Specialty Vehicles Help Ford Carve Out a Successful Performance Niche
The idea of owning a car that is inherently more valuable to automotive enthusiasts than typical mainstream models cuts to the very purpose of niche-market performance vehicles, and Ford Motor Company certainly has a colorful history of such specialty products. Even though the idea of offering high-performance niche vehicles right out of dealer showrooms took a very long time to develop, today’s enthusiasts are glad it did!
While most people will tell you Henry Ford built the world’s first car (his Quadricycle debuted in 1896), the first internal combustion-engined auto was actually the handiwork of Germany’s Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler back in 1885). What Ford did do was to build the world’s first affordable car – as in applying assembly line techniques to the manufacture of automobiles. That singular breakthrough meant that Ford could price his cars within reach of the average worker, instead of only the very rich. As the company known for “putting America on wheels,” Ford had spent more than half of its corporate life making inexpensive, everyday vehicles for everyman. It really wasn’t until postwar America had demanded mainstream cars with a large measure of personality, style and horsepower that OEMs began to seriously target a performance niche aimed at the masses.
Many automotive historians credit the Thunderbird as being the first Ford to truly owe its soul to a specialty audience. Never mind that in 1953, the radically new two-seat Corvette gave Chevrolet a sporty, youthful entry into the so-called American sports car market, and Ford needed a dramatic response. While the 1955-1957 T-Bird really delivered on style and image and was decidedly more sporting than many other cars of the era (it even offered a supercharger option for additional power and acceleration), it was not considered a performance car – at least not until hot-rodded versions entered into high-speed competition at places like Daytona Beach. From those humble beginnings, NASCAR was born and America was (literally) off to the races. Today, early T-Birds are highly sought-after and continue to command great prices on the collector car market.
With the advent of drag racing in the ’50s and into the ’60s, enthusiasts within Ford again tried to cater to a small band of hard-core performance buffs with such factory-backed niche programs as the 1963½ Lightweight Galaxies and the ’64 Fairlane Thunderbolts – true race cars available right off the Ford dealer’s showroom floor. Of course performance cars make headlines unlike any family cars can, so the image-building power of niche cars supported the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” justification for factory-sponsored professional racing. Let’s face it, outperforming the competition at a racetrack sure goes a long way to bolster the reputation of a company’s engineering ability. For that message to really hit home, however, automakers needed street-legal performance models to help differentiate their brand where it counts most – on the road.
It’s certainly a credit to the American entrepreneurial spirit that hard-core racers, many of them outside the OEM auto industry itself, took the lead in the development and prove-out of go-fast technology – much of it through trial-and-error experimenting during the heat of competition. It’s no wonder that those who discovered racing success often found themselves at the heart of the high-performance aftermarket. Perhaps no greater example of this was Carroll Shelby, whose ingenuity and determination in the racing world built a huge grassroots following, first for the reputation of the Shelby Cobra roadster and later for Ford with the GT40 and its stunning victory over Ferrari at LeMans.
By 1965, Lee Iacocca’s hot new Mustang was a runaway sales success for Ford. But he knew early on that this popular new ponycar just didn’t have the oats to be considered a real “muscle car” – especially when high-powered Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Corvettes and big-motored Mopars were already prowling Woodward Avenue – and Main Street USA – for bragging rights. With Ford totally absorbed with trying to meet demand for the Mustang, Iacocca needed a way to give the nameplate some immediate “street cred.” Shelby had that credibility in the racing arena, so Iacocca struck a deal to have him enhance the performance and looks of a limited number of Mustangs at his own facility.
Now the idea of creating a “halo” performance Mustang – a high-end, low volume specialty model that could keep drawing showroom traffic, create more consumer “buzz” and give a boost to the car’s street image – was not a new one in 1965. Those Galaxie and Thunderbolt lightweight race models Ford has marketed helped to drive sales of the more practical, affordable and plentiful regular cars. But contrary to popular belief, the idea to turn to Shelby for help on quickly offering a niche Mustang was not really Iacocca’s, but rather Ford Division’s high-performance program manager, Ray Geddes.
Geddes was the one who suggested to Iacocca that Ford should try to leverage Shelby’s enthusiast recognition and racing success, especially in the wake of headlines on the Ford-powered Shelby Cobra and Shelby’s Ford-sponsored GT-40 racing program. Iacocca backed the idea, so they went out and convinced Shelby to “Cobra-ize” a limited run of ultra high-performance racing Mustangs to become “Corvette killers” on the racetrack in the hopes that Shelby's credibility with the performance crowd would rub off on the entire Mustang lineup.
Shelby’s first order of business was to build a winning Mustang race car, so he and his team developed and homologated the Shelby Mustang GT350 for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition. That meant he’d have to build for retail sale at least 500 GT350s, so he set up shop and immediately began converting Wimbledon White Mustang Fastbacks into fire-breathing 306-horse V8 road racers. Not only did he gain Mustang’s entry into SCCA racing, he teamed Jerry Titus, Bob Johnson, and Mark Donohue, to drive GT350s to a national title en route to winning the SCCA B-Production national championships for three straight years.
Trying to sell an all-out race car in a Ford showroom was equally as challenging, so to help get a batch of high-performance, special-edition Shelby Mustangs into the hands of young professional rental customers who also happened to be car enthusiasts, a special “Rent-A-Racer” promotion was put together with the Hertz rental car company for 1966. Ford supplied 1,000 new Mustangs with V8 engines and automatic transmissions, Shelby added extra performance and style, and Hertz provided the kind of unique driving experience that one would normally only find on a racetrack in a rental car available in major cities across the United States. Some of the rental units were rumored to have been returned to Hertz with evidence that they had been driven – well, shall we say, with more enthusiasm than one would typically attempt on a public road.
Of course, the Shelby GT350 Mustangs helped spawn the big-block Shelby GT500s beginning in 1967, followed by the GT500KRs – or “King of the Road” versions, thanks to the development of the high-performance Cobra Jet version of the 428 cubic-inch V8. Speaking of the Cobra Jet, what many folks may not recall is that the Mustang also had a “Lightweight” racing model program of its own, this one aimed at getting the Cobra Jet-powered 1968 Mustang an instant jump in NHRA racing. The first 50 Mustang fastbacks (called the “SportsRoof” back then) to be powered by the 428CJ for the ’68 model year were factory lightweights.
Like the other Ford lightweights, these 50 racing “prototypes” benefited from lightweight body pieces and the lack of the sound deadening, power steering or radios. They also were fitted with such niceties as front disc brakes and the staggered rear shock setup. These cars were barely announced when all 50 were snapped up – many by established Ford racing teams that had “connections” with Tasca Ford of Providence, Rhode Island.
But no matter how well the Mustang was positioned for success at the dragstrip, some big changes had been afoot at Ford, which broadened the company’s performance focus to include the road course. That’s because Henry Ford II had hired away the head of GM’s Pontiac Division, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, to become Ford president (much to the dismay of then-Ford executive vice-president Iacocca). After Knudsen first helped get the Cobra Jet engine into production, he then wanted Mustang engineers to turn their attention to building the best-handling ponycar ever built, and to campaign against his former company’s formidable Camaro Z/28.
Under Bunkie, the Mustang would soon spout two new performance models beyond the Mach 1, Cobra Jets, and even the Shelby versions. (Bunkie later tried to bring the Shelby Mustang niche performance program “in-house,” and the short-lived Ford-Shelby marriage came to an abrupt end. The attempt to link “mainstream” and “niche” turned out to be an oxymoron – and high-performance engineering inside the company turned its attention elsewhere.)
Despite the acceptance of the 428 Cobra Jet and the Mach 1 among enthusiasts, Knudsen – much like mega-dealer Bob Tasca – knew full well that Mustang still had a horsepower image problem where it mattered most – out on the streets. Not wanting to pin Ford’s fortunes on outsiders such as Shelby, Bunkie set out to secure Ford bragging rights once and for all. The way he saw it, Mustang was a “good-looking automobile, but there are a tremendous number of people out there who want good-looking automobiles with performance,” he was quoted as saying. “If a car looks like it’s going fast and doesn’t go fast, people get turned off. [I believe] you should give the sports-minded fellow the opportunity to buy a high-performance automobile.”
Enter the 1969 Boss 302 and Boss 429 – built to compete at either end of the performance car arena. The Boss 302 was developed in response to a need for a competitive Mustang entry in the Trans Am racing series, while the Boss 429 was built to homologate Ford’s new “semi-hemi” 429 big-block engine for use in NASCAR racing. Knudsen had tagged GM designer Larry Shinoda to jump ship to Ford, and set him about the task of designing the Boss Mustangs. Shinoda came up with a slick package that included front and rear spoilers, a matte-black hood and rear window louvers – but it was performance that really sold the cars.
Knudsen had ordered that the Boss 302 not only be powerful, but also that it should be “absolutely the best-handling street car available on the American market.” To help the small-block 302 crank out new levels of power, the high-compression engine was topped with upcoming-for-1970 canted-valve “Cleveland” cylinder heads, which helped it reach a conservatively rated 290 hp. Ford chassis engineering guru Matt Donner then lowered the car at all four corners and worked his magic on the suspension tuning, helped along by beefy F60 tires on wide, seven-inch rims. The result was a car that dazzled the enthusiast press, became a force on the racetrack, and established a new level of desire among Ford performance customers. Word was that product planners wanted to call the car the Trans Am Mustang, but Pontiac had reserved the name first for a special performance version of its Firebird ponycar.
One might surmise that based on engine displacement alone, the Boss 429 was built as a drag racer, but its real purpose was to get that NASCAR minimum of 500 engines into a production car so that the 429 could be used in Ford Torino stock car racers. It was quite a shoehorning feat to fit the massive big-block into the Mustang engine bay – a task that required a fair bit of re-engineering by hand, as well as the addition of a large functional hoodscoop.
With a rating of 375 hp that no one believed (estimates say it was closer to 500), the Boss 429 was a stump-pulling beast to drive, but few dared to even try. With its deep-breathing engine much more suited to high-speed ovals than street use, only 859 Boss 429s were sold in ’69, and just 499 the following year. It remains a very rare Ford muscle car icon of that era.
Despite Parnelli Jones and George Follmer piloting their Boss 302 Mustang to victory in a hotly contested Trans Am racing championship that season, 1970 would be Ford’s final year for factory sponsored racing for more than a decade. Sales plummeted from just under 300,000 Mustangs in 1969 to less than 191,000 for the ’70 model year. Almost as suddenly as he appeared, Knudsen was fired by Henry Ford II, and replaced by none other than Iacocca. Whether the Big Three had fully realized it or not, the so-called “muscle car era” was already winding down at the just about the same time that insurance costs and gasoline prices were going up.
To complicate matters, the federal government was in the process of mandating a set of rigid vehicle exhaust emissions standards, as part of the Clean Air Act, that auto engineers seemed ill-prepared to deal with. Also that year, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and the first “Earth Day” was promoted and celebrated by a grassroots movement of environmentalists. At the same time, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (or “OPEC”) began raising the prices of oil and oil products that it exported to the United States and other industrialized nations – in what was a hint of things to come.
Oh sure, enthusiasts within Ford made a few other attempts at fielding a performance niche entry. Lincoln-Mercury tried importing a sporty image for itself in the early ’70s with the Italian-built DeTomaso Pantera. But many Mercury salesmen of the era (you remember them – the guys wearing lime green pants with a white belt and shoes who sold your dad his Grand Marquis) were ill-equipped to handle the enthusiast customer.
Later in the decade, Ford Division mass-marketed the Mustang II Cobra II with all of the right Shelby looks but much too little real niche performance hardware – especially from its 302 V8. In fact, most self-proclaimed Mustang fans call the entire Mustang II era the “dark ages” of performance, and will insist there were no Mustang II racing or performance niche models even produced or even considered. But like most of them are about the Mustang II itself – they’re simply wrong.
Independent racer Charlie Kemp decided to build a Mustang II Cobra II and enter it into the IMSA race series in order to bring the Ford name back into racing, as well as to give Chevrolet some American competition, His initial Kemp Cobra II debuted in 1976, but due to rules limitations, the car first raced in the Le Mans GTX category. Charlie and his crew eventually made the required changes needed to allow the car to run in IMSA.
The Bob Riley-built Cobra II was built on a custom tube-spaceframe, one of the first road racing cars to utilize this type of construction. With the flat nose of the stock Mustang II, Kemp’s team rounded the front end dramatically to help improve aerodynamics and increase airflow. For power, Kemp used a Gapp/Roush-built Ford 351 Cleveland, installed as far back into the cockpit area as possible to help center the vehicle’s weight.
Because he could not secure any backing from Ford Motor Company, he called his car the Kemp Cobra II, and later the Kemp GT. Built to compete directly against the Chevrolet Monzas that were running in the IMSA class races, Kemp’s Cobra II was one of the fastest cars on the circuit (he hit 212 mph at Daytona). But because of all the different components used in the car, Kemp had a difficult time with IMSA tech rules and race officials. He managed to capture the pole in his sixth race, but could never place higher than second place. Eventually, Kemp had had enough of IMSA’s resistance to his radical racer, and pulled the car out of competition in 1980.
But the Kemp Cobra II left an indelible mark on the Mustang enthusiast community, even spawning a few efforts to make factory versions of the car that shared some of the IMSA racer’s unique looks. The Monroe shock absorber folks got together with a company called Creative Car Craft and racer Jack Roush to build a special Hot Rod magazine cover car (June 1977) and a half-dozen duplicates to be used as grand prizes to be awarded to six regional ISCA racing winners across the country. The look was so popular that it was even replicated as a body kit that was sold by Maier Racing in Hayward, California.
Kemp himself had made a deal with Dobbs Ford to make a street version of his radical Kemp GT racer, selling the dealership his design for the car’s IMSA-copyrighted body panels. The package was to include suspension and engine mods to the stock Mustang II, but after just one prototype was built, it was deemed too expensive to produce even as a niche model. Not to be outdone, Ford’s original Cobra II supplier, Motortown Corp., went so far as to design and build street-car based imitation of Kemp’s flare-fendered IMSA-racing Cobra II of its own, calling it “IMSA Cobra.” But they were unable to convince Ford officials to approve it as a limited production model, and Ford decided to produce its own “King Cobra” model for 1978 instead.
The advent of the Fox-body Mustang brought new hope in the Mustang community for a resurgence of performance to the nameplate, but perhaps no one was expecting the creation of an entire performance department like that of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations, known as SVO.
Looking for a way to create consumer interest in Ford products, Chairman Donald Peterson adopted a plan that would re-establish Ford in racing to build a grassroots enthusiast following and drive sales. In September of 1980, he chose Michael Kranefuss, who had been Competition Director at Ford of Europe, to head up SVO.
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 the corporate beancounters go around looking for budget cuts. The first task he faced was to return Ford Racing to success in the various motorsports venues around the world, and on the way to doing that create a buzz about Ford products. To that end, the group wanted to develop a series of limited-production performance cars promoted primarily through motorsports.
A Mustang IMSA racing concept was born, powered by a highly modified inline four-cylinder. On the consumer front, the limited-edition (250-unit) run of the McLaren Mustang mimicked the look of the new IMSA racer, and even touted a turbocharged four. By 1981, SVO put together turbo Mustang racers to compete in selected IMSA events. But most observers were willing to bet that it was just a matter of time before the group would assemble enough go-fast parts to put together its own limited-edition model to the general public. Indeed, the European-inspired SVO Mustang really set the enthusiast world on its ear in 1984. Powered by a performance-engineered, fuel-injected and intercooled four-cylinder turbo, the SVO’s 2.3-liter mill spun out 175 hp and an impressive 210 lb-ft of torque. Road tests pegged the SVO’s acceleration at about 7.5 seconds for a 0-60 mph sprint, which made it one of the quickest Mustangs produced since the muscle car era.
Superb four-wheel disc brakes, a racing tuned suspension and road-hugging 16-inch performance tires put all that power to good use. The SVO was a true driver’s car, from its well-bolstered seats to its high level of standard equipment. Yet a stripped-down competition package could be custom ordered if track time was on the ownership agenda. The SVO Mustang even looked the part, with a unique front fascia with integrated fog lamps and a dual-wing rear spoiler. What’s more, power and features were improved and fine-tuned over the model’s three-year run.
Despite the ability to outgun a BMW 3-Series, the 1984-1986 SVO Mustangs were a hard sell. It’s ironic that the SVO Mustangs were actually billed as “cars that sell themselves,” because a lack of marketing support at the dealer level left dealers ill-equipped to promote the merits of 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 go back and rethink its strategy for producing factory niche-market Mustangs, but fortunately, the SVO lesson was one that 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 that was so successful, it was later used as a model for the rest of the industry.
Thankfully, Ford execs Neil Ressler and Bob Rewey understood that niche performance vehicle development and marketing needs to exist outside of the Ford mainstream to be viable, and formed the Ford Special Vehicle Team in 1991. By 1993, the SVT Mustang Cobra and F-150 Lightning pickup were launched, and the best-selling, longest-running most successful performance niche program at a domestic auto manufacturer was born.
The return of a limited-production SVT Cobra model 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 top-of-the line, 235-hp 5.0-liter V8, initially lifting its performance hardware off the shelves of the Ford Racing Performance Parts bin. Later in the model year, a 107-unit run of race-prepped, lightweight SVT Cobra R models sold out before the build had even begun. Even though production was limited to less than 5,000 cars, the 1993 SVT Mustang Cobra and Cobra R proved to be a worthy farewell gesture 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 group’s 1994 Cobra paced the annual Indy 500 race, and the following year, the exit of Ford’s small-block Windsor V8 from the Mustang lineup was well celebrated with another race-prepped Cobra R model. Except this time SVT chose to swap out the Cobra’s 302-cubic-inch V8 for a one-off 351cid race engine, good for 300 horses. With the bigger engine and extra power, as well as the addition of a 20-gallon fuel cell in place of the standard Mustang gas tank, the 1995 SVT Mustang Cobra R was designed to be more competitive on the racetrack than the 1993 R model. But relatively few of the 250 Cobra Rs produced for 1995 had ever turned a wheel in anger, as most were quickly snapped up by collectors.
One notable milestone that occurred during the SN-95 Mustang’s time in the market was that a production model Mustang had finally topped the 300-hp mark, thanks to SVT. Mainstream product development’s Team Mustang took the engineering lead of the 1996 SVT Cobra to help fit it with an all-new, hand-built 4.6L 32-valve V8 modular motor, producing 305 hp. A new bulging, snorkled hood was the biggest exterior clue that a dual overhead cam (DOHC) 4.6-liter was providing motivation for the 1996 SVT Mustang Cobra. The high-revving V8 was the most powerful Mustang engine since the last of the big-blocks had made their final appearance in 1971.
The Ford Mustang marched into its 35th anniversary year with freshened sheetmetal, major powertrain improvements and more refined handling. The short-lived SN-95 bodystyle lasted exactly as long as the Mustang II, giving way to the so-called “New Edge” Mustang in 1999. SVT’s Cobra also gained an improved horsepower rating for its DOHC 4.6-liter V8 – now at 320 hp. But the biggest news was an all-new, trailing-arm style Independent Rear Suspension system, making the 1999 SVT Cobra the first-ever production Mustang to come equipped with an IRS. Featuring aluminum control arms, the IRS unit was mounted in a self-contained cradle that bolted in place of the standard Mustang’s live-axle suspension. While not the best setup for drag racing, the IRS-equipped Mustang Cobra could deliver true sports car-like handling in the corners.
But owners soon discovered an issue with the actual power output of the Cobra’s V8, and took to Internet chat rooms to find that others had also found their engines were not making the power that was being advertised. With talk of class action lawsuits, Ford issued a recall of 1999 Cobras to replace intake and exhaust engine components that were not up to specifications. In the wake of the ’99 Cobra recall, the Special Vehicle Team was allowed to regain control of its own engineering from the mainstream powertrain group, and SVT cancelled plans to produce a 2000 Cobra while it came up with a permanent fix. With the regular-production Mustang Cobra being re-engineered for the 2001 model year, SVT decided to produce its third and final Cobra R model in 2000 – this one wilder and more powerful than ever before. Stuffed with a massive, naturally aspirated DOHC 5.4-liter V8, the 2000 Cobra R delivered 385 hp through the first six-speed manual transmission ever offered in a Mustang.
Only 300 of these street-legal racing models, all painted red, came out of the Dearborn Assembly Plant – each instantly recognizable with a unique domed hood, rear deck wing and front air splitter. The 2000 R was immediately crowned the fastest factory built Mustang in history. And with a price tag of $55,845, it was also the most expensive.
Determined to leave the SVT Mustang Cobra’s old horsepower issues in the dust, SVT chief engineer John Coletti single-handedly decided to put the 2002 Cobra program on ice in order to buy enough time to give the 2003 SVT Cobra a quantum leap in performance. Sure enough, for the 2003 model year Coletti’s SVT Cobra rocked the enthusiast world with the performance of its Eaton supercharged DOHC 4.6-liter “Terminator” V8. Making upwards of 390 horsepower and 390 pounds-feet of torque, the '03 Cobra instantly became the most powerful production Mustang in history.
There are very few folks left at Ford today who can give you a good explanation of exactly why the SVT operation was mainstreamed after the 2004 model year. The SVT business model, which was that SVT was run outside of mainstream Ford, had separate Engineering and Marketing and Sales operations and a limited, specially certified dealer distribution network, was revamped along the lines of General Motors’ recently dismantled performance vehicle program that ran pretty much hand-in-hand with the mainstream product development work. It will make for an insightful book someday!
For 2005, Mustang was about to enter one of its most important transformations ever – one that returned the iconic ponycar back to its design roots. Heading up that rebirth was Hau Thai-Tang, who had cut his engineering teeth doing chassis work on the Newman-Hass racing team for Ford. An all new car – codenamed the S197 – successfully tied Mustang’s classic design cues with Modern Ford engineering.
But with the regular-production Mustang GT now making 300 hp, Ford found that there were fewer people waiting around for a high-performance model to come along. Yet that wasn’t a concern for the go-fast folks at SVT, as they had already been hard at work on an all-new 2006 SVT Cobra that they had targeted to be the mother of all performance Mustangs, powered by a supercharged 5.4-liter V8. Only this time around, the politics of corporate reorganization meant that the car would be returned to mainstream management, where SVT’s S197-based Mustang Cobra soon became the 2007-2009 Shelby GT500, packing an astounding 500 horsepower.
With a little help from Shelby Automobiles and Ford Racing Performance Parts, the 2008-2009 model years saw the release of GT500 “King of the Road” or “KR” versions for the extreme Mustang performance niche customer – good for immeasurable collectibility and 540 hp. And for the restyled 2010 Mustang, the KR’s 540 horses have now found their way under the hood of the regular production Shelby GT500 – which retakes the mantle of the most powerful factory Mustang ever produced. Where Mustang’s niche market initiatives will take it next is anybody’s guess. Certainly, Ford Motor Company now has far bigger concerns amid today’s economic free-fall and ongoing fuel economy pressures than to worry about what its next performance niche Mustang will be. But as long as Ford is in business well into the future, one thing is for sure: There WILL be another factory-built performance niche Mustang. You can bet on it!