Mark Houlahan
Tech Editor, Mustang Monthly
June 1, 2004

So you want to find a vintage Mustang and restore it? Don't we all. There's more than one way to restore a Mustang, and people have different definitions of "restored." To some, restoring a Mustang is a quick paint job and some new carpet and weatherstrips (we've all seen them advertised in the local paper). At the other extreme is the person who restores a Mustang down to every last nut, bolt, and trim piece with expensive and hard-to-find N.O.S. parts. These cars are beautiful, and the owner should get credit for diligence, but for the most part these restorations are financially out of reach for typical vintage-Mustang owners.

For a large percentage of our readership, a completely restored Mustang doesn't have to be just a dream. We don't have to look any further than former Mustang Monthly Technical Editor Mark Houlahan's recently completed '66 hardtop. Mark's restoration project began in 1999, with a goal of completing it in time for the Mustang's 40th Anniversary bash in Nashville. A number of informative how-to articles resulted from Mark's work, as you can see in the accompanying sidebar. The project's time frame could have been tightened up, but in the editorial world, we sometimes have to wait for the right moment to do things. Conversely, we've seen restorations take twice as long. The story in Mark's own words follows.

You don't need a reason to want to restore a Mustang (besides liking the cars and wanting one), but having a great story to tell is almost as much fun as restoring the car. In the case of my '66 hardtop, it all began over a lunch with Mustang Monthly's previous editor, Jeff Ford. We were talking about vintage Mustangs, and the conversation inevitably progressed to "the one that got away." For me, that was the '66 hardtop I owned through high school and college.

As the saying goes, "You've come a long way, baby!" The '66 hardtop we've restored started out pretty rough, but the end result speaks volumes.

It also happened to be my first car, and the one I had when I dated my wife. It was a fun car, but for a budding Mustang enthusiast, there were some weird things about it. For one, it had a blank paint code. And it was built in San Jose but DSO'd clear across the country to New York. When I replaced the dashpad, I found the original paint underneath, a shimmering gold metallic (the current topcoat looked more like a flat butterscotch color). I couldn't find any solid information on these oddities until I began working for Mustang Monthly in 1992. By then, the car had been out of my possession for three years, having given its life in an auto accident (not my fault). As it turned out, my old Mustang was probably one of Ford's rare Anniversary Gold hardtops, built to commemorate the one-million-sales success in 1966.

I told Jeff I badly wanted that car back. He replied, "So why not just build one?" I hadn't thought about it, but people build Shelby, Boss, and GT clones all the time, so why couldn't I? I mean, as long as I wasn't going to pass it off as the real thing, right?

I had come up with a reason for restoring a Mustang, but now I had to find one, and so will you. I started the search with my local Mustang club and, honestly, had to go no further. As always, your Mustang buy depends on what you're willing to spend and what you want to start with. A club member, John Lindsey, had a stagnant project hardtop he sold to me for $300. It wasn't much, and it needed everything you can imagine, but since I was going to build this car my way, it didn't really matter.

Not pretty. This is how the six-cylinder in the hardtop looked when we started.

A nice thing about the '65-'68 models is that if you have a unibody, you can almost build a new car with just a catalog and a fat checkbook. My '66 was a New Jersey car that needed substantial sheetmetal repairs, plus a bunch of work to convert all the "wrong" things to the original design of my old Mustang. This is where knowing your limits and abilities plays a crucial role. Because I had been a dealer technician, I knew I could work on the '66's suspension, steering, electrical, and interior projects, and even swap out the original six-cylinder for a 289 V-8; but I'm not a bodyman so I knew the metal repairs and paintwork would have to be farmed out. The more labor you can do yourself, the more money you'll save; but sometimes it's nice to write a check for the difficult stuff, such as a transmission rebuild.

With the Mustang in my possession, I began to search for a shop. Working with a restoration shop can be the best or the worst experience of the whole project, depending upon your homework and expectations. I ultimately decided to work with a local shop, Classic Creations of Central Florida. Having it done locally was a strong plus for me. I didn't want to ship my car three states away and hope for the best, but that's just me. Merv and Pat Rego, owners of Classic Creations, are also Mustang enthusiasts to the core, having owned vintage cars (including a '67 GT350) and late-models. While their shop has branched out into other models, they began with Mustangs, so they know all of the idiosyncrasies and how to deal with them. Finally, I had seen their work up close at Mustang shows and knew my car would be in good hands.

Once the hardtop had been taken apart and the existing parts cataloged, the unibody was trailered to the Classic Creations shop, where the body was inspected and a lengthy list of needed repairs made. Our rusty New Jersey hardtop would require some major metalwork, but the ensuing editorial created by the repairs was popular. Classic Creations performed all of the metal repairs, including butt-welding new floors, new quarters, adding torque boxes (hardtops didn't get them originally, but we felt it was a solid upgrade for chassis strength), and repairing the typical Mustang cowl leaks before block-sanding the car and shooting the new Anniversary Gold topcoat. The rest of the car's subsections--suspension, brakes, interior, and drivetrain--I would complete myself, although I did call Classic Creations from time to time for advice.