James Lawrence
May 5, 1999

Step By Step

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Buying a used car, be it a Taurus or Honda Accord, is hard enough without adding what we call the "5.0 problem" to the equation. The fact is, most males who happen to drive the 5.0, whether they are into performance or not, tend to be really hard on their cars. We shriek in glee as we read the following in the local paper: "'91 LX, Flowmasters, shifter, totally hauls ass, 80k, $5,000". A follow up call will inevitably return the following: The owner is 18, bought the car when he was 16, did a few mods, but is now going to college and selling the car. Of course, all the abuse heaped on the car from burnouts, powershifts, his buddies puking in the back seat, spilled drinks, smoked clutches and Lord knows what else is never mentioned.

If you've read the Mar. '99 editorial, you witnessed Editor Rob's total torching of the author when it comes to having an "unmolested daily driver." Sure, I have a problem. I can't leave a 5.0 stock. But is it really so bad? Well, in a word, yes. I have managed to turn every single 5.0 I have owned into a serious drag machine, removing street-worthiness drop by drop as I add in mega-horsepower additions like heads, cams, strokers, drag suspension, and the like. The next thing you know, I'm whining to my parents that I can't drive my car to work any more, and that I need another one.

My parents are fed up, but this last time, somehow, I was able to convince them of my plight. As Rob had mentioned, my previous "gonna be a driver" turned into a 600-plus horsepower, Paxton Novi-blown street racer. You know the routine: skinnies, fat whining fuel pump hanging low, et cetera. As George Bush would say, "Not gonna do it, wouldn't be prudent," for the daily driver. Next thing I know, I'm shopping for my eighth late-model Fox-body. Rob, the ever-astute editorial guy, told me to write a little ditty about what to look for and watch out for when searching for that little gem. Here is my story, and my advice.

Culling the Classifieds

The first step in finding the prettiest and most perfect Mustang is to look in the right places. These days there are three or four major sources of listings of Mustangs: your local paper; the local "recycler" type magazine; the internet; and also the nationwide Ford traders that are available in most areas. No matter where you find it, here are some tips for sorting out the hordes of Foxes. This endeavor will require nights and nights of phone calls in most every case.

1. Read the listing with a copy of Edmunds (or any brand) used car price guide so that you can price and compare. Depending on mileage, year of vehicle, and available options, prices can differ drastically, so be informed before you even go to look.

2. Watch year of vehicle more than mileage. There are tons of Mustangs that were driven to work and back for years without being used or abused, so don't discount high-mileage figures (between 70,000 and 100,000).

3. Generally, avoid minor performance mods. Owners with minor performance modifications usually tend be really hard on these steeds in the daily commute. This doesn't apply to every example, but it's a generalization.

4. Ask the following "hard questions." Who has been driving the car? Why are you selling it? Was the car parked inside or outside? Has the car had any major mechanical difficulties?

5. Look the owner in the eye first. It's hard to really get a good look at every detail of a car during one (or even several) visits. Often, it's up to the honesty of the owner in disclosing any problems, or weaknesses in the car. If you have a shifty seller, be wary.

6. Drive the car yourself. There is no substitute for taking the 'Stang for a drive. Make sure to have the radio off, and listen and look for major rattles or problems. Check all the windows, accessories, air conditioning, and heater for proper functioning. These fixes can be expensive. If you can, take a buddy and have him follow you as you drive the car to make sure it tracks straight.

Taking a Closer Look

This article is meant to offer some helpful hints, tips, and things to look for when you head out to add a Mustang to your stable. Nothing could be worse than picking up a lemon and forking out a lot more dough to repair the car you just bought. Knowledge is power, guys and gals. The more you know, the better off you are. Here are some tips that involve a little more than kicking the tires.

The Body Double

Starting on the outside, check all the seams and body panels to make sure the gaps are equal. Uneven gaps (body panels not lining up, doors, hatch, hood not shutting correctly, etc.) usually means the car has been hit hard. Perfect gaps usually mean that it hasn't been hit. This is not 100-percent true, but at least it's something to look for. Next, move on to the body and paint by looking down the side of the car for waves. Checking the door jams for mismatches. Look for rust spots and bubbles in the paint.

El Accidente?

No one wants a Mustang that has been in a major accident. A fender bender here or there is okay, but stay away from big-time smash-ups. How do you know the difference? First, ask the owner and evaluate if they are trying to hide something. If you want a surefire way to determine if any of the body panels have been repainted, look for missing or painted-over stickers in each of the door jambs and on each fender on the inside of the engine compartment. In addition, watch carefully for overspray on the underside of the car or inside the wheelwells.

Interior

Check the quality of the interior, look at the upholstery to see if it is at least maintained. Check to see if the problematic ash tray door is still intact. Also, check the seat mounts on the driver side to see if they were welded up, as that is a common fix for Mustangs that have been driven really hard. A dirty carpet is easy to replace, so don't get scared away by dirt or grease signs, but do pay attention to deep and dark stains on the dashboard, inside door covers, or seats. One of the biggest problems with Fox-bodies is rattles, so make sure you take the car over some uneven terrain to see just how bad it is. Remember, some rattles are normal.

Engine & Transmission

The first time you check a car out, start up the engine and listen to it. Does it run smoothly without hesitation, or does it sound a little raw. You should never actually purchase a vehicle without having a mechanic do a complete engine checkup and diagnostic, including a complete leakdown. This usually costs only about $35-$50, and often a AAA in your area can either perform the necessary tests or can recommend someone. Check the dipstick to see that it's got enough oil, for one thing, but also note the color. Light brown means it was probably just changed--a good sign. Dark, sludgy black means it's been in there a long time--a bad sign. If the car has an automatic, do the same with the trans fluid. If it smells burnt, the trans hasn't received much love. Also, take a look at the wiring and the overall cleanliness of the engine compartment. If the 5.0 powerplant has been kept in harsh conditions, the wiring could be frayed or damaged, possibility necessitating costly wiring and labor costs.

No Mechanic?

If a mechanic is not available, check around the motor for oil leaks, particularly around the valve covers, the oilpan, and the transmission oil pan. Also, if the car has performance mods on it currently, spend a second and check the throttle body to see if it has been drilled for nitrous. Another key element to see if the car was modified is whether or not the air silencer is there (see photo). Just because modifications have already been added doesn't necessarily mean it's a good running car. In fact, it could mean it has been raced all over the place and has hard miles on it. Make sure all accessories are in working order.

Powertrain/Suspension

Drive the car, run through all the gears checking the transmission and clutch for slippage. Check the brakes for mushy pedals, metal grinding, and pulling to one side. Romp on the brakes to see if there is any vibration in the pedal (which will tell you that the rotors are warped). Try taking a few turns to see if the car feels loose, and see if there are any pops or play in the steering wheel. Suspension should not be too bouncy. Bad struts and shocks usually have excessive bounce on rebound or none at all when they are blown out and compressed. While looking along the bottom of the car, check the tires for uneven wear and check the brake rotors for grooves.

Ultimately, you need to try to get as much info on the car as possible and get a feel for the seller. If the seller doesn't want to answer questions or is hesitating, it's something to think about. Unfortunately, in the used car game, there is little protection, other than your own savvy investigation, to prevent you from buying a serious problem car. And then, not only will you be spending the cash on the ride, but on countless fixes and repairs down the road.

Most importantly, shop around. Don't buy the first one you come across, and never ever make an offer for a car. What does this mean? If you have decided that you have found the perfect specimen of a beautiful, unabused 5.0, ask first for the lowest price the seller would be willing to take if you paid them cash, today--right now. Often a seller has had their car on the auction block for a few months, and even if they haven't, at least they know you are serious and will probably negotiate further.

Anyway, don't just decide too quickly on a purchase and get impulsive. Due to the high quantity of '79-to-'93 5.0s in the classifieds and papers, there is always a large selection at drastically different prices. By looking at a minimum of five cars, you also get a feel for other 'Stangs and determine what the value of these cars are in your particular market. Remember that a clean GT in Los Angeles may be valued very different in Lowe's Bay, Alabama. And finally, follow your instincts--if the buy seems right, and the seller seems honest, come to a good, solid middle-point on the price. Grab the keys, kick over the big V-8, and a do a burnout out of the parking lot waving your copy of 5.0 Mustang magazine.