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Matching pair of McLaren-modified Mustangs heralded the beginning of Ford’s SVO

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Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

They’re considered some of the rarest Mustangs ever built, but more importantly they’re also the very first vehicles to arise out of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations division, and now the serial No. 1 Mustang M-81 and the McLaren Mustang IMSA car will head to auction as a pair.

While the Fox-body Mustang debuted in 1979 with a V-8 still under the hood, the oil crisis of that same year forced Ford to rethink its engine lineup for the early Eighties: Even the 302 was considered too big, so Ford replaced it with a 119-hp, V-8 and decided to focus on the 150-hp, turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder as its main performance engine.

To convince V-8 fans that a turbo four could perform, Ford decided to resurrect its racing program and sought the help of McLaren Engines, based out of nearby Livonia, Michigan. Under the supervision of new SVO director Michael Kranefuss, Ford designers Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes collaborated on a more radical Mustang design with flared fenders, closed-off grille, massive airdam and aggressive vented good, while McLaren’s engineers went about blueprinting and balancing the four-cylinder. Crucially, they also fitted the engine with variable boost control, allowing anywhere from 5 to 11 psi; toward the top end of that range, the tweaked four-cylinder was rated at 175 horsepower.

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Stiffer springs, a bigger sway bar lifted from the police-package Fairmont, 15-inch wheels, brakes lifted from the V-8 Mustang, and Recaro buckets all rounded out the package. Ford dubbed it the M-81 and considered selling about 250 completed cars, along with components available through its dealerships so Mustang customers could build their own.

That was just for the street version, however. Ford also intended to take the Mustang racing, specifically in IMSA’s GTO series, and did so through a McLaren-built Mustang that looked much like the M-81, but was powered by a Cosworth four-cylinder engine good for as much as 350 horsepower. According to John Craft’s Mustang Race Cars, the McLaren IMSA Mustang’s first outing at the 1981 24 Hours of Daytona resulted in a GT Prototype win.


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While the M-81 netted Ford plenty of magazine coverage at the time, the goal of selling 250 of the cars proved just a bit optimistic. Their $25,000 price tag – at a time when the base Mustang started at less than $5,000 – was too much to swallow. As a result, Ford built just 10 M-81s (not including the prototype), and commissioned just two of the IMSA cars.

SVO, of course, later built the 1984-1986 Ford Mustang SVO, another turbocharged four-cylinder version of the Fox Mustang, and eventually morphed into Ford’s Special Vehicles Team with John Coletti at the helm.

One of each of those first SVO Mustangs, both of them carrying serial number 001, will cross the block as part of Mecum’s Indianapolis auction. According to the descriptions, the McLaren IMSA Mustang comes with plenty of documentation, while the M-81 has just 79 miles on it and hasn’t been driven in more than 30 years. No pre-auction estimates for the two were available; the closest comparable sale in recent years was that of a V-8-powered 1980 Mustang GT Enduro, which sold for $40,700 at auction last fall.

The Mecum Indianapolis auction will take place May 17-21 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. For more information, visit