Michael Johnson
Technical Editor
May 23, 2018

Buying a used Mustang is sometimes a difficult task. Yes, there a ton of Mustangs on the market on any given day, but when one falls into your lap, you still have to do your due diligence before making a purchase. With a Fox Mustang, there aren’t as many moving parts thanks to pushrod engines, basic transmission options, and simplistic suspension systems. With Fox Mustangs, you just have to make sure the car hasn’t been beaten into submission, which these days are hard to find, and when you do find them, the price is pretty high, and steadily going up.

When it comes to 1996-up Mustangs, with their modular engines, and increased moving parts, closer inspection is needed since those engines are typically more expensive to service than their pushrod counterparts. Thankfully, most Mustangs have a simple live rear axle arrangement, so rear end noises are pretty simple to diagnose, and fix. If looking at a 1999/2001, or 2003-’04 Cobra with an IRS, rear end noises can present a more complex issue. With any Mustang, you have to do your homework to protect yourself against buying a headache.

In this exercise, we’re looking at a Dark Shadow gray 2003 Cobra. The car in question has just 38,000 miles on it, but in this case, the miles aren’t really a good thing because the car has sat for an extended period of time. Therefore, the tires, which are brand new Nitto 555s, are flat-spotted, the paint is in need of attention because of baking in the Florida sun, and even though 2003-’04 Cobras still bring good money, we have to make sure we’re getting our money’s worth.

So, before signing on the dotted line, we are doing some major exterior and mechanical grunt work to see what we are up against from an expense standpoint should we decide to buy the car. For the exterior, we took it to a local body shop for an estimate on the paint work. The driver side fender definitely needs paint, but the hood, decklid, quarter scoops, and rear spoiler need help, as well. The hood and decklid have paint defects that a color-sand and buff won’t erase, so new paint is the cure for that, whereas the quarter scoops and rear spoiler have suffered sun damage. So, in order to fix all that, the front end needs to come apart for new paint on the hood and the tops of each fender. Then the paint will be blended in to match the existing body panels. As for the decklid, the rear spoiler will be removed so new paint can be added to both. As for the quarter scoops, the body shop should be able to paint them without removing them. The total price for the paint work is around $1,500.

For the mechanical side, we took the car over to David Piercey Mustang Performance so we could put it up on a lift for a closer look. We did find one leaky CV boot on the passenger side half-shaft. We also noticed remnants of a differential cover leak, which is common on Terminators, but there wasn’t any sign of an active leak. In other words, we didn’t notice any fluid drips while the car was on the lift. The engine and transmission were both free of any leaks. The headers and tailpipes did suffer from rust, but there aren’t any exhaust leaks. Therefore, if we do purchase the car, we will probably leave the headers and simply clean up the tailpipes as best we can to make them presentable. A new exhaust would easily top $1,000-$1,500, and we would rather put those funds into the exterior.

The car’s interior is actually in great shape. The driver side window doesn’t work, but we can hear the switch when we press the button, so most likely a window motor needs replacing there. Also, the driver side door panel insert doesn’t firmly attach to the door, but we haven’t had a chance to do a closer examination as to why. However, that’s a small issue, and something that can be tackled as we go, if we decide to purchase the car.

When it comes to the tires, we contacted a few tire shops to see if tire truing is an option for us, and in fact, we did find a local Olin Mott store that does have a tire truing machine capable of fixing the flat-spotted Nittos. For roughly $40 a tire, we could have like-new tires ready for many miles to come.

Looking at all the above, if we total up the repairs needed, not including the roughly $1,000 it will take to register the car in our name, we’re looking at between $2,000 and $2,500 in improvements. On the low end, it’s going to cost at least $2,000 to get the Cobra looking its best, fixing the rear end, and truing the tires. The car deserves the new paint, a rebuilt rear end, smooth riding tires, and obviously we’ll need to register the car in our name. Therefore, right out of the gate, that’s $3,000, including registration and title fees, for which we’ll have to budget over and above the car’s purchase price.

So, the next time you go to purchase a Mustang, follow our lead and do your homework to have all the information at hand to make sure you’re getting the car of your dreams, or at least a Mustang you plan to build into the car of your dreams. Happy hunting!!!

The engine and supercharger are factory stock, and runs absolutely beautiful, but the exhaust has been swapped out for long-tube headers, off-road pipe, and after-cat for better breathing capabilities. Furthermore, to aid in bringing increased fresh air to the mix, the factory air box has been replaced with a K&N FIPK air intake. There’s some mysterious corrosion on the driver side cam cover that is not present on the passenger side. We’re not sure if it’s related to the driver side fender paint issue, which you can also see here, but we can’t really figure out how all that happened. The corrosion most likely started years ago, so it’s up to us to fix it. To get a more detailed look at the engine’s health, we can also do a compression/leakdown test, which is common practice.

Once on David Piercey Mustang Performance’s lift, we were able to get a closer look at the Cobra’s underside. We wanted to see the headers’ condition, and as we expected, they’re not in the greatest shape. This is why you don’t skimp on headers, people. If you can’t afford ceramic-coated headers, save up for them. Ceramic-coated headers will last longer than the non-coated variety. The good thing is we don’t have any fluid leaks, but you can see oxidation on the stock T56 from the car sitting. Many components under the hood are suffering from oxidation, as well. The driver side pinch weld is damaged from improper jack placement, but that can be straightened.

Moving to the rear, the factory IRS does make a bit of noise, and having never owned an IRS car, it’s hard for us to pinpoint from where the noise is coming. We believe it to be coming from the differential, potentially as a result of not being driven, but also one of the CV boots is soaked with grease, which tells us the boot has failed. That tells us there will be work needed to bring the rear end up to snuff. That expense will either have to be budgeted, and/or used as leverage on the asking price. Performance half-shafts are really expensive at over $1,500 a pair. Plus, when you upgrade the half-shafts you must also upgrade to a 31-spline differential, and working on an IRS is a more expensive job if you need a shop to do the work so we have to keep that in mind. If we do purchase the car, to keep costs down, we may go the route of adding a replacement half-shaft on that side, rebuilding the factory Traction-Lok differential, and adding new bearings. Also, like the headers, the tailpipes are quite rusty, but we think we can rescue them, and bring them back to life.