Jim Smart
June 1, 2009

The classic car hobby is a strange irony. We want the look and feel of a classic Mustang, yet that's not always what we want at all. In the 1980s, we went to great lengths to get the darned things factory original. Then we got bored with that approach due to dated technology and mediocrity, which cultivated the restomod movement that began in the mid-1990s.

Make no mistake--the Mustang restoration boom was vital to history and we had great fun doing it. We're still doing it, in fact. Thanks to the Mustang Club of America's commitment to concours judging rules, we have outstanding examples that enable us to relive the Mustang's most memorable era.

Few things are more breathtaking than a factory original '65-'73 Mustang convertible with the top down. With all that charm bursting at the seams, what makes us want to change what was so appealing about these cars to begin with? Let's look at the grievances about vintage Mustangs:

  • Sloppy steering
  • Lackluster handling
  • Hideous drum brakes
  • Broomstick-in-a-barrel manual shifters
  • Old technology engines
  • Overheating issues
  • Leaky power steering
  • Poor fuel economy
  • Leaking cowl vents
  • Frozen door locks
  • Broken seat backs
  • Inadequate sound systems
  • Insufficient instrumentation
  • Loud cabin noise
  • Inadequate restraint systems
  • Poor exterior lighting

Need we say more? As far back as the 1970s, '65-'73 Mustangs needed improvements to make them safer and more fun to drive. In those days, we were thinking comfort, performance, handling, and braking--not much different than our thinking today. But in those days, there wasn't sufficient aftermarket support. Today, aftermarket support is limitless, yielding the greatest classic Mustang fun cars ever. Let's look at the Ten Best Modern Mods you can make to a classic Mustang.

1 Front Disc Brakes
When we began rebuilding older Mustangs back in the 1970s, one of the first questions was how to improve braking because most were equipped with four-wheel drum brakes. Back then, the answers came from the junkyards and what would ultimately become available from George Jonas and his Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation. Jonas was a Corvette enthusiast who wanted better front disc brake reliability for classic Corvettes. The idea spread quickly across all classic carlines including Mustang. The name was born of the idea--stainless steel brake components that wouldn't seize from corrosion.

Front disc brakes may not be a modern modification, but they have been making classic Mustangs safer since the beginning. For those of you who want to maintain a stock demeanor, Stainless Steel Brakes has complete reproduction braking systems for the classics. You can also step up to the Force 10 system with its good-looking calipers, rotors, and brute stopping power. Selection has never been better.

Baer Brakes is another aftermarket manufacturer with plenty of available choices. Baer's approach is something for everyone. There are factory drop-in replacements that bolt onto your existing spindles all the way up to extra large 13-inch binders for competition use.

Master Power Brakes is another valuable player in the brake aftermarket, focusing more on authentic factory-type braking systems that offer exceptional performance for classic Mustangs. We're talking whole systems complete with master cylinder, power booster, four-piston calipers, and all hardware necessary to do an installation. Power boosters are available designed for both manual and automatic transmission equipped Mustangs. And if you want to step up performance, slotted and cross-drilled rotors are available.

2 Suspension Systems
Few areas have witnessed more progress than vintage Mustang suspension systems. Some are based on the Mustang's original suspension architecture while others are radical departures from what Ford did four decades ago.

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Total Control Products was one of the first on the scene with an awesome aftermarket suspension system for classic Mustangs. In the beginning, TCP was a small mom-and-pop operation with great potential. When Chris Alston's Chassisworks assumed control, product availability and quality went through the roof thanks to Alston's resources and engineering technology. Selection for classic Mustang buffs has never been better.

There's no magic or mystery to electronic fuel injection. Plug-and-play conversion kits are available from Painless Performance and Ron Morris Performance, as two examples. All you need is the induction system as your foundation and go from there. You will also need O2 bungs in each side of the exhaust system at the manifold or header.

3 Electronic Engine Control
Electronic fuel injection was intimidating when it came to Mustangs in the 1980s. After all, who understood it? However, over time, most of us grew to understand and appreciate it because it made new Mustangs perform better and netted improved fuel economy as well. Troubleshooting became easier with time and knowledge. About 20 years ago, someone got the idea to install electronic engine control in classic Mustangs. Ron Bramlett of Mustangs Plus tried it on a '66 Mustang with a 289. Danny Bahn of D.B. Performance Engineering fitted an entire 5.0L High Output V-8 with five-speed in his '65 Mustang hardtop. These folks were pioneers of fuel-injection in vintage Mustangs. It was a lot more challenging for them because plug-and-play conversion kits weren't available at the time. Instead, they had to find late-model donor cars and powertrains, then learn how the darned thing went together and worked. Today, it's easier.

4 Sports Seats
If you're seeking comfort and good looks from your classic Mustang's interior, here's a modern yet retro mod you can live with and enjoy. The TMI Sports Seat takes your Mustang's existing bucket seats and gives them side bolsters to provide good side support along with comfortable lumber support. Remember that three-day trip you took in an old Mustang when you were in college and how miserable it was? Well, forget all about it because the TMI Sport Seat softens up the ride and yields plenty of comfort. Also, the adjustable headrest protects your neck and back.

5 Pertronix Ignitor
It's the best single modification you can make to a classic Mustang for under $100. That's what we called the PerTronix Ignitor when it first came out nearly 20 years ago. You can install the electronic conversion in 30 minutes. Don't forget to keep your Autolite distributor's ground strap connected or it may not start--or it could quit unexpectedly. In other words, read the instructions included with the kit.

6 Lighting Technology
Few things have improved classic Mustang safety quite like high-tech lighting. There is a wide selection of headlight options ranging from the Tri-Bar system to Xenon to economical Halogen. Elsewhere, you have a huge variety of LED (light emitting diode) retrofit kits for taillights, interior lighting, and instrument lighting.

There are a couple of different types of five-speed manual transmissions available for classic Mustangs. This is the Tremec TKO 3550 five-speed with hydraulic clutch. It will take quite a pounding from a high-performance small-block. However, if you're running a sedate little 289 or 302, a Tremec T5 is a perfect fit. Don't forget that small-block Fords prior to '82 have 28-ounce offset balance flywheels. From '82-up, 50-ounce offset balance. This is crucial to smooth operation.

7 Overdrive
Nothing improves fuel economy in a vintage Mustang better than an overdrive transmission, either a five-speed manual or an AOD automatic. Slip your classic Mustang into overdrive and lower engine rpm dramatically. If your Mustang has 3.00:1 gears, you're talking 3,000 rpm at 70 mph. If you swap up to 3.55:1 gears and install overdrive, you get 2,000 rpm at 70 mph. What's more, your Mustang will accelerate harder due to the mechanical advantage in the tunnel.

There are two basic types of AOD transmissions--mechanical with throttle valve cable ('80-'92) or computer controlled ('93-up, known as the 4R70W).

8 Single-Wire Alternator
If you're worn out with the mystery of flickering lights and a dancing ammeter, you're going to love this modern mod. Installing a single-wire, high-amp alternator eliminates your Mustang's external voltage regulator and wimpy 38-amp dynamo, keeping your battery comfortably charged. You can keep the stock appearance by leaving the external regulator in place because, once you install the single-wire alternator, the regulator is eliminated from the electrics. Down side? Your ammeter stops working.

With the 120-amp 3G alternator from PowerMaster, you can use a single or multi-groove pulley or go with serpentine belt drive.

9 One-Piece Rear Main Seal
If you have an FE Series big-block or six-cylinder engine, you're out of luck on this one. However, if you have a pre-'82 small-block 260, 289, 302, or 351ci V-8, this is a modern mod that will eliminate oil leaks. The one-piece rear main seal is common to '82-up 5.0L and 5.8L small-block Fords. When rebuilding your vintage engine, your machinist can set your block up in a boring machine and cut the No. 5 main bore. We would like to see the aftermarket develop a one-piece seal for all vintage Ford engines.

10 Mod Motor
We have to admit that there was a day when we had no use for the 4.6L modular overhead cam V-8 because it was too large for a classic Mustang. While the modern mod motor yields a smaller displacement than the old 289, it's larger in physical size than a Boss 429. We just couldn't see it in a vintage Mustang. But some of you out there have chosen to embrace Ford's high-tech overhead cam engine. And honestly, when this modern mod swap is performed correctly, it looks incredible in a classic Mustang. Forget dropping it between your existing shock towers because it will not fit. But did you know shock towers can be shaved (altered) like Ford did with the Boss 429 and this wide body cammer will fit between them? If you're going to alter a Mustang body enough to fit a 4.6L/5.4L Modular V-8, don't waste your time on a SOHC 16-valve engine. Go for the best stuff available--the SOHC 3V or DOHC.

Honorable Mention
We could go on and on about modern mods because there are so many of them out there. It was certainly challenging to nail down only 10. So let's touch on a few others you might have thought of for your classic Mustang.

  • Power Windows
  • Integral Power Steering
  • Electrical System
  • Roller Camshaft
  • Sound System
  • Instrument Panel
  • Three-Point Restraint
  • Billet Bolt-Ons
  • Cooling System