Jim Smart
December 7, 2005

A few months back, we opened up a huge can of worms by suggesting Mustang restorers, in the interest of authenticity, stamp the vehicle identification number into the engine block like the factory did. This suggestion stirred up a lot of controversy because to some of our readers it implied fraud. And we certainly weren't suggesting fraud. Our suggestion came in the spirit of doing an authentic restoration that would look concours correct. The controversy it created inspired us to find out everything we could about classic Mustang restoration, the law, and ethics.

When performing a concours restoration or building a restomod from scratch, ask yourself what's legal (and ethical) and what isn't. We strongly encourage you to follow your state's motor-vehicle laws when you restore a Mustang. We also encourage you to be honest while you're at it. This isn't always easy, because sometimes restoring a Mustang means having to do something illegal in the interest of authenticity. With some restorations, it's a tough call.

When you restore a classic Mustang, thoroughly document your efforts with receipts, photos, and ironclad proof of the car's origins. This means a legitimate title, a bill of sale, and a body where everything adds up. All of the numbers on the body should match, including the door warranty plate or certification sticker.

For example, say you purchase a '66 Mustang with a K-engine code (289 High Performance), but the original Hi-Po engine is long gone. You hit pay dirt and find a complete '66 289 High Performance engine that's date-coded to your Mustang's build date. Do you tell the state? And do you tell a buyer? Who does it harm if you don't? It's the correct engine for that particular model. This scenario could be repeated for just about any Mustang because casting date codes exist on all Ford engines, not just the Hi-Po.

The decision to be honest with the authorities and potential buyers is personal. If you have performed an authentic restoration, the state and potential buyers aren't going to care if the engine isn't original. Set a proper example for your kids and play it honest.

The VIN can be found on the inner fender of '65-'68 Mustangs. One exception is San Jose-built '68 Mustangs, where the inner-fender VIN (also known as the confidential VIN) is hidden. This number must match in all locations on the vehicle, including inner fenders, windshield tag ('68-up), and warranty plate or certification sticker on the left-hand door. We've all run into Mustangs with left-hand doors that have been replaced with a door from another vehicle, meaning it has the incorrect warranty plate. In those instances, we suggest removing the warranty plate or certification sticker and using the inner fenders and windshield tag.

You must also play it safe before buying a Mustang. If you've invested a lot of time and money in a restoration without any forethought into titling and registering it in your state, you could be in for a rude awakening. If the state cannot verify the vehicle's origins, or the vehicle doesn't pass a state inspection, the state can impound it. We've seen this time and time again through the years, costing enthusiasts untold thousands of dollars in restoration and legal fees.

A friend in California purchased a Shelby GT350 he didn't know was stolen. Not only was it stolen, the vehicle identification number (VIN) had been changed by a previous titleholder--the thief who had stolen the car in the first place. Ignorance of the car's stolen status didn't get our friend off the hook. It cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees, reimbursement to the victim who lost the car, a night in jail, and a permanent criminal record because he was in possession of a stolen vehicle. This is why you must first do your homework before purchasing a Mustang.

If possible, examine the title and check the vehicle's history with the state before buying. Inspect all of the VINs and compare them with the title and registration before plunking down the cash. If the VINs on the vehicle do not match the title and registration, do not buy the vehicle. If the vehicle has a salvage title, check your state's motor-vehicle policy for salvage vehicles before buying.

Some states are specific about returning salvage vehicles to service, and in some states it isn't permitted. This means you may have to title and register a scrapped vehicle in a state where it's legal before it can be titled in your state, and doing your homework before the purchase is critical. It may be legal to put a salvage vehicle back on the road in the state where you are buying, but not legal in your state. Fact-check first: You might lose out on the purchase, but better to have checked and lost than to be stuck with a vehicle you cannot register.

Most states have a liberal policy with salvage vehicles. They want to know whether the vehicle has been stolen and that it is safe. This normally involves a state inspection before you can title and register the vehicle.