What Is the McLaren m81?

The McLaren m81 Mustang has been called the “rarest Mustang ever made.” There’s truth to this claim, both in the number produced and in how far the concept deviated from what has traditionally been considered the ‘spirit’ of the brand. The McLaren m81 was the first product of Ford’s newly established Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division, which was created to promote the racing potential of Ford products through a series of limited-edition variants on popular models.

McLaren M81 MustangThe fact that the 1980 Mustang was the first model to benefit from this is not surprising — the Mustang made its name based on its performance, and the past decade or so had seen it trade power for economy with the introduction of the Mustang II. In general, the trend among sports cars at the time was to build smaller and more efficient, and the m81 was Ford’s most specific effort yet to embrace this ethos.

A Turbocharged Mustang for the ‘80s

The goal of the McLaren m81 was to truly embrace the potential of the 2.3L turbocharged four cylinder that Ford had been promoting as its performance option. The m81, designed by Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes, took the four cylinder as its base but heavily tuned it, adding a variable boost control with a range between 5-11 psi. In addition, the m81 featured a spoiler, hood scoops, fender flares, an improved suspension and 15” German BBS alloy rims. Together, these improvements over the stock four cylinder gave the m81 a top output of 175 horsepower, allowing it to make the trip from 0-60 in 9.76 seconds.

Pricing and Availability

While reviews of the McLaren m81 where overwhelmingly positive, only ten of the planned 250 units ever got produced. Built by hand in the tradition of the great European racecars, the m81 had a sticker price of $25,000. Of those ten cars, seven sport the Bittersweet Orange paint job, two the Enduro coloring, one black and one white. Though it failed to catch on in 1980, with the news that Ford’s upcoming 2015 Mustang will be available with a turbocharged four, the m81 has proved to be ahead of its time in more ways than one.