Classic Fords For Cheap - Cheap Wheel$
Finding Your Next Ford Project for $3,500 or Less
From the November, 2008 issue of Modified Mustangs & Fords
By Huw Evans
Photography by Huw Evans
'62-'65 Mercury Comet Price...
'62-'65 Mercury Comet
Price Range: $2,000-$3,500
Pros: Classic '60s styling, healthynumber of performance upgrades
Cons: Small engine bays, some trim parts hard to find, not everybody's cup of tea
Given the rise in collector car prices over the years, you might think the chances of finding a decent, solid Ford vehicle as the basis for your next project for less than four grand are pretty remote. It's true there are a good number of people asking crazy money for rotted classic Mustangs and even Fairlanes, but if you dig a little further and widen your horizons, you might be surprised at some of the vehicles you can actually buy for $3,500 or less, in many cases in reasonable condition, quite often running and in some cases even certified for road use. Since the staff at Modified Mustangs & Fords never sleeps, we've decided to find a selection of Ford products, both classic ('62-'73) and newer, that you really can buy for pocket change--project cars that, given the right amount of performance and styling upgrades, can be transformed into a really nice set of wheels that is both rewarding to own and fun to drive. We've also included a general price range based on what we found for sale at the time of writing. Not everybody will agree with our choices, but as far as classic/performance car ownership goes, you can do far worse than pick up one of the following (like buying a brand-new beige Toyota Camry, for example).
Starting off our list, the '62-'65 Mercury Comet is an unsung hero if ever there was one, having resided in the Falcon's shadow. Even today, these cars are still often overlooked by many Ford enthusiasts. As a result, it's still possible to pick a solid one up as the basis for your next project for around three grand or so ('65 Comet Cyclone not withstanding). Granted, the engine bays weren't that big, but these cars have tremendous potential. How about a high-output 289 or fuel-injected 302, and installing a five-speed manual overdrive gearbox? What about a disc brake conversion, handling suspension, or just simply a mild custom cruiser? There are a ton of options available with these cars and a surprising number of parts available through the aftermarket, from steering and suspension rebuild or upgrade kits, to gas tanks, exhaust, brakes, and of course, with the increasing popularity of crate engines, carb or fuel-injected powerplants. In essence, building one of these is increasingly becoming a no-brainer.
'66-'69 Ford Falcon Price...
'66-'69 Ford Falcon
Price Range: $1,800-$3,500
Pros: Usually much cheaper than '60-'65 cars, good range of performance upgrades
Cons: No convertible or hardtop option, also-ran status
If there was ever the case for an underrated '60s Ford, the '66-'69 Falcon is it. With Mustang having grabbed the spotlight for 1966, the Falcon returned to its role as largely basic transportation. No more sporty convertibles or coupes were offered, leaving just two- and four-door pillared sedans and a station wagon. Because these cars have never received the attention their predecessors did, today they're a lot more affordable and can still be found for under $3,500 if you know where to look. Although they might not have been as sporty, much of what applies mechanically to the older Falcons applies to these. You can very easily install a hot 302 or 351 V-8, upgrade the suspension for street, drag, or even the road course, and turn one into a cool and pretty fast car. If you're looking for inspiration, try across the Pacific as the Australian versions of these cars, particularly '67-'72 Falcon GTs, became some of the most sought after performance cars down under.
65-'70 Ford Galaxie Price...
65-'70 Ford Galaxie
Price Range: $2,000-$3,500
Pros: A lot of car for the money, smooth riding, cavernous engine bays, surprising performance potential
Cons: Less sporting than their predecessors, big-block cars are very thirsty. The styling isn't for everybody
We've decided to group these cars together, as save for annual styling updates and the arrival of new engines in 1970, mechanical changes were few during these four seasons. In Galaxie circles the '62-'64 cars tend to hog the limelight, which is why the '65-'70 cars, with less of a performance pedigree can be bought for a much lower price. The '65-'67 big Fords were characterized by stacked headlights and big, angular taillight lenses housed at the end of long, sweeping rear quarter-panels. Of most collector interest are the '65-'66 cars powered by 427s and the '66-'67 7-Litre Galaxie hardtops and convertibles. However, the 427 cars are highly desirable and even the 7-Litres have now climbed out of our price bracket, but running Galaxie 500 hardtops or even standard XLs can still be found nudging our $3,500 ceiling. And what is there to stop you from building a 427/four-speed replica, replete with dual quads, teardrop fiberglass hood, Cragar mag wheels, and dual exhaust? The '69 Galaxie XL fastback coupe and, to a lesser extent, the convertible represent the last of the true fullsize Ford muscle machines and have a minor following as a result. Compared to later fullsize Fords, these cars (particularly the '66-'67s) have better performance and restoration support, but in relation to Mustangs they're still small. The '65-'66s are usually the most popular and it's always a case of buy the best and most complete one you can as replacement body panels and trim (both outside and in) are still scarce.
'71-'72 Ford Galaxie/LTD ...
'71-'72 Ford Galaxie/LTD
Price Range: $500-$3,500
Pros: Surprisingly agile for such a big car, smooth and comfortable, sturdy mechanicals, often very cheap to buy
Cons: Fewer performance options than earlier big Fords, passes everything but a gas station, a lot of replacement parts very difficult to find
All-new sheetmetal marked the big Fords for 1971 but the design, although successful at the time, would prove short-lived. Probably the only cars of any real interest here would be the Galaxie 500 two-door hardtops and the LTD coupe/convertible, which would become the last big Ford ragtop when it bowed out after 1972. Although the biggest Fords seen at the time, they weren't particularly heavy for such large cars and sold in decent numbers. However, they were prone to rusting, part of the reason you don't see a great many of them today. Still, in view of current gas prices, the survivors are usually fairly cheap and that even goes for the convertibles. Available with 351 Cleveland and 385-series 429 V-8s, they're also an affordable way to get into classic V-8 Ford power, if your budget doesn't stretch to a Mustang or Torino. Good, running hardtops can still be found for well within our listed budget and for that reason we've decided to include these cars. Engine and driveline parts are relatively plentiful and mods such as updated suspension, aftermarket intake, carb, dual exhaust, electronic ignition, shift improvement kit, and dual exhaust, along with updated rims 'n' rubber, can make one of these behemoths surprisingly fun. You'll have a tough time searching for interior and exterior trim, though, so buy the most complete car you can.
'70-'77 Ford Maverick/Mercury...
'70-'77 Ford Maverick/Mercury Comet
Price Range: $2,000-$3,500
Pros: Light weight, good performance potential, surprisingly fun to drive
Cons: Rust prone, low survival rate, Grabbers and GTs getting expensive
Anew spin on an existing formula was the Maverick, introduced in 1969 as an early '70 model. Mating existing Falcon running gear and inner structure with a more modern two-door sedan body, it was designed to take on Japanese imports, then starting to arrive in North America in growing numbers. Standard power initially came via the bullet-proof 170-cid straight-six, with the bigger 200- and 250-cube units as options. A performance-oriented Grabber package with bright paint and a graphics package was announced in 1970. For the '71 model year, the car's appeal was further bolstered by the arrival of a 302 V-8 engine, a four-door sedan, and a Mercury counterpart that took the Comet name, which also spawned a sporty GT. These cars, particularly the Maverick, sold very well during their early years, with over 579,000 sold during the car's extra-long debut season. Sales still remained very strong--around the 300,000 mark through 1974, after which demand began to tail off. Although the Maverick and the Comet fell under the enthusiast radar for many years, they are starting to gain popularity, especially considering that the survival rate for a once-popular car is relatively low. Lightweight (around 2,700 pounds) for two-doors, they make excellent candidates for bigger V-8 engine swaps, since a 302/351 will drop in with relatively few issues. As a result, these cars have been popular with drag racers, but even if racing isn't your thing, a modified Maverick or Comet can make for a great cruiser and a trip down memory lane. Although the Grabbers and GTs have now became the prized examples of the breed and mostly beyond our price ceiling, the base two-doors (heck, even four-doors if you want to stand out) are still relatively affordable.
'77 Mercury Cougar Price...
'77 Mercury Cougar
Price Range: $2,400-$3,500
Pros: Last of the true ponycar models, the cheapest way into classic Cougar ownership, decent performance available from 302 and 351 V-8s
Cons: Prices are rising, exterior and interior replacement parts often difficult to find
Admittedly, this is perhaps pushing the limits of our pricing ceiling a bit, but concentrating strictly on the base coupes and ignoring the XR7s and convertibles, it's still possible to find a solid Cougar project that slots in just under our price cutoff, especially on the West Coast and in the South, where demand for these cars appears to be less. For some reason, our findings reveal that the '77s seem to be the cheapest of this generation of Mercury Cats. Although parts are harder to find compared to contemporary Mustangs, a little creativity can result in a very nice and somewhat luxurious car. How about a modern restomod with a fuel-injected Windsor or 302, an AOD, all disc-brake conversion, and firmed up suspension with polyurethane bushings--or a period '70s-style street machine with raised rear suspension, tweaked Windsor or Cleveland Motor, a C4 with a shift improvement kit, plus some Ansen slot mags and Cherry Bombs?
'77-'79 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury...
'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...
'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...
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.
80-'82 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury...
80-'82 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar
Price Range: $100-$2,500
Pros: Quite possibly the cheapest car on our list; Fox chassis means many Mustang parts will fit, sleeper
Cons: Baroque styling hasn't aged well, not that many left, body, trim and interior replacement parts virtually non-existent
You probably think that we have lost our minds by including these blocky, ornate cars in our guide. The Thunderbird and Cougar of this vintage were the third iteration of the Fox platform, after the Fairmont/Zephyr and Mustang/Capri. Yes, the styling is an acquired taste, especially the 'Bird, but these cars are super cheap--$1,000 and under in many cases. They are Fox cars, so if you've been playing around with Mustangs, Fairmonts, and the like, you can have a bit of fun with one of these. A fuelie 302 and an AOD or T-5 trans swap? No problem. Upgraded springs and shocks, thick sway bars, you've got it. One of these cars shows up to our local cruise night. It has a 331 fuel-injected stroker under the hood, a built AOD and 8.8-inch rear, and a 150 shot of giggle gas. It rides on cast-off Mustang 15-inch wheels. The term sleeper doesn't get any better than this.
'83-'88 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury...
'83-'88 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar
Price Range: $1,800-$3,500
Pros: Slick styling still looks good today, very affordable, great performance potential from turbo-fours and V-8s
Cons: Problematic factory turbochargers, no handbrake for stick shift cars
Compared to its predecessor, the '83 Thunderbird/Cougar was a dramatic change. Sleek aero styling allowed it to slip through the wind. The introduction of the turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine in the Turbo Coupe and Cougar XR7, along with a five-speed manual gearbox, marked a complete change of character for personal luxury American cars. The Cougar was slightly more ornate with its vertical back window and different quarter light treatment, but both cars were extremely road worthy by the standards of the day and also well built with very comfortable and user-friendly interiors. The '87s got slicker, even more Euro-inspired styling, four-wheel disc brakes, and a 190hp turbo-four on the 'Bird TC, while the Cougar XR7 got a 200hp 5.0L V-8 engine and a cool monochromatic exterior for '88. Great parts interchangeability between different versions and even other Fox platform cars (read Mustang) means that you can build a really nice cruiser for not a ton of dough. Good, solid Cougars and T-birds of this vintage can be found for as little as $1,500, though an original Turbo Coupe or Cougar XR7 will usually go for a bit more. A good buy, if you ask us.
'83-'86 Ford LTD/Mercury Marquis...
'83-'86 Ford LTD/Mercury Marquis
Price Range: $1,000-$3,500
Pros: A four-door 5.0L Mustang, still very affordable, decent build quality
Cons: Few sheetmetal, trim, and interior parts available, getting rarer by the day
An unlikely Modified Mustangs & Fords project vehicle perhaps, but the '83-'86 LTDs and Marquis have a lot going for them. Decently built and equipped, they were better than most American family cars of the time and sold like hotcakes when new. They're also Fox platform cars, which means that most hardware designed for the Mustang will fit, especially suspension and driveline, but with four doors you can have seating for your family and friends. The '83s and '84-'85 LTD LX/Marquis LTS and police package vehicles came with 302 V-8s, so that should tell you something. Throw in a built short-block with a little giggle gas, some good lower control arms and tires, and you can have a high 12-/low 13-second car for very little money. Good, regular LTDs/Marquises can be found for as little as $1,200, even in mint condition, though surviving LXs are worth a little bit more.
84-'92 Lincoln Mk VII LSC...
84-'92 Lincoln Mk VII LSC
Price Range: $800-$3,500
Pros: A true Hot-Rod Lincoln, strong acceleration, Mustang mechanicals
Cons: Air suspension can be problematic, early cars a bit on the slow side
After pedaling a succession of outsized two-door luxury liners, Lincoln took a different approach for its new-for-'84 Mk VII. Although some style elements paid homage to the past, this was a slippery aero coupe and, in fact, the first U.S. car to use flush-mounted headlights. It was initially offered in base, ritzy Versace, Bill Blass, and LSC versions. The latter was the more performance-oriented version, with beefy Goodyear Eagle GT radials mounted on cast-aluminum wheels. A sophisticated air suspension system and standard four-channel antilock brakes (another first on domestic cars) delivered a supple ride yet allowed the car to corner at limits previously unheard of for a Lincoln. Although the LSC was initially powered by the same 165hp throttle-body-injected 302 V-8 as other models, for 1986 and again in 1987, it got a shot in the arm, first with the Mustang's 200hp sequential 5.0L V-8 and then the stronger 225hp version along with bigger wheels and tires. In post '87-'92 trim the car was a serious performer, with 0-60-mph times in under eight seconds out of the box. Because it shares much of its driveline and architecture with the contemporary Fox Mustang, from engine parts to replacement coil spring kits, transmissions and rearend upgrades can easily be found. Today the Mk VII truly represents tremendous bang for the buck and $3,500 should net you a rather decent example.
85-'88 Merkur XR4Ti Price...
85-'88 Merkur XR4Ti
Price Range: $500-$3,500
Pros: A true Euro Ford, fun to drive, lots of performance potential, beat the imports at their own game
Cons: Turbo engines often need attention, good examples getting hard to find
A captive import and often considered the brainchild of then Ford of Europe VP Bob Lutz, this was in essence an Americanized version of the '83-'84 Ford Sierra XR4i. The Sierra was a mainstream European family car that debuted in 1982, replacing the long-running Cortina/Taunus. The XR4i was the original sporting three-door version, powered by a 2.8L V-6 engine. For 1985, the decision was taken to import a modified version of this car to North America under the Merkur brand as the XR4Ti, where it would be sold in Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, effectively replacing the LN7. The main differences between the Merkur and its European counterpart centered around the bumpers, lights, and driveline. The XR4Ti was powered by a version of the 2.3L "Lima" four-turbo engine then found in the Thunderbird Turbo Coupes and Cougar XR7s. With a five-speed manual gearbox, the little four-banger was rated at 175 hp and 145 with a three-speed automatic. Peppy acceleration, combined with a rigid unibody, rear drive, and fully independent suspension, made the XR4Ti an exceedingly fun to pilot little car and an excellent platform for road racing and rallying. It lasted until 1989, when Ford pulled the plug on the Merkur brand. Today, these cars have a cult following and a number of specialists exist in North America, including BAT (British American Transfer), North American Cosworth Specialists, and Rapido Group. Parts interchangeability with the Sierra (including the fearsome Cosworths) and a surprising number of performance upgrades means you can build one of these into a true street/track terror. Our scan of the classifieds revealed that good ones can be had for well within our $3,500 ceiling. For more info on these cars, contact the Merkur Club of America (merkurclub.com).
'89-'97 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury...
'89-'97 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar
Price Range: $1,800-$3,500
Pros: Solid, roomy, well-equipped cars, supercharged models quite fast
Cons: Not a huge range of performance parts available, 3.8 engines can be fragile
The last car we've chosen for our Ford list is the MN12 Thunderbird/Cougar--in production from 1989 to 1997. Crowned Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for its debut season, it rode on a longer wheelbase than its predecessor and boasted all-independent suspension, which helped deliver an excellent ride and good handling for a car of its size. Most interesting of this breed are the '89-'95 Super Coupes, with their selective ride control, 3.8L supercharged V-6, and five-speed manual gearbox. When shopping for one of these, be careful as quite a few are for sale that need engine work--the V-6 was prone to blowing head gaskets and suffered from overheating problems. However, that makes them dirt cheap to buy--$1,500-$2,000 for a solid example--and once running, you get a lot of car for the money. The Cougar, like its '83-'88 predecessor, boasted more formal styling, with a near vertical back window. The XR7s shared the Super Coupe's driveline for '89-'90, but then switched to a 200hp 5.0L V-8 and four-speed automatic for '91, shared with that year's new Thunderbird LX. For 1994, the LX and Cougar XR7 got the 4.6L modular V-8, which lasted through the end of production. These cars, particularly the Super Coupes and XR7s, are starting to gain popularity again and make for great cruising and long-distance cars. More aftermarket parts are appearing for them, particularly engine and driveline mods, and if you ask us, now is the time to get one as prices look set to rise in the not too distant future.
'64-'66 Ford Mustang Hardtop...
'64-'66 Ford Mustang Hardtop
Price Range: $2,500-$3,500
Pros: The ultimate '60s American automotive icon, tons of reproduction and performance parts available
Cons: Everybody has one, not as affordable as they used to be
Admittedly, finding a decent early Mustang that fits within our budget is getting a little tougher these days. Considering that over a million of these cars were built between April 1964 and September 1966, with almost 500,000 hardtops built in 1966 alone, there are still a lot of them out there. However, according to our findings, the best bargains seem to be on the West Coast, where quite a few of these cars are still in regular, daily driven use. We're talking about cars equipped with the 200ci straight-six or two-barrel V-8 that will need work to bring them up to snuff, whether it be mechanical, interior, or exterior (most often all three). Still, if you want to get into a classic Mustang, the '64-'66 hardtops are among the most affordable. If you're not too concerned about finding a running car, then examples can be had for much cheaper, as little as $700-800. Quite a few of the project cars have been featured in the old Mustang & Fords issues. Some of our Young Owners club members started out with cars that cost as little as $800, but at that price expect to find a Mustang that needs sheetmetal, interior restoration, and an engine transplant or rebuild. Today, more than ever, it is possible to build and customize your early Mustang any way you want.
'67-'68 Mustang Hardtop Price...
'67-'68 Mustang Hardtop
Price Range: $2,800-$3,500
Pros: Considered the ultimate Mustang by many, bigger engine bays allow for more performance options, tons of repro parts available
Cons: Strong demand is pushing up prices
Compared to their predecessors, the '67-'68 cars looked more muscular and slightly more integrated. They were launched at a time when the muscle and ponycar wars were just starting to hit their stride. The '67-'68 Mustangs have long been considered to be a high point among the enthusiast communities, which is part of the reason that they generally command the highest prices. For our guide, you can't really even consider a fastback or convertible--even rough examples tend to go for $6,000-plus. For $3,500, your choices are likely to revolve around base, garden-variety hardtops, since any special editions such as the High Country or California Specials are going to command more. You might be able to find a running car for just over three-grand, most likely a six-cylinder, but it will likely need extensive renovation. We've found non-running cars for as little as $800, but factor in the cost of getting the Mustang up and running again. As it is with the early '64-'66 cars, the best bargains still seem to be out on the Left Coast, particularly in Central and Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State, where we've spotted quite a few examples still being driven on a regular basis that are still largely rot free. Eastern and Northern cars tend to be priced higher as supply is more limited, especially for original rust-free examples. However, the higher price of entry for a '67-'68 Mustang hardtop project car, compared to a number of other entries on our list, is offset by generous aftermarket support.
'69-'70 Mustang Hardtop/Convertible...
'69-'70 Mustang Hardtop/Convertible
Price Range: $2,000-$3,500
Pros: Aggressive styling turns heads, lots of performance options available, and healthy aftermarket support
Cons: Not as popular as the fastback, getting harder to find solid project cars
By 1969, the Mustang's popularity was starting to wane. But with 302,971 built that year (more than 200,000 were hardtops), it was still a popular car. As is the case with the '67-'68 models, the fastback is by far the preferred body style--good luck finding one for under $5,000 in our current climate. Convertibles in the '69-'70 era are not as desirable as the earlier cars and it is still possible to find rough examples for sale within our price range, though in most cases these cars will be non-running. The hardtops are cheaper still, but as a general rule of thumb you'll be looking at between $1,500 and $3,500 for something that is more than just a parts car. Nicely restified '69-'70 coupes and convertibles can draw a fistful of attention, even among the classic Mustang crowd. The best bargains, again, tend to be out on the West Coast, where salt and extensive humidity hasn't rusted them to oblivion, so if you're serious and budget conscious, Central California or Oregon is a very good place to start.
'71-'73 Mustang Hardtop/SportsRoof...
'71-'73 Mustang Hardtop/SportsRoof
Price Range: $1,800-$3,500
Pros: Cheapest of the classic-era Mustangs, flamboyant styling, and great road presence
Cons: Not as many repro parts available, love it or hate it styling, size
There are quite a few people who claim that the Mustang died after 1970. Even now, 35 years since the last one rolled off the line, the big '71-'73 cars tend to evoke love it or loathe it emotions. However, no matter what the opinions, one has to remember that these "Clydesdales," as they're often dubbed, were very much conceived in the late '60s and were a product of their respective era. Yours truly is actually a big fan of these cars (maybe watching the original Gone in 60 Seconds as a kid had something to do with that) and likes the exaggerated styling and sheer presence of them. Because they are quite controversial, even in the Mustang enthusiast community, you don't tend to see nearly as many of them at shows and events as you do the older cars. As a result, demand for them is also less, which means it is possible to get more car for your money than with the '64-'70 models. For $3,500, you'll be able to get yourself into a hardtop, possibly even a regular SportsRoof, but convertibles and Mach 1s will be largely out of reach. Less demand also means fewer options from the aftermarket, meaning you'll have to rely more on swap meets and specialists to get the parts you need, though things are improving. Compared to the earlier Mustangs, the '71-'73 cars, despite their size and outward visibility issues, rode better and in many respects were more tractable. Due to their weight--these cars are around 300-400 pounds heavier than their immediate predecessors--examples equipped with the 250ci, 145hp straight-six are a bit glacial in their acceleration, so a V-8 is preferable. Another good aspect with '71-'73 Mustangs concerns the size of the engine bays, which allow you to squeeze in just about any V-8 you can imagine, including the 429/460. If you're looking at building a Pro-Street-style machine or drag car, a '71-'73 coupe can make a lot of sense. The big Mustangs also make for a great cruiser/bruiser--big-inch power and that long hood can offer a driving sensation like few other cars.
'74-'78 Mustang II Price...
'74-'78 Mustang II
Price Range: $600-$3,500
Pros: A car to consider in times of high gas prices, surprisingly well built, good road manners
Cons: Period styling too much for some, non-V-8s offer little in the way of performance, not much aftermarket support
From one extreme to the other, Lee Iacocca's "Little Jewel" was perfectly timed when it arrived on the scene for 1974, just in time for the first energy crisis. Not surprisingly, it sold like hotcakes with over 385,000 sold in the car's debut season. The '74 models were the first to come without a V-8 and although performance from both the 2.3L four and 2.8L V-6 was lethargic, the car's diminutive size (its wheelbase was just 96.2 inches, versus 109.0 on the '71-'73s) made it much easier to wield, especially on city streets. Rack-and-pinion steering, a well-engineered front suspension, and much improved workmanship compared with the older Mustangs were also pluses. Two body styles were offered: a formal roof notchback coupe and a fastback with a lift-up rear window. A V-8 engine (the 302) returned for 1975 and performance options began to appear for 1976, including the Cobra II package for fastbacks, a four-speed gearbox for the V-8, plus T-roofs later on and ultimately the 1978 King Cobra. Although popular when new, the Mustang II hasn't aged particularly well and was and still is shunned by many (though street rodders cannibalized many in order to get their hands on the desirable front suspension). As a result, prices tend to reflect this, which means that most of these cars can still be had for little more than pocket change. The most desirable are the fastbacks, and although the limited production King Cobras and to a certain extent the Cobra IIs are out of our price range (at least running, driveable ones), you can still pick up a decent, solid V-8 fastback for $3,500 or less. The coupes tend to be cheaper, as are the four- and six-cylinder cars. Although asking prices may be good, parts supply is another matter. Very few companies offer specific parts for Mustang IIs, so you'll need to be patient and dedicated if you buy one that needs a bit of work. The good aspect is just about anything can be done to the 302 V-8, and the four-speed gearboxes and the rest of the driveline is pretty tough.
'79-'86 Mustang Price Range:...
Price Range: $800-$3,500
Pros: Great styling, loyal following, tons of speed parts, great bang for the buck
Cons: Flimsy chassis, many original 5.0L cars wrecked or parted out
When it debuted in the fall of 1978, the Fox Mustang was a dramatic departure from everything that had come. Its sleek, European-inspired looks were right on track for the late-'70s, and although larger in every dimension than the II, the new car actually weighed less. Notchback and hatchback body styles were initially offered and engines were carried over from the Mustang II. An all-coil suspension gave improved handling. The 302 V-8 was dropped for '80-'81, replaced by an anemic small-bore 255 with 118 hp and teamed with the C4 automatic. Performance began making a comeback in 1982 with a reborn high-output 302 dubbed the 5.0L and from there, things only got better. A convertible also returned for 1983 when the car was given a mild facelift, the first Mustang ragtop in 10 years. Most desirable of this breed are the '79 Pace Car Replica, '82-'86 Mustang GTs, the 20th anniversary '84 GT350, and the '84-'86 turbocharged SVO. Today, most of these cars are still extremely affordable, though some of the early cars, particularly '79-'82 models, are getting rather scarce. For $3,500 you'll be able to buy a mint condition four- or six-cylinder base car (coupe or hatchback) or a tired 5.0L that needs a bit of TLC. Most of the 5.0L cars in this price range will have been flogged within an inch of their lives, so check the body structure for stress cracks (floors, A- and C-pillars) and rust, particularly below the cowl and around the front shock towers. The turbocharged four-cylinder cars are a bit of an acquired taste and the early '79-'80 models were particularly problematic. The '83-'84 fuel-injected versions were more reliable and can be built into quite potent machines, though it often requires a bit of creativity. The SVOs are sterling performers in their own right, and although starting to appreciate in value (you can still find them for around $3,000 or so in need of restoration), specific parts for these cars are still very tough to find. Aftermarket support for the others, particularly the '85-'86 cars, is much better.
'87-'93 Mustang Price Range:...
Price Range: $1,000-$3,500
Pros: The ultimate in cheap speed, lots to choose from, huge following, great aftermarket support, neo-iconic status
Cons: Flimsy chassis, lots of rough examples out there
This was the car that really signified the second coming of the muscle car era. With 225 hp on tap, the '87 5.0L LX or GT Mustang was a rocket and, at just over $12,000 new, was the best bang for the buck on the market. Enthusiasts also discovered that the engine responded extremely well to speed parts and it wasn't long before these cars were running as fast, if not faster than their hallowed '60s predecessors. However, this popularity and performance meant that a lot of these cars were used up, crashed, poorly modified, or simply beaten into the ground. There are plenty of them out there, but most are in rough shape. Still, a used LX or GT 5.0L remains the cheapest way to get into a real performance car, and these things are reliable, easy to work on, and boast one of the largest performance aftermarket industries dedicated to a single car. For $3,500 you'll be able to get yourself a running, driving 5.0L, but it will likely boast high miles and be in need of cosmetic enhancement. Make sure you check the body for stress cracks and rust, as the lightweight unibody isn't the strongest out there and in dire need of extra stiffening if it hasn't already been done. Another option is to pick up a base four-cylinder LX (no V-6s were offered between '87 and '93), since these low-po cars seldom, if ever, suffer from body flex and you can find mint ones for well within our budget. There are a growing number of people who are taking these four-cylinder bodies and installing 5.0L drivetrains and suspension in them, turning them into their own personalized hot rods. In some respects, it can actually work out cheaper to buy a solid four-cylinder car and a wrecked 5.0L parts car and transfer everything over than buying a tired and running 5.0L in the first place. One of the great aspects about Fox Mustangs is their parts interchangeability, so you can pretty much do anything with them--like make an '87 LX into a '93 GT or retro-fit older '79-'86 parts onto an '87-'93 car and vice versa.
'94-'95 Mustang Price Range:...
Price Range: $2,000-$3,500
Pros: Improved handling and ergonomics over early Fox cars, getting very affordable now
Cons: Heavier weight affects performance, 3.8 engines prone to head gasket failures, 5.0L cars require some specific parts
On the cusp or qualifying for our price guide, particularly the base 3.8L V-6-equipped models, these cars are in many respects an improvement over the original Foxes in terms of their suspension, chassis stiffness, and brakes (all disc, versus front disc/rear drum on all but the Fox SVO and Cobra). However, they also have their share of nuances. The 3.8L engines in these cars feature aluminum heads and are prone to blowing head gaskets. There are also fewer specific parts available for them than the Fox cars, though in terms of driveline swaps it is still relatively easy to take a base Mustang and install a V-8 driveline. The '94-'95 GTs featured 5.0L engines, but with less torque and more weight making them less quick than the Fox cars. They also suffer from parts issues and can be a bit tricky to work on--requiring specific parts (particularly for the engine and driveline) such as unique exhaust and intakes, and often suffer from electrical gremlins. You can now find well-used '94-'95 Mustangs (including GTs) for just under our price ceiling. As time marches on, they look to become cheaper as these cars are still depreciating in value.
Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is
Sure it's easy to say go forth and find your next project car running and ready to take home for $3,500 or less when we're creating this story. But to show you it can be done technical editor Wayne Cook and his brother Miles set out to find an interesting project that we could use in Modified Mustangs & Fords. With the $3,500 limit in force they certainly weren't going to find any '67 Mustang fastbacks (not that we need another Mustang project around here) but what they did find is the '67 Fairlane bodied Ranchero on this month's cover. Yup, this is a real deal here, $3,500 and Wayne and Miles were driving it home. Small-block powered with only a few minor issues, even the paint was in presentable condition. All the Cooks did was upgrade the rolling stock when they got the Ranchero home. So don't feel discouraged, you can find a nice ride within your budget, and be looking for more on the Ranchero in 2009 as we start playing with it in the pages of Modified Mustangs & Fords.-Ed.