Michael Galimi
May 1, 2008
Photos By: The Manufacturers, MM&FF Archives

Working on a college budget? Low budget? No budget? Not everyone has an unlimited cash flow, so here's a list of modifications and suggestions to keep you on the fast track to fun rather than bankruptcy.

It's easy to dream big in this hobby of ours--big boost pumping through a wild stroker engine and channeled to the ground via a customized chassis and exotic six-speed transmission. Reality sets in and you quickly realize that it's not feasible to drop 100 grand into your hot rod. But that shouldn't discourage you from going out and having fun with your Mustang on the track and the street. There are plenty of reasonable-cost modifications that won't send you into debt or force you to rob a bank.

The staff at MM&FF knows what it's like to be on a budget when selecting performance parts. We've all been there, done that. I remember eating lunches of nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a month so I could afford a set of gears and an exhaust. I won't even tell you what it took to plunk down the cash for a Vortech blower the summer between sophomore and junior years in college--nothing illegal, but I still have nightmares about the work schedule I pulled through July and August.

We tried to keep the modifications applicable to all model years and have somewhat succeeded by covering the popular 5.0, Two-Valve, and Three-Valve cars. There are a couple of modifications that are more beneficial/applicable to certain year Mustangs, but for the most part, all mods can be applied to '79-'08 Stangs. We've included approximate costs (as sourced through advertisers in MM&FF), a variety of manufacturers of the parts, and ease of installation based on a rating of 1-10, with 1 being the easiest.

So keep your credit-card debt to a minimum and maximize your fun on the track or street. Here are the top 10 modifications under $500.

Rear Gears
Approximate Cost: $180-$250
Available From: Ford Racing Performance Parts (www.fordracingparts.com), Motive Gear (www.motivegear.com), Strange Engineering (www.strangeengineering.net), Moser (www.moserengineering.com), and Pro-5.0 (www.pro50.com)
Ease of Installation: 7

Changing the gear ratio in the rearend is one of the biggest bangs for the buck and a time-honored tradition in hot rodding. "Gears are a torque multiplier, and allow the engine to use it and get through the rpm range faster for quicker acceleration," says Tony Gonyon of HP Performance. Typical gear ratios from the factory (2.73, 3.08, 3.27, and 3.31) are designed for a mix of mild performance, miles per gallon, and rpm range at cruising speeds. The new Mustangs are offered with 3.55 gears as an option, but for the most part, the rear gears from the factory aren't optimal for drag racing or the performance we expect out of our cars. Also note, when talking about gear sizing, the lower ratio gears are numerically higher--4.10:1 is a lower ratio than 3.73:1.

If you own a 5.0 Mustang, the two most popular gear choices are 3.73s and 4.10s. With 3.90 gears coming to the market in the past few years, that size has become more popular. Automatic-equipped cars will benefit greatly from 4.10 gears because of the greater rate of acceleration. Typically, anything numerically higher than 4.10 reduces driveability, as highway cruising rpm is drastically higher and performance tends to fall off with stock engines' power range.

The Two-Valve crowd should go after lower gear sizes such as 3.90s and 4.10s. Justin Burcham of JPC Racing says, "These cars don't have a lot of torque, so they respond well to gears." He also says that with 3.90s or 4.10s, the rpm drop-off on gearshifts is not as severe, and that helps performance. Those enthusiasts with Three-Valve combinations found in '05-up Mustangs should run 4.10 gears, as unanimously selected by Gonyon, Burcham, and Mike Dezotell of Dez Racing. They said that for enthusiasts who don't want something as steep, the 3.90s are sufficient, but nothing numerically smaller works well to warrant the gear swap. The more hard-core drag racers out there should consider 4.30 gears.

The speedometer must be adjusted when changing rear gears. In the 5.0-era Stangs, a simple swap of the speedometer gear at the end of the cable (that goes into the transmission) is required. Each different speedo gear has a certain number of teeth for the various rear gears. The '96-newer Mustangs don't use a speedometer cable, but rather a sensor. The computer must be modified using a handheld tuner, chip, or reprogrammer to account for a rear gear change.

A few notes about changing rear gears: Installing a set in your driveway adds a degree of difficulty. Mustang shops can easily swap in a set of gears for a reasonable price and keep your bill under or around $500. An installation kit usually comes standard from most companies, but check to make sure it's included with the lower-priced gears on the market.

Short-Throw Shifter
Approximate Cost: $150-$200
Available From: Pro-5.0 (www.pro50.com), MGW (www.mgwltd.com), Steeda (www.steeda.com), D&D Performance (www.ddperformance.com), UPR Products (www.uprproducts.com), BBK (www.bbkperformance.com), Hurst (www.hurst-shifter.com), Ford Racing (www.fordracingparts.com), and B&M (www.bmracing.com)
Ease of Installation: 3

The stock shifter in all Mustangs feature long throws and aren't the best piece of equipment when you're under pressure and banging gears. Ford designed the manual shifters to be easy to drive in everyday situations and also easy to manufacture. Turning to an aftermarket shifter provides many benefits that will make life in aggressive and passive driving scenarios easier and more effective. The first and foremost benefit with an aftermarket shifter is the shorter throw offered for each gear selection. You will no longer need to push the lever three feet before engaging the next gear. The short throw gets it in gear quicker, meaning your car will run quicker. As Burcham says, "A short throw shifter, while doing some spirited driving, allows you to concentrate on other things besides shifting. The gears literally fall into place when using a good aftermarket shifter.

"The shifter stops also help extend transmission life by not allowing you to 'overshift' the gear and cause shift fork damage." Gonyon agrees with Burcham's assessments, and adds that with easier shifting comes more confidence and better driving on the track. Installing the shifter can be done with regular tools, and there's some disassembly required to the center console to gain access to the shifter base. The S197 Mustangs ('05-present) are a little more involved than the previous Fox-body ('79-'93) and SN-95/New Edge ('94-'04) cars. The S197 features an arm that attaches to the transmission and is easily accessible from underneath the car. The center console removal is a little more complicated but still within reason for a beginner.

When changing shifters, the quality of the mechanism is also greatly noticeable. The notchy feel of the OEM stuff is gone, and you can also add a different shifter knob to the aftermarket unit for comfort and better leverage when you powershift.

Overall better performance from the driver and the equipment is a surefire way to run quicker and faster.

Nitrous-Oxide Injection
Approximate Cost: $450-$600
Available From: NOS (www.nosnitrous.com), CompuCar (www.compucar.com), Nitrous Works (www.barrygrant.com), Edelbrock (www.edelbrock.com), ZEX (www.zex.com), Nitrous Pro Flow (www.nitrousproflow.com) and Nitrous Express (www.nitrousexpress.com)
Ease of Installation: 8

Our list is for parts under $500, and depending on which system you buy for your Mustang, nitrous oxide falls into that category, although we felt that even at $600, a mere hundred more shouldn't keep the always-pleasurable giggle juice off the list. It's worth the extra dough, as nitrous is the most effective bolt-on and offers the highest horsepower per dollar over anything else on the market. "Adding a Zex dry kit is one of the best ways to go fast on a budget," says Mike Dezotell. "A Three-Valve with gears and a Zex kit can run mid-11s."

The cost can go up if you decide to have a custom tune in the computer to go along with the hit of nitrous. According to Burcham, if you keep the nitrous system at 75 hp in S197 cars, then a custom tune isn't required. Once you start adding more nitrous, there comes a need to add a fuel pump, tuning, and other hardware that drives up the price. Nitrous has a continuous cost factor since the bottle will need to get filled. Base kits come with a 10-pound bottle, which means it carries 10 pounds of nitrous and tips the scales at 25 pounds when filled to capacity. When the bottle gets too low, it costs about $4.00-$5.00 per pound to refill it.

Nitrous oxide adds a potent kick to your Pony by filling the cylinders with more air and fuel for the combustion process. There are two types of nitrous systems: wet and dry. The wet system sprays both nitrous and fuel--which mix at the tip of the injection nozzle--through the intake manifold as one mixture. A dry system is run with just nitrous flowing through the intake, and the additional fuel is added, usually through the fuel injectors in the form of increased fuel pressure. A moderate dosage is highly effective, but exercise caution because too much nitrous in a relatively stock engine can cause damage. Nitrous oxide is a fun and effective modification when used properly.

Handheld Tuners/Computer Chips
Approximate Cost: $275-$500
Available From: SCT (www.sctflash.com), DiabloSport (www.diablosport.com), Sniper Tuning (www.snipertuning.com), Anderson Ford Motorsport (www.andersonfordmotor sport.com), Hypertech (www.hypertech.com), and Superchips (www.superchips.com)
Ease of Installation: 1 (handheld tuner) and 2 (computer chip)

Computers are a big part of today's automotive aftermarket, and digital technology has enabled us to do things that were never thought possible with carburetors. Here's a quick breakdown: '86-'93 Mustang 5.0 cars are equipped with the EEC IV computer. The '94-'95 Mustang 5.0 rides have a variation of the EEC IV. These computers require the use of a computer chip to modify the engine-management controls. Generally, a chip is not required with bolt-on items, as fuel delivery can be controlled by adjusting the fuel pressure and manually changing the ignition timing. But Dezotell did remind us that if you want to get past the factory rev-limiter, then adding a custom computer chip is required. Custom chips for 5.0 cars are reasonably priced and can be mail-ordered. There are also handheld tuners, such as the PMS from Anderson Ford Motorsport, that plug into the EEC IV computer.

The '96-current Mustangs do not share that requirement, as those cars employ the EEC V. They can benefit from a computer chip, but the more popular--and easier--method is to use a handheld device that plugs into the OBD-II (On Board Diagnostics) port under the dashboard. All '96-newer cars feature the port in this location. Previous years have an OBD-I port, but it's under the hood and doesn't monitor or access the computer as extensively as the OBD-II system. The OBD-II port is used to monitor emissions and troubleshoot sensor problems by reading the computer and finding out what's wrong. Several clever aftermarket programming companies came up with the ability to gain access to the computer through that port, extract the computer program, and install a modified one.

Most handheld tuners come with basic programs already installed inside the unit, but authorized dealers can create custom programs that are uploaded to the handheld and then into the car's brain. Two-Valve cars benefit from a tuner after some basic modifications and can help adjust for different gear ratios in the rear as well as diferent tire sizes. A new tune is required to be uploaded to the computer in order to account for new heads, cams, a blower, and so on. So you either get one now or down the road when you install a fancy new heads/cam and blower combination.

The '05-up Mustangs benefit the most from the addition of a handheld computer thanks to the complicated Spanish Oak computer system. Using an off-the-shelf tune will benefit a new Stang greatly. Case in point: My '07 Mustang GT went from a 13.79 in stock trim to a 13.56 just by uploading a better tune from a DiabloSport Predator. The Drive By Wire parameters are rewritten to help throttle response and torque management. The factory Spanish Oak computers are programmed to pull out power through closing the throttle body, reducing timing, and even pulling camshaft timing. This is done for drivetrain warranties and fuel economy. The joke around the office is that Ford gives you a 300hp engine but doesn't let you use it all. Swapping the computer tune unlocks the rest of the power the potent Three-Valve powerplant produces.

Burcham said it best about tuners. "All handheld tuners, or chips, for any modular engine allow the ability for future modifications (N2O, turbo, superchargers). The tuner also allows the user to adjust shift points, firmness, adjustments for off-road exhaust, the ability to read trouble codes, data logging--the sky's the limit for the uses of a handheld tuner. If one is available for your vehicle, always drop the extra money for the tuner over the chip."

Drag Radial Tires
Approximate Cost: $300-$500
Available From: Nitto (www.nittotire.com), BFGoodrich (www.bfgoodrichtires.com), and Mickey Thompson (www.mickeythompsontires.com)
Ease of Installation: 3

What better way to apply all of your horsepower to the ground than to run a set of tires that don't spin? From type to size, there are a variety of options when selecting tires. Luckily, the aftermarket is full of choices that fit every need and application.

Among the most popular sticky tires for mildly modified Mustangs are the Nitto 555R drag radials. Nitto has focused these tires to be perfect for everyday driving but also to satisfy the weekend trips to the dragstrip. The concept is to buy one set of tires and use them for both performance and street. It works great on mildly modified Mustangs as well as higher-horsepower rides. We've run these tires on everything from near-stock 13-second test cars to our in-house supercharged '01 Mustang GT, which ran 10.80s on the 555Rs.

If you want something a little stickier, check out BFGoodrich's Drag Radial tires. They're more aggressive than Nitto 555Rs and can still be driven on the street, albeit not as much as the 555Rs. BFG Drag Radials were the first radial tires designed for excessive acceleration. The company released the tires in 1997 and they have grown in popularity since.

Moving up the scale in rear grip, we arrive at the pinnacle of drag radials, the ET Street Radial as offered by Mickey Thompson Tires. These tires offer the ultimate grip for radial tires and carry a DOT-rating, much like the BFG and Nitto tires. However, we don't recommend these tires for street driving. Wet-pavement performance is sacrificed for the outstanding racing surface performance, and the tread-wear is next to nothing. These tires should be mounted on another set of wheels and swapped at the track.

Sizing depends on the body type--'79-'93 cars fit up to 275/50 or 275/60 tires on 15-inch wheels. The '94-'04 and '05-current Stangs have larger wheelwells and Dezotell, Burcham, and Gonyon all agreed that anything from 275 to 315 series tires on 16-, 17-, and 18-inch wheels will work. Important: Remember that when changing tire sizes, a taller tire knocks down the gear ratio, so be prepared for a decrease in performance if you go with a tire that's too tall. Also, all '96-present Mustangs will need to have the computer tuned, as a drastic change in tire size will throw off the speedometer and send the computer into safe mode.

10-Minute Tune-Up
Approximate Cost: $50
Available From: Local Auto Parts Store
Ease of Installation: 4

The 10-Minute Tune-Up was first broke by MM&FF many years ago; the exact date of implementation is unknown. Essentially, former magazine scribe and now freelance extraordinaire Neil Van Oppre, along with former staffer Tony DiFeo, collected several popular modifications for a stock 5.0 and packaged them together as one group, affectionately called the 10-Minute Tune-Up. The package has taken on legendary status in the 5.0 world.

First on the list is bumping the ignition timing to anywhere from 13-15 degrees, with the spout out. Some cars like as much as 15 degrees of timing, while others can tolerate only 13. Other stuff on the list include dumping the air silencer assembly in the fenderwell and replacing the stock air filter with one from K&N. Icing the intake manifold in between dragstrip runs yields great results on a 5.0, or any car for that matter. Just be careful not to let the water puddle on the manifold and spill out under the car during a run down the dragstrip. Disconnecting and/or removing the front antisway bar helps weight transfer on the launch. It allows the nose to come up easier and plant the rear tires. Street driving is effected with this modification, and we suggest you reconnect/reinstall the antisway bar before leaving the track.

The final two mods are parts you can buy at the local auto-parts store. A 70.5-inch serpentine belt allows the power steering and alternator to be bypassed in an effort to save on parasitic loss. A 160-degree thermostat is also a staple on the 10-Minute Tune-Up list. It opens the radiator at 160 degrees rather than at 190 degrees (stock thermostat setting) to cool the engine sooner and help in between round cooldown.

Exhaust Upgrades
Approximate Cost: $150-$500
Available From: Ford Racing (www.ford racingparts.com), Bassani Xhaust (www.bassani.com), MagnaFlow (www.magna flow.com), Corsa (www.corsaperf.com), BBK (www.bbkperformance.com), Pypes (www.pypesexhaust.com), Kooks Custom Headers (www.kookscustomheaders.com), JBA (www.jbaheaders.com), Hooker (www.holley.com), Flowtech (www.holley.com), SLP (www.slponline.com), Borla (www.borla.com), Flowmaster (www.flowmaster.com), Dynatech (www.dynatechheaders.com), MRT (www.mustangracing.com), UPR (www.upr products.com), American Racing Headers (www.americanracingheaders.com), Steeda (www.steeda.com), Stainless Works (www.stainlessworks.net), and MAC Performance Products (www.macperformance.com)
Ease of Installation: 2-5 depending on which exhaust component and model year.

There's nothing like the distinct, throaty growl of a Mustang. The topic of modified exhaust systems is a heavy one, as many companies offer something for Mustangs of all years. The effectiveness of headers, midpipes, and after-cat exhaust systems vary on the different generations of Mustangs. The older 5.0 cars are more responsive to exhaust mods than the newer S197 models--thanks to Ford supplying it with a 2.5-inch exhaust.

Factory 5.0 cars come with tubular headers that feature crushed pipes, a dinky 2-1/2-inch H-pipe with four catalytic converters, and a 2-1/2-inch after-cat exhaust. To say adding larger exhaust and mufflers adds substantial power is an understatement. Typically, adding a 2-1/2-inch x pipe system and after-cat exhaust increases power by 25-30 rwhp.

"We don't find much when changing headers on the modular Mustangs; the exhaust manifolds are pretty decent in stock combinations," Dezotell says. He said most '96-'04 Mustangs that roll in the shop get a larger x pipe system and an after-cat exhaust, which generally picks up 20-or-so rwhp. Burcham and Gonyon agree about leaving the exhaust manifolds in place on stock engines and spending the money elsewhere.

As for the S197, our experts all agreed that swapping mufflers in these cars should be done to tailor the exhaust tone to your liking--just don't expect to see the same gains you would with a 5.0 car. Simply swapping to an x pipe system and after-cat exhaust brings about a 10-rwhp increase. Power gains with exhaust modifications increase as you wring out more power from the Three-Valve engine.

Cold-Air Intake
Approximate Cost: $130-$500
Available From: Western Motorsports (www.wmsracing.com), Anderson Ford Motorsport (www.andersonfordmotorsport.com), Airaid (www.airaid.com), BBK (www.bbkperformance.com), Steeda (www.steeda.com), C&L Performance (www.cnlperformance.com), Granatelli Motorsports (www.granatellimotorsports.com), Roush Performance (www.roushperformance.com), JDM Engineering (www.teamjdm.com), Ford Racing (www.fordracingparts.com), and JLT (www.jlttruecoldair.com)
Ease of Installation: 2

It's a simple concept: Let more air into the engine and the powerplant to make more horsepower. Naturally, "more" is a relative term, but keeping restrictions before the throttle body to a minimum certainly helps performance. Mustangs are restricted from the factory when it comes to letting air into the engine. The 5.0 cars suffer from a goofy air- silencer assembly; the mod motor-equipped Stangs don't have the optimal inlet assembly to feed the air-starved engine. A simple fix is to add a cold-air intake to ensure the throttle body allows in as much air as possible. The cold-air moniker is due to the notion of the inlet kit grabbing air from the fender rather than from under the hood.

Replacing the rubber elbow and air filter is common, and there are many companies on the market that offer effective induction solutions. Simply running an open throttle body or no air filter on a MAF sensor is not the best method. Air needs to have a clean and channeled path so it moves efficiently. "Cold-air kits usually yield 10-15 hp," Burcham says. "Most of the gain is from the conical filter, but the smooth-radius bends and larger-diameter pipes don't hurt, either. Most of the factory air kits already draw air from the fender, so there's not much to gain from filter location."

Swapping cold-air intake kits onto S197 Mustangs sometimes requires the computer to be retuned due to the change in the MAF sensor signal. Most kits come with either a handheld tuner standard or as an option. Other companies produce cold-air intake kits that don't require tuning. Our testing has found that there are considerably greater improvements with the addition of both the cold-air intake and an aftermarket tune-up, but combining the two on an S197 car drives the cost higher than our $500 price ceiling.

Intake Manifold Upgrade
Approximate Cost: $100-$500
Available From: Accufab (www.accufab), C&L Performance (www.cnlperformance.com), Ford Racing (www.fordracingparts.com), Edelbrock (www.edelbrock.com), Holley (www.holley.com), Professional Products (www.professionalproducts.com), Steeda (www.steeda.com), Granatelli Motorsports (www.granatellimotorsports.com), UPR Products (www.uprproducts.com), and Trick Flow (www.trickflow.com)
Ease of Installation: 4-6 depending on model

Swapping an intake manifold pertains to 5.0 and Two-Valve engines. The Three-Valve stuff still relies on the stock intake--that is, until the aftermarket comes out with some viable options.

The Two-Valve engine benefits from two different intake manifold swaps. The first is a simple swap of the upper plenum, which is a reasonable-cost component. The other intake option is to get a completely new intake manifold from Trick Flow, Professional Products, or the forthcoming BBK Two-Valve intake. Replacing the entire manifold puts the cost factor above $500, with the Professional Products entry around $530, and the Trick Flow intake significantly more.

Most people just replace the upper plenum and throttle body on the Two-Valve cars and find 10-15 hp. It might not sound like much, but the increased airflow yields even bigger results when you put on a supercharger or swap the heads and camshafts. The factory PI intake manifold ('99-'04 Two-Valve intake) works surprisingly well, and while many companies have tried, they have yet to top that intake in performance for a street/strip Mustang.

The 5.0 market seems to have a plethora of intake manifolds available for a variety of applications. The factory E7 intake manifold chokes the stock E7 heads, especially when you start adding 1.7 roller rocker arms and other bolt-on pieces. Opening up the intake helps the heads breathe a bit easier, and it shows a horsepower increase of about 15-20.

"I'd go with a Trick Flow Street for a mostly stock 302," Dezotell says.

Burcham threw in his two cents on intakes for 5.0 engines, saying, "The Cobra or Trick Flow would work best for stock or mildly modded engines. The Cobra will work the best all around for a stocker, but the Trick Flow isn't far behind. The Cobra is nice because it works well when you go with better heads and other future engine mods."

Gonyon had this to say about intakes on the venerable 5.0 combo: "I suggest going with a Cobra, Explorer, or GT-40 intake."

Brake Upgrades
Approximate Cost: $200-$500
Available From: Hawk Performance (www.hawkperformance.com), EBC Brakes (www.ebcbrakes.com), Bendix (www.bendixbrakes.com), and Powerslot Brakes (www.powerslot.com)
Ease of Installation: 4

"Brake mods are well worth the investment if you plan on some spirited driving," Burcham says.

"If you're going to make it faster, you're going to have to make it stop," Dezotell says.

Let's face it, the factory brakes are pretty weak and in dire need of attention, especially if you autocross or road race your Stang, as doing both takes a toll on tires and the entire braking system. Be prepared to change the brake fluid often. Heat is a killer as it breaks down the fluid and wears out pads quickly. The wearable parts tend to last a bit longer in the autocross arena than on road courses. Another reason to get a set of aftermarket brakes is the cool factor--it's neat to peak behind a wheel and see a stout disc-brake setup. It also helps to have more stopping power on the street. We all know how bad drivers suddenly stop short in front of you for no reason at all.

Swapping to four-wheel disc brakes can be an expensive proposition, as it's easy to gravitate to the serious stuff like Brembo and Baer. Although each of those companies offer entry-level braking systems, they're still far above the $500 maximum we imposed on our Top 10 list. We're here to say that the high-end companies aren't the only sources for aftermarket brake kits. Companies such as Power Slot are a great alternative for performance and aesthetics. With some investigation, you can piece together a braking system to suit your needs and budget. Many companies make nice upgrade options for existing disc brakes as well as disc-brake conversions for the rear-drum-brake setups found on the '79-'93 Stangs. The '94-present Stangs have four-wheel disc brakes, and upgrading to better calipers and rotors will help stopping power.

The larger rotors help dissipate heat better as well as provide more surface area for larger calipers and brake pads. The larger caliper and brake pads provide more frictional area to help slow down the wheel speed. If upgrading the rotors and calipers isn't an option, a better brake pad will help, as several aftermarket companies make brake pads that grip much better than the stock units and are relatively inexpensive, around $50-$60 per pad.