The 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords Archives
March 1, 2001
Contributers: The 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords Archives

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5.0 Mustangs are ideal drag-car projects, and that is what most people build. If you want a street/strip car, keep it a street car that will survive at the strip, not the other way around. A drag car on the street soon becomes simply a drag.
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If looking fine on the street or at the show is the goal, then start with the finest Mustang you can afford. Such projects soak up more time than any other because there is so much to clean and detail. The further along the paint and chrome trail you begin, the easier and cheaper come the Best-in-Class trophies.
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Don’t be blindsided by the cost of showy engine compartments. A well-dressed engine can easily run up a $3,000 bill for chromed brackets and such. That’s enough to put a blower on a car, so budget accordingly.
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Cars such as these are project-car diamonds in the rough. Nearly worthless to sane people looking for transportation, barely running hulks are where to begin when going all-out on a project. You’ll use new parts anyway, so you just need the basic car to begin with. The important things are no rust and no damage history. As old as the 5.0 fleet is, finding such cars should not be difficult.
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Rust, tin worm—whatever you call it, stay away from it. Rusty Mustangs are parts cars, not project-car beginning points. The labor involved to resurrect rusty hulks is simply not worth it when there are so many clean, older Mustangs around.
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For any street-car project, the ideal candidate is a clean, high-mileage car with a worn-out powertrain. You need the clean body and interior, but the powertrain is just core material anyway. It might take a few weeks of combing the local car traders, and no doubt you’ll have to look at some real dogs advertised as cream puffs first, but the clean cars are worth seeking out.

About 10 seconds after discovering Mustangs, the typical enthusiast starts 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--a map of 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 pick and how you modify it has much to do with whether your idea turns out as a dream--or a nightmare.

Must-Haves

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. However, if you are short in one of the must-haves, you can work with trading time and labor for money, and trading parts or services instead of spending cash. Creativity counts.

Write a Plan

Before anything, you must have a plan. Start with your idea, your dream. What sort of Mustang are you visual-izing? 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 pro-ject 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.

Answering these questions should also unveil your priorities. Remember your priorities when standing at the parts counter and temptation rises. Does this part put me closer to my goal? If not, pass it by--if yes, get it even if you have to stretch a bit.

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 all those 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 are 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.

A Few Categories

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

These are well-known themes in the Mustang world and should not require much explanation. Pick the one you like, as we'll be using 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.

Money, Money, Money

Building project cars of any type is expensive, and race cars such as the drag and open-track models simply take everything you've got. Either way, you need to set up a budget. The budget isn't so much to keep track of the money as it is so you can see what parts you can reasonably figure on obtaining in a given time span.

Your budget doesn't require a G4 Mac and a spreadsheet. It can be written on a simple piece of notebook paper, but try to include every final detail as the small stuff adds up. The old racing method probably works as well as anything. That is, count every last cotter key you'll be using, add everything up, double it, add 10 percent of that, and you'll likely end up with half the actual cost. Expect sticker shock when confronting your budget.

Now figure in your income and sort out approximately what order to buy parts and how long your project should take. Don't be surprised to find there is simply no way to reasonably count on getting all the parts you want before you're old. It's often the case, and a good enough reason to scale back the project, find a second job, or become creative about bartering parts, selling an asset, or finding sponsors. The real point of all this is, at least give yourself a chance of finishing your project from a financial perspective. Otherwise you'll end up with a half-done car that is not much fun to drive and difficult to sell.

Buying a Used Mustang

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, doesn't have any body damage Maaco couldn't fix in two weeks, sports a dog-bite interior that doesn't rattle any louder than the stereo can play, and has four bald tires. Sorry, but it's too late for that one. We all get attached to our cars, sure, 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.

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 that part, then you might as well not pay for it and can 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 definitely saves cash. If you don't have the room, deal with the Mustang salvage specialists you see advertised in 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords.

Don't overlook sweat equity either. Many parts--especially plastic panels, covers, boxes, and so on--respond to simple cleaning. If you are bucks down, but have time, a bucket of detergent water, and some brushes, then 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 is buying the half-finished project from the guy who has lost interest, gone bust, or discovered girls. Evaluate what you are looking at carefully 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.

Order of Operations

Now we'll assume you've set a goal, counted your nickels, picked out 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 or something.

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 the FRPP 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.

All Finished

Believe it or not, someday your project will be finished. In a way, what you do with it is sort of a test of your original goal. Often what owners start out to build and what they end up with are different, mainly because the owners grew along the way. That's great, and part of the fun of car building. That said, what can you do with a finished 5.0 Mustang? A lot! Of course, there is street cruising, although with a really nice car you'll be tempted to organize your street driving somewhat. Perhaps you'll want to show the car in local events or attend organized cruises. In that case, comfort may become more important than you first thought.

Street/strip cars have a way of becoming more strip-oriented as time goes on. First they become a hot street car, then they get faster. At some point they are too temperamental, too noisy, too much hassle for much street driving, and they often move on to become a pure track car. If you can somehow keep license plates on it, then it's less of a hassle to get it to the track and back. If you are truly into quarter-miling, then choosing a Fun Ford, an NMCA, or an NMRA class and building according to those rules is a smart move.

We also hear from many chassis shops that after dragging for a while, many hot street/strip cars are transformed into open-track machines. This assumes a road-racing track is somewhere in the area with a "driving school" or car club putting on open-track events. In reality, such cars are split 50-50 between streetable and trailered cars, although if you can swing it, a pure open-track car is simply too cool.

Often these same chassis shops report customers returning to build a second car after selling the first. These owners have typically tried drags, slalom, open track, and the street. They end up wanting a car that does it all, and a 5.0 Mustang can easily be built into such a car--for a price. It requires a fair amount of chassis preparation, most often with a fully prepped suspension (think heavy-duty subframe connectors, torque arms, tubular K-members, Panhard bars, and such), along with big brakes and a nice, but hardly outlandish, engine. With simple wheel and tire changes, such machines easily handle Wednesday night test-and-tune at the strip, then hang in there all weekend at an open track, and still commute to work on nice days or go for a big cruise. Ultimate Mustangs, they are necessarily pricey to build, but once all together are real pride-and-joy machines.

Don't forget to prep yourself. A trip to a pro driving school such as Bondurant's or Frank Hawley's is a smart step, and ideally should be done before beginning a project car. That allows you to see how you like your intended automotive destination, and it educates on what you really need to achieve your goal.

Finally, Get Help!

In the end, most project cars require help of some kind. Moral support from a great gal who will stay in the garage and keep you company while you putter around is the ultimate. Remember to take her out to dinner! A good car friend, or your dad, or your son, is also a huge plus. Two guys working get so much more done than working alone, and finishing the project before it drags out is important. When summer comes you want to be driving, not sweating over crossed threads and returning wrong parts. The other help is knowledge. Much of what you are planning to do has been done before and written about. Read the magazines and buy the books, but remember to listen and read with an open mind. There is plenty of junk info out there, especially on the Internet, so make sure it at least makes common sense. And enjoy the journey. In the end, building the car is often more than half the fun.

Horse Sense: Project cars are like custom homes—build it like you want it, but the smart guy builds it so he can sell it. Too much purple metal-flake with wire wheels may turn you on, but you’ll own the car for life.