I can remember the shock when I first learned of this very special Ford Mustang. It was shock that even though I grew up with a "Fox Body" Mustang on nearly every street, I had no clue that such a rare variant was made.
A Motor Trend cover car for December 1980, the car helped to inspire the notion that a new dawn was on the horizon for Ford performance cars…little did anyone know it'd take 35 years for the company to introduce a full performance car portfolio. This passage from the Motor Trend McLaren M81 Mustang review sounds remarkably familiar with the chorus automakers sing today:
"…Ford's thinking relative to all its future-generation vehicles places more emphasis on finesse than on pure power. For the general public, that philosophy will manifest itself in a new breed of unique small cars with relatively small displacement, smog-legal engines, and strong handling packages."
In 1981, the M81 was the first shot by the company's new president that the Blue Oval would be returning to factory-supported competition, and a race-prepared version of the car was entered into the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, where it won its class.
Developed with McLaren's former Michigan, US-based engine and performance car division, you may have guessed that the M81 has a four-cylinder turbocharged engine under its hood. With McLaren spending more than 40 hours on each example on just blueprinting and upgrading the engine internals, it's amazing they were only able to coax 175 horsepower from the 2.3-litre 4-cylinder turbo.
That meant a zero-to-100 km/h (62 mph) time as-measured by Motor Trend at 9.7 seconds…so don't fantasize about drag racing anything faster than a Hyundai Elantra. (This slow time was likely due to the magazine having access to the pre-production prototype.) More impressive is what the car could have done in corners, with fully-adjustable Koni shocks, fat anti-roll bars, and better brakes and tires.
To be offered at about $25,000 in 1980, in 2015 dollars you'd be shelling out about $65,000 for your very own M81. Its aggressive Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes-designed all-steel body kit over polished gold BBS wheels should have made its price tag more palatable in period, and for those who prefer the look of a race-inspired interior, the design team made additional tweaks to its cockpit.
Only 10 M81 Mustangs were made, including the single prototype. I'll end the piece here—this is one of those cars that's more fun to learn about on your own.