March 23, 2003

Building a project car starts long before opening the hood and getting out the wrenches. There are many decisions to be made in order for your project to become a reality. You can have a Mustang that does a little bit of everything really well--and we've featured such cars--but if you want to excel in a certain area, then other capabilities will no doubt suffer.

There's no rule that says you can't have a streetable, 500hp Mustang that can be used for daily driving, weekend action at the track, and shined up enough to be put in a car show. But do you have any idea how much such a car will cost? Depending on your choice of parts and who does the labor, you could be looking at throwing upward of 20 grand into a Mustang (not including the cost of the car). Of course, you don't have to spend that much. We've seen several nicely done Mustangs on shoestring budgets. Building a project with used parts, performing your own labor, and bartering for what you can't do is a good way to build a really nice, low-buck Mustang. Our goal here is to help new readers and first-time project builders by offering our advice, tips, and direction. We've been there, and we know having some help certainly makes the problems seem less daunting. Even if you've been reading these pages for years, we're sure you'll appreciate some of the ideas and answers on the following pages. So sit back, put your tray table in its upright-and-locked position, and start planning that project!

Where Do I Begin?
Before you pick up that first set of classifieds, and before you even begin to think about what type of project you want to build, you need to start with the basics. First, think about your own skills. Some people barely know where to put the gas in their Mustang, while others are pro engine builders. The automotive knowledge you have, or you are willing to learn, will greatly determine the type of project you should build. For example, if you have basic mechanical knowledge, you'd likely be comfortable pulling an engine out of a Mustang, but you might want to leave the performance-engine rebuild to a competent builder (or spring for a crate motor if your budget will allow). Be realistic about your skills.

If you have a skill that will save you money on the project, by all means utilize it, but don't perform a task you aren't familiar with as it could end up costing more money and time. Usually, a decent tool set with a combination of metric and standard sockets, wrenches, and other hand tools will suffice for the major part of your project, but if a job requires a special tool, then by all means borrow, rent, or buy it. When their use is necessary, special tools will make the job safer, and they'll make the work go by more quickly too.

In addition to your working skills (and those of your available help), you need to decide where to build your project. A typical two-car garage is barely large enough in which to work. By the time you situate the project in the middle of the garage and allocate parts storage and work/repair areas, things can become fairly tight. Of course, not everyone has the benefit of owning a house with a two-car garage--or even a house for that matter. What if you live in an apartment, or a duplex, or you're away at college? If your project is going to involve some serious downtime, then you better find a place to work on it. A buddy's garage, a rented garage, or some other workspace will be necessary. Remember, if you have to pay for a workspace or storage, the fees will eat into your budget, so plan accordingly.

Finally, a project takes a considerable amount of time--especially if you want to complete the job before Father Time and arthritis kick in. If you're going to medical school (more power to you) and spend every waking moment with your nose in the books, do you really think you'll have time to work on a project car? The same goes if you have a wife and kids, with the requisite soccer games and cheerleading practices thrown in. No one has publicly acknowledged human cloning yet, so until they get it right, you can't be in two places at once. You'll have to decide between your project and other aspects of your personal life. Of course,you could write a check and have someone else build the car.

How Much?
Money makes the world go 'round. You'll need some green to make your project go 'round too. How much isn't for us to decide, but there's a lot to be said for budgeting. There are many factors that will put your budget into perspective for you.

Are you starting with a car, or do you need to purchase one? If you're going to purchase your project car, will it be a cheap four-cylinder, or a body in white, or maybe even someone else's unfinished project? Are you looking to build a competent, do-it-all daily driver, or will you concentrate on just one area, such as road racing? Labor costs aren't cheap either. If you plan on having a lot of work farmed out (chassis upgrades, engine building, and so on) be ready for some hefty bills. The typical chassis prep for drag racing can run several thousand dollars, as can performance-engine rebuilds.

Figure out how much you can afford to spend on your project, and determine if what you want can be done with that amount in a decent time frame. Sure, you could build a Pro 5.0 car by saving 100 bucks a month, but you probably don't want to spend 10 years building it. Subtract expenditures such as rent, bills, and so on from your salary and then figure how much you want to spend. If you can only afford $200 a month, so be it. At least you'll be able to make a better decision as to what kind of project to attempt. You'll be more prepared than if you just threw caution to the wind and decided to build a Super Street Outlaw Mustang with your McDonald's paycheck. Planning is the name of the game, and being realistic with your budget is key to saving your sanity, your relationships, and maybe even your home.

When considering your budget, don't overlook the benefits of bartering or trading. If you're an electrician, maybe the body shop needs some wiring work done in its paint booth. Or maybe you are the bodyman but you need an engine built; the machine shop might like a fresh paint job on its parts runner. Perhaps you've accumulated a spare engine block from a friend and now you need your transmission rebuilt. The block could be a good trade or turned into some cash for the tranny rebuild. Don't be afraid to seek out trades for labor or even parts for your project. Bartering and trading can be a good way to get your project worked on while clearing your garage of items you don't need anymore. So, market those labor skills and used parts and you'll be able to keep your project flowing.

OK, you've decided on the total amount of money and time you wish to spend on the project (we recommend no more than two years or you might grow bored with the project and never finish it). Now let's move on to discussing what you want for a project.

What's the Plan, Stan?
Depending on what you plan to build, it will be necessary to budget your finances in certain areas while other areas will be allocated more money. If you're building a killer show car and don't care about extreme horsepower, you can spend the minimum amount on engine upgrades and pour the extent of your cash into an eye-searing paint job, killer interior upgrades (seats aren't cheap), custom tunes, and a blingin' set of wheels. If your dream is a drag car, you'll spend most of your money for the drivetrain and wheels, as you're limited to lightweight race stuff such as Welds or Bogarts. In this case, the paint job is secondary.

If your plans include racing in a sanctioning body's series, make sure you join that sanctioning body, acquire its rule book, and follow those rules as you build your project Mustang. There's no sense in buying a supercharger if your plans are to race in Pure Street, where power adders aren't allowed.

Another way to help make up your mind is to visit the venues in which you may want to use your project car. Go to the drag races, the autocrosses, the car shows, and the cruise nights. Talk to other owners about their cars. You'll get some great information. Mustang owners--for the most part--are a talkative bunch, and they will gladly offer shop info and proven combinations. Thinking about building a 331 with AFR heads and a Trick Flow intake? You'll surely find someone with that combination at the dragstrip. You can then discuss cam information, who built it, performance, and so on. Let the people with deep pockets be your guinea pigs, and then build on their proven combinations. Where will you keep your project Mustang once it's finished? Do you have a place to store it? If you'll be driving the vehicle on the street, have you considered the additional insurance? What about a tow vehicle and trailer (if it's to be towed to race events)? After two years of building the project, you may spend the next few seasons running up and down the highways chasing events, points, and contingency payouts. This will mean hotel and food money, a crew (even volunteers need a hotel room and Happy Meals), spare parts, and more. Of course, this type of expenditure is related to event-specific racing and not just local track busting, but we bring it up since many people don't realize the expenses racers go through to follow a series.

Don't forget about consumables. A show car will be the least costly thing to build since it needs little more than elbow grease and cleaning supplies in the way of maintenance. Autocrossers and road racers will be buying lots of brake pads, brake fluid, and tires. Drag racers can expect to maintain their projects with new valvesprings, blower belts, nitrous refills, and requiring any parts breakage. And don't forget entry fees. Events cost money just to get in. Purchasing a tech card for your class and getting your crew in could easily cost more than $100 per event.

Bringing It Home
While many people use their daily driver as their project vehicle, we don't recommend doing so. For example, if you want to go autocrossing, your heavy and slow '96 GT convertible isn't the best bet. We're not knocking these cars--they're nice, and we've seen them autocrossed. But if you're serious about having a fun, competitive ride, our opinion is you need to stay away from convertibles.

Your intended purchase target can be broken down into the following groups.
* '87-'93 Mustang 5.0 LX, LX Sport, or GT
* '94-'95 Mustang GT/Cobra
* '96-'98 Mustang GT/Cobra
* '99-'03 Mustang GT/Cobra

Each group has its plusses and minuses. Take the popular '87s-'93s, for example. The '87s-'88s have no mass air. The '91-'93 models have no tilt wheel (although there is an airbag). Also, the '91-'93 models have 16-inch wheels with larger fender openings. You should weigh the pros and cons of each model against your final plans to determine what's best for your project. Of course, there are always the four-cylinder models. If you're planning on a stripped-down race-car project, these cars make finding the perfectly optioned 5.0 a moot point.

Get to know the model year you want--along with the available colors and options, if they matter--so you can make informed decisions come purchase time. Use the Internet or price guides to see real-world prices. The last thing you want to is pay too much. Often, prices will vary by region, so be willing to travel a bit if there's a certain model or option you just have to have. For the most part, stick to local papers and free shopper-type books when looking for your project. We've found the larger books that charge for the big ads often seem to have overpriced models within their pages. Of course, if you're looking for something rare or unusual, the national sale books will often be your best bet, as long as you're willing to travel to get your project vehicle.

If you want a "mechanics special," don't overlook the $1,500-and-under sections of the classifieds. Oftentimes you can luck out and find a Fox hatch or notch with a toasted four-banger--or even a theft recover--for pennies on the dollar. There are also Mustang-specific salvage companies that advertise within the pages of 5.0&SF. These businesses have complete Mustangs ready for the fixing. Some are flood damaged, others are wrecked (but fixable), and all can be had for a good price. Finally, if you choose to go the body-in-white route, contact Classic Design Concepts [(248) 624-7997;]. CDC has inked a deal with Ford to be the official point of purchase for these current-model-year bodies with all their main sheetmetal and SMC panels. You'll have to supply your own suspension, drivetrain, interior, and glass, but the folks at CDC are working on packages and options to help complete assembly of these cars, so call them for more details.

The Finish Line
You have the money, you've found a suitable vehicle, and you actually know what you want to do with it. What's left? Nothing--so get cranking on it! Just remember one thing. Even though you're chomping at the bit to spend 18-hour days in the garage to finish your project in three months (and there's a fair amount of bragging rights to that), you may just emerge after those three months to find yourself suddenly single with a two-foot-high lawn and dead house pets. In other words, don't neglect your family and daily responsibilities.

Think of it as after-school playtime. Remember that? You had to have all your homework done and your household chores completed before you could go play with your friends. It should be the same with your project. Once you've fixed the leaky faucet, taken your kids to the movies, and spent time with your wife, going out to the garage to work on your car will not only be a nice break, but it also won't be resented by the rest of the family. There's nothing worse than finishing a car only to end up putting it in the paper with a heading of "Divorce Forces Sale"--and you know you've seen those ads.

You'd be wise to create a schedule for your project. Try to get family members involved in scheduling time spent on your project and with other activities. Let the kids help you with minor things, such as handing you tools and small parts--it will make the project more memorable. And, whatever you do, don't try to finish the vehicle for a certain event or show. It's not fun, and more bugs are likely to creep up. The entire staff of this magazine can speak from experience on this one. 5.0

138_0303_00z Ford_mustang Right_front_view
Here are two prime examples of project-car choices and their outcomes. Our Project Real Street (left) started out as a four-cylinder '89 trash heap and was converted into a V-8 supercharged race car that will see limited street use and will be trailered to most events. Our 3g GT (right) was purchased new and treated with a helping of power and suspension tuning and then topped off with some great Cobra R-replica looks. The 3g is an everyday driver that handles, has great road manners, and is at home on the street, track, or show field.
Be sure to keep all your invoices, receipts, and instructions. Sometimes parts will sit for a few months until they can be installed. You should keep the receipt for at least as long as the warranty period, though we suggest as long as you own the car or part. Instructions come in handy down the road if you ever have to take apart your project.
138_0303_02z 1991_ford_mustang Right_front_view
Someone else's headache could be your promised land. We've had many friends stumble across an unpolished gem just waiting to become someone's project. This '91 four-cylinder was found with a clean title and no drivetrain. It needs some minor bodywork and door glass, but it's the perfect beginning for the owner's 351 Windsor swap project. The car even came with a junkyard 8.8 rear in the deal.
The typical late-model Mustang is screwed together with standard and metric fasteners, Phillips screws, and Torx screws--nothing a trip to your Sears Craftsman tool department can't handle.
The typical 200-piece kit should allow you to tackle most any job, save for special tools that would be needed for engine and transmission rebuilding, electrical diagnostics, and a few other specialties.
138_0303_04z Ford_mustang Left_front_view
While we don't recommend building your project from your daily driver, there's nothing wrong with building one from a family-owned car, which is exactly what Gene Hindman did for his Pure Street NMRA ride. He took his mom's driver and built one sweet-looking and strong-running racer from it. Just make sure to ask permission first.
138_0303_05z Ford_mustang Left_front_view
Always have a contingency plan. Building a project to drive to an event and then compete in is admirable. But don't drive 400 miles away from home with nothing more than a toolbox in the hatch. You can--and will--break something, and it's no fun being pushed off the track. It's even less fun trying to find a ride home. Beg, borrow, or rent a trailer for the big trips. You'll feel better about it, and you can let your car all hang out--because if it breaks, you can still get home.
138_0303_06z 2000_ford_mustang_cobra_r Left_front_view
Buying an '00 Cobra R is difficult for most people to swallow financially, and we don't even want to think about the insurance. And though it's one heck of a car, let's not forget there's no back seat, no stereo, and no A/C. However, you can build your own replica via Ford Racing Performance Parts or Cervini's. Not only can you have the A/C, stereo, and back seat, but you can also have any color car you want. The same holds true for building replicas of '95 Cobra Rs, '93 Cobras (and Rs), Saleens, Steedas, and others. They can be replicated with parts from their respective companies for the pure looks you want without having to sell a kidney to get the real thing. Just don't pass the car off as real--that's not cool.

Horse Sense: Everyone wants a Mustang that can run 10s in the quarter-mile, blast the fastest lap at Road Atlanta, and get 25 mpg with A/C and a screaming stereo. That's not gonna happen. A road-racing suspension is not the best thing for drag racing. As for gas mileage, those 2.73 gears will hurt you on the freeway's corner exits. Building a purpose-built car is usually the best answer, but for daily driving you can spread your performance in more than one direction and still get acceptable "street" results.