The Mustang Story: Generation Three (1983 – 1993)
By 1983, the Mustang convertible was back. And so was the “Boss” performance attitude, as Ford’s pony car steadily rekindled its sporting heritage.
Following the gas crisis and tighter emissions standards of the 70s, the Mustang lineup of the early 1980s was still unable to deliver on the on the kind of performance that driving enthusiasts embraced with the first generation. Some even felt that Ford product planners had forgotten the true meaning of “Mustang.”
Neil Ressler was Ford’s chief engineer of Midsize and Small Cars at the time. Ressler’s team decided to beef up the Mustang’s power by replacing the two-barrel carburetor with a four-barrel and upgrading the tires and the brakes.
“That began the resurgence of the Mustang GT,” said Mr Ressler. “The horsepower rating jumped to 175.”
While Ressler’s team was reintroducing the GT model, another group at Ford was working on a special low-volume edition of the Mustang for the 1984 model year called the SVO (developed by Special Vehicle Operations). It sported a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a sports-tuned suspension, a unique front fascia with fog lamps and even a dual-wing rear spoiler.
In addition to the SVO model, Ford produced another limited-edition Mustang – this one to commemorate the nameplate’s 20th anniversary. All of those cars – coupes and convertibles – were painted Oxford White with Canyon Red interiors and powered by either a V8 or a turbocharged inline four-cylinder.
Mustang power continued to accelerate from 1984 to 1986, which in turn helped to boost sales for that period. Customer preference for the 5.0-liter V8 spelled the end of the SVO Mustangs.
By 1987, it was again time for Mustang to keep up with a changing market, so designers gave the Fox-body – the platform introduced in 1979 – a facelift with new “aero-look” design cues.
While Mustangs continued to evolve from the early to mid-80s, Ford’s product development team was already looking for alternatives to the Fox-body.
“There were people who thought Mustang was headed for the scrap heap,” said Mr Ressler. “Sales were sluggish, and they thought that front-wheel drive modern-looking cars were the wave of the future.”
After Ford signed an agreement with Mazda to build the Mazda 626 and MX-6 at a new plant just outside of Detroit, the idea was to use the front-wheel drive Mazda platform as the underpinnings for the “new Mustang.”
“When news came out that the all-American Mustang was going to be based on a Japanese car and built by a Japanese company, plus move to front-wheel drive and again go back to losing its V8 engine, the nameplate’s legion of fans could hardly believe it,” said John Clor, author of the book The Mustang Dynasty. “By the time a cover story in AutoWeek magazine hit the newsstands on April 13, 1987 – questioning ‘The Next Mustang?’ – the Mustang-badged Mazda was already the target of a letter-writing campaign launched by the editors of Mustang magazines across the country.”
The public had spoken, and Ford listened. The front-wheel drive Mazda became the 1989 Ford Probe, and the Ford Mustang lived on.
“It was the only time I can remember in my career when the will of the public affected a major decision in advance of the decision being made,” he said. “They brought about something I thought at the beginning was worth trying but wouldn’t work. But I was enthusiastic. I thought it was crazy to get rid of the only performance rear-wheel drive car we had.”
In the early 90s, Ressler and a group of performance enthusiasts within the company came up with the idea to build an increased-performance Mustang out of Ford Motorsports performance parts (now known as Ford Racing Performance Parts). Based on the lessons learned from the SVO Mustang program, this group’s goal was to attract driving enthusiasts to the Ford brand.
“It was a confederation of people, all of whom had their own home organizations in different areas within the company, such as Marketing, Engineering and Product Planning,” Mr Ressler explained. “When we worked together, we described our activities as occurring with the Special Vehicle Team or SVT.”
In 1993, SVT introduced the limited production Mustang Cobra that began a series of specialty models over the years which delivered ever-increasing performance capability – right on up to today’s SVT-engineered Shelby GT500.
Interestingly enough, Ressler says many of the projects the team spearheaded at Ford – like the Mustang Cobra – were not formally approved by upper management.
“We just found the money and thought that as long as we were doing things that were good for the company, we were safe not to ask for permission,” he said. “We were prepared to ask for forgiveness, but we never had to.”
We will feature the fourth and fifth generations of the Mustang Story later this Easter long weekend.
CarAdvice wishes to thank Ford Media US for use of text and images.