The Ford Mustang needs no introduction, after all, the car has been around since 1965; in the sports car universe, only the Chevrolet Corvette (1953), and the Porsche 911 (1963) can rival the Mustang in longevity.
Words like icon, and legend, have been loosely thrown around to better describe the “Old Horse” and we all know those words are true but the Mustang had had its fair share of bumpy roads throughout these years. Thanks to the oil crisis of the 1970s Ford tried very hard to detach the Mustang from the gas-guzzling, performance car image and bring it to the compact, fuel-efficient car field.
In 1974, Ford released the infamous Mustang II, the car the Mustang enthusiasts love to hate. In its first year, Ford went too far: for the first time in history, the Mustang wasn’t offered with a V8 engine. It didn’t take long before the company realized the number of customers that wanted the Mustang to stay as a performance car was too big to be ignored and the 302 V8 was brought back for the next year. During the 1970s, the 302 was severely detuned to make it a little more fuel-efficient and to make things even worse, a primitive emission control system chocked the engine down to a ridiculous 140 HP. Terrible times indeed.
Ford had a real conundrum at hand, how to keep the speed freaks Mustang customers happy and at the same time create this new image as an efficient car?
I believe History one day will give a fair trial to the Mustang II, even if it wasn’t anything more than a Ford Pinto in different clothes, I think it was the right car for the right time and it helped to keep the Mustang nameplate alive. Nevertheless, in 1979 Ford replaced the Mustang II with the car that became one of the most beloved Mustang platforms ever, the Fox Body.
With the Fox Body Ford gave the Mustang a more European look, and the company was determined to divert some of the Mustang customers away from the V8, giving them the option of a much smaller displacement as a performance engine and the perfect candidate for the task was the turbocharged version of the 2.3L, 4 cylinder, OHV Ford engine.
The engine was created as a 2.0L by the German Ford and at that time, it was a modern marvel: overhead camshaft driven by timing belt and crossflow cylinder head. For the North and South American market, the displacement was increased to 2.3L and the original aluminum head was replaced by a cast-iron piece.
The engine was code-named “Lima” but in North America, it is known as “metric engine”, since not a single bolt is in the Imperial system, or simply “Pinto engine”. At this point the 2.3L was already a veteran among Ford cars, it started its career in 1974, powering the Pinto, and later on, the engine could be found all over the Ford line up, powering cars, minivans, and light trucks.
The 2.3L is a sturdy little machine, that works comfortably “under pressure”, in other words, turbocharged and Ford was taking full advantage of this.
In 1979 Ford unveiled the Mustang equipped with the turbocharged 2.3L engine able to produce 132 HP, pretty close to the V8 version, with 140 HP.
All the turbo Mustang needed at that point was a little advertisement and Ford knew exactly what to do.
The plan was simple, the Blue Oval wanted to build a racing 4 cylinder Mustang to go against Porsches and BMWs, using, once again, the race tracks as an advertisement tool. To get it done properly, Ford brought some serious partners into this mission: The American tire company Firestone, Ford’s own parts division Motorcraft, and the British race car maker McLaren.
During the 1970s the partnership between Ford and McLaren had already won two Formula One World titles, 1974 and 1976. The brand was also very popular in North America while competing in the Cam-Am series.
The McLaren Mustang received the code name M81. The Brits had their headquarters in Livonia, Michigan, where the team prepared the little 2.3L with head-porting and balancing the internal components. The original cast pistons and connecting rods were replaced by forged units, the engine was then bolted to a 5-speed manual transmission; no option for automatic was offered. The final touch was the Garret T-3 turbocharger with variable boost control. The result of that hard work was 175 horsepower (and as much as 190 on full boost), 145 pound-feet of torque, and a 0-60 mph time of just under 10 seconds.
To keep the car glued to the pavement, Koni adjustable shocks were installed front and rear, working together with heavy-duty sway bars and springs. Race specs disc brakes in all four corners also were adapted.
All the body modifications were done by Creative Car Craft. Inside the Mustang was fitted with Recaro seats, a Racemark steering wheel, Stewart-Warner instrument gauges, and for the street-legal version, an optional air conditioning system was offered. Closing the package, BBS alloy wheels wrapped with Firestone tires, of course.
There isn’t much information about the racing career of the McLaren-Mustang, apparently the best result was 21st position overall at the 1981 24 hours of Daytona.
The media praised the car as a real competitor to the European and Japanese sports cars and Ford had plans to build 250 units, but the production was abruptly cut much sooner than expected. Of course, the price tag didn’t help much to push the sales numbers, the McLaren-Mustang was 25% more expensive than a regular “GT”, but the biggest nemesis of the car came from inside the house: The Ford’s SVO team (Special Vehicle Operation), apparently didn’t want to share the credits for the creation of the high-performance turbo-four Mustang with McLaren and they pressured the Ford’s top CEOs to end the program.
Between 1980 and 1981 only 10 units were produced, most of them received the official McLaren Orange colour, but the car could be ordered in white, black, or blue.
The SVO team released their version of the turbo Mustang in 1984 and they tried to push the design as close as possible to the European cousins, like the Ford Sierra. The SVO Mustang was in production for 2 years only and Ford sold almost 10,000 units; not too bad for a high-end 4 cylinder Mustang.
Although the 2.3L accompanied the Fox Body during its 15 years of production, Ford dropped the engine for the next generation of the Mustang. By the early 1990s, the unimaginable had happened, the world emerged from the oil crisis, and the price of gasoline was once again affordable for the middle class. In 1994 Ford unveiled the new Mustang platform, the SN-95, the car was bigger and bolder than the Fox-Body and also had some styling cues from the classic models of the 1960s. In this new scenario, there was no place for a 4 cylinder engine.
The McLaren-Mustang became one of the rarest “Special-Edition” Mustangs of all time and the car is getting the attention it deserves from the collectors, especially now that the stigma of the four-banger Mustangs is slowly fading away.