Mark Houlahan
Tech Editor, Mustang Monthly
March 16, 2004
Horse Sense: Sometimes you can use the Mustang you already own, but whenstarting out, it's often better to buy another car. It all depends onyour budget and what you want to end up with. Don't forget--the best dealmight be someone caught in the middle of a project who has to dump itfor some fast cash, so keep your eyes and ears open

About 10 seconds after discovering Mustangs, the typical enthusiast begins dreaming about turning his car into that one special ride he'd just love to have. It could be anything--a hot street machine, a drag car--who knows? The concept is, our man has an idea of a Mustang he'd like. No doubt you do too.

With that in mind, we'll show you how to draw a Mustang project-car map--or how to get from idea to reality. We'll also look at what's available on the used market as project fodder. While all Mustangs seem alike at first, there are differences. Which Mustang you choose and how you modify it has much to do with whether your idea turns out to be a dream or a nightmare.

Just to make sure no one is missing the obvious, at a bare minimum you must have at least some discretionary income, a few tools, and a place to work on the car. So be realistic--starving college kids sleeping three to a room in a high-rise apartment can't successfully build project cars, and that is simply a fact. But if you are short in one of the must-haves, you can work with trading time and labor for money, or trading parts or services instead of spending cash. Creativity counts.

Plan It

Before anything, you must have a plan. Begin with your idea, your dream. What sort of Mustang are you visualizing? Something shiny and fast? That's not good enough. You need to be more specific or you'll end up wandering into the automotive abyss. To focus your thinking, begin in broad terms and work to specifics. As you progress, write your ideas in your Mustang project notebook. At the least, answer the following questions.

1. Do I want a street car with license plates or a trailered race car?

2. If a street car, will it be a daily driver or a weekend toy?

3. Which is more important, looks or performance?

4. Is fuel economy important?

5. If a race car, what class will I run?

6. If a race car, am I running for a championship or just for fun?

As you answer these questions, your project will gel and take on a specific form. For example, concluding your project car will be trailered everywhere means you can dispense with licensing, emissions, and all creature comforts such as a heater and air conditioning. This also means once you've gone down this path, your Mustang will never be a street car again--and let's hope you have something else to drive to work, a tow vehicle, and a trailer.

The typical late-model Mustang is screwed together with standard andmetric fasteners, Phillips screws, and Torx screws--nothing a trip toyour Sears Craftsman tool department can't handle. The typical 200-piecekit should allow you to tackle most any job, save for special toolsneeded for engine and transmission rebuilding, electrical diagnostics,and a few other specialties.
Beginners have to start somewhere, and what better place than your localbookstore. There are several good books from well-known writers in theMustang hobby--three of whom work right here on this magazine--and theyall have good information on a multitude of subjects concerninglate-model Mustangs. You can find history, bolt-on performance, enginebuildups, suspension tuning, and more within these books. Pick up one ormore of them and start educating yourself.

Answering these questions should also unveil your priorities. Remember those priorities when standing at the parts counter and temptation rises. Does this part put you closer to your goal?

If not, pass it by--if yes, get it even if you have to stretch a bit.

The 5.0 Mustang is an ideal drag-car project, and that is what mostpeople build. If you want a street/strip car, keep it a street car thatwill survive at the strip, not the other way around. A drag car on thestreet soon becomes simply a drag.

Of questions one through six, all are self-explanatory and should jumpstart your thinking process--all but number four, that is. Is fuel economy important to you? Something of a trick question, it's there to stumble daydreamers who think they want a race car on the street. We've found that asking about fuel economy is a good way for a smart Id to take an overactive Ego by surprise. If you're really interested in racing, fuel economy is a laughable concept. That little bit you spend on fuel is nothing compared to campaigning a race car. And a "yes" answer to the fuel question absolutely means you have a street car and need to stick strictly with street-type modifications. Don't delude yourself, or you'll end up spending a ton of money on a car you really won't like--at least not after the first couple of weeks.

To speed our necessarily brief overview along, and to help you place your car in a handy, easy-to-recall category, allow us to introduce some common categories for project cars. They are:

* Drag car

* Open track/ slalom/road race

* Daily driver

* Street machine

If looking fine on the street or at the show is the goal, then beginwith the finest Mustang you can afford. Such projects soak up more timethan any other because there is so much to clean and detail. The furtheralong the paint and chrome trail you begin, the easier and cheaper comethe Best-in-Class trophies.

These are well-known themes in the Mustang world and should not require much explanation. Choose the one you like, as we'll use these terms in this article as a form of shorthand. For our purposes, the first two cars--drag and open track--are track-only vehicles. The other two are street cars.

Here's where you have to be brutally honest about yourself. If you've changed a set of valve-cover gaskets and needed two friends, a case of beer, and an entire Saturday to do so, then you best not count on building your own engine for your project. Know your skills and be realistic. You might have taken that welding class in high school 10 years ago, but do you really think you can make your own subframe connectors and rollbar?

Along with being honest about your skills, take a look at where you will be working. If you live in an apartment complex or other multifamily dwelling, plan on finding another place to work on your project. A buddy's garage or a rental storage unit will suffice, just be cognizant of how long the project might take. Rental fees can add up fast if your six-month project turns into a two-year epic [Talking from experience here!--Ed.]. In a best-case scenario, you'll have a workshop or a detached garage on your property where you can work on your project whenever you have the time. Spending an hour after dinner each night working on your car is a lot easier and more convenient than driving 45 minutes round trip just to get to where it's stored. And don't forget--besides storage of your project car, you will have parts to store as well.

You will also need tools. A typical 250-piece Sears Craftsman tool set will get many jobs done on your project, but there are several specialty tools you can't be without when dealing with Mustangs. Weigh the cost of purchase versus rental of those tools and how many times you plan on using them. Remember that as the Mustang evolved, more and more metric and specialty fasteners were involved in building the car, so if you're weak in one tool area (say metric deep sockets), then plan to purchase the entire set and not just one or two sockets. You'll need them someday--we promise.

Finally, take the time to read. There are plenty of books from companies such as HP Books, Classic Motorbooks, SA Design, and more that cover building project cars. Most of these publishing companies have specific books dedicated to late-model Mustang performance, tuning, history, racing, and so on.

While we don't recommend building your project from your daily driver,there's nothing wrong with building one from a family-owned car, whichis exactly what Gene Hindman did for his Pure Street NMRA ride. He tookhis mom's driver and built one sweet-looking and strong-running racerfrom it. Just make sure to ask permission first.

Buy It

Of course, you need to have a Mustang to work on, and we'll bet you already have one in the driveway. But is it the right Mustang? If you want a fun, carbureted drag car for local hobby racing, and the pampered '94 5.0 you scored from your dad hasn't flipped its odometer over yet, you have the wrong car. It's too nice to hack up into a simple drag car, and it's a bit heavy. You'd be better off spending several hundred dollars on a running, but roached-out, early Fox-chassied car and building it up.

More commonly, we hear from guys who want to build a killer street car from their Old Faithful. In other words, the '87 hatch that saw them through high school and about a thousand burnouts only smokes a little, it doesn't have any body damage Maaco couldn't fix in two weeks, it sports a dog-bite interior that doesn't rattle any louder than the stereo can play, and it has four bald tires. Sorry, but it's too late for that one. We all get attached to our cars, but in times like these it would be much better to sell off the old gal and start with a newer, cleaner example of the breed.

So let's say you need to buy a project car. Begin by looking at a lot of Mustangs, learn the differences, and decide what you want. Actively hunt down the car that's right for you--not the one that happened to be featured in the Sunday sales supplement of the local fish wrap.

Cars such as these are project-car diamonds in the rough. Nearlyworthless to sane people looking for transportation, barely runninghulks are where to begin when going all-out on a project. In fact, thisis how our Real Street project started out. You'll use new parts anyway,so you just need the basic car to begin with. The important things areno rust and no damage history. As old as the Fox fleet is, finding suchcars should not be difficult.

Rust is a no-no. There are too many clean, rust-free Mustangs around to bury yourself in the huge job of resurrecting one of these common cars from a rusty death. That's for restoring big-block Shelby convertibles.

Wrecks are a mixed lot. For building a nice street car, begin with a nice street car and make it better--don't begin by repairing damage because you think you'll save some money. You won't. On the other hand, if it's a racer you have in mind and you aren't going to use the crumpled front fenders and hood that are wrecked in your prospective purchase because you'll use fiberglass panels, then this could be a way to save some money at the jumping-in point. Burn jobs never pay, so pass them by. Often, parts that look OK are warped from the heat and lead to huge headaches.

What about running, but tired, drivers? Depends on your goal. Again, for a nice daily driver, begin with the best car you can. It's always cheaper that way and you get done faster. If it's a Saturday Night Shaker you have in mind, then working down the purchase price by pointing out the oil leaks, smokey exhaust, and rattley transmission is smart bargaining. You're going to replace all those parts with aftermarket go-fast stuff anyway, and maybe the old pieces will work as cores or trading fodder. In the meantime, you can drive the car and make sure it is straight.

Missing parts are like wrecked parts. If you don't need it, then you might as well not pay for it. Use it to bargain down the purchase price. But if you do need it, do the math first. It's much cheaper to buy trim items and a good interior as part of a whole car than piecemeal from wrecking yards or N.O.S. suppliers--which brings up the idea of parts cars. A tired runner or two can pay handsomely as parts donors for many street or race projects. Buy the parts car for cheap, use the parts you need, and sell the rest. It takes time and effort, but it definitely saves cash. If you don't have the room, deal with the Mustang salvage specialists you see advertised in 5.0&SF.

Don't overlook sweat equity either. Many parts--especially plastic panels, covers, boxes, and so on--respond to simple cleaning. If you're low on money but have time, a bucket of detergent water, some brushes, and applied effort can make tired-looking parts shine. Learn to prep and paint small parts properly too. This is miles ahead of buying new stuff simply because it's new and clean.

Then there's buying the half-finished project from the guy who has lost interest, gone bust, or discovered girls. Carefully evaluate what you're looking at and figure on having to work up a detailed list of what speed parts and services you are buying, then compare that to what you still need. Most of the time this is a great way to get a huge headstart on a project car--just make sure it meets your goal and isn't a poorly thought-out mishmash of parts.

Keep all your invoices, receipts, and instructions. Sometimes parts willsit for a few months until they can be installed. You should keep thereceipt for at least as long as the warranty period, though we suggestyou keep it for as long as you own the car or part. Instructions alsocome in handy down the road if you ever plan to take apart your project.Once the car is completed, you should also acquire some agreed-valueinsurance that will cover the worth of your car, not that of aclapped-out '89 four-cylinder.

Build It

We're not saying you have to buy another Mustang if you already own one, but many projects end up being at the extreme ends of streetable. Kidney-punching suspensions, radical engine combos, loud exhaust, and gutted interiors with no A/C do not make for a fun car to drive to work every day.

Buying an '00 Cobra R is difficult for most people to swallowfinancially, and we don't even want to think about the insurance.Although it's one heck of a car, let's not forget there's no back seat,no stereo, and no A/C. But you can build your own replica via FordRacing 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. Thesame holds true for building replicas of '95 Cobra Rs, '93 Cobras (andRs), Saleens, Steedas, and others. They can be replicated with partsfrom their respective companies for the pure looks you want withouthaving to sell a kidney to get the real thing. Just don't pass the caroff as real--that's not cool.

Besides--being honest here again--in what condition is your daily driver, and is it even the right body style for what you want to do? If you drive a beat-up '87 GT every day, you're going to sink quite a bit of cash into it to make it a show winner. The same goes if you drive a '98 GT convertible. That heavy, mod-powered droptop isn't going to get you anywhere serious in drag racing without spending a lot of money and rendering the car all but useless on the street. In instances such as these, it's often better to acquire another Mustang for your project. If you want to go drag racing, find a four-cylinder Fox coupe to gut and build (such as our own Real Street project). If you want to run auto-cross, then keep an eye out for a '96-'98 Cobra coupe. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, and some people might want only a '94-'95 GT coupe for their project. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, be honest about what you plan to do with your project.

Once you've decided on the year, body style, and purchase options, you can begin looking for your perfect project car. You can often find nice examples in trader-type publications, but usually those owners know what they have, and prices can be higher because the quality is there. Don't overlook the local papers--especially the "$1,500-and-Under" section--if all you want is a nonrunning four-cylinder to build from. Just make sure the title is clear. If you're looking for a newer example--say, a '98 Cobra--check out the dealer lots as these cars are still new enough to not be auctioned off to the moms and pops or sold off the wholesale lot.

When looking at a prospective project car, bring along a friend who won't be jaded by the pretty Mustang under the dealer lights. You want someone to point out the things you will miss while you stare glassy-eyed at "your" new Mustang.

Rust and accident damage can be good or bad. If the car has a rusty hatch, but you want to put a fiberglass one on anyway--so what? Use that rust as a sales tool to get the price down. If the car has been intimate with a telephone pole and needs new front sheetmetal, that could be a boon if you want to go with a Cobra nose and hood instead of a GT. Most importantly of all, however, keep your budget in mind. If you don't want to worry about body conversion parts and a paint job, then back away and keep looking.

Now we'll assume you've set a goal, counted your nickels, chosen a car, and are ready to modify. Where to begin and where to end? Do the mechanicals first, then the appearance items. Otherwise, the new paint will be scratched while you're installing the engine.

Likewise, always begin with the chassis mods first, then hot-rod the engine. Everyone does it backward because we're all goofy for a hot engine, but it's a bit dangerous to drive and makes you chase your project-building tail. The 5.0 Mustang's strongest card is its engine, so work on the weakest part first to gain the biggest bang for the buck--the chassis. Stiffen the chassis first, then build the suspension (be that just bushings, or slapper bars, or a torque arm, or back halving, or a full-on K-member-through-rollcage job). Add the larger brakes, then beef the driveline if necessary. Finally, add the horsepower and top it off with Ford Racing Performance Parts valve stem caps and other shiny bits. Remember what we said about determining your priorities and sticking to them? Beginning with the chassis means you'll build the foundation first, then the roof, and not the other way around.

Drive It

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 be a nice break, and it 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 involve family members 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.

Once your project is complete and sitting there in your driveway all ready to go, don't forget a few last details.

* Save all receipts

* Take plenty of detail photos (for insurance purposes)

* Record the VIN and all serial numbers from major components

* Be certain the car's insurance is adequate (special carriers can be found for race car and/or show car insurance coverage)

* If required, have the vehicle inspected for safety and/or emissions

* Send in all warranty/registration forms for parts installed

* If participating in an event series, sign up and get your car number and rule book

Now stop dreaming about owning that sweet drag (or show) Mustang you've always wanted. Keep rereading this article for inspiration and ideas, then get out the pen and paper, or word processor, and start realizing your dream by put-ting things into perspective. Work on a budget, a time frame, and a direction. Before you know it, you'll have something to be proud of. We're sure of it. 5.0