This is the M81 McLaren Mustang prototype, it’s the first of a planned 250 cars that were built as a partnership between McLaren Engines and Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO). Just 10 vehicles were built in the end due to the high price, and today they’re among the rarest production Mustangs ever made.
McLaren Engines had been established in the United States in 1969 by New Zealand racing legend Bruce McLaren, also the founder of the famous Formula One team of the same name. McLaren Engines focussed on American racing series like Can-Am and Indy Car, and they consulted with many major American automakers.
Fast Facts – The M81 McLaren Mustang Prototype
- The M81 McLaren Mustang was developed by Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) with significant input from McLaren Engines. The car would be one of the fastest and wildest production Mustangs of its era.
- In order to build the M81 McLaren Mustang a standard 1980 Fox Body Mustang was taken, steel fender flares were added along with front and rear brake ducting in the bodywork, BBS wheels, adjustable Koni shock absorbers, heavy-duty sway bars, heavy-duty springs, uprated brakes front and back, and a bolt-in roll bar.
- The standard 2.3 liter turbocharged inline-four cylinder engine was taken by McLaren Engines and fully disassembled. The head was ported and polished, it was de-burred and blueprinted, and fitted with a new variable turbo that could produce from 5 to 11 PSI – adjustable from inside the car.
- All of this work created one of the most memorable Mustangs of the time however it didn’t come cheap, with a sticker price of $25,000 USD in 1980, the equivalent to $91,576 USD in 2023. As a result just 10 were made of the originally planned 250.
McLaren Engines was founded by Bruce McLaren in Detroit in 1969. It was established to be the primary facility for the McLaren racing efforts in the United States, while McLaren in England remained focussed on the company’s Formula One racing program
The M81 McLaren Mustang was clearly a Fox Body however it benefitted from a serious styling revamp both inside and out, and it had a much more powerful engine under the hood.
Although today the name McLaren is most famous for its long history in F1, the impact that McLaren Engines had on the North American racing scene was immense. The company built engines for McLaren’s Can-Am cars, for Indy cars, and for countless other racing teams and series.
McLaren would win five consecutive Cam-Am championships, they built engines for three Indianapolis 500 winners, and they developed the turbocharged variant of the mighty Cosworth DFV engine that powered Indy cars for both Team McLaren and Penske Racing.
McLaren Engines was acquired by Canada-based Linamar Corporation and it remains operational today as a subsidiary, working with North American automakers on engine development.
Developing The M81 McLaren Mustang
The McLaren name was well-known in the United States in the 1970s thanks to the successes of Team McLaren in Can-Am racing. The team’s bright “Papaya Orange” cars had dominated for years, all powered by highly-modified American V8s.
This is the 2.3 liter turbocharged inline-four. It originally produced 131 bhp however after McLaren were done with it it was making 175 bhp, and was capable of more still.
The M81 McLaren Mustang was conceived as a sort of 1980s version of the Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s, now among the most desirable muscle cars ever made. Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) unit was founded in the early 1980s and the M81 would be their first major project.
The M81 would be followed in 1984 by the Ford Mustang SVO which was sold in much higher numbers, with almost 10,000 made between ’84 and ’86. In the United States, and around the world, new emissions restrictions and fuel efficiency standards meant that the large-displacement V8s of years gone by wouldn’t cut it, and new engine technologies were needed.
For the new Fox Body Mustang Ford had developed the 2.3 liter inline-four with a turbocharger that made almost as much power as the 4.9 liter V8, with 131 bhp vs 139 bhp. In 1980 the world was turned on its head when the V8 was lowered in displacement to 4.2 liters, and the power output dropped – for the first time a four-cylinder Mustang was more powerful than the V8 version.