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1987 Ford 5.0 Mustang Revisited - Twenty And Something
Today Mustangs Dominate, But 20 Years Ago, The Car That Spawned An Industry Made A Surprisingly Tepid Start
Horse Sense: While working on this story, we were overcome with just how much can happen in 20 years. Pawing through old magazines and reliving bygone interviews and photo shoots was something of a reunion for several of us on staff. Amazingly, the majority of the people involved in performance Mustangs 20 years ago are still out there somewhere.
In 1987 we said those were the good old days, and luckily, we're still saying that about today. Yes, fuel is expensive by U.S. standards, and we certainly haven't forgotten we're at war. In automotive terms, the young men who power the enthusiasts' ranks have their choice to serve the best, most powerful, market-dominating Mustangs ever built.
It wasn't always that way. The automotive world made its one great retrograde motion during the '70s. Fuel prices skyrocketed, insurance began its stranglehold, the national speed limit was lowered to a mind-numbing 55 mph, much needed emission controls pushed past the limits of carburetor technology, and new performance cars worth the name ceased to exist. With nothing new worth talking about, our esteemed colleagues at Hot Rod and Car Craft busied themselves with the van craze, which at least melded with the folk music and disco scenes. It was horrid.
For those of us who were there, performance was buried in a polyester leisure suit. The only refuge was the pinnacle cars of the '60s, which explains why for nearly 20 years the greatest cars were those created around the high water mark of 1970. Nothing else came close, and those were the cars enthusiasts benchmarked against.
Ford gets credit for initiating the great performance thaw with the '82 Mustang GT. Its two-barrel hardware and sundial performance don't compare to anything today, but it was the first car in more than a decade designed and marketed with performance in mind. It was no match for a big-block Shelby, but it gave hope that something great would again emerge from Detroit.
That Detroit greatness began with the '87 Mustang in its 5.0 H.O. V-8 form. For the era, it was nearly the perfect hardware joined with an unbeatable combination of price, performance, and showroom availability that resuscitated the performance scene unlike any other car in history.
To understand why the '87 5.0 Mustang was such a turning point, it's necessary to comprehend the times and the car. Of the two, the era is easily the more difficult for anyone younger than 35 years of age to fathom. For starters, the Ronald Reagan world was a Chevy world. Not to upset the Blue Oval faithful, but Chevy won the '60s horsepower war. By concentrating on only small-block and big-block engines and offering them in popularly styled cars and trucks at attractive prices, Chevy came to dominate the power sports scene. Mopar guys huddled behind the Hemi, a few 440s, and a squad of 318- or 360-powered Darts. The English had dried up and blown away years earlier, and the ricers were still emerging from econocar status. Ford parts were far less numerous and spread among 302, 351, FE, and 385 series engine families, so its presence was considerably diluted.
This was the dawn, at best, of inexpensive computer designing and machining, so mechanical objects were more difficult and expensive to develop and produce. This also explains why, as we entered the computer age, hot-rodding cars was strictly a mechanical affair. Performance was gained by replacing choking cast-iron manifolds with headers welded up by bored minimum-wage labor, fitting a larger carburetor and matching intake manifold, as well as adding a wilder camshaft for those willing to unbolt half their engine to get at it. Aftermarket cylinder heads were exceedingly rare for any engine. Hand-porting stock cylinder heads was the only kind there was, and that was reserved for race engines.
As you might imagine, getting more complex systems such as turbos, blowers, or nitrous to work was a serious mechanical task-nearly impossible if trying to meet emission guidelines. About the only systems anywhere near bolt-on status were hulking GMC-based Roots-style blowers that required a hole in the hood for Chevys and Mopars. In any case, such blower engines were rare; I grew up in Southern California and never saw one on the street until well into the '90s.
All this meant the performance aftermarket was much more limited in the '80s than the buy-anything, plug-and-play market we enjoy today. Power and performance were also limited as a result. In the mid '80s, a 14-second car was-if not headlines-at least acceptable; only the old big-block gods or trailered hobby cars ran 12s. You were a hero if you could make 600 hp on an unlimited budget, and the only way to tell was on an engine dyno or dragstrip; chassis dynos were less common than free gasoline.
In short, someone starting out in performance cars in 1985 found a Chevy the least expensive, easiest to modify, and as fast or faster than engine combinations available. In the world of mass performance, Chevy had been pushing the same snowball longer and faster than anyone, and that's where the parts were.
Ford guys banded together because it was harder for them. Anyone could bolt together a 400hp Chevy, but skill and specialized knowledge were needed with a 289 or 302 Ford. Such esprit gave dyed-blue Ford enthusiasts a hardcore swagger, as well as a legit whine. The Ford versus Chevy intramural was much more pronounced in those days, and it alternated between chest beating and sniveling in the Ford ranks.
There were alternatives besides a Camaro or repairing the broken rocker shafts in a '68 Mustang 390 GT for the third time. The mid '80s were somewhat experimental for Detroit, and the unlikely Buick Grand National was probably the greatest of these. All black and packing an exotic turbocharged V-6, the Grand National appealed to the oddballs among us. It was a shoebox, but it was bluntly effective and answered to modifications with satisfaction. Its following was small but powerful and vocal.
Ford was under a strong European influence in the '80s and tried to make the Mustang into a sports car with the SVO Mustang. It applied turbo power, but only to a buzzing 2.3 four-banger. A commendable effort, the SVO wasn't large, torquey, inexpensive, or available enough to make a mass market breakthrough, but it proved the factory knew how to install rear disc brakes and hadn't totally forgotten five-lug wheels.
One thing that wasn't much of an alternative in 1985 to the small-block Chevy was the small-block Ford. Its drawbacks were simple enough: It was introduced about eight years after the runaway Chevy small-block (1955 versus 1963), so it had been playing catch up from the beginning. Manifolds of all types were limited, aftermarket heads weren't available, and the stock heads were mainly air restrictors.
Most telling, Chevy concentrated on its 350ci small-block in performance applications, and Ford tied one hand behind its back and stuck with the shorter-stroke 302ci version of the 4.00-inch bore V-8. The 351 Windsor was no farther away than the truck assembly lines, but performance Fords didn't get it. Considering its towering 9.500-inch deck height, the 351 was probably seen as too tall, too heavy, and overbuilt for the Mustang by Ford's product planners in the fuel-conscious late '70s when the Fox Mustang was born.
Following the inspired '82 GT, the carbureted Mustang V-8 peaked in 1985, followed in 1986 by the mysterious and forbidding speed-density fuel-injection system version of Ford's EEC-IV engine management. If that wasn't tough enough for enthusiasts with dwell meters and spare Holley jets, the '86 Mustang GT toiled with a one-year-only cylinder head that traded power for torque and didn't respond as well to traditional bolt-on breathing aids. The issue was an iron mask cast right around the intake valve in the combustion chamber. Its job was to create swirl in the charge motion, which it did at the cost of stalled high valve-lift flow. The '86 heads, in short, were dogs.
Of course, the guy who just bought one of the new '86 GTs didn't know what the problem was, just that a carbureted Mustang with some headers and a cam would trot away from his fancy new ride should he engage one in automotive discourse. The cylinder head was much less visible and suspect than the new smoke-and-mirrors electronic fuel injection, which received the blame.
There was nothing wrong with the electronic fuel injection, of course. It started easily every time, ran trouble-free, got amazingly good mileage, and made decent power in stock trim, which was difficult to believe in those days. The issue was the speed-density air metering. This means the computer was programmed to supply fuel and spark according to software that assumed-not measured-the amount of air passing through the engine based on throttle position, air temperature, and other variables. Improve any bit of airflow hardware on a speed-density-controlled engine and the engine leans out, resulting in driveability and durability issues with no extra power. Rank and file enthusiasts were ignorant of EFI's inner workings at the time, and there wasn't a single tuner, worthwhile chassis dyno, computer, or handheld tuning device in the country. The only people who could electronically adjust speed-density EEC-IV in the late '80s were Ford engineers. For the enthusiast on the street, the promise was there, but the new Mustangs were off-limits to hot rodding.
Along came the '87 Mustang GT. It was easy to spot with its new aero styling. Underhood, the same electronics held their immutable sway, but the cylinder heads had been upgraded to the storied E7TE castings. They ditched the swirl-inducing mask and sported more horsepower-friendly ports; the core 5.0 H.O. engine had arrived in its final 225hp state and was ready to accept hot-rod modifications as soon as electronic help arrived.
The trouble was that no one knew it, and achieving worthwhile modifications in 1987 meant getting past the EEC-IV dragon guarding the performance door. Tried-and-true was the clich for that first year, with people removing the intake air silencer; bolting on headers, rocker arms, and air filters; and bumping the timing with their trusty timing light. This helped, but when a larger camshaft was tried, the whole thing went to pot. The idle turned into a hunting, stuttering annoyance that drove saints mad, and the power increase was noticeably less than it should've been. A popular elixir, nitrous oxide, was trotted out and produced the expected results-flittering bursts of speed and power, followed by frightening explosions and burst intake manifolds when the fuel fell out of suspension in the tortuously long, hairpin-turning intake runners.
Hugely more successful was the widespread use of underdrive pulleys. These helped gain a couple of tenths, and they were cheap and easy to install. Because they had nothing to do with electronics, the only possible casualty was overheating and flat batteries if the underdrive was overdone.
It took all of 1986 and some of 1987 to figure out that Ford, similar to all manufacturers, built a slight cushion into the EEC-IV air/fuel mixtures. Just a tad rich when stock, improving engine breathing with headers and other simple bolt-ons leaned out the speed-density controlled engine, gaining power from the improved breathing and creeping the air/fuel ratio ever closer to the maximum power point. Put too much air through the engine, say with a high-lift camshaft, and the engine would lean past maximum power. Worse yet, exceed 112 degrees of lobe separation angle and the idle fidgeted frantically as the computer fought to maintain control of an engine it thought had something terribly wrong with it.
In the end, there were nearly two years in the late '80s when die-hard traditionalists removed their EEC-IV engine management systems and tried selling them at swap meets. Then they bought a carburetor and intake manifold and got down to business.
Styling was another issue. To this day, some find the aero nose of the '87 to '93 Mustangs something of a tagged-on appendage. We've gotten used to it by now, but the original four-headlight car had a purity and cohesiveness of line the '87 didn't enjoy. Especially at its introduction, before Ford pummeled us into acceptance by weight of repetition, the new-for-'87 aero-beak Mustangs appeared tacked on.
On top of that, the more advertised GT version of the car seemed overdone at the time. On the sides, phony slats managed to appear more kit-car than cool. Those hot-new louvers over the taillights? Magazines ran how-to's on removing them. In front, the hood was completely closed, the '87 Mustang being one of a new breed of "bottom breather" cars that took in all cooling and intake air from below the bumper. A common look today, at the time the closed GT frontend seemed vaguely reminscent of an electric-car.
Combine the canonization of the '60s era machinery, so-so styling, the performance car bias of the day, mysterious new EFI technology, and limited hot-rod potential of the '87 Mustang, and its no wonder the car was only mildly accepted.
While not widely sought after by entrenched enthusiasts, many people bought '87 Mustangs and liked them. Strong points of the car included core Mustang values: low purchase price and torquey V-8 power. The new cylinder heads raised the power rating by 25 hp. In the relatively light '87 Fox chassis, the 300 lb-ft of torque and 225 hp of the stock 5.0 H.O. engine was strong stuff. Certainly the EFI was sharp and responsive after 15 years of stuttering, emission-sick wheezers. For the first time, no one could complain the '85 carbureted car was more powerful.
The engine was also reliable. More than a decade of cracking vacuum hoses, torn diaphragms, clogged PCV valves, spark boxes that quit twice yearly, engines that ran when the key was shut off, and embarrassingly poor quality control made the purring 5.0 look good. This point is easily overlooked today when cars are expected to exhibit appliance-like reliability, but it was a tangible part of the growing acceptance of late-'80s EFI-equipped Mustangs. Cars of the mid '70s and early '80s were terrible, with anemic power and poor reliability. While it took a while for word to get around, the EFI Mustangs were the vanguard of dead-reliable Dearborn iron, a fact that sold cars.
Low pricing was also a major factor. By 1987, the Fox Mustang had already been around eight years, so Ford had amortized much of the cost, allowing truly competitive Mustang pricing. This was a huge Mustang advantage until 1993. Best of all, Ford was smart enough to offer the 5.0 LX in 1987. The only difference between the GT and the LX was the LX didn't bother with the GT's fussy wing and ground effects. It was lighter, sleeker, better looking, and less expensive, yet it shared the GT's powerful mechanicals right down to the drain plugs. Similar to the GT, the LX could be had as the popular hatchback, coupe, or convertible, so it really boiled down to a taste in body treatments.
Another advantage on the '87 Mustang was low weight. The already-aged Fox platform dated from 1979 and was a poverty job. The second gas crisis erupted in 1979, and Ford had gotten strong religion when it came to losing weight and cutting corners. Floorboards in other Fox platform cars would oil can with a resounding "glunk clunk" when you stepped on them to sit down, and the Mustangs had just enough metal in them to stop sunlight from glowing through. Such a casual attitude toward structure aided acceleration performance and covered up-and created-the chassis' serious handling woes. If the Mustang engine couldn't be hot-rodded easily, then it at least ran strongly off the showroom floor. Your grandmother could crank off a 14-second quarter in a 5.0 without setting the tire pressures, and that was starting to nibble at the '60s-era car legends. The magazines took notice, and for the first time, people seriously compared a new performance car to the '60s icons.
For the average Joe, the stock fuel-injected 5.0 H.O. proved easy and fun to drive. The handling was skatey if pushed, and the dragstrip launch was something of a lottery, but the '80s were much more forgiving of cars that couldn't handle because-and this is scary to recall-the "late-model Mustang" was an improvement compared to the '60s sleds.
The '87 Mustang was a new car. By then, the '60s stuff had been recycled more times than "Dancing in the Streets." While those cars were still dirt cheap by today's standards, the meaningful '60s performance cars still required more than lunch money to buy and featured dog-bit interiors, torn weatherstripping, squeaky suspension bushings, rusty bodies, leaks, and all the other joys of 20-year-old, run-hard machinery.
The performance world had come to a fork in the road in 1987 with the new Mustang steering us in a different direction. It was affordable and ran hard enough stock to gain everyone's attention, but it didn't answer to modifications. Luckily Chevy's Camaro was too expensive and unwieldy for daily driving, and Dodge was busy punching out minivans. Given its gentle environment, the '87 Mustang survived to become the gold standard, the '88 California-spec 5.0 Mustang LX. That was the car that replaced speed density with mass air metering, unlocking the performance kingdom. It would take at least two years for new car buyers, the aftermarket, and racers to catch on to the Mustang's unprecedented performance potential, a greatness foretold in 1987. Once the secret was out, the performance world became Ford's oyster. What a 20 years it has been.
It's hard to believe that T-tops - a hatchback option only, KJ! - only got one sentence in the sales brochure, but there were plenty of other options available for the '87. The two main packages were the 240A LX, which optioned up the 2.3 LX, and the 249A, essentially throwing the book at a 5.0 GT. The other option groups include the Climate Control Group (air conditioning, a heavy-duty battery, rear-window defroster, and tinted glass), Special Value Group (Power Lock Group, AM/FM/cassette, speed control, and styled road wheels), and Custom Equipment Group (graphic equalizer, electric mirrors, illuminated visor mirrors, tilt steering, and power side windows). There were 11 available exterior colors (Black, Dark Gray Metallic, Light Gray, Scarlet Red, Medium Cabernet, Medium Shadow Blue Metallic, Medium Yellow, Dark Shadow Blue Metallic, Bright Regatta Blue Metallic, Sand Beige, Dark Clove Brown Metallic, and Oxford White) and four interior colors (Regatta Blue, Scarlet Red, Medium Gray, and Beige).
My First 5.0
In 1987, I had just started as the West Coast Editor of Super Ford magazine, the slim black-and-white precursor to the bulging tome you're holding now. While hardly from a Ford family-my dad is a Marine infantry officer who thinks cars are either vehicles to carry you to the next drop-off point or target-I was a typical enthusiast in that I owned (and still own) a 289-powered, four-speed '66 Mustang fastback and had not driven a 5.0 Mustang of any sort.
My first 5.0 Mustang drive was in a red five-speed '87 hatchback out of the Los Angeles-area Ford press fleet. The car was bone stock and probably had fewer than 5,000 miles on it. I have two vivid recollections of that car: its power and that difficult to define but enjoyable new-car condition
Recalling the power is easy. Turning onto a freeway about a half mile after picking up the car, I booted it up the steep uphill ramp. The engine snarled and the car ripped up the ramp and onto the freeway with me grinning like the fresh-off-the-farm kid that I was. Intoxicated with the acceleration and not used to having lift so soon, I hid from my buddies who had driven me to Ford's press fleet parking lot. It was a quick three-gear blast, but one that opened a new world of performance to me.
The fact that it was a new car is also a strong memory. At the time, my Mustang was 21 years old and had 250,000 miles on it. It ran fine, thanks to my quickie engine rebuild and generally careful maintenance by the previous owner, but it was still full of rattles, dents, and it was loose about the bushings. It had dated technology, so the new unibody, power rack-and-pinion steering, fresh shocks, low-profile tires, insulated cockpit, and tearing 5.0 H.O. engine made it feel as though I had stepped off a hay wagon and into an Imperial Star Cruiser. It was quiet, smooth, and fast-three things I hadn't associated with one car before.
Only after a few years of sampling everything from Saleens to aftermarket specials to Roush Trans Am cars did I come to see my '66 fastback as a stone-age relic and the '87 5.0 a basic bit of transport at heart. The unmanageable rear suspension was the first reality check, and the general structural looseness of the Fox car also made itself known soon thereafter.
This was especially true of the convertibles. In those days, we magazine guys drove an endless succession of 5.0 hatchbacks-I've driven literally hundreds of them-but coupes were essentially unheard of; it was more likely you'd be handed a convertible. My first Fox drop-top was Liz Saleen's new '88 white-with-blue-stripes demo car. It had 150 miles on it when I picked it up Friday morning and 1,700 miles on it when I turned it in the following Tuesday. That car benefited from chassis bracing, but the first time I drove a stock 5.0 convertible, I almost wet my pants driving it down a twisty two-lane. Structurally, the car was loose. I could literally feel the unibody twisting in response to turning the steering wheel-a real eye-opener.
Still, my '87 5.0 impression is that first blast up the onramp. Finally, the '60s were over and a new era had arrived.