Jim Smart
August 7, 2005

Do you remember when we used to drive classic Mustangs daily? We cruised during high school in 1967, drove them to college in 1969, came home from Vietnam in 1972 to a new Cobra Jet Mach 1, and spent an endless summer vacation with a new convertible in 1973. We like to remember our Mustangs like they were during our youth.

But, today, owning and driving a classic Mustang presents its own set of challenges. Those hard bucket seats numb the posterior on a long trip. The driver-to-steering-wheel relationship isn't what it used to be, especially if you're sporting a midlife belly or have shoulder problems. Leaking cowl vents or windshields make our shoes (and carpet) soggy when it rains. That clunk in the front end is annoying. Fuel economy isn't what it could be. Forty-year-old brakes aren't as effective as the four-wheel discs on our everyday '02 GT. Wind noise at highway speeds makes it hard to hear the Rolling Stones on that tinny factory radio. And what about safety?

These and other concerns come up whenever we think about driving a classic Mustang daily or as a weekend pleasure vehicle. But driving an old Mustang on the street doesn't have to be unpleasant or unsafe. Our approach has to be laced with plenty of common sense, better technology where possible, and closer attention to driving technique.

Better Brakes
The first thing you should do to a frequently driven vintage Mustang is install better brakes, especially on cars with drum brakes all around. Opt for a set of four-piston Kelsey-Hayes front disc brakes from Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation. Years ago, we suggested the '68-up single-piston front disc brakes, also called Granada disc brakes, because they were more trouble-free than the four-piston Kelsey-Hayes units that were original equipment from 1965 to 1967. The old four-piston Kelsey-Hayes disc brakes suffered from sticking pistons and dragging pads. Today, the four-piston front disc brakes from Stainless Steel Brakes are refined to keep the pistons working smoothly. It's simply a better disc brake than the single-piston unit.

Single-piston front disc brakes deliver braking pressure at a single point. Four-piston calipers deliver brake pressure more uniformly across both pads, making it a more effective disc brake. One advantage of the single-piston caliper is it's free-floating, which isolates the caliper from the spindle. The four-piston caliper mounts directly onto the spindle.

Single-piston front disc brakes were cheaper to manufacture, yet effective for street use.

Double Up With A Dual Braking System
Prior to the '67 model year, all U.S.-made automobiles had a single hydraulic braking system that operated all four brakes. If you lost the master cylinder or had a brake-line rupture, the result was no braking of any kind. The most you could hope for was the parking brake, which didn't offer much consolation when hydraulics were lost.

Beginning in 1967, Ford fitted new Mustangs with a dual-braking system--one master cylinder with two reservoirs, which is basically two master cylinders combined on a single bore. Each master cylinder, both tied to one pushrod, provided braking pressure to the front and rear brakes. The rear reservoir and cylinder provided pressure to the front brakes. The front reservoir and cylinder provided pressure for the rear brakes. If one system failed, the remaining system would provide some stopping power.

Single braking systems are easily converted to dual systems with a dual-reservoir master cylinder and some minor plumbing work. We suggest running the rear brakes directly off the master cylinder's front reservoir with an adjustable proportioning valve within easy reach. The front brakes can be run from the distribution block we see on '65-'66 Mustangs. You can also use the '67 or '68-'70 distribution block with the warning-light switch that advises you of lost braking pressure should either system fail. All you need is a fused power source, wiring, and the switch. When the switch detects a drop in pressure, it grounds the circuit, illuminating the warning light.

Do You Need Four-Wheel Disc Brakes?
For all the hoopla about four-wheel disc brakes, here are the facts. Disc brakes work more effectively than drum brakes because they resist fading under heavy braking. They also resist lockup and continue to operate well in wet conditions. But, do you need them for your classic Mustang driver? If you want truly effective braking without the drawbacks of rear drum brakes, order a set of rear disc brakes. They will improve braking effectiveness and require very little maintenance except for occasional pad changes.

The parking brake is the downside to rear disc brakes. Because '65-'68 Mustangs employ a dash-mounted hand brake, they don't work well even with the stock drum brakes. If having a functional parking brake is important to you (it should be), consider installing a hand brake between the bucket seats. It offers more leverage, which enables you to set the parking brake. The dash-mounted hand brake with rear disc brakes typically doesn't work well. The foot-operated parking brake on '69-'73 Mustangs provides more leverage to set it. Mustangs from '74 and up have the hand brake between the bucket seats, making light work of setting the brake.

Improve Handling For Safety
The best safety equipment available keeps you out of an accident in the first place. We've addressed braking systems, but what about driving your way out of an accident? Mustangs that handle well are easier to maneuver out of trouble. To get there, you need tires with a larger, wider contact patch. You also need a suspension system that makes the most of that contact patch. Stiffer springs reduce body roll and can also lower the car's center of gravity for greater stability. Sway bars also reduce body roll, but there are two schools of thought with them. Some recommend rear sway bars, and others don't. Rear sway bars generally do a terrific job, but they can be noisy.

Three types of suspension bushings are available: rubber, polyurethane, and urethane. The factory used rubber to begin with, as it has the most "give" and takes up more road shock. Polyurethane is a flexible form of urethane because it consists of several polymers designed to absorb a lot of road shock while keeping suspension components where they belong. Urethane is as hard as a brick. It doesn't give or forgive. Expect extraordinary stiffness, which is wonderful on a road course but annoying during the morning commute.

There are three basic types of shock absorbers: gas shocks, high-performance gas shocks, and super heavy-duty, adjustable gas shocks. Standard gas shocks damp the ride like a stock shock absorber and take up road shock well, but you sacrifice handling. High-performance gas shocks, like KYBs, stiffen the ride and improve handling. Heavy-duty, adjustable gas shocks, like Konis, greatly improve handling, but ride quality suffers. The best street compromise we've seen is 620 coils and five-leafs with either the standard gas shock or the high-performance gas shock. The super-stiff 620s and Koni shocks are wonderful on the track, but will beat the daylights out of you during normal street driving.

The hot shoes will suggest the thickest front sway bar out there, but all you need for the street is a 1-inch front sway bar. Anything thicker will harden the ride and make noise.

More advanced suspension technology is available, like the Fox-body-based suspension system from RRS, which provides both ride and handling. Total Control's front coilover suspension system is also a nice substitute for the Mustang's Falconesque upper-arm setup, which remains antiquated in 2005. The Total Control system isn't cheap, but it improves classic Mustang handling and ride quality.

When you lower your Mustang's center of gravity with lowering springs, you make the car safer by making it a vehicle less likely to roll over during an evasive maneuver. A lower center of gravity keeps the vehicle stable.

Single Wire, One Less Thing
Older Mustangs through the mid-'80s had alternator-charging systems with external voltage regulators, offering reliability that's hit-and-miss with those old mechanical point contacts. Solid-state voltage regulators have improved reliability and charging-system performance. Still, reliability isn't what it could be.

Single-wire alternator charging systems are good for alternator and generator charging systems alike. If you have a '641/2 Mustang, you can replace the generator with a single-wire alternator and eliminate the dated charging system entirely. What's more, you can keep the car's original wiring, which won't be used with the single-wire system. With a single-wire alternator, all you need is a link between the alternator and battery, and a ground wire. By stepping up to a high-tech, high-amp single-wire alternator from Powermaster, you'll have 160 amps of charging power at your disposal, which is great for sound systems, power windows, additional lighting, electronic engine control, and other accessories.

Halogen Headlamps
With those old sealed-beam headlamps from the '60s, night illumination is more like driving with a pair of candles. The dated, brown glow from the sealed beams just doesn't light the road ahead like modern Halogen and electric-arc headlamps. This is an important point for your Mustang classic. Halogen headlamps offer unequaled performance when properly aimed, which is comforting on a rainy night when you'd like to see 300 feet or more ahead of the vehicle.

Driving Lamps For Visibility
Driving lamps are a nice option when visibility gets poor. Not only do these high-power lights improve a Mustang's looks, they light the road ahead when the going gets dark. Use these in conjunction with your Mustang's high-beam headlights for better performance.

Speak Loud
We like the nostalgic sound of factory Ford car horns from '65 to '78. However, they don't do much for getting attention in traffic when some schmuck cuts you off or someone pulls out in front of you. This is where time and technology have gotten the best of our old Mustang horns. Most new Fords today are equipped with Signaltone horns, which are also available from the aftermarket. Like your Mustang's original horns, these are twin high- and low-pitch horns that yield a European tone, which is plenty loud, with a nice harmony. They quickly get the attention of other motorists and pedestrians. The Signaltone horns are cheap, at $12.95 each, and are available from J.C. Whitney or a number of auto accessory stores.

Collapsible Steering Column
We've performed this one ourselves, so we know it works. Prior to the '68 model year, classic Mustangs were fitted with solid-shaft steering columns that do not give in a frontal collision, putting you at risk for injuries. Did you know you can install the '68-'69 Mustang/Cougar collapsible steering column in your '65-'67 Mustang? You have a couple of options with this conversion. You can keep the '68-'69 collar, which includes the turn-signal and emergency flasher switch, which may not blend well with your '65-'66 interior. Or you can adapt the '65-'67 top collar to the '68-'69 column. Some modification to the steering column is required to tie the '65-'67 top collar to the collapsible column.

Be Seen: Halogen And LED Taillights
While it's important for you to see the road ahead at night, it's also important for others to see you. In the past five years, two items have come to market designed to make your Mustang's taillights brighter. Halogen taillight bulbs are smaller and much brighter than the 1157 lamps they replace. A downside to the Halogens is the heat they generate, which can be especially bad if you're sitting in traffic with your foot on the brake. Scott Drake Enterprises offers a special taillight lens for '65-'66 Mustangs designed to take the heat of the Halogen lamp without melting or distorting.

Another innovation is Light Emitting Diode (LED) taillight modules for '65-'73 Mustangs. These lights are bright without generating any heat. Several types are available, including the ones from Mustang Project that also offer sequential operation. We suggest the larger LED modules that cover the entire taillight lens. The small LED bulbs don't work well and create less light than the 1157 bulb.

Three-Point--Be Safe
If you're going to drive your Mustang regularly, safety behind the wheel is paramount. Those factory lap belts keep you in the car in a collision, but they won't protect your face and torso. Three-point safety belts give you late-model protection without having to give up the classic Mustang experience. You can get this kind of protection by securing a set of three-point safety belts from a variety of Fords and Mercury donor cars from the mid- to late-'70s. They have simple restraint reels and are easy to install in classic Mustangs. An easier option is to install a new set of three-point safety belts from Custom Accessories, the same folks who bring you Custom Autosound. These belts are easy to install and use your Mustang's factory seatbelt attachment points, and they work exceptionally well with low-back bucket seats. You can also protect your rear-seat passengers with three-point protection in back.

No use protecting your face and torso if you aren't going to protect your neck. Headrests aren't there just for your comfort, but to protect your head and neck in a rear-end collision. Owners of '68-'69 Mustangs can opt for a set of factory headrests that are easily incorporated into the stock seats. Those of us with '65-'69 Mustang low-back bucket seats can choose headrest conversion kits from Custom Accessories or TMI Products.

Roller Derby
Roller camshafts and rocker arms have long been perceived as "race only" engine mods, but did you know the installation of a roller camshaft can reduce your engine's internal friction by 15 percent? Flat-tappet camshafts and cast rocker arms create a lot of internal friction, which hurts fuel economy and robs power. Installing a roller camshaft not only reduces friction, it allows you to use a more aggressive cam profile for improved performance without adversely affecting driveability. Roller-tip rocker arms reduce friction even more by allowing smooth operation across the valve-stem tip.

All Steel, All The Time
Today's automotive fuels are hard on fuel systems. Additives attack rubber components, which increases the risk of fuel leakage and fire. To prevent fuel leakage, hard-line your Mustang's fuel system where it counts: underhood. Prior to 1967, Mustangs were hard-lined between the fuel pump and carburetor, with no rubber hoses under pressure. Beginning in 1967, Ford went to a rubber hose between the fuel line and carburetor. Where possible, consider the use of pre-'67 fuel lines and carburetors on your classic Mustang. If you can't hard-line between the fuel pump and carburetor, consider using heavy-duty braided fuel hoses and clamps.

Path Less Traveled
Another concern is fuel-line routing on '65 through early '67 Mustangs. The chassis line runs along the rocker panel and floorpan until it reaches the left front framerail extension. This is where the fuel line takes an unpleasant turn toward the left framerail, making it vulnerable to road debris and more. We suggest using the late-'67-'68 chassis fuel line, which was revised by Ford for safety. It runs along the rocker panel and floorpan, then through the torque box (which doesn't exist on '65-'66 hardtops and fastbacks). The way this line is routed keeps it, and you, out of harm's way.

Build A Fuelie
More and more folks are shelving carburetors and iron manifolds in exchange for electronic fuel injection. The easiest way to get there is with used components from late-model, fuel-injected 5.0L High Output V-8s. You can perform this conversion on your vintage 289, 302, or 351W, or you can do an entire powertrain swap. The late-model 5.0L engine drops right onto your Mustang's engine mounts, but you have to figure out where you intend to place the engine's electronic control module (most install it inside the vehicle under the dashboard on the righthand side). This isn't black magic--converting your classic Mustang to electronic fuel injection is simple and doable as long as you don't let it intimidate you. Check your state's motor vehicle emissions laws to make sure it's street legal. Salvage yards are full of donor vehicles and engines, and Ron Morris Performance can set you up with everything you'll need to get it pulsing.

Electronic Ignition: Many Choices
If you're going to drive a classic Mustang daily or even as a weekend pleasure cruiser, that old point-triggered ignition system has to go. Points burn and rubbing blocks wear out. Save yourself a lot of grief by retrofitting your classic Mustang with electronic ignition. You can opt for Ford's DuraSpark ignition, which involves the distributor and an ignition module. DuraSpark is available new and used.

There is a variety of aftermarket ignition systems available for vintage Mustangs. Both ACCEL and PerTronix offer drop-in electronic ignition modules for point-triggered factory and aftermarket distributors. Drop one in, set the air gap, and forget it. The PerTronix Ignitor and Ignitor II have an excellent reputation for performance and reliability even in worn-out distributors.

MSD, Mallory, and ACCEL offer excellent high-performance distributors that drop right into your Ford small-block or big-block engine. Street engines need distributors equipped with vacuum-advance units for best results. Not much is available from the aftermarket for 170ci and 200ci six-cylinder engines. However, PerTronix and ACCEL drop-in electronic ignition conversions work well in the stock distributors, improving six-cylinder performance considerably.

Contact Patch
It's a wonder we stayed safe with the bias-ply and bias-belted tires Ford originally installed on our Mustangs. Bias-ply tires simply aren't an option if safety is important. We stress this because most of us have become used to radial tires over the past 25 years. Going from radial back to bias-belted tires becomes dangerous because we aren't ready for the sluggishness of bias-ply and belted tires.

Today, there are plenty of white-sidewall, belted metric radials out there that keep the factory attitude without losing handling qualities. For those with Mach 1s, Bosses, Shelbys, and GTs, the selection gets even better with the Goodyear Eagle GT, BFGoodrich Radial T/A, and others. These tires, when properly inflated, balanced, and rotated, offer excellent wear and handling.

Coker Tire offers a number of nice-looking radial tires with the correct period-width white sidewalls, redlines, and raised white-letter designs. These tires keep your Mustang looking original without sacrificing safety and reliability.

Improve Your Comfort
Until 1970, Mustangs weren't much on seating comfort. A favorite of ours is the '69-'73 high-back bucket seat with the knitted vinyl upholstery in the Mach 1. For those with '65-'69 vanilla rides, there are the strap-on bucket seats that are hard as a rock. We've seen all kinds of innovations in classic Mustangs designed to make the ride better, including late-model Mustang bucket seats with the rear seat upholstered to match. Plenty of aftermarket bucket seats are available from Recaro, Procar, TMI Industries, and others.

TMI Industries recently introduced its Sports Seats, which convert stock Mustang bucket seats to ones with big side bolsters, heavier padding, and headrests. This comfortable seat kit, which keeps your Mustang stock in appearance while offering improved comfort and safety, is available from Virginia Classic Mustang.

Sound Off
Mustangs restored for regular street use need an entertainment element onboard to help pass the time on the freeway. Custom Autosound, of course, has a multitude of options for those who want to keep a relatively stock demeanor. There are in-dash stereo systems that fit right in place of that old AM radio. If you want to keep the original AM radio and don't want unscrupulous types to know you have something better, Custom Autosound's Secret Audio is a groovy mod no one can see but you. It consists of a hidden control panel and a remote control you can hide almost anywhere.

Our best advice is to have a sound system that's largely hidden. Hobbyists do a pretty good job hiding their sound systems--for security reasons and to keep a stock appearance.

Hardened By LifeIf you're building a powertrain for regular use, don't forget the things that will make it a world-beater. For example:

  • Stainless steel valves and hardened exhaust valve seats for use with today's unleaded fuels
  • Screw-in oil gallery plugs and brass freeze plugs
  • Synthetic engine oils like Mobil 1 or Royal Purple
  • Don't cut corners with oil and air filters; use only the best, like K&N, Wix, Motorcraft, and Fram's Wear Guard
  • If you're starting from scratch, use a late-model 5.0L block with the one-piece rear main seal to keep oil spots off the driveway
  • Go with a finned, cast-aluminum transmission pan for improved cooling and less chance of leakage
  • If possible, increase the number of clutches in your transmission build for improved power transmission and less slippage
  • Opt for a high-performance torque converter with furnace-brazed internals for durability. Be sure to choose the right stall speed. Mild street drivers need a stall speed of 1,800-2,400 rpm.

Quiet Please
If you're old enough, you remember the stark difference between cruising at 70 mph and trying to hold a conversation in a '65 Mustang and the ultra-quiet environment of a '94-'05 Mustang, where conversations can be held in normal speaking tones. The newer Mustangs are quieter inside because aerodynamics has improved hundredfold in 40 years. Mustang bodies are cleaner aerodynamically, with a slippery shape and no driprails, stainless trim, door handles, vent windows, sloppy fit, and other factors that really clutter up the slipstream.

But wait--there's more. Inside, Ford has improved the Mustang interior with new types of sound-deadening materials that shut out road noise significantly. There isn't much you can do about the sloppy aerodynamics of classic Mustangs, but there is a lot you can do about body boom. The aftermarket offers all kinds of sound-deadening kits that not only shut out noise, but heat and cold too. When you restore the interior, begin at the steel floorpan and wheelhouses by laying down sound-deadening.

Dual Exhausts
V-8 Mustangs take on a more sporty persona with dual exhausts, but remember this: bridge both sides with an H-pipe to achieve a balance between cylinder banks. Otherwise, your dual exhaust system will sound more like a popgun.

If you like your Mustang loud and obnoxious, understand that the steady din of loud exhaust-system resonance will destroy your hearing and annoy others. A throaty burble makes a more lasting impression--let's turn down the volume out there.

Cowl And Window-Leak Fixes
This is likely the greatest challenge you'll face with a vintage Mustang driven in all types of weather. Mustangs from '65 to '68 suffer badly from leaks, and windshield and rear-window rubber gaskets tend to leak a lot. As they get older and dry rotted, they only get worse. With the windshield and rear window, begin with new rubber gaskets and load them up with plenty of butyl sealer between the rubber and glass, and between the rubber and body. It's a messy job, but it has to be done if you intend to drive dry. Lay down plenty of sealer between the rubber and body right before you install the stainless trim.

Cowl-vent leaks present an even greater challenge. For one thing, Mustang cowl vents didn't have any kind of corrosion protection outside of galvanizing on the bottom half of the cowl assembly. The only permanent fix is to split the cowl assembly, drill out hundreds of spot welds, then perform the repairs, protect the steel with a good self-etching primer/sealer, seal it up, and weld it back together.

A short-term fix is the plastic cowl-vent hats that fit inside the cowl dams, which will keep moisture off your feet. If your Mustang's cowl suffers from serious corrosion and rot-through, you'll have to undertake a major cowl repair to permanently fix the problem. The Mustang aftermarket also offers a clip-on cowl-vent cap that keeps out rain and snow, and also keeps air out when driving. Clip it on when the rains come and remove it for the sunny drives.

Long-Tube or Shorty?
We get this question all the time: long-tube or shorty headers? Long-tube headers offer better performance. Shorty headers offer a cleaner trek to the exhaust system, but don't give you the performance of a long-tube header. Long-tube headers tend to get in the way of power steering and make for a hot ride in the summertime. For the daily commute, we suggest shorty headers or the leaner, cleaner Shelby tri-Y headers with Jet-Hot coating, which keeps the heat inside. They also cool off quickly when the engine is shut off.

Coolin' It
One thing we tend to fear most about driving a classic Mustang daily is overheating, especially during summer's warmer temperatures. It's inconvenient and not good for our image. A boilover in a classic Mustang is anything but cool.

Cooling systems are one of the most overlooked elements of our Mustangs because we don't see the immediate benefit, at least not until we're in trouble. To avoid problems, begin with a new high-capacity radiator, a cooling-system filter to catch the rust and iron particles, heavy-duty hoses (all of them), a 180-degree thermostat, a super-efficient cooling fan (mechanical or electric), proper water-pump-pulley sizing, a high-flow water pump, a fan shroud (where possible), proper cylinder-head-gasket installation, clean water jackets, a clear heater core, and the right antifreeze/water mix.

We suggest a good aluminum radiator fitted with a fan shroud. If you desire copper and brass, opt for a four-row desert cooler with the fan shroud. Not enough of us use a fan shroud, but it keeps air velocity moving through the radiator tubes, which removes heat. A cooling-system filter goes in the upper radiator hose to collect the rust and iron particles from a fresh engine build. This keeps them out of your new radiator. The filter has to be checked and cleaned periodically.

Theories abound about what kind of thermostat to use. For '65-'73, Ford suggested 180 degrees, which hasn't changed in 40 years. Classic Mustang engines are happiest at 180 degrees coolant temperature. As a rule, 160 degrees is too cool and 195 degrees is too hot (except in computer-controlled applications). Never run your Mustang without a thermostat. In traffic, it will overheat. On the freeway, it will run too cool, except in hot weather, when it will boil over.

Always opt for the best radiator, heater, and hoses (including the bypass hose). Make sure there's an anti-collapse spring in the lower radiator hose. Without the spring, the lower hose tends to collapse at highway speeds, cutting off coolant flow to the engine and causing a temporary overheat until you get off the interstate.

Pulley size is important. A water-pump pulley that's too large will turn the water pump too slowly. By the same token, a pulley that's too small will spin the pump too fast. Use V-belts that fit the pulleys properly. Always exercise proper belt tension: half an inch either way. Belt slippage is a one-way ticket to an overheat. If you're going to use an engine-driven fan, the best choice is a thermostatic clutch fan, which engages only when your engine needs it. Next is a lightweight aftermarket flex fan, which flows lots of air at idle and flattens out for efficiency as engine speed increases.

Electric fans, when sized properly, do a splendid job. They only come on when the ignition is on and the engine is hot.