Ford Develops the Mustang SVO at
Nelson Ledges

June 18-20 1982 and June 25-26 1983

Updated: 2012.06.16


Ford did an extraordinary thing back in the early 80s - and very few people know about it anymore. Engineers from the Mustang development team took their engineering prototypes to Nelson Ledges to accelerate development by racing them in a 24-hour endurance event. Ford wanted the experience of the endurance "test", good or bad, and understood that racing offered an absolutely unique environment that their own test labs couldn't match.

These were the days of people like Donald Peterson - who created the relationship with the Bondurant school and jump-started the company we knew and loved back then. The events of those few years - the revitalization of the Mustang, the creation of the SVO, and the establishment of the SVO (now "FRPP") parts catalog - very nearly single-handedly created the entire performance aftermarket phenomenon that we take for granted today. Even though the Mustang SVO was ultimately a marketing and sales failure, it established a chain of events that directly led to the establishment of a permanent line of Mustang performance cars - starting with SVT. More importantly, to me, it established that Ford could do "it" - create an all-around balanced car with a complete performance repertoire - not addressing acceleration but more importantly focusing on braking and cornering dynamics. Ford coined the phrase "Form follows Function" for the Mustang SVO and that sums up the new philosophy.

Ford took the experience gained and improved the cars in many ways (as they did years later with the SVT Contour and SVT Cobra).

The Quaker State Oil Longest Day of Nelson (Ledges) was a (semi-) SCCA--sanctioned 24-hour endurance event for showroom stock type cars. It was a very popular race for many years - and only had to end because of the sad condition of the track. But there was a very important difference between the usual SCCA "showroom stock" race and this one: it was a ground breaking first-ever 24-hour endurance event, and it also included a unique class for factory-entered prototypes. This event eventually spawned several others around the country, including an entire IMSA series, but was still unique because of the prototype class.

The driving force behind the event was Anne McHugh - a force of one. She led the event for years and years, well past the call of duty.

Background: The SCCA Showroom Stock class was created for specific cars, in "showroom" condition. This meant the absolute minimum of racing preparation (roll cage, brake pads, etc) - and no performance or suspension modifications. The prototype classes, however, were completely different - the car didn't even have to exist (yet - or so the SCCA believed. Some of the prototypes that were entered would never actually exist in production) and it could only be entered by a manufacturer or their agents only.

I was an SCCA-licensed Grid Marshall in these and other events for several years. That meant that I was responsible for a number of pits during the race, guiding the race cars in and out, making sure they were safe when they left, and putting out any fires when they came in. At the Longest Day events in 1982 and 1983, I was responsible for the pits of the Mustang SVOs. As a Mustang owner, racer, and long-time enthusiast you can only imagine what they meant to me.

I spent a lot of time working at this type of event at both Nelson Ledges and Watkins Glen. I really enjoyed participating in 24-hour endurance events while they were popular in the eighties (even the weekend at the 'Glen when it snowed)!


For the 1981 Longest Day of Nelson Ledges race, Ford took the extraordinary step of inviting teams from Car & Driver and Road & Track magazines to drive two of their engineering prototypes of the upcoming Escort EXP. This brave step established a rivalry for the couple of years these two magazines competed. Some of the editors had already been driving in SCCA "showroom stock" racing, and this offer was probably irresistible. Both teams competed, then wrote glowing articles about the new attitude at Ford. Unfortunately, the EXPs themselves repeatedly lost wheel bearings and other parts.


In 1982, Ford offered the magazines an entirely different type of car for the event. Instead of continuing to ask the magazines to race economy cars, Ford would offer them prototypes for a car that was planned to be offered in 1983 (but was delayed until 1984). It was a Mustang, but with a very different engine and suspension. It was intended to be an extraordinarily balanced and much more sophisticated type of Mustang.

I worked in the pits for over two days straight - all the practice and qualifying runs as well as the 24-hour race. Why did I want to subject myself to this? Simple: it got me next to the race cars and drivers. In fact, I was assigned (for both years) to the area immediately in front of the Ford pits. The rules were really loose back then - I even got to assist (on the periphery) with a couple of parts swaps in the middle of the night.  

In a typical 24-hour event, I worked two 8-hour shifts, attempted to sleep (tough to do with race cars screeching around the track non-stop!), and spent the rest of the time walking around the track to watch the race and observe the SVO. In the second year, I made the mistake of swilling Jolt Cola to stay awake and literally spent several days in a row awake. That stuff scares me!

I also worked a couple of the 12 and 24 hour IMSA showroom stick endurance races at Watkins Glen and witnessed the next stage of the battle between Ford and GM thru the '87 timeframe. The Camaros and Firebirds kept up the fight, and it was all over when GM decided to race the Corvette in these classes. Despite technical problems, GM soldiered on and overcame them, while Ford basically gave up after the demise of the SVO. Saleen took the torch, and ran very well for a few years on what was basically SVO technology.

These endurance events were fantastic to attend and participate in. Unfortunately they are few and far between these days.

Ford engineers had been enthusiastic about the potential of small high performance engines for years. For the 1979 model year, Ford introduced an all-new Mustang with an optional (and unprecedented) 2.3 liter SOHC turbocharged 4 cylinder engine. The car quickly became known for it's extraordinary handling and balance. The level of finesse the car offered - compared to the old Pinto-based Mustang - was completely new to the Mustang audience. How would customers react to a car that was much more sophisticated than anything they had known? Very well, and the new '79 sold in huge numbers. A 302 c.i. V-8 was also offered, but was only marginally faster in straight line acceleration. Worse yet, it suffered from noticeably poorer handling due to an extra 200+ pounds over the front wheels. Ford felt they were on the "right track" with this new direction. Giving the looming tightening of the emissions and mileage regulations, this new direction was leading edge thinking.

Unfortunately, reliability became an issue with the turbocharged 4-cylinder. Not because the basic engine architecture wasn't up to the task, but because the state-of-the-art in those days didn't yet include fuel injection - a vital bit of hardware for an engine that would see cylinder pressures and temperature considerably increased. With a few very basic tuning changes, the carbureted engine continued to be sold through the 1981 model year (1982 in Canada) while the next steps in the evolution were prepared.

For 1983, the turbo engine received several changes, including the first application of Ford's new port fuel injection system. This system, similar to the Bosch L-Jetronic system, offered new levels of improved drivability as well as the ability to tune the engine for much better emissions characteristics than could be achieved with a crude carburetor. Carburetors had been in existence since the turn of the century, and while they had been refined to a high degree, they always offered a fuel-air ratio compromise at some point in their range of airflow. This wasn't going to be acceptable to drivers whose expectations were being raised by increasingly more sophisticated imported cars, nor would it provide the exact control over the air-fuel ratio that would be required to meet upcoming emissions standards. Fuel injection was the only possible route so help solve these requirements. For a turbocharged engine, it was the only possible way to approach the drivability, performance, and emissions compliance targets.

Ford would offer two variations of this engine - a basic turbocharged engine that would be an option in the GT, and a "knockout punch" version that would be the only engine offered in an all-new model of Mustang. The model would be named after the new group that created it - Special Vehicles Operation or "SVO".

The SVO was intended from the start to be a world-class sports coupe. There wouldn't be any thought given to relying on rear drum brakes, or to tuning the car for drag racers. Large 4-wheel disk brakes would be standard, steering feel would be significantly improved, and gear ratios would be chosen that would result in excellent acceleration, but wouldn't limit real-world use. Ford realized that it would be difficult and expensive to make the very "pedestrian" Mustang chassis and body into what they really wanted - but they took the leap anyway.

Unfortunately, many different realities within Ford worked against the realization of this vision. There wouldn't be any financial justification to create any significantly different body panels, much less anything truly exotic. Many parts would have to be shared with the upcoming Thunderbird Turbo Coupe - itself an even more radical departure from the norm - including the new Borg Warner T5 5-speed transmission (with ratios designed to move a heavy car off the line, not needed or ideal for the much lighter Mustang).

Some of the more advanced ideas were very difficult to put in production. Ford had planned to introduce the new "aero" headlights on three of it's cars. Unfortunately, the government and industry groups responsible for defining the new standards made a decision so late that only the Mark-VII could afford to implement the new headlights. The Mustang SVO and the T-Bird were both designed for these lights from the start, but would have to wait until later production to get them because of budget and scheduling requirements.

The engineers at SVO also wanted to rearrange the foot pedals in the car. They had a very difficult time. Ford engineering normally mandates certain distances and relationships for the three pedals. The SVO engineers had to apply for an exemption to be granted, then had to justify the extra cost to tool up for the new equipment. This change was critical because the SVO engineers knew that the satisfaction of the owners would be critical to establishing the sort of reputation they wanted for their car.

The prototypes were crude, built with many off-the-shelf parts as well as some cobbled parts that were never intended or even feasible for certification and production (such as the front-mount intercooler - given the necessary piping it could never pass crash testing) . In order to test the cars - and public reaction - Ford brought two identical prototypes (and many spare parts) to Nelson Ledges for the 24-hour endurance race in June 1982.

This picture illustrates the prototype nature of the 1982 SVO race car. Several things of note in this picture:

Close-ups of the intercooler routing. Due to crash standards, this arrangement could never be used in production. Yet given the basic layout of the engine compartment and the length of the front end, there were very few alternatives. The production solution was an intercooler mounted directly over the turbo, fed by a hood scoop (which at higher speeds, vented air in the wrong direction).

A view from the drivers side. Note:


This is another view from that side, showing the prototype intake manifold. A considerable amount of work had gone into it's design, which was so efficient it outlasted the use of the 2.3 liter engine in the Mustang. Note the tiny radiator - it would prove to be a negative factor in the survivability of this car in the race.

Go to page 2 - continuation of the Mustang SVO story