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

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.