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SVT crew puts the polish on Ford's blue oval

JUST revealed at this year's Chicago Auto Show, the 2013 Shelby Mustang Convertible. It's got all the good stuff: a 5.

JUST revealed at this year's Chicago Auto Show, the 2013 Shelby Mustang Convertible.

It's got all the good stuff: a 5.8-litre supercharged V-8 with 650 horsepower(!), giant six-piston Brembo brakes, electronically adjustable Bilstein dampers and even a carbon-fibre driveshaft.

Talk about your ultimate Mustang ragtop! Ford had to limit the top speed to "only" 250 kilometres per hour so that, y'know, your head doesn't come off. It's a heck of a machine, but it also marks a special anniversary: 20 years of Ford's Special Vehicle Team.

It was here in Chicago, in 1992, that the covers came off the first SVT effort. Fittingly, it was also a Mustang: the '93 SVT Mustang Cobra. Nowadays, the Cobra's 235 h.p. might not seem barnburning, but back in the days when plaid was fashionable and Vanilla Ice was waxing a chump like a candle, it was something pretty special.

Many manufacturers have their own in-house tuners; BMW with its M-division, Mercedes-Benz with AMG. So it was with SVT, a joint effort between Ford's research and marketing divisions. Their mission: to "polish the blue oval," adding sporting credentials to key models in Ford's lineup.

Now, this was far from Ford's first foray into vehicle tuning and performance. Remember, this is the company that produced the GT40 for LeMans, a Ferrarikilling racecar that thumbed its nose at the Italian purebreds. It's also the company that built '60s muscle like the Boss 302 Mustangs.

But it's also the company that built the Pinto and the Probe, and the company that dropped the ball somewhat with the SVO Mustang. This last was a 200 h.p., turbocharged four-cylinder version that could have been revolutionary, but lacked proper marketing support, and was thousands of dollars more expensive than the V-8-powered GT model. These days, it's an interesting rarity for collectors.

The SVT Mustang changed all that. Here, finally, was a proper performance Mustang again, with multiple upgrades allowing that 5.0-litre (302c.i.) engine to roar for pretty much the first time since emissions standards and fuel-economy demands had first choked the V-8.

Not only did you get a completely re-worked engine with freer-flowing cylinder heads, bigger injectors, a more aggressive cam profile and better breathing, the Cobra boasted a beefedup transmission and improved suspension. It was also a better-looking car than the GT, more subdued despite the upgrades.

If you wanted even more Mustang, SVT had the Cobra R, a track-special race version that had even stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, and threw out the rear seat to save weight. These are very rare, with only 107 produced.

Released along with the flagship Mustang was a special version of the other vehicle Ford is most synonymous with, the F-150 pickup. With a 240 h.p. 5.8-litre V-8, SVT's version was dubbed the "Lightning," and it wasn't just about straightline speed. Chassis reinforcements and lowered suspension meant this full-size truck could actually handle; Ford even brought in champion driver Jackie Stewart to consult.

These first vehicles were huge successes for Ford's SVT division, and by the mid-'90s, Cobra Mustangs were starting to get their own distinctive styling cues. Specialty models like the Cobra R were built in very limited quantities, but strong aftermarket support meant that you could get similar parts to beef up your regular Mustang.

1997 saw another type of vehicle enter the SVT corral, the SVT Contour. Based on the four-door mid-sized sedan, upgrades to the normal Contour included a horsepower bump to 195, upgraded brakes and suspension and a more aggressive body kit. It sold well, but never quite developed the same following as the Taurus SHO, making it a bit of a sleeper.

However, there was nothing sleeper-ish about the second-generation F-150 Lightning. Roaring into town with a supercharged, 360 h.p., 5.4-litre engine, the Lightning was blitzing down dragstrips and embarrassing hot rods. The Lightning's enormous torque reserves made it capable of essentially ignoring the inertia of a full-sized truck. 0-100 km/h came in the low five-second range.

By the early 2000s, SVT had a six-speed, 385 h.p. version of the Cobra R, the Lightning had seen its power jump to 380 h.p., and they'd even built a concept paying homage to that giantkilling GT40: the Ford GT. It was a modern renaissance for the blue oval, and things were about to get even better.

2002 saw the SVT Focus arrive, a 170 h.p. hot hatchback that immediately won numerous accolades, including being named to Car and Driver's Top 10 list. It also saw "The Terminator" arrive in a cloud of smoke.

While Cobra Mustangs had been quietly getting more and more powerful with each generation, the 2003 Cobra's supercharged 390 h.p. V-8 essentially blew everything into the weeds. 0-100km/h in four and a half seconds.

Through the quarter-mile in 12.9s. These are fast figures even by today's standards, and the Cobra wasn't a drag-racing special. Its fully independent suspension meant it could handle as well.

Three Ford GTs were built in time for Ford's 100th anniversary, and they paraded past headquarters to kick-off the celebrations. It was a rainy day in 2003, perhaps foreshadowing the dark clouds of financial uncertainty that would mark the latter part of the decade.

But Ford withstood the tempest, emerging with an even-stronger lineup and their SVT division intact and still pumping out great cars. Alongside this latest Cobra Mustang, SVT also builds the Raptor, a factory-special Baja-racer based on the F-150 that's capable of getting some serious air.

With the new European-style Focus selling well, we'll surely see a sporting version of that car in the pipeline soon, and just maybe an SVTtuned Fusion might be in the cards, perhaps with a hotted-up Eco-boost twin-turbo mill. Either way, we can't wait to see what the SVT crew come up with next.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.