Tom Wilson
September 1, 2005

You have to love project cars. Made up like a cheap date, and dripping with expensive doodads of questionable utility, project cars are the fishnet stockings of the car culture. But here's one that looks great, goes fast, and hasn't suffered from bolt-on death.

Owned by Bud Bulmer, the Sales and Marketing Manager at Tokico, this striped '04 Mach 1 features a muted retro Shelby look, boosted power, and numerous other upgrades, but its main purpose is to showcase Tokico's D-Spec adjustable shocks. And that is why we had the car for several days, the better to sample these premium shocks on the street. We had previously tried D-Specs on a variety of street cars during Tokico's press event at The Streets of Willow Springs, and had been impressed by their super wide range of adjustment, so we looked forward to trying them out of captivity.

Of course, just fitting shocks to a Mustang headed into the hands of the jaded Mustang press corps would be underwhelming, so Bud fitted a good cross section of performance parts. Chief of these is the Vortech supercharger whining underhood, plus K&N air and oil filters. A MagnaFlow Tru-X high-flow cat and after-cat system got the nod for discharging the increased airflow, and because the free-breathing Mach 1 engine needs nothing else to make a ripping-good time, that's it in the engine room.

Helping the D-Spec shocks strut their handling stuff are Steeda caster/camber plates and Snow Performance braces at the firewall/strut-towers underhood and between the shock towers in the rear. Various high-rate Tokico springs have been tried on this car in the search for the best spring/shock match-this car is also the occasional test mule and Bud's daily driver. The springs we drove on measured in the 650 in-lb range, which is a stout 50-percent stiffer or so than stock. These are hardly the final set of springs for this car, so expect to see a somewhat different spring rate when Tokico [(800) 548-2549; www.tokicogasshocks.com] releases its springs for sale. In keeping with the retro Shelby theme and Bud's racing background, the wheels were upgraded to 18x9 and 18x10-inch Halibrand Cobra III units, complete with genuine Halibrand knock-offs that give us our fun but functionally faux fishnet stockings. Pirelli 275/35R-18 front and 295/35R-18 rear P-Zero Rosso ultra-performance tires provide the definitely not faux grip.

Currie helped out with a differential cover/girdle on the otherwise stock 8.8-inch third member carrying stock 3.55 gears. Bud mentioned he cut off the two inches of protruding studs from the diff cover so they wouldn't center punch the fuel tank in a heavy rear-end collision.

Inside, Bud provided sportier seating and harnesses to match the increased cornering power. Misano L series carbon-fiber seats from Cobra were paired with Scroth harness belts, and an Auto Meter Lunar series instrument cluster assembly replaced the stock gauges. Aluminum knick knacks on the headlight switch, hand brake lever, and so on are from Steeda, as is the Tri-Ax shifter with its matching aluminum handle.

Steeda also played a part in the exterior looks department with its front air dam/splitter, but like a GT500 Shelby, this car's signature design point is a pair of PIAA 510 series high intensity driving lights mounted front and center in the grille. A definitely more subtle touch are the Sporza silicone windshield wipers.

While our primary interest was fiddling with the D-Spec Tokicos, we have to admit we had a blast (or two), peddling the boosted Mach 1 powertrain. With the deep-breathing cylinder heads and centrifugal blower, the top-end charge was stuff of freeway flyer legend. If following this path to power, however, our recommendation would be for more final drive gearing-3.73 cogs would be ideal (and were installed two weeks after we drove the car). As it was, the stock gears let the car pull famously as long as the tach was approaching 4,000 rpm or higher, but below that the response was the comparatively soft Four-Valve stock. In the real world, this can be put to good use, as this flashy Mach ran town errands and commuting with stock fuel economy and driveability, but would fly on downshift demand. The trade-off is you must be in a low gear and be ready to make big rpm when you want the power, similar to nitrous. The addition of steeper rear axle gearing will bring the power hit on line quicker, likely without a downshift.

We found the firm spring and shock rates (we typically had the shocks adjusted to the firm end of their range), combined with what felt like performance handling alignment settings, gave responsive, eager steering and handling. Definitely tunable using the adjustable D-Specs, the steering response was certainly quicker than stock, for a delightfully eager turn in on twisty roads, and an almost nervous free-way gait that wanted some attention paid to it while cruising. This was not a sleeping chassis.

As expected, adjusting the shocks firmer-the single point D-Spec adjustment alters both compression and rebound dampening-brought on increased handling capability for corner carving. Launch action, which is so useful at the dragstrip, naturally favors weight transfer to the rear, in which case turning the front struts all the way to soft was unmistakably helpful. It certainly would be no extra work to adjust these shocks while disconnecting the sway bar and fitting skinny front and slick rear tires.

The D-Spec's big advantage is its huge range of adjustment provided by a triangle-shaped window in the valving mechanism. Many adjustable shocks provide small, often just perceptible, changes in dampening, but not the D-Spec Tokicos. When you turn them down, it's the next thing to turning them off, and turned to full firm, they are nearly racing stiff. Tokico says the D-Spec's triangular window has added more ability to soften the shock than stiffen it-performance shocks are typically stiff enough for the street anyway-so the D-Spec's largest advantage is providing an easy street ride rather than stiffening into Formula 1 levels of suspension control.

To which we agree, but in the end we came to believe the D-Spec's advantage would be best paired with relatively softer street springs. Why? Because you can turn down the D-Spec shock, but you can't turn down the spring rate. If you're motoring around on the street with track-oriented spring rates, such as Bud's car, even with the D-Specs turned all the way down, the suspension will only be so compliant because the spring rates are still stiffening everything up. Bud's car ended up with sort of a baby-buggy ride with the shocks turned way down. It wasn't evil, but it was clear the spring/shock matching was diverging off the chart, leaving the springs to give an extra bounce when worked over by potholes and bumps while the shocks were turned down.

Screw in the adjusters to the stiffer end of the scale and the spring/shock balance felt great and the car really handled. The ride was definitely stiff and jiggly, as a sport suspension would be, but the handling balance was good.

During our previous D-Spec experience using a variety of otherwise stock street cars (Minivans to Mustangs and everything in between), we found the D-Specs could be turned down to yield a limousine ride because stock spring rates are on the soft side to begin with. Turning the D-Specs toward hard really controlled the spring and gave a distinctly better handling ability, and the ride was still better than if high rate springs had been fitted. So, for most enthusiasts who daily drive their Mustangs to work, but want occasional back road glory, we figure a stock or close to stock spring with the D-Spec would be a great combination, if not the ultimate handler. For that, a sport spring and the D-Spec are required.

On the other hand, combined with the typical Mustang lowering spring, the D-Spec will give better control than the stock shock over the stiffer, shorter springs. Turning the D-Spec down will still give some relief on long cruises, rough roads, in the rain and so on.

One application where we see the D-Spec shining is with a street/strip car. Often fitted with 90/10 drag struts, these cars are uncomfortably floaty in street driving and approaching hopeless when driving with any enthusiasm in corners. Here, a D-Spec should prove ideal, as it could provide a truly soft dragstrip launch, and also be turned up for more than acceptable handling on the street, or even on open track day. It definitely has the adjustment range.

Of course, for any given spring rate, there is going to be a shock setting that works best, so the spring rate will still play a major role in where a Mustang will handle best.

The other D-Spec advantage is fine-tuning the shocks to a specific car's situation. Mustangs generally need a moderately firm front strut and soft rear shocks. The D-Specs allow you to best meet this need, and should you transfer the battery to the trunk, fit a huge stereo, install a fiberglass hood, and so on, the D-Specs will easily adapt to your chassis' needs.

We also found the D-Specs easy to adjust. The front struts use a small tool that can live on the keyfob, while the rears on Bud's car were fitted with prototype remote adjusters. The fronts don't need them, as the strut is front and center underhood, while the top of the rear shocks is sort of buried in the forward, top section of the trunk. The remote adjusters were simple lengths of hose with the adjusting tool permanently attached at the end. All that was necessary was to open the trunk, grab the hose and turn the knob. Tokico will offer these in snazzy stainless-steel-braid versions shortly.

D-Spec adjusters have no clicks or discrete stops, so the way to adjust them is to run them in all the way tight, then count turns as you unscrew the adjuster for increasing softness. The Mustang units are full soft after seven turns-so you don't have to spend all day twisting the knob. On Bud's car, we found three turns toward soft was our best compromise between ride and handling.

We spent plenty of time driving and playing with the shocks because the car was fun to drive. Those driving lights were particularly interesting as it's dark in our out-of-town location, so we can use powerful lights. Bud had the PIAA's wired and aimed for low-beam-only operation to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers and the better to see potholes and such in town. They threw an intense, daylight-like light, so we would have preferred them on with the high beams. But in the car's usual urban environment, they probably do best as low beams.

The seats helped in cornering, but are wide enough in the waist and shoulders to allow easy in and out maneuvering, and the Lunar gauges were a fun touch. We found them blindingly bright at night however, without enough dimming capability.

All told, Bud has built a fun Mach with a retro visual twist and a foot on cutting-edge tech. If you feel like duplicating it, the D-Spec struts/shocks are sold only in sets of four. Full-blown list price is $788 for the set-expect around $600 street.

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