Tom Wilson
December 1, 2007
Photos By: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

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.