Forgotten Pony-Unicorn: Ford-McLaren M81 Is One of the Rarest Mustangs

Ford-McLaren Mustang M81 9 photos
Photo: Ford
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Arguably one of the most iconic cars ever built in the U.S., the Mustang is already over 50 years old and carries with it one of the richest heritage.
From an automotive purist’s point of view, there’s no clear reason why the Mustang Mach-E SUV should be built, but Ford will bring the model forward come LA’s Auto Show this November. A Mustang that’s over 4 feet tall is an indignity at best and an abomination at worst. Then again, there will be some from the fringes of that strict segment who will argue that any Mustang with a door count greater than two is blasphemy already.

Had Ford not have the courage to develop the Mustang the way it did, famous models such as Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger would have probably never existed. And I’m saying it knowing that the Barracuda predated the Mustang, but it was the Mustang that truly built and defined the segment.

The car’s background is pretty much an open, drama-filled history book. The Mustang had its highs and lows, starting with the 1960s and passing through the dark years of the second generation model. But there is something inherently alluring floating around the McLaren M81 Mustang, even for those who may not consider themselves to be car enthusiasts.

Ford\-McLaren Mustang M81
Photo: FlatOut Brasil / Pinterest
Most of us write off the 1979-1982 models as cars with nothing to behold, while that might be understandable in relative terms, in reality it could not be any farther away from the truth. In fact this was the point where Ford found that investing in developing new technology was the only way to succeed. So for the third generation Mustang, it decided to partner up with McLaren to produce a ‘response’ car for the anemic vehicles of that time.

By that time Ford and McLaren have been working together in Formula 1, winning both the constructors and driver’s championship. The plan was ingenious: Gather Ford, Firestone, and McLaren’s resources into building a racing car in order to generate interest for a factory production model.

The plan kind of worked, and I say kind of because the car never made it to production. Only 10 pieces were made but still, the McLaren Mustang M81 was born. The car performed well and managed to finish the 24 hour Daytona race in 1981, and it established the recipe for creating the new turbo four-cylinder performance engine.

The M81 was an extraordinary vehicle with pronounced character, swiftly combining audacity and power. The intention was pretty clear, to produce a car that would be seen as a direct descendent of the motorsport version.

Ford\-McLaren Mustang M81
Photo: Ford
The Mustang M81 marked the beginning of modern muscle car era, it bridged the anemic carbureted V8’s of the late 1970s and brought us modern technology engines that were much more ‘tuner’ friendly. The carbureted and turbocharged 2.3-liter engine blueprinted by McLaren was no brute by contemporary standards, but it was respectable considering the competition.

It was the brilliant engineering behind it that allowed the engine to handle more boost than the stock unit. Despite the extra workload, the engine only managed to put down an estimated 175 HP and 145 lb-ft of torque, sent directly to the wide rear tires through a four speed manual gearbox.

That wasn’t all, though. To stand out from the standard Mustang of that time, the bucket seats were replaced with Recaros, the steering wheel was a smaller more sportier piece from Racemark and the factory gauges were replaced with Stewart-Warner ones. In the initial plan, there was supposed to be a roll cage available as an extra option but as the car didn’t move forward with mass production the option never materialized.

Beyond the worked turbo engine and interior upgrades, the M81 road cars featured a Koni damped suspension with heavy duty front and rear stabilizer bars, BBS custom wheels and Firestone HPR tires.

Ford\-McLaren Mustang M81
Photo: Ford
Although 250 M81 were scheduled for production, only 10 managed to get out of the factory doors - apparently the world wasn’t ready for a $25,000 hand built Mustang. If you adjust the inflation from 1981 to today’s time, the car would amount to no less than $82,000 - now keep in mind that the average price of a house in those times was little over $47,000.

That said, there’s still something that cannot be defined by words floating around rare cars such as the M81, even for those who may not consider themselves to be car enthusiasts. Maybe it’s their beauty, or perhaps the unique and classic styles, it could also be the stories behind them that fascinate people.

What’s certain is that cars like the McLaren Ford M81 can be invaluable to collectors around the world. Whether it’s because only a few models were built, or the heritage that Ford and McLaren built in their years of partnership in F1, or simply because it’s just a wonderful-looking piece on engineering.
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