the linen-covered table from us in a high-backed captain’s chair is Ford president Donald Petersen.
We have lunched on cold poached salmon with dill sauce, green fettuccine salad with lobster dressing, warm croissants, California chardonnay, and chocolate-and-pistachio torte. Way up here, above the clouds, life at the Ford Motor Company seems very good indeed.
On the ground, though, things are considerably more tense for Ford. The nation’s fifth-largest corporation has been doing well in Europe recently, but North American Automotive Operations is fighting hard to stay profitable while attempting to close the gap on the Japanese. In fact, the company hasn’t been under so much pressure since the fallow period in the early Forties, when young Henry Ford II stepped in to revive the organization.
We’re winging our way back from yet another key new-car intro for Ford. What we’ve seen during the past two days amounts to the latest phase in the firm’s revitalization program. Petersen officially laid out the plan on the first morning of the preview, in what began as a casual welcoming speech but turned into nothing less than a company manifesto. Petersen called for “a new functionalism” in Ford cars and the “ethic of continuous improvement.” The goals are universally good: more refined powertrains, honest designs, more understated trim, better instrumentation, more thorough standard-equipment packages, day-by-day product improvement—in short, more of what we’ve already seen from Ford these last couple of years.
The past 48 hours have been spent in Napa and Sonoma counties—Northern California wine country—at one of the most gala press previews in some time. Headquarters was the posh Sonoma Mission Inn. At the official unveiling, the Goodyear blimp hovered overhead, champagne flowed, and the crowd pulsed with corporate brass, but the real stars of the event were the new Continental Mark VII, which we sampled two months ago, a new turbocharged version of the EXP coupe, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, and the new Mustang SVO, the subject of this report.
If the thought of yet another permutation of the aging pony car is enough to elicit a yawn, we advise you not to turn the page just yet. For car enthusiasts, this is an important vehicle, a harbinger of things to come. The initials “SVO” on the rear deck stand for Special Vehicle Operations, Ford’s racing division. This is their first baby, and it’s a Mustang with a mission. During our lunch in the clouds, Petersen described it as “our most definitive effort on the American scene to put together the finest we have in the way of a smaller-displacement, higher-revving turbocharged kind of touring car.”
The Mustang SVO is a clear attempt to gain credibility with hard-core enthusiasts—you know, those souls who stretch their budget to buy an Audi, the up-scale trend setters and neighborhood car experts who can be instrumental in helping remake a car company’s image.
Shouldering into the high-class GT arena is no small order—especially when you’re starting with a car that’s six years old. To make matters even more difficult, Ford had to invent SVO before SVO could develop its Mustang. Only three years ago Ford pulled its racing activities together under one roof, folded in some of its most enthusiastic engineers and managers from the U.S. and Europe, and charged them with enhancing the corporate image through racing and special low-volume, high-performance street cars.
This latest Mustang, the SVO folks proudly point out, is the best GT car they could push, prod, and cajole the system into building. The first bit of good news is that this is more than just gratuitous chest beating. The Mustang SVO is shot through with the look and feel of a car built by car people for car people.
One quick walk around the Mustang SVO will convince you that it looks the part of a purposeful road car. It squats like a bulldog on the fattest rubber ever squeezed under a Mustang fender well: 225/50VR-16 European Goodyear NCT tires on 7.0-by-16-inch alloy wheels. The new nose job isn’t breathtaking—it begs for flush headlamps, which will probably come in 1985—but you won’t mistake it for anything else, either. The hood has sprouted a functional, offset scoop, and the rear deck is distinguished by a biplane rear spoiler that adds a significant amount of downforce without increasing drag. (The Mustang SVO’s Cd remains about the same as that of the base Mustang, however, at 0.39.) All of this is wrapped in a simple, classy one-tone paint job—your choice of charcoal, black, red, or silver—delightfully free of stick-on graffiti.
There’s nothing to offend your sensibilities inside the cabin, either—just the most tasteful interior ever sewn into a Mustang. Deeply pocketed buckets with pump-up lumbar supports, a handsome three-hole Ghia show-car steering wheel (unfortunately not on our photo car), a leather-covered shift boot and knob, and attractive perforated cloth or leather upholstery give you that rich feeling. The only sour note is sounded by the standard-issue Mustang dash, which at least is covered in a handsome charcoal facing and offers full instrumentation, including a boost gauge.
Even the speedometer has been treated to the rebellious SVO touch. Because of a deal with the feds, Ford’s lawyers wouldn’t allow SVO to install an honest 140-mph unit, but SVO put one in anyway—without numerals above 85 mph. Your local art-supply store can help you finish the job with press-on digits.
Basically, though, the SVO’s appearance is plenty good enough to rev up the heartstrings of car enthusiasts, so you’ll be pleased to hear that an honest attempt has been made to fortify it mechanically for its new role in life. All Mustang SVOs start out as three-door coupes with 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder powerplants. SVO, in attempting to take the Mustang to higher ground, massages almost every important component to some degree.
The engine, for instance, benefits from a number of exclusive changes. While other Mustang and T-Bird turbos get by with mechanical control of turbocharger boost pressure, the SVO incorporates the latest in electronic knock-sensor technology to control boost and spark timing. This allows calibrating for both premium and regular unleaded. The system also incorporates an air-to-air intercooler, fed by the hood scoop, that cools the intake charge and allows up to 14 psi of boost for extra power. The latest Ford estimate is that all of this good stuff puts about 176 horsepower under your foot, which places it in the ballpark with the 1983 Mustang GT’s 4.9-liter V-8. Good mileage is also part of the deal; Ford expects an EPA rating of 21 mpg city, 32 mpg highway.
New goals had been set for the suspension, as well as for the engine. The changes focus on crisper handling and better steering feel, combined with a more supple ride than you’ll find in the garden-variety pony car. To that end, SVO developed a new front suspension that uses Lincoln Continental forged lower control arms and adjustable Koni low-pressure gas-filled shocks. The springs, the bushings, and the anti-roll bar are specifically tuned for this model. The new pieces provide an additional inch of bump-absorbing travel for the front end. At the rear, the standard Mustang four-link arrangement is carried over with new bushings, springs, gas-filled Konis, and a pair of ventilated disc brakes for better stopping power.
During the course of the project, the SVO team’s idealism was tested time and again by the inertia of a system in which, according to one SVO insider, “people are used to doing things the simplest and least expensive way.” Like most big carmakers, Ford isn’t geared to produce limited-production, high-performance models—a run of only about ten thousand SVOs is planned—or to deal with the special problems of doing so.
Finding the right parts to give the Mustang SVO the highest steering effort of any Ford, for instance, meant going to TRW, an outside supplier. Borg-Warner had to be whipped into shape to supply the lightest-possible shift effort. It took the equivalent of a papal edict to permit the heel-and-toe pedal arrangement in the face of Ford’s own rigid passenger-car standards, which were designed to prevent the pedals from being too close for ancient safety reasons.
From what we’ve seen of the Mustang SVO so far, all the feathers ruffled along the way were ruffled for a good cause. Unfortunately, because of the constraints of such new-car previews, we had less than an hour of wheel time in the real world and only a couple of hot laps around the Sears Point road course. But we have come away thinking that the Mustang SVO has the unmistakable shimmer of a driver’s car about it. When you strap it on, it feels right. The controls move with the heft and accuracy associated with some of the higher-priced European and Japanese sedans. The seat of our editorial pants tells us that this car is good news that travels fast—and our instrumented testing confirms it. Zipping to 60 mph takes only 7.5 seconds, and top speed peaks at a satisfying 128 mph. What’s more, the seats feel good, the shifter moves like a fine instrument, and the pedals make you look like Fred Astaire.
By the looks of it, all this racy goodness will not come cheap. The system might have stretched far enough to produce the Mustang SVO, but limited production still equates with higher costs. Though no final prices have been set yet, the word we get is that the Mustang SVO will come in at around $16,000—which puts it square up against some pretty heady competition. Still, with only 10,000 cars to sell, the exclusivity alone should create enough market demand to sell the line out.
Donald Petersen, you might be interested to know, was right there rubbing elbows with us press types the whole time—lapping Sears, drinking Michigan hummer into the night, and listening to our comments. And Petersen is one car-company president who understands drivers’ cars, having just recently completed the four-day competition course at the Bondurant driving school.
As we begin our descent over western Michigan, he’s talking about the highs and low of the Mustang SVO. “Its special strength for me is its unusual blend of extremely good handling, performance capability, and ride quality. It remains a car that’s friendly to be in, that’s comfortable, that doesn’t jar you.” He allows that he would have liked to do a more modern instrument panel “that would have been more compatible with the automobile.”
And he is vexed by our comment that the SVO drivetrain still lacks the smoothness of the BMW 318i that was along on the comparison drive. He’s going to look into that, he says.
We’ll have to hold off chiseling any of our judgments into granite until we see a production Mustang SVO or three. But we can voice our praise at the good news that Ford continues to move in a more enlightened direction. As Petersen says: “Big companies are like big ships: it takes a long time to turn them around.” For now, we can all be happy that Petersen and friends at least have the rudder turned the right way.
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