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.

Why was the '82 Mustang GT equipped with a two-barrel instead of a four-barrel? Clark told me that they wanted the four-barrel, but emissions standards dictated that a new four-barrel, or even the 4350 carb from the out-of-production 460 big-block, would have required a 50,000-mile EPA cycle for certification. That took time and money, and the 5.0L V-8 team had neither. Also, an intake manifold would have been a problem since existing four-barrel versions were a high-rise design and too tall for the Mustang's hood profile. Even with the two-barrel setup, the non-functional scoop from the '79 hood was needed in order for the air cleaner, borrowed from the H.O. police package, to fit underneath.

Cylinder heads were identical to the earlier 5.0L, but they were equipped with higher rate valvesprings to eliminate coil bind with the H.O.'s Ford marine cam with its higher lift and longer duration. The cast-iron headers were also the same as before, but the exhaust system was enlarged with a 2.25-inch collector and 2.5-inch exhaust pipe, enabling the engine to breathe better while also delivering a deep exhaust note, which was sorely missing in those days of wheezy sixes and trembling fours.

The improvements resulted in 157 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque, the best for a Mustang since 1973. EPA mileage ratings of 17 mpg city and 29 highway proved that Ford engineers could deliver power, performance, and good mileage.

The GT came with a four-speed overdrive gearbox that felt more like a "3-1/2-speed" with a tall 0.70:1 top gear. A 3.08 rear gear ratio with Traction–Lok was standard.

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TRX Suspension

Jim Kennedy was the Mustang suspension engineer. Like Clark, he was a car enthusiast who was especially passionate about the Mustang's performance revival. When I asked Kennedy about the '82 Mustang GT, he explained, "The rear suspension included traction bars to handle the increased torque. They were the under-ride versions, similar to the traction bars used on the '66 Shelby G.T.350. Prior to Mustang's 5.0L H.O., there wasn't an engine that could push the TRX suspension to its limits."

The TRX suspension was developed around a set of 15.3-inch forged aluminum wheels that mounted P195/65R390 Michelin TRX elliptical performance radials. The package also included special springs, sway bars, shocks and struts, and bushings.

The variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering remained unchanged. Power brakes were improved with larger 256mm front discs with semi-metallic pads up front, providing for much greater swept area. The same 9.0x1.75-inch drums were used at the rear.

Styling

For the '82 GT, Ford stylists reached into the parts bin to utilize the front fascia from the '79 Indianapolis Pace Car, Marchal driving lights, hoodscoop, and rear spoiler. Instead of the wild colors, goofy graphics, and garish tape stripes of the past decade, the new Mustang GT was especially appealing with its monochromatic paint and understated but aggressive stance. Tasteful GT emblems and the now iconic "5.0" emblems were the only exterior identification. The '82 Mustang GT was offered in only three colors--red, silver, and black.

Interior colors were limited to red and black. The optional Recaro seats were the same as those found in the '79 Pace Car. Knowing that enthusiasts would want an instrument panel with a full complement of gauges, the interior designers created one with a simple, clean dash fascia for a tachometer and fuel, amp, oil pressure, and temperature gauges.

The 5.0L H.O. package was available with any Mustang, although the GT package was offered only for the three-door hatchback. Suddenly, Mustang became an exciting, fun-to-drive performance car again. A well-equipped '82 GT carried an MRSP of around $11,000.

J. Walter Thompson, Ford's advertising and communications agency, created the ad campaign, "The Boss is back." For the first time in over 12 years, the ads were not full of empty promises. The Mustang GT delivered the goods and so did the advertising.

The Mustang GT proved superior to the new Camaro in magazine acceleration testing. The Camaro was not available with a manual gearbox, so it was tested with the 305 four-barrel backed by a four-speed automatic. The Mustang GT set faster 0-60 times, 7.78 vs. 8.58 seconds, and beat the Camaro in the quarter-mile with an elapsed time of 16.26 @ 83.70 against 16.67 ET @ 81.00 for the GM competitor.

According to the '82-'93 Mustang GT Registry (www.mustanggt.org), Ford sold 24,799 Mustang GTs during the '82 model year. It was a solid testament to the "can do" spirit and hard work of Jim Clark and Jim Kennedy, along with Ford Division Marketing Plans Manager Edsel B. Ford II, Mustang Marketing Plans Manager Jack Witucki, and Powertrain and Forward Planning Manager George Lowe.

In the spring and summer of 1981, Edsel Ford had recently completed a tour as Assistant Managing Director of Ford of Australia before being named Manager of the Ford Division Marketing Plans department. As a "car guy," Edsel understood that performance sold vehicles, and one of his first tasks was to help develop future performance-oriented vehicles. He was involved in the Mustang GT program and stated during the launch that the car was the company's first shot at getting back into the performance market. A very astute marketer, Edsel was aware of fuel costs, insurance, and emission standards, but felt all that did not mean that Ford couldn't produce fun-to-drive cars. Today, Edsel has not changed; he is still a true enthusiast.

I remember reading the September 1981 Motor Trend with the '82 Mustang GT on the cover. I showed it to my wife--at the time her '73 Mustang Grande was getting tired--and said, "How would you like to have this Mustang GT?"

Being a good sport, she sold her Grande and we took delivery of a silver '82 Mustang GT. The first time I pushed the loud pedal to the floor, I could not believe how the new 5.0L H.O. pushed us back into the Recaro seats. I knew then that Mustang performance was back.

Later, during a visit to Ford Division, I walked by an office and noticed a lot of Mustang and Ford Motorsports photography. When I ambled in to look at the photos, a voice from the corner said, "Can I help you?" It was George Lowe, the Mustang, Thunderbird, and EXP Marketing Product Plans Manager.

Lowe had previously worked for former Lincoln-Mercury racing director Fran Hernandez, who was also instrumental in the '79 Mustang Pace Car Program. His knowledge of Mustang customers and ability to articulate these facts resulted in Ford Division's support of the '82 Mustang GT. The "Boss is back" marketing campaign was a direct result of the Mustang passion from George Lowe and his boss, Edsel B. Ford II.

The '82 Mustang GT was the first in a long, exciting line of Mustangs since the fall of 1981. All of us who love Mustangs owe a huge debt of gratitude to each dedicated Ford engineer and marketing person who contributed to the rebirth of Mustang performance in the face of considerable odds.MM

Editor's note: As a long-time Mustang and Shelby enthusiast who worked in the advertising business, Austin Craig found himself in the right place at the right time when he accepted a position in 1981 with J. Walter Thompson, Ford's advertising agency. At first, he worked on Ford Motorsport advertising campaigns, then moved to Mustang marketing and advertising where he met the "car guys" at Ford who wanted to put performance back into the Mustang, including Edsel Ford II, George Lowe, Jim Clark, and Jim Kennedy. This is Austin's "inside" story about the development and marketing of the '82 Mustang GT, the car that put Mustang back on the performance map.