This is a story of two powerful forces in conflict. The first force was the 1984 to 1986 Ford Mustang SVO, a limited-volume, high-tech, Fox-body high-performance Mustang variant. The other force was the National Maximum Speed Law, part of the 1974 National Highway Energy Conservation Act that mandated the infamous 55 mph speed limit and, relevant to us right now, a maximum indicated speedometer speed of 85 mph. When these two powerful entities clashed, the result was one of the only speedometers to have what’s basically an inside joke. The problem is that it may have been technically illegal.
(We’re taking today to celebrate Juneteenth, a day on which we celebrate the emancipation of Black people who were held as slaves in the United States. We will be celebrating, but we will also be taking time to reflect on the history and legacy of slavery, as well as the ongoing structural, institutional and systemic anti-Black racism that continues to be a defining characteristic of the United States today.)
Okay, just to set the scene a bit, why don’t you watch this old commercial for the Mustang SVO?
Hell yeah, right? Look at all that modern tech in an ’80s car! All that turbocharging and intercooling and sorta-streamlining, but all trapped in this miserable era of the 55 mph speed limit.
And, to add gutting insult to injury, The Man wouldn’t even let the car enjoy the ability to at least boast about its true, latent potential with a speedometer that went up to an impressive speed, like 140 mph!
It was downright cruel, and Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations team was not content to just roll over and take it. The SVO team had a little cheeky surprise up their sleeve, a little secret handshake for SVO buyers to let them know that, yes, they’ll play ball with the government and only go up to 85 on the speedo, but maybe with a wink.
That wink looked like this:
See that? I actually just took this picture last night when I saw a real SVO at a used car lot nearby. So I can confirm this isn’t some bit of internet photoshopfakery, this is what an SVO speedometer looked like.
It only included numbers up to 85 mph, sure, but Ford also included a, um, decorative strip of little hash marks that just so happen to count all the way up to 140 mph in 5 mph increments, and that needle will happily point at them if you, say, drive over 85.
Really, this was a gleefully subversive solution. It’s a nod to SVO buyers that, yes, this baby can hit 140, and that they agree that just limiting the speedo numbers is a silly way to try and encourage drivers to slow down, and, it’s all nice and legal because they’re meeting the letter of the law.
The problem is, I’m not so sure that last part is true.
I realize I’m 37 years late if I want to rat out Ford, which I really don’t but I can’t help but notice that this is what the law actually says:
The actual text of the regulation reads (emphasis mine):
“No speedometer shall have graduations or numerical values for speeds greater than 140 km/h and 85 mph and shall not otherwise indicate such speeds.”
It’s not just the numerical values, the law pretty clearly states “graduations” for speeds over 85, and the SVO speedo very clearly has those orange graduations for speeds over 85. According to the law, this speedometer would be illegal!
Ford could have pulled off this trick and still been within the letter of the law; in fact, Ferrari did it in cars like the American-market 1979 308 GTB:
See, there the needle can still go past 85, but Ferrari read the law carefully enough to see that they couldn’t put in actual graduations, opting instead for an exciting-looking red arc.
I’m not sure exactly how Ford got away with it, but it looks like they did; as far as I’ve been able to tell, the government never went after Ford or demanded these speedos be replaced.
Maybe the limited run of 9,835 cars was determined to be small enough to not cause America’s highways to become awash in blood, or maybe it’s somehow just slipped under the radar all this time, and by writing this I’ll be unleashing a retroactive legal nightmare for Ford?
Will they have to issue a recall for all the remaining SVOs out there, and replace their fun speedometers with miserable ones legally compliant to a law that was repealed 26 years ago?
Oh, crap, I hope not. Sorry.
(thanks Hans, and thanks to the car lot owner that had the SVO I happened to see)