John M. Clor
June 24, 2013
Photos By: Ford Archives, Source Interlink Media

If you think you've been hearing about the 20th Anniversary of Ford's Special Vehicle Team for a few years now, well, you're right. Much like the question of when Ford should celebrate anniversary years of the Mustang (yes, it was introduced in 1964 but the first model year was 1965), SVT's anniversary depends on what you think should be considered a "birth date."

Historians will tell you that Ford created SVT in late 1991. That's when Robert L. Rewey, then-Ford's group vice president of marketing and sales, and Neil Ressler, then-Ford's chief technical officer, began putting together an expert enthusiast group to specialize in designing, developing, and marketing niche Ford performance vehicles with the "lessons learned" from Ford's former SVO program. And that is indeed true.

But Ford folks say that SVT's official birth date came with the announcement of the SVT program to the media on February 6, 1992, at the Chicago Auto Show. After all, that's when Ford formally introduced SVT and showed off a couple of new products that would establish them as the new performance entity within the company. And that's 100 percent correct. In fact, that's why Ford officially celebrated the 20th Anniversary of SVT on February 8, 2012, at the same Chicago Auto Show.

For enthusiasts, however, SVT's 20th anniversary comes two decades after its first vehicles became available. The first SVT models were the '93 SVT Mustang Cobra and SVT F-150 Lightning, both released for sale in the first quarter of 1993, so that makes 1993 the true birth year for SVT in the eyes of the buying public.

Insiders might tell you that SVT can trace its roots back to 13 years prior with the creation of Ford's Special Vehicle Operations. SVO's job was to integrate Ford's new racing initiatives into the company's marketing and sales operations, thereby making the high-image performance business less of a sacrificial lamb when corporate bean counters went looking for budget cuts. The first task was returning Ford Racing to success in motorsports venues around the world. To that end, the group wanted to develop a series of limited-production performance cars promoted primarily through motorsports. Indeed, the European-inspired SVO Mustang set the enthusiast world on its ear in 1984. Powered by a fuel-injected and intercooled four-cylinder turbo, the SVO's 2.3-liter mill spun out 175hp and an impressive 210 foot-pounds of torque.

Despite the ability to outgun a BMW 3-Series, the '84-'86 SVO Mustangs were a hard sell. A lack of marketing support at the dealer level resulted in sales people ill-equipped to promote the car's performance capabilities. And it didn't help that parked next to the SVO in showrooms was a much less expensive—and faster—V8-powered Mustang GT. Consequently, the SVO Mustang missed its sales targets, so Ford pulled the plug, relegating the SVO team back to the performance parts business.

Ford management was forced to rethink its strategy for producing factory niche-market Mustangs, but fortunately, the SVO lesson was well-learned. Ford would later re-enter the performance Mustang fray with a plan to profitably bring small volumes of high-performance vehicles to market. The concept was so successful that it was later used as a model for the rest of the industry (can you say SRT?).

Thankfully, Ford execs Ressler and Rewey understood that niche performance vehicle development and marketing needed to exist outside Ford mainstream to be viable and formed the Ford Special Vehicle Team in 1991. By 1993, the SVT Cobra and Lightning pickup were in showrooms, and the best-selling, longest-running, most successful performance niche program at a domestic auto manufacturer was born.

The limited-production SVT Cobra in 1993 gave Ford a new flagship performance Mustang over the GT, only this time using subtle but distinctive styling upgrades instead of decals and backed up by a unique powertrain and suspension. SVT borrowed a page from Shelby's playbook for its 235hp 5.0-liter, initially lifting its performance hardware off the shelves of the Ford Racing parts bin. Later in the year, a 107-unit run of race-prepped SVT Cobra Rs sold out before the build had even begun. Even though production was limited to less than 5,000 cars, the '93 SVT Cobra and Cobra R proved to be a worthy farewell for the Fox-body Mustang.

SVT didn't miss a beat when the completely revamped SN-95 Mustang came out in 1994. A convertible version of the '94 Cobra paced the Indy 500 race, and the following year the exit of Ford's small-block Windsor V-8 from the Mustang lineup was well-celebrated with another race-prepped Cobra R model, except this time SVT swapped out the 302-cubic-inch V-8 for a one-off 351 race engine good for 300 horses.

One notable milestone that occurred during the SN-95 era was a production Mustang that finally topped the 300hp mark thanks to SVT. Team Mustang took the engineering lead for the '96 SVT Cobra to fit it with an all-new, handbuilt, 32-valve 4.6-liter modular engine with 305hp. The high-revving V-8 was the most powerful Mustang engine since the last of the big-blocks in 1971.

The Mustang marched into its 35th anniversary year with freshened sheetmetal, major powertrain improvements, and more refined handling. The original SN-95 bodystyle lasted five years, giving way to the "New Edge" Mustang in '99. SVT's Cobra also gained an improved horsepower rating for its DOHC 4.6-liter V-8—now at 320 hp. But the biggest news was the independent rear suspension, making the '99 SVT Cobra the first-ever production Mustang with IRS.