Huw Evans
July 1, 2008
Contributers: Huw Evans, James Pickett Photos By: James Pickett

Several months back, we did a special feature entitled "Gear Head Girls." We put the word out to see if we could get any submissions from ladies who own and drive '79-present Mustangs. We received quite a few submissions, and as a result, a number of finalists were picked and we placed their stories and images of their cars in the magazine (Sept. '07).

There was one particular story, however, that knocked us out. One girl, at the age of 25, had built the Mustang she'd always wanted, largely by herself but with a bit of help from her dad; her boyfriend, Jay; and her friend Joe Bellandi. She drove it approximately 2,000 miles from her home in New Hampshire to Mustang Alley and the Woodward Dream Cruise, in Ferndale, Michigan (two years in a row). Talk about being a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast. Even though her story was amazing and got our vote as the winner of our "Gear Head Girls" story, we figured that wasn't enough, so here is Nicole Belanger's '93 Mustang in all its glory.

Four Cylinders, Five Speeds
Nicole's introduction to the Mustang world began several years ago when she was just 16 years old and living in sunny Florida. She fell in love with the '87-'93 Mustang GTs (sounds a bit like the author), but of course, having just got a driver's license at the time, the idea of piloting a V-8-powered road rocket was beyond her means and likely to give any parent or insurance agent a serious fit. However, Nicole was determined to get a Ford Pony, and she did just that, taking possession of an '89 five-speed, four-cylinder LX hatchback. Her plan was to ultimately convert it into a V-8 GT replica, so she began by installing the GT-specific rocker-panel extensions and added an underbody neon "glow" kit. "Hey, I was just a teenager at the time," she says.

Nicole's next plan was to install the GT front and rear bumper assemblies, but before she could get to that, she had to move to New Hampshire and leave her beloved Pony behind. "Even though I had to get rid of that [first] Mustang, I promised myself that I'd do a V-8 conversion into a Fox-body four-cylinder one day," she says, and she kept that promise. A number of months later, she located yet another four-cylinder LX hatch, this time a '93 model with an A4LD four-speed automatic. "My dad had built an 8-second drag car, and even though he was a Chevy guy, I figured if I decided to do my own project, I'd have some help. I just had to work out exactly what route I wanted to take."

Nicole's first task in her quest to make the ultimate Mustang was to get the car looking like the GT she'd always wanted. "I found a full OEM Ford '87-'93 Mustang GT ground-effects kit--the bumper covers, rocker panel, and side extensions," she says. "These were used parts, and I purchased them without the steel mounting brackets. My dad was a real help in that he made custom aluminum channels so we could install the body pieces onto the LX using the original GT factory mounting screws." Nicole says that the used ground effects went on "almost perfectly," though the driver-side rocker panel extension is slightly warped where it attaches to the front fender. "The previous owner kept the parts in a shed before I got them, and I think the cold and the heat caused the warping," she says. With the body mods completed in November 2003, it was time to move on to the next stage.

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"Knowing that I wanted to put a 5.0 engine in the car, I thought it was a good idea to improve the handling first," Nicole says. And she didn't skimp, getting her hands on top-notch Maximum Motorsports control arms and a strut tower brace, Eibach Pro kit springs (front and back), and a set of KYB adjustable front struts and rear shocks. With the suspension taken care of, it was now time to get to the big stuff--turning the mild four-banger into a wild 5.0L car.

"I have to admit," Nicole says, "that before I started, I was afraid the job might be too big to handle. I realized ahead of time that the cost of swapping in a complete 5.0 drivetrain would be costly, not only in parts, but also in labor if I failed trying to do it myself." But she bit her tongue and got to work. The first thing, of course, was getting all the necessary parts to do the conversion. An '87 302 H.O. engine was found in decent shape with just 87,000 miles on the clock. A '93 GT automatic parts car with a blown engine was dragged home to donate the rest of its driveline, including the AOD trans, the EEC IV computer, the wiring harness, and the complete fuel system.

The parts car was stripped in Nicole's father's unheated garage, and once out of the way, the four-cylinder machine was dragged in, ready for the transformation to begin. Of course, as with any project that deals with cars between 15 and 20 years old, there were a few issues. "Because the '87 engine hadn't run in quite a while, Jason and I decided it would be a good idea to install a new water pump, but trying to get the old one off proved a little bit tricky," Nicole says. The bolts were so old and seized that they steadfastly refused to budge, and when Jason tried, "all we ended up with were sheared-off bolts that were now loose inside the timing cover. We thought that was it, the V-8 was done. Luckily, Nicole's dad came to the rescue and the engine didn't have to be junked after all.

Coming Together
Other issues included mating the AOD trans to the originally five-speed-backed engine and the fuel system; installing a new throttle cable; and fitting new fuel rails, lines, and pump. "The engine and transmission install was a fun one," says Nicole. "We got the engine in, and here we were in this unheated garage in the middle of winter in New Hampshire trying to mate this V-8 with the AOD from the parts car. The first time we tried, it just wouldn't fit. We spent an agonizing 25 minutes and nothing. My dad was starting to say that Fords suck and I'd gotten the wrong transmission, but then we discovered that because the engine was from a five-speed car, it still had the pilot bearing in place." With that item removed, the torque converter could now mate with the flywheel and the whole transmission could be bolted up without further adieu.

Replacing the throttle cable was another task that Nicole didn't enjoy. "Try pulling an almost-seized throttle cable off the end of the gas pedal with your feet pushed against the headrest," she says. Still, she got there in the end, and with the old cable finally off, its replacement went on fairly easily.

The '93 LX was slowly coming together as a GT replica. Nicole did the wiring and cleaned up the engine before it went in, fitting new gaskets and fuel rails, along with the previously mentioned water pump. Jason helped out with the process, along with friend Joe Bellandi, who provided some knowledgeable info on the driveline swap.

With the engine, transmission, and fuel rails installed, it was time to add the rest of the V-8 fuel system. "Because we were changing the driveline, we needed completely new fuel lines. They run along the right-side floor on a 5.0 car, as opposed to the left side on a four-cylinder." Nicole figured that due to the fiddly nature of this task, it was best farmed out to a shop.

By May 2004, when the weather was warmer, the car was approaching completion. "We were getting there, but I still needed a few things. On Memorial Day weekend, with just odds and ends to finish to be really done, I worked like mad--of course, it rained the entire weekend." So there was Nicole, like a drowned rat, lying on a soaked blanket, working on her car. "I managed to install the instrument cluster, vacuum lines, and radiator. I reinstalled the front fenders and bumper cover, along with plugging all the accessories into the factory harness except the alternator. I found I didn't have a connector--I must've forgotten to take it from the donor car. I managed to find a local Mustang parts dealer, Rick Menards, and he gave me the right harness so I could hook up my alternator. I don't know what I would have done without his help."

All Fired Up
After some issues with her new Holley 255-lph fuel pump, which wouldn't turn on, Nicole finally got it working. Then the car wouldn't start. "I was at a shop getting the transmission TV cable set properly, and when the car wouldn't run, I had it towed home. I thought it must be an electrical problem, so I went through the wiring and found an incorrect ground connection. I asked Jason to bring in the video camera to witness the car starting for the first time. I turned the key and the starter cranked and cranked, and sputtered. I cranked the starter again and the engine fired. It was amazing to finally see the car I had worked so hard on actually come to life."

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Unfortunately, another issue reared its ugly head not long afterward. The new fuel lines Nicole had opted for were replacement OEM lines, which use rubber connectors to link them from the hard lines underneath to the fuel rails on the engine. "The shop that installed them routed the rubber sections outside of the sway bar, so every time I turned the front wheels, the right-side front tire would rub against the line extension," she says. "It only took two days before the rubber part failed and gas spewed out all over the place. Luckily, I had the windows down when that happened." Nicole soon addressed the problem, and now with Russell braided lines installed, that issue won't likely surface again.

Nicole has also been busy enjoying her car. She takes it to shows and cruises in the summertime, to Woodward, of course, and even down the dragstrip at Epping. Nicole can proudly boast, just like her license plate says, that 9 years after she got her first 2.3 LX, she's finally driving a "4NOMORE."