Mustang four-cylinder chatter for 2015.

With all this talk about the 2015 Ford Mustang going to have a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it had me questioning why so many enthusiasts are hating the idea.  This comes into question not because I think it’s a great plan (I’m actually mixed on it), nor is it because of the history of the Mustang SVO which I will discuss later in the blog.  Instead I’d like to focus on the history of the Mustang’s dark years of the 1970’s on into the 1980’s, and make it plain that if the name can survive those times (especially under the circumstances), having a four-pot turbo Mustang now won’t dent the model either.

The only SVO I’ve ever seen, captured at the 2010 San Francisco Giants World Series parade. This is a 1985-86 as the ’84 had recessed headlights.

Of course the 1964 ½ Mustang was a massive revolution to the automotive industry for the time.  Unlike the Pontiac GTO of the same year, which took a Pontiac LeMans body and plopped in a Hurst shifter, 396 cubic inch V8, and an aggressive stance for a factory hot-rod, the Mustang had a distinct look to boot.  Yes, the Mustang was based on the grocery-run Ford Falcon, but the young buyers were loving the sporty new look, the low price and many options to make it theirs.

Fast forward to 1974 when gas and insurance was killing the muscle car, and the Mustang II emerged alongside the very large 1973 Mustang in showrooms.  The recipe of the Mustang II was actually very similar to the 1964 ½ model—a better body placed on a hum-drum vehicle, though in this case the drum was a Ford Pinto.  This was the first of the four-cylinder Mustangs, featuring an 88hp 2.3L SOHC engine in base trim.  Optional engines included a 105hp 2.8L V6 and—in some— a 302 cu.in. V8 pushing the 2,900lb car along with 140hp—which is what some subcompacts are making today (and also weigh the same).  The next year, power would drop for the Mustang II as catalytic converters were installed for smog emission standards.

All the while, General Motors was still pumping out the Camaro and Trans Am, and making a media icon through the 1977 film “Smoky and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds.  The machismo-ridden black-and-gold T-top with the “screamin’ chicken” hood definitely garnered plenty of attention by keeping close to the muscle car roots.  The Mustang II, however, was a silent best seller, with nearly a million leaving lots—one of the best selling Mustang generations.  There were even Cobra and Mach 1 variations.  Regardless, this was a very dark hour in the Mustang history– an hour that makes you question if one can really say it was a Mustang at all.  To put it another way, was the Ranger-based Bronco II the same as a Ford F-Series based Bronco?

By 1979, the Mustang “II” disappeared for just “Mustang,” as the new Fox body took over.  While still initially offering the same Pinto 2.3L, 2.8L V6, and 302 (4.9L) V8 as the old car, the new Fox Body lost the Pinto stigma.  For the first three years, the engines bounced around due to production speed and yet another fuel shortage, but it did give Ford the chance to try their first turbo-four in the Mustang.  Like most old turbos, though, it wasn’t very reliable, and ended up being taken out of production until the 1984 SVO had worked out some bugs, and had anywhere from 175 to 205 horsepower depending on the year.  The SVO engine departed in 1986, with the V8 putting out 225hp, more torque, and had increased reliability and linearity in power delivery (Car & Driver described the lag as “schizophrenic”).  The price difference was also enough to land most owners in the V8 models, especially since the V8 had now surpassed the SVO’s output.  Pontiac tried the same thing with a limited-production run of the third generation Trans Am TTA (less than 3,000 built), throwing a Buick Grand National turbo V6 into the body, and can be called the fastest production car of 1989.  At least the Mustang was more attainable (just under 10,000 built).

One of the problems with the old SVO was Ford was trying to make the turbo the V8 alternative—the top model.  What the SVO brought to the table was awful turbo lag for the era, marginally faster acceleration, and better handling over the Mustang GT—and that’s comparing the ’84 SVO to the ’83 GT, not even the updated ’86 and ’87 Mustang GT’s that took over the SVO spot.

For right now, the official word isn’t clear as to whether the U.S. will even get the turbo engine in the 2015 Mustang (it is guaranteed in Europe, though).  If the turbo is sold in the U.S., the V8 engine will still be the top-dog variant for a little while longer.  All the turbo is there for is keeping the fuel-economy average down for the company, and little else.  Just remember, the worst Mustang was one of the best selling.  You may very well know someone with a four-pot Mustang in the coming years.

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