Trying to keep the performance flame flickering in the late '70s was no easy task. Powerful V-8s had been all but outlawed -- the handful that still remained in production kneecapped by emissions control and fuel economy considerations to the point that their output barely surpassed the go-power offered by the V-6s that were on the table. Ford's once-proud 302 V-8, for instance, had been reduced to a 120 horsepower embarrassment -- and the Mustang was free-falling into economy car hell.

While it would have been no problem, engineering-wise, to beef up the Mustang's V-8 engine to respectable levels, the two-fisted stranglehold of OPEC and the EPA made that strategy a non-starter. But turbocharging might be the road to high-performance salvation. Force-feeding an engine air and fuel (instead of it sucking them in at atmospheric pressure) enabled a small engine to make big engine power "on demand." But when the driver didn't have his foot in it (and the engine wasn't under boost) improved fuel economy was possible due to the smaller displacement. The best of both worlds -- at least, in theory.

This redirection of thought about modern, post OPEC/mileage and emissions conscious-performance was the genesis point for what eventually became the Mustang SVO.

"SVO," of course, was the acronym for Ford's in-house tuner shop, the Special Vehicles Operation Department. It still exists today -- even though the SVO Mustang has been gone for more than 20 years now.

Formed in 1980 under the direction of ex-racer and Ford Europe motorsports honcho Michael Kranefuss, SVO's original purpose was to develop high-performance/track-ready vehicles and parts to showcase Ford technology -- with an eye toward possible production examples of those cars and parts.

Hints of what was to come could be seen in the initial batch of Ford SVO racing vehicles, such as the IMSA concept put together for the '81 season -- and in the very limited run of McLaren Mustangs, which featured highly turbocharged four-cylinder engines and a claimed output of 175-hp. Just 250 of these were ever built -- with a price tag of more than $25,000 each. Most were farmed out to professional racers, but conceptually, these cars helped establish the path for what eventually became the production model SVO Mustang in 1984.

The SVO Mustang would be American in style and attitude -- but competitive with European sporty cars in terms of finesse and technology. That, of course, automatically ruled out the decades-old 5 liter, 302 V-8 used in the Mustang GT -- which would continue to be fed by an old-timey Holley carburetor through the mid-1980s. The Five-oh was an effective power-producer and a great muscle car engine -- but it was about as subtle and sophisticated as an Andrew Dice Clay love poem.

Instead, SVO engineers turned their attention to the 2.3 liter, 88-hp "Lima" four -- an engine that had seen service in the lowly Pinto as well as countless other Ford vehicles, in both the European and North American markets. Envisioning this utilitarian lump as a credible performance engine took some long-distance vision, but SVO engineers were up to the task.

Like the earlier IMSA and Mclaren competition cars, a personality change was effected via high-boost turbocharging complemented by both fuel injection and air-to-air intercooling -- a technological Great Leap Forward for an American car during the early Reagan Years. There was even an adjustable boost control set-up for the AirResearch T03 turbo, which could develop as much as 14 psi, depending on available fuel quality. An "eek four" EEV IV engine processor controlled the whole works, with peak output registering at 175-hp. This was a big number for 1984 and dead even with the same-year Mustang GT's 5.0 liter V-8 -- which also produced 175-hp, but needed more than twice the 140 cubic inch SVO's displacement to do it.

The car's performance was crisp -- with 0-60 capability of 7.7 seconds and mid-high 15s in the quarter mile through the standard Hurst-shifted 5-speed manual transmission, heavy-duty clutch and 3.45 geared Traction-Loc axle. The SVO also ran with the V-8 GT on the top end -- both cars running solidly into the 130s, all out.

But the SVO (unlike the more blue collar GT) was always more than just a straight-line car. Indeed, one of the SVO team's specific goals was to deliver a handler (and braker) as well as a runner. To that end, the SVO Mustang featured a suspension that was highly modified relative to the more conventional set-up used in the V-8 GT. Among the standout features were Koni struts and shocks (pre-set to the "city" setting at the factory by Koni), a specially calibrated rack and pinion steering system with a fast-ratio box designed for the "on center" feel craved by enthusiast drivers, as well as 16-inch (and 5-lug) rims fitted with VR-rated (130-plus) 225/50-series Goodyear NCT tires designed specifically for the car. (Later cars would get Goodyear "Gatorbacks.") All SVOs came with high-capacity four-wheel disc brakes, too. Everything was set up to make full use of the SVO's curb weight (and weight distribution) advantages relative to the V-8 GT, which like all traditional American muscle cars was nose heavy due to the lump of cast iron sitting over its front axle centerline.

On the outside, SVOs stood apart with a unique front-end treatment capped off with grille-less beak and flush-mounted aero-style headlights; integrated foglights, functional off-center hood scoop (which ducted outside air to the intercooler underneath), SVO-specific tail-lights (later adopted by the V-8 GT) and a "twin-deck" rear spoiler were also unique to this model.

Inside, there were Lear/Siglar sport buckets with side bolsters and pump-up lumbar supports, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gauge package with 18 psi boost gauge and an "illegal" 140 mph speedo that got around the federal law then in force which required speedometers read no higher than 85 mph by simply leaving off the numerals once you got going faster than that. But the SVO's speedo had non-numeric markers all the way to close to triple the double nickel -- a nice touch of outlaw thinking at a time when few cars had any guts at all.

SVOs were "loaded" cars as they sat -- with the few options one could order confined to a leather seat package and a sunroof. There was, however, a way to delete options via a Competition Prep package. Cars so ordered came through without the otherwise standard air conditioning, power windows, door locks and other amenities that added weight at the expense of maximum performance capability. No official performance numbers are available for the Competition Prep cars, but shaving several hundred pounds off the SVO's weight should have translated into 2-3 tenths on the 0-60 and quarter-mile scorecards.

Four exterior colors were available initially -- Black, Dark Charcoal Metallic, Silver Metallic and Medium Canyon Red. The '84 SVO's interior was only offered in one color -- Charcoal.

Ford upped the ante considerably in mid-year 1985 -- when the SVO's engine was modified to produce 205-hp via an upgraded, water-cooled turbo capable of 15 psi of boost, a new intake manifold, 35-lb. per hour injectors (vs. 30 lbs. per hour the previous year), a freer-flowing exhaust system with dual mufflers and tailpipes -- and a more capable EEV IV computer. The rear axle ratio was also more aggressive at 3.73:1, while the Koni shocks were now dialed in to the firmer "cross country" setting. Zero to 60 times dropped by almost half a second, to 7.2-7.3 seconds -- while quarter-mile capability was closing in on 15 seconds flat. Tuners were getting their cars into the 14s by adjusting the boost and other minor tweaks

And of course, the car's handling was exceptional; many considering it the finest handling American-built car of its era. Autoweek magazine's reviewers were especially effusive, writing: "All we can say after driving both [the BMW 320i and the Mustang SVO] is, 'No contest' and 'Congratulations SVO'."

Without doubt, the SVO Mustang was a daring, impressive package -- particularly for Ford; but two inter-related things conspired to strangle this high tech hot rod in its crib.

The first was the SVO's sphincter-tightening price tag of $15,970 (for the inaugural year '84 model). This was almost $6,000 more than the base price of the just-as-fast V-8 GT that year.

Perhaps if the SVO had offered a clear straight-line performance advantage in addition to being a superior handler, the extra $6k Ford was asking might have gone over. But the typical Mustang buyer wasn't about to pony up a sum sufficient to hot-rod his V-8 GT into a 400 horsepower street terror (and leave plenty left over for gas and insurance) for a turbo car that wasn't any quicker than a V-8 GT in showroom stock condition.

The second -- and ultimately fatal -- problem for the SVO and turbo performance cars in general was the resurgence of the tried-and-true V-8 as the powerplant of choice for latter-day American muscle cars like the Mustang. By incorporating the same computer-controlled carbs (and later, port fuel injection) along with overdrive transmissions that helpd the turbo engines deliver decent gas mileage as well as high-performance, the old school V-8's mileage could be brought within acceptable parameters -- and its emissions kept in check, too. Add into this mix the inherently simpler (and thus less expensive) layout of the cast iron/pushrod V-8 vs. the high-strung/high RPM turbo/intercooled four and it's easy to see why more than 32,000 buyers opted for the standard GT in 1984 -- while only 4,508 lined up for the SVO.

As the GT's power increased in '85 to 210 (and later 225-hp), the SVO's market was further cut out from underneath it. Very predictably, Ford cashiered the model after little more than two years of production. The final '86 year SVOs were basically carryovers, with the only difference between them and the previous year SVOs being a downrating of the official hp number to 200 from 205, due to fuel quality issues and the addition of the newly mandated Center High Mounted third brake light being added to the rear spoiler. Approximately 3,982 SVOs left the line that final year -- bringing total SVO production to just under 10,000 examples, all told.

The turbo's brief moment in the sun was gone; it was back to the future for Ford -- and to the 5-liter OHV V-8 engine, which remained in production all the way to the mid-1990s (before being replaced by a more up-to-date overhead cam V-8).

As a historical footnote, there was solid evidence Ford had been toying with a DOHC/16-valve versionof the 2.3 liter engine for what might have been the '87 SVO -- with as much as 275-hp. But it never went further than in-house design and engineering studies. As gas prices dropped to cheaper-than-bottle-water levels and the economy surged upward on the Internet and Dotcom boom, V-8s became the favored choice -- and the stars of the Mustang lineup.

But the SVO's memory lingers as an interesting moment in the Mustang's history -- and a reminder of how different the Mustang might be today had gas prices stayed high and development work on the turbo engine continued.