Austin C. Craig
May 25, 2012
Photos By: Source Interlink Archives

These days, we enjoy exceptional Mustang performance from the current Mustang GT, Boss 302, and Shelby G.T. 500. But the performance heritage of today's Mustangs can be traced back to the summer and fall of 1981 with the launch of the '82 Mustang GT. Its 5.0L H.O. V-8 engine signaled the return of Mustang performance after it fell prey to the insurance, government emission, and fuel economy requirements of the 1970s.

In the fall of 1978, the "Fox-body" '79 Mustang was launched amid hope that it would bring back the glory days of the 1960s. It was well-styled and available with both the 5.0L V-8 and 2.3L four-cylinder turbo engines. Unfortunately, neither powerplant offered anywhere near the desired performance. Even though the '79 Mustang was chosen as the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car and featured handsome styling enhancements, the 5.0L's 140 horsepower was less than inspiring.

Things got worse for '80 and '81 as the Mustang went from weak to weaker. Neither the 2.3L turbocharged four-cylinder or the 119hp 255 cubic-inch V-8 were the equal of the excellent TRX suspension. Lacking engine performance, the Mustang's image and, worse yet, sales went into a steep decline.

Things began to change in 1980 when Donald Petersen was promoted to president of Ford Motor Company. A car guy who had served as the product planning manager for the '64-1/2 Mustang, Petersen had also been responsible for the development of the F-150 Supercab, an industry-first that transformed the pickup from a strictly work truck to one of both work and personal use.

For the Mustang, competition was heating up as both the Camaro and Firebird were planned as all-new vehicles for '82 with a revised 305 V-8, state-of-the-art suspension, and updated bodywork. Petersen remembered the "Total Performance" era of the 1960s and instructed the product development, engineering, and marketing staffs to find a way to get performance back into Ford vehicles--in particular the Mustang.

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For V-8 enthusiasts, these were scary days. At Ford and the other car companies the days of the V-8 seemed numbered. When engine development for '82 started, the 2.3L turbo was pulled from the Mustang lineup due to lack of performance and the fact that there were problems meeting emissions when the carburetor was replaced by fuel injection. Jim Clark, the engineer in charge of the Mustang engine program at the time, later told me, "We were left with the option of offering only a normally-aspirated 2.3L four-cylinder for '82. We all knew that would never fly, but the introduction of the '82 models was only five months away."

In April 1981, typically a time when the engine lineup was cast in stone for the coming model year, Clark received a call from his general manager, Don Hagen, asking for a new V-8 engine for the '82 Mustang. Clark had anticipated the assignment and was ready to respond. With a limited budget and little time, Clark's team delivered the 5.0L H.O. in November 1981. Considering emissions standards, fuel economy requirements, and the fact that Ford was not making money at the time, what Clark and his team accomplished was truly amazing.

5.0L H.O.

The basic H.O. engine was the same as the '79 5.0L but with updates to increase its breathing ability. The '79 engine ran out of breath at 4,400 rpm; the '82 5.0L H.O. would pull to 5,500.

It all started with a twin snorkel air cleaner that breathed cooler air from the fenderwell area. A 368-cfm two-barrel carburetor was selected together with a high-output fuel pump. Knowing that the g-forces generated by the TRX suspension could cause fuel starvation, the engineers added a redesigned gasket aimed at reducing slosh and adding a substantial increase in static fuel level. This modification also ensured plenty of fuel at wide open throttle, something the engineers knew would occur on numerous occasions when Mustang enthusiasts got their hands on the car.