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.