Kristian Grimsland
Associate Editor, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords
March 1, 2013
Photos By: MM&FF Archives, Justin Cesler

With sportiness, affordability, style, and power, Mustangs have been a hit since they were introduced in 1964.

Ford did a fantastic job creating a versatile 2+2 sports car that has become an American icon. People young and old aspire to own a Mustang, and finally it's your turn to buy one.

But before you lay down the cash, you'll need to know where to start and what to look for before making that very first purchase.

To get the best deal possible, you'll need to consider budget, appearance, and performance. You'll need a good plan to prevent falling into the typical first-time-buyer traps, like your author once did.

Ask yourself, is your Stang going to be a daily driver, fixer-upper, race car or show car? The more high-end the build, the more money, time and skill it will take. There's something out there for everyone, but it's important to educate yourself to make a solid purchase.

Actually, I wish I'd been better educated when I bought my first Mustang—a '96 black-on-black, five-speed V-6, with a Saleen body kit. It looked great, and in my young eyes, was everything I dreamed of. I was only 16 years old and quite anxious. I walked up to the dealer with my parents and was greeted by a salesman dressed in a tacky brown suit suitable for the '70s. My father test-drove the car since I couldn't drive a manual transmission. Shortly after arriving back, I emptied my pockets and handed over $6,500. It took nearly 10 years of birthday money, and summer construction jobs to save it.

Once home, we discovered the speedometer was incorrect, the odometer didn't work, and the temperature gauge was reading hot. As quick as the sale took place, my excitement dwindled to pure disappointment. My bank account was exhausted and I had nothing left to fix it. I realized I made a poor decision in my purchase, and I learned a lesson that paid for itself over time.

Though it was an expensive learning experience, I can now help you avoid similar pitfalls. We've come up with some helpful tips to consider before signing a title and handing over your wad of cash.

During your search it's important to dial in what you want from your Mustang. Are you a young first-time car buyer with a part-time job, or a 50-year-old adult with a full toolbox looking for a weekend cruiser? Fox-bodies are reaching 30-plus years in age, so they are very affordable but will need more (read: money, time and parts) to make them right.

Newer SN-95 Stangs have a more updated look and better factory options. They are younger in age, and the potential to find one with low miles is greater than a Fox. S197 Mustangs offer great reliability, better all-around performance, and retro-style ques. There is likely less to do in terms of paint and performance.

We’ve come across thousands of Fox-bodies over the years and seen everything from beat-up racecars, to all-original show-worthy contenders. Buying a Fox-body as clean as this will cost more, but may save you the trouble of replacing heavily used parts.

Fox-Bodies (1979-1993)
The Fox chassis served the Mustang community well. They have many benefits and today they are affordable and can be restored or built full tilt thanks to a supportive aftermarket. They are also easy to work on and you can do a lot with the design.

Fox-bodies can be found on both ends of the price spectrum. You can buy a fixer-upper for $500 or a $15,000 pristine Pony. Budget is everything, and online resources such as Mustang forums, Kelly Blue Book, eBay, or Craigslist.com, are all great sites to hone in on what Fox-bodies are going for and in what condition.

The biggest problem with Fox-bodies is mileage, age, and wear and tear. Since they are old cars now, you can expect to replace common service items like ball-joints, control arm bushings, brakes, seals, and anything else that see's stress when driving.

According to Tedd Siegel, owner of Total Mustang Supply (in Coconut Creek, Florida), a performance shop specializing in Mustangs, a major thing to check before buying a Fox-body is the electrical system. "Due to the age, wiring harnesses become worn or brittle, and inline fuses can blow. Tracing the electrical system for draws can become very time consuming and expensive if a shop is needed to fix it," explained Siegel.

The condition of the body is another major factor. Check for rust, especially if buying a northern car. Areas prone to rust are the hatch, quarter-panels, and lower portions of the doors. Also inspect torque boxes (the area where the lower control arms attach to the body), as well as the floor, because they prone to cracking, especially in cars that have seen track duty.

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Fixing these issues requires either welding, or use of battle boxes. Fortunately, they are common repairs that can be handled by most performance shops. Other problem areas can be found in the driver's seat, as they can become warped and twisted, the ash tray door always breaks in the console, and weatherstripping can be ripped and torn. Again, these are all easy fixes that can be fun to do and will teach you how to make simple repairs.

If you are looking for a Stang on a limited budget, a Fox-body may be the perfect option. Restoring it to its former glory can be a fun task, and very rewarding. Aftermarket companies such as Latemodel Restoration, National Parts Depot, and Summit Racing Equipment (along with many others) makes it easy for you to find virtually any replacement or performance part you need. The ease of modifying a Fox is a great way to learn the basics of car maintenance and performance. For those who don't want to use a computer to dial in performance, the Fox Mustang affords you the ability to twist the distributor and easily slide in a cam.

SN-95 (1994-2004)
Ford revamped the Fox look after 15 years and called it the Fox-4. Ford continued to use the 5.0L in the first two years of the SN-95, but in 1996 an all-new modular engine made its presence underneath the hood. Aside from the basic 3.8L V6 option, Ford gave consumers two options when wanting a 4.6L V-8. The GT package included a Two-Valve engine, mustering up 225 horsepower, and for the specialty Stang seekers, the 305hp Four-Valve SVT Cobra.

Ford adopted a New Edge body from '99-'04, but still remained on the SN-95 platform. For the later SN-95s, the 4.6L packages remained the same, but the GT models switched to a performance improved (PI) intake and head design, bumping output to 260 horsepower. Specialty vehicles like the Cobra came equipped with an independent rear suspension and 320 horsepower. The Four-Valve Mach 1 also made its introduction in 2003 and ended one year later.

If you are in the market for an SN-95, much of what we said about Fox-bodies applies, however, the modular engines are a bit more technical and can require special tools. SN-95 Mustang are newer in age, so potentially, they can make for a better starting point—if you like the styling. SN-95 Mustangs benefit from five-lug axles (so wheel choices are almost limitless), and they have better braking systems.

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Furthermore, with the introduction of the SN-95, Ford now equipped all Mustangs with disc brakes, and a better interior. The modular motors offered better fuel economy and performance over its predecessors in stock trim, however, there are a few things to look out for.

In the earlier SN-95s, the mechanical odometers are known to fail due to a weak plastic gear behind the gauge cluster. Today, aftermarket companies make replacement gears, but it's important to understand when buying an early SN-95, to check and make sure the odometer is recording miles correctly. If it is broken, you can only guess as to the actual mileage. Ford fixed this problem in 1999 by switching to a digital odometer.

Early Two-Valve modular engines with the plastic coolant crossover were known to crack. If a previous owner never noticed the crack in the intake, it is possible the engine could have overheated at one point in time. Check to make sure you don't see coolant leaking anywhere around the intake.

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According to Siegel, the anti-lock braking system (ABS) modules are also known to malfunction, as well as the window regulators. "The bad part isn't replacing the part, it's the labor you pay for if you can't fix it yourself," Siegel said. "Most shop rates are between $80 to $105 per hour, and for a basic repair that requires two hours of labor, you are already spending $160 or more."

In both the earlier and later SN-95 platforms, the interiors remained relatively unchanged, however, certain items were known to break. Door panel inserts are infamous for breaking, as well as door panels for cracking. New door panel inserts from latemodelrestoration.com cost $69.99 (PN-LRS-14527A) each. Currently, no aftermarket company makes a remanufactured door panel, and if you need to replace one, your only option is to purchase a used piece. The factory leather seats are also known for wrinkling/cracking and tearing. New seats are available from companies such as TMI Products, but start at $393.95. It's expected for a 8-to-16-year-old Mustang to have some wear, just be aware that parts will need to be replaced ahead of time.

We say don't let the small subtleties steer you away from purchasing a potential winner. Most repairs are relatively inexpensive and can be perfect for someone who is willing to dedicate a little TLC.

Though both the Fox-body and SN-95 Mustangs are older, it is possible to find a very clean and well-kept one. If you are willing to pay more, it is possible to avoid the smaller common problems that come with them. Finding an owner who's kept up with the maintenance duties such as paint, oil changes, and basic tune-ups, could lead to a much more suitable first Stang.

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If you are looking for the reliability of a newer Stang, then the S197 might suit you. Prices range between $10,00 to $20,000.

S197 Stangs (2005-present)
Ford introduced a total redesign in the '05-to-present Mustangs, also known as the S197. The fifth-generation Mustang's styling echoes the fastback Mustang models of the late '60s. With the new design, Ford introduced a new 300 horsepower 4.6L Three-Valve engine into the GT models, and V6 models featured a new 210hp 4.0-liter. Best of all, the S197 features a rigid chassis and a revised suspension that works great for all types of racing and performance driving. The stock electronics are easily modified to keep up with any performance parts and the aftermarket is just flooded with cool parts to help you personalize your Pony.

The rear suspension utilizes a three-link system with a Panhard rod, instead of the previous four-link. The S197 chassis design offers far better suspension and handling, noise vibrations harshness reduction, and strengthened chassis rigidity.

If you have money to spend, the benefits of purchasing a newer S197 are stellar. With a S197, it's likely you'll find a Mustang that doesn't need paint, interior work, an engine rebuild, or replacement of serviceable items (other than maybe brakes and tires), so you can get right to the modifications.

The reliability factors of its age, chassis design, and styling-queue's are optimal for a first time buyer, however price ranges are typically between $10,000 to $20,000. For this section, our main concern is with the '05-'10 Mustangs. Newer '11-'13 Stangs are a part of the S197 family but don't really fit in this story

There aren't really any prominent flaws to point out, but there is lots of room to improve performance and looks. Knowing what you want and how much you want to spend is key. Don't let the excitement of buying your first Stang overshadow any negatives or flaws in the car or seller. Ask yourself simple questions about the seller and his or her motivation for selling. Signs of hesitation when speaking with the seller should signal a red flag that he/she may be hiding something. Check and look for blemishes or discoloration in the paint. This could be a sign of a prior accident. And always test all the systems in the car, right down to the brakes lights, turn signals, washer fluid sprayer, and so on.

Also, if the car is supercharged, you'll have to wonder if it's been beat on or raced. Also, question what tune is in there and who tuned it? You'll also want to be sure the car has catalytic converters if you live in a state that requires them.

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Since you are going to be purchasing a Stang higher in the price spectrum, check to see when the last time the car was serviced for maintenance. Also check the amount of tread left on the tires. If the car needs four new tires you'll need to keep a few bucks in your pocket.


Seal the Deal
No matter what type of first Stang you are looking for, knowing what to look for and what questions will help you purchase "your" perfect Mustang. Be sure to drive the car and pay attention to steering feel, praking performance, and check all the systems including lights, signals, A/C, etc. We believe there's a happy medium out there for you, and with a little research and common sense, you might just be surprised at what you find.