Author: DewZown/Tuesday, June 5, 2012/Categories: The Marti Report

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In the race for sales, the Fox-body Mustang represented a fork in the road. Ford could continue to build in the American style of Big Engine at a sacrifice in mileage, or produce the European refinement of reasonable horsepower from a small mill while simultaneously pushing (or pulling) the vehicle farther down the road on a gallon of gas.

We’ve been developing a theme in recent columns that emphasizes the marketing approach that was taken with the Fox-bodied Mustangs — creating an association in the mind of the American public of buying “American” while receiving European” quality and style. With gasoline having more than doubled in price in a very short time and two oil “crises” that left people waiting in long gas lines, fuel economy was front and center in the American consciousness. You couldn’t build a muscle car and get great gas mileage. Or could you?

With the ’82 model year, Ford had developed a reasonable balance for the Mustang GT offering power and fair mileage. Still, with their sights set on Euro-sedans and the need for better fuel economy, Ford once again decided to try turbo-charging the little 2.3-liter Pinto motor under the direction of their new Motorsports division, SVO (Special Vehicle Operations).

The year 1984 saw the availability of both the V-8 GT Mustang and the four-cylinder SVO Mustang, both putting out 175 hp. The Mustang had reached a fork in the road. The SVO Mustang got 25 percent better fuel economy; the GT had more torque. The SVO Mustang would be Ford’s answer to the rapidly expanding BMW-type market in the United States. In just three years after the first Energy Crisis of 1973, BMW would double its sales of the 3 Series. This and the trend of European vehicle sales in general did not escape the notice of the decision-makers at Ford. The flow of vehicles across the ocean to the United States was causing a significant erosion of sales. Rather than counting on sales of hundreds of thousands of vehicles, Ford had to strategize on sales of tens of thousands of units (and even just thousands of units). Here, the target was 10,000 units per year. Only a third of that goal was met. This would ultimately decide the direction for the Mustang, although there would remain a group at Ford that was going to take another shot at it with the Ford Probe.

The SVO Mustang did not enjoy sales success. Simply put, the target audience consisted largely of customers who wanted V-8 performance cars. And the fading memory of the second oil crisis and falling gas prices lowered fuel economy on the buyers’ priority list.

Though the refinements and improvements of the SVO were magnificent for an American car of the ’80s, they weren’t what most Mustang buyers were looking for. Four-wheel disc brakes were great for stopping. The shocks and springs were fine-tuned so that the SVO Mustang would out-handle a Ferrari 308 or Porsche 944. But torque is what the typical buyer focused on. The $6,000 higher price tag was a hindrance also. And while, in theory, the idea was to lure some upscale European buyers to the showroom, it wasn’t much of a success (to see Lincoln-Mercury’s parallel blunder, Google Merkur).

Therefore, it should be no surprise that the loftier SVO, the Competition Prep model, sold only 174 units over the course of the three-year run. The $1,200-$1,500 credit to have the power windows and air conditioning deleted did not go far toward enticing buyers for this option. The handful of enthusiasts who took their Comp Prep SVO Mustangs to the track didn’t garner the publicity Ford desired. Mindsets are difficult to break. The market analysis clearly showed the market segment was 30-50 year-old, college-educated, upper middle-class males. These men grew up around or heard their dads talk about muscle cars. And a little four-cylinder wasn’t part of the definition.

I can personally attest to this. In the early ’80s, I drove my V-8 classic Ford to work every Friday. A fellow engineer, Gene, drove his Porsche 914. When we’d meet in the parking lot, we would get into endless arguments about the superiority of our respective cars. It was like a man and woman talking at each other, each speaking a different language (I’ll let you guess what gender I thought Gene was). He argued about high revs and gas mileage. I didn’t even hear him with those points. I knew I had pulling power and could lay down skids 100 feet long.

In the end, lackluster sales of the Euro-style performance Mustang taught Ford that Americans wanted cars built in the American tradition. Brutish, not British, would be one way of putting it. Art Hyde, Ford’s Mustang chief program engineer a decade ago summed it up to me as, “More bang for the buck.” I’d say, “Muscl8.” The ’94 Mustang saw the return of American styling and a firm commitment to V-8 power that is with us to this day. Remember, the Probe almost became the Mustang. People like Robert Rewey, general manager at Ford, understood the public. It wasn’t the European way that Americans were looking for after all; it was just the quality. They wanted that quality with the Yankee interpretation of a car.

Ford did show you could build a muscle car and get good gas mileage, but not enough of the public cared for this approach. The price tag was too high, and gas prices were at an acceptable level. There are three things to remember about what the American muscle-car buyer pays attention to: price, performance, and pride of ownership. The Mustang GT lined up more closely with that.

Historically, what’s important about the SVO program, like the M81 program discussed in a previous column, is what it was teaching Ford engineers and marketers about the whole package. Our expectations for new Mustang performance have been greatly enhanced by developments like four-wheel disc brakes, suspension tuning, and tire technology. These and many other refinements are now demanded by the Performance Buyer. Now, if they could just do something about those seats.

Article originally published in issue 5 of Fox Mustang Magazine

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