Today, we marvel at the rise of the four-cylinder engine. No longer saddled with the reputation of being the universal powerplant of the economy car, turbocharging, electronic systems, and engine tuning has made it one of the most versatile — and popular — engines found in new cars across the board. Of course, the four-banger’s reputation is something of an American hang-up; there have been some brilliant small displacement engines built in Europe and Japan over the years. But until fairly recently, most Americans still held fast to “there’s no replacement for displacement.” With cars like the Ford Focus RS, Mustang EcoBoost, and Camaro 2.0T, we’re glad to see that gearheads are finally coming around, and the walls are finally coming down for small, forced-induction engines.
But there has to be a first for everything, and it may surprise you that the direct ancestor for these cars is now over 30 years old. The Ford Mustang SVO wasn’t just the fastest, most expensive, and most advanced Mustang of its day, it also may have saved the iconic nameplate from extinction. At a time when American automakers were still figuring out how to get power from their emissions-choked V8s, the SVO seemed to hint at a better way. It may have taken decades, but automakers have finally found their way back there, and the results so far have been spectacular.
When the Fox platform-based Mustang debuted for 1979, its base engine was a Pinto-sourced, 2.3-liter 88-horsepower four. It proved to be a popular (albeit unexciting) option, but Ford soon realized that the engine was surprisingly robust, and responded well to forced induction. In 1980, the 2.3 Turbo appeared, making 132 horsepower — just eight shy of the 4.2-liter V8. Like the range-topping eight-cylinder, the Turbo model could be had with the performance-focused TRX wheel and suspension package, making it a formidable sports car. But the new technology wasn’t quite there yet, and the turbocharged 2.3 skipped the 1982 model year so Ford could make emergency revisions. It returned with fuel injection for 1983 as the Turbo GT.
But by the mid ’80s, the Mustang was in serious trouble. Emissions regulations had neutered the surviving muscle cars of their ’60s-era performance, and underpowered versions of the coupes weren’t finding buyers like they used to. Slightly more expensive competitors like the Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Porsche 924 all offered livelier performance, better handling, and stronger fuel economy, and were attracting buyers who might have gone for muscle cars a decade earlier. What’s more, Ford was in trouble. Scrambling to field a lineup of fuel efficient compact cars, and dealing with two of the largest scandals in automotive history (Pinto fires and defective automatic transmissions), the company lost over $3.5 billion between 1979 and 1983. Rumors began to circulate that Ford would kill off the Fox-based Mercury Capri and Mustang after 1983.