Tom Wilson
December 1, 2007
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Styling was a major selling point for the '87 Mustang GT, including this louvered look over the taillights. Some loved it, others hated it, and the magazines were able to run articles on how to remove the taillights from GTs and swap them on LX lenses.

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.