Huw Evans
November 1, 2008
'77-'79 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar
Price Range: $300-$3,500
Pros: Sturdy chassis, wide range of engine options, very affordable
Cons: Typical mid-'70s styling and quality control, low return on investment

Not an obvious choice for a project car perhaps, but the '77-'79 Thunderbird/Cougar shouldn't be dismissed. These cars sold in huge numbers, well over 300,000 units in case of the Thunderbird for each of the three model years and between 125,000 and 200,000 for the Cougar two-door. Given the rising popularity in '72-'76 Torinos (including prices), no doubt due to Starsky and Hutch mania, why not consider the late-'70s Thunderbird or Cougar as an alternative? It's built on the same frame, uses the same drivetrain--302, 351, and 400 engines and C4 and C6 automatics--plus you can just as easily install some big tires, dual exhaust, and perform an engine swap. High production numbers and low demand today means that these personal luxury coupes really do fall in the dirt cheap category and, dare we say it, are actually starting to look a bit cool.

'78-'83 Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr
Price Range: $500-$3,500
Pros: The first Fox car, lightweight, mechanical simplicity, the ultimate sleeper
Cons: Boxy styling, limp chassis

When it was introduced for 1978, few could imagine that this boxy, unassuming compact car would spawn a whole family of Ford products and help launch a new wave of hot-rodding. The first American Ford designed with extensive use of computer analysis, the Fairmont/Zephyr replaced the Maverick and Comet. The boxy, angular styling was more contemporary, giving much better visibility. Seating positioning was much improved as was ride and handling thanks to an all-coil suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. Extensive weight savings--aluminum bumpers, lightweight materials and plenty of swiss cheese holes under the hood and trunk areas--were designed to aid fuel economy, but since proved to be a big hit with speed merchants. Engine choices back in the day comprised the 2.3L four-cylinder, the old Falcon 200ci straight-six, or a 302 V-8 (replaced by a small-bore 255 in 1980). Conventional two-door and four-door sedans were offered, along with a five-door station wagon, but the most interesting of the lot was the Fairmont Futura coupe, with its unique basket-handle roof treatment similar to the contemporary Thunderbird. As the 5.0L Mustang craze took hold in the late '80s, those who wanted to go fast without the insurance bills looked to the Fairmont/Zephyr. Simple engineering and capacious engine bays along with great parts interchangeability are just some of the reasons for choosing one of these. You can go through the Fox Mustang catalogs, go to swap meets, and build yourself a real Ford flyer for minimal cash. Because Ford made thousands of these things, they're still relatively plentiful and super cheap to buy these days.

79-'91 Ford LTD/LTD Crown Victoria
Price Range: $100-$3,500
Pros: Last of the full-frame big Fords, extremely durable, very cheap to buy, good highway cruisers, surprising number of performance options
Cons: Four-doors only after 1987, little in the way of collector interest, trim parts nearly impossible to find

Not a likely choice perhaps, but they're worth a look if you want something different. These cars are the direct ancestors of today's Crown Victoria and Police Interceptor. The combination of full frame, fairly decent ride and handling (for a fullsize car), along with a roomy interior can make the '80s vintage big Ford quite appealing. Most of them came with 302 V-8s, though the two-barrel 351 was available through 1981 in civilian models and a 351 remained an exclusive for fleet use through the end of production. Fuelie 5.0L Mustang engine swaps are becoming increasingly popular in these cars, and if done right you can have quite the machine on your hands and a car that has a certain menacing aura. Tell us if you think one of these cars, with a heavy-duty suspension, tweaked fuel-injected 5.0L or built 351 V-8 with dual exhaust and police spec heavy-duty battery and alternator, plus doggie dish hubcaps and beefy tires, doesn't have a certain appeal. Most mechanical parts are very cheap and, with $3-plus for a gallon of gas right now, most of these cars are going for a song.