Jim Smart
September 1, 2003
Photos By: Mustang Monthly Archives

Now is the time to buy and build your Mustang dream car. Perhaps the kids are finally off to college and careers. Or maybe you've just come of age and have your first driver's license. Then again, mid-life crisis may have set in, and you're thinking about that Mustang you couldn't afford 30 years ago. Now is the time to make yourself happy with a Mustang project.

So, how do you get there? Where do you begin? What will it cost? What should it cost? Where will you store it and build it? And what happens when you don't know zilch about cars? An open hood is an intimidating experience-all of those wires, lines, brackets, iron, aluminum, grease, and filth. What will you do with it and how?

We're going to show you how to find and buy a Mustang. Then we're going to run you through an introduction to Mustang restoration.

Buy It!

You can find your dream ride any number of ways: Check the local classifieds for leads; crack open some of the national auto trader publications. You may have to take a chance on a Mustang 2,500 miles away. Auto traders exist online, too. Type Mustang into your Internet search engine and go mad with the selection, making sure to check eBay Motors for what it has to offer.

Anytime you're considering a long-distance Mustang purchase, caution is important. You'll need lots of images from the seller that are in focus and well lit. Photos should include the undercarriage, engine compartment, interior, trunk area, and all four sides of the vehicle. The seller needs to tell you the truth in writing about the car. Sooner or later, you're going to have to roll the dice and see the car in person. You risk the loss of a deposit and the cost of air fare if the car isn't what you'd hoped for, but that's the chance you take when considering a car long distance. Walking away from a bad idea is better than giving in to emotion and being stuck with something you'll be miserable with and unable to sell.

If you're considering a long distance buy, check the resources in the area where the car is located. Mustang clubs, appraisers, and the like are good judges of a potential buy. Pay a qualified appraiser or seasoned Mustang expert with a local club to examine a potential buy. It's a good way to spend less than you would on airfare.

Then, if you decide to buy, get an agreement in writing from the seller. Draft an agreement that outlines the car. You may even want to hire an attorney to handle this for you-especially if it's a high-dollar deal. A simple outline puts into writing what the car is and that the seller guarantees the car to be as represented. This, more or less, protects you, the buyer. If the car arrives in poorer condition than what the seller confirmed in writing, you have legal recourse.

For example, let's say the seller has advertised the car as a factory original '65 Mustang GT convertible. You'll want this confirmed by the seller in writing in a signed agreement, notarized by a witness. This gives you legal recourse if the car turns out to be nothing more than a standard '65 convertible with foglights and a transplanted 289.

The goal is an honest, straight-up deal in which everyone understands what's expected. We suggest this procedure because we have witnessed too many stings when buyers have been duped by less than honest sellers. If a seller isn't willing to allow both a written and signed agreement as well as your thorough inspection of the vehicle, bite your lip and keep looking.

Mustang Primer

Before you even open an auto trader or double-click online, you need to know what you want. If you love Mustangs but are unfamiliar with them, here's a quick introduction.

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When you're examining a potential buy, go to extremes. Ask the seller if you may have the car professionally inspected at a restoration shop or body shop, or by a mechanic or knowledgeable Mustang club member. Welcome the seller to come along for the inspection. Seasoned Mustang experts, such as local club members and MCA-certified judges, are normally candid about a potential Mustang buy. If the car is a bad idea, most will tell you right away.

If you don't have the benefit of an expert, use your eyes, ears, and gut instincts. Are body seams and joints where they should be? Look at door, trunk, and hood-to-fender gaps. Are they uniform? Sloppy body fit is reason for caution, because it may mean accident damage. Close each door and observe how it shuts. Does it close easily, or do you have to slam it? Listen for rattles and odd noises. Roll the windows down and up. Are they difficult to move?

Stand back and look at the car from the front, rear, and each side. Is it straight? Have the seller drive the car while you follow from behind. Does it track straight? Also, have the seller follow you while you watch the front of the car. Again, does it track nicely?

Get the car on a lift and check the undercarriage. Observe the floorpans for odd seams that appear out of place, which would indicate an illegitimate repair. Look at the torque boxes (if equipped). Knock with your knuckles on various locations, listening to the sound as you tap. If there is fiberglass or body filler in structural members, like torque boxes, rocker panels, and floorpans, politely decline and walk away. Ditto for poorly patched floorpans and the like. Heavy amounts of undercoating typically mean someone is trying to hide rust or a poor rust repair. There's nothing wrong with rust repair, if performed properly. We stress repairs performed at the factory seams-not halfway. Poor structural repair is not only unsightly, it is also unsafe.

A prospective buy's inspection begins with body and structure, but it includes so much more. Is the vehicle as represented? Is it an "original, matching numbers" car? This is where knowing engine, transmission, and rear-axle casting numbers and date codes is so important. If you're looking at a '70 Boss 302, is the Boss 302 engine the real thing? Is it a service replacement? Is it a Boss 302 block? Are the heads Boss 302 castings? Believe it or not, you could actually fake a Boss 302 engine using a 289/302 block and 351 Cleveland heads. On the surface, the untrained eye wouldn't know the difference. Except for the VIN, the engine code being most important, you could fake a Boss 302 Mustang. This is where doing your homework is so important.

But "matching numbers" count outside of the exotics like the Boss 302, Boss 429, and Shelbys. Mustangs prior to 1968 don't have the VIN stamped into the engine block (except 289 High Performance models). This is where you must be savvy about casting numbers and date codes, which cannot be faked, so if they are ground off, walk away. A good rule to remember with Ford castings is this: The actual date is cast into the iron or aluminum, while the date of component manufacture is stamped into the casting.

If you are buying a '65 Mustang, ideally, you'll want the engine to match the VIN. Using a Mustang warranty plate/certification-sticker decoder, examine the VIN and the vehicle makeup. If the VIN says the vehicle was equipped with a C-code 289-2V V-8, does the engine underhood reflect this? Is it the original 289 engine, or is it a replacement 302 that looks like a 289? Ask this question whenever the seller says "all original."

Perhaps the vehicle you're considering is a '69 Mach 1 with an R-code 428 Cobra Jet. How do you know it is a Cobra Jet? How do you know it isn't a 390 from a '67 Galaxie made to look like a 428 CJ? This is why close inspection of all engine castings is critical. When shopping, be armed with the right publications, some of which we list at the end of this article.

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If you're seriously considering a '67-'73 Mustang, contact Kevin Marti of Marti Auto Works (12007 W. Peoria, El Mirage, AZ 85335; 623/935-2558), and spend approximately $50 for Kevin's production report on the Mustang. His vast Ford database will yield all factory information about the vehicle you are considering, including color, interior, options, original delivery location, and more. Kevin's research will tell you if it was originally a Mach 1, GT, or Grabber, for example. It will also tell you if it was a Drag Pak car or a freeway cruiser, if it had air conditioning, and whether it was rolling on Magnum 500s or on steel wheels with dog-dish hubcaps.

Build It!

If you've never built a Mustang before, don't be intimidated by the experience; this is going to be fun. It will also be a source of great frustration, so be prepared. Our advice is to take the good with the bad, and make the most of it.

All car-building experiences must begin with a plan, without which you can count on excess spending and wasted time. With your new purchase parked in the driveway or garage, evaluate the car as it sits. Then decide what you want the car to be. Do you want the car factory stock or tastefully modified? Are you going to drive it, or will it be the weekend trailer car? The car's use determines how it should be built.

A Mustang driven occasionally can tolerate less engine, driveline, suspension, and brakes than one driven all the time. By this, we mean you can forego the heavy expense of a roller camshaft and hardened exhaust valve seats if you're building an occasional driver or trailered car. You can opt for stock springs, shocks, and brakes if you're building a trailered car, because handling won't matter.

With this in mind, we suggest if you're building a Mustang to be trailered or occasionally weekend driven, go the extra mile and do the things that make it a more reliable, fun to drive automobile, because you never know when the urge to drive is going to hit. For example, what happens when your Mustang buddies invite you to drive with them to Nashville to celebrate the Mustang's 40th anniversary next April? If you restore your Mustang on the cheap, will it be up for the drive? Build a Mustang as though you were going to drive it daily, even if you aren't.

Building your first Mustang isn't just about having a nice car to show and drive; it's about gaining self confidence because you've taken on challenges you've never dared to attempt before. For example, did you know you can rebuild your own engine? All you need is the help and advice of a seasoned machine shop. What about building a new suspension system and brakes? How about bodywork and paint? Did you know you can do these things yourself?

Building your Mustang begins with disassembly, photo documentation, and carefully cataloging all parts in containers. Even parts you expect to throw away should be retained until the car is reassembled. This enables you to recall how things go together.

Bodywork and paint should always be handled first because it is the messiest job in a restoration. While the bodywork is being performed, tackle other important elements, like the engine, transmission, and rear axle. Rebuild these components while the car is away at the body shop. If you're doing the bodywork yourself, separate and organize each area, keeping the dust and filth from the bodywork away from the component rebuilding.

When it's time to tackle the engine and driveline, think about what you want the car to do. If you're seeking good low-end torque from a stealthy Mustang, consider a stroker kit, which will increase your engine's displacement without changing its external size. Pump a 289 or 302ci small-block up to 347 ci. If you're building a 351 Windsor or Cleveland, you can increase displacement to as high as 427 ci. Your engine doesn't have to be radical, either. Even in mild street-driven condition, your stroker small-block can make the torque of a big-block.

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Hitting the Books

When you're shopping for a Mustang, do your homework, arming yourself with every bit of information you can find pertaining to Mustangs. Use Mustang Monthly as a tool, and build yourself a Mustang library using the best reference books. There is a ton of recommended reading out there, including books about specific models. Here are some recommended reads to get your Mustang bookshelf started.

  • Mustang Red Book, by Peter Sessler (great quick-reference book).
  • Kruse's Collectible Vehicle Collector's Guide (gives pricing).
  • Mustang Recognition Guide, by Donald Farr, Larry Dobbs, Jerry Heasley, and Rick Kopec (available from California Mustang).
  • Mustang 5.0 Technical Reference & Performance Handbook, by Al Kirschenbaum (available from Bentley Publishers-a must-read for '79-'93 Mustang buyers and owners).
  • Mustang '64-1/2-'70 Restoration Guide, by Tom Corcoran and Earl Davis (available from Motorbooks International).
  • Mustang & Ford Small-Block V-8, by Bob Mannel (available from RPM Press).
  • Ford Engine Parts Interchange, by George Reid (available from CarTech Books or your favorite book seller).
  • Mustang 5.0/4.6-1979-1998, by Matt Stone (available from Motorbooks International).
  • How to Restore Your Mustang, from the editors of Mustang Monthly (basic but useful; available from California Mustang).