Budget Build Tips - Built On A Budget
Money is tight, but that doesn't mean you can't put together a fun project
From the August, 2012 issue of Modified Mustangs & Fords
By Mark Houlahan
Photography by Courtesy Of Dave Stribling
It's easy to look out in the garage or driveway at your Mustang or other Ford project and get discouraged in today's economy. Everything seems to be getting more expensive and your paycheck just doesn't go as far as it used to. Believe us when we say we're in the same boat and rowing with the same oars you are. Family obligations should always come before a toy or a hobby; that's just common sense. Keeping a roof over your head, food on the table, and the lights on is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, we're seeing many people on forums, auction sites, and more letting their dreams go to another owner because the funds just aren't there to build or work on it in these trying times. While a car magazine might be the last place you'd be looking for financial advice, we have one major suggestion that will not only help your project stay yours and move forward, but might even help in other areas of your life. That suggestion is creating and living with a budget.
Having a budget for your family is one of the best things you can do to manage your money and where it goes. It's easy to just whip out that debit card and go to dinner, take the family to the movies, and buy that new lawn mower--the next thing you know, that paycheck is gone and you still haven't bought groceries. Sitting down and determining what income you have and where it needs to go will help your paycheck go further, and if it goes further, that means you might just have a little left over to work on your project car. You can even set up a budget for the project car itself. You might not have $10,000 sitting in the bank, but if you know that's the limit you want to spend on your project car (even if it's over the course of five years), then by all means create a budget on paper and start mapping out where that money will go.
We called up several pros in the industry that have built cars on a budget for customers, and asked for their input as to where limited funds are best spent. As this is determined by the type of project car being built, we asked our pros to focus on their shop's specialties: a track car build, a drag car build, a restomod build, and a daily driver build. The "what if" scenario included a '65-'68 Mustang coupe in solid shape with a small-block V-8 drivetrain and three different budget limits--$5,000, $10,000, and $20,000 dollars. We felt the Mustang coupe was typical of a reader's project, not to mention that, for the most part, a convertible or fastback model wouldn't change the pro's choices for suspension, interior, and so on. We know that some of you have some great classic Ford projects that might be a little off of the popularity radar as far as replacement and performance parts are concerned, but we think there's still plenty for you to learn from these budget concepts. Remember, just because we're talking about various budget levels doesn't mean you need to have the cash all up front. We know plenty of nice rides built on a $10,000-$15,000 budget over the course of four or five years. The important thing is to plan your build, have a budget, and stick to it. Take a look at what our pros suggested, start your own budget, and get to work!
We gave our friend, Rusty Gillis, of Gillis Performance Restorations a ring to discuss building a classic daily driver. There's something cool about going down the road on your way to work and seeing a classic Mustang or Ford go by. We're just a little envious of those that actually enjoy their classics on a daily basis like that--going to work, running errands, and more. That being said, when Rusty builds a customer's car for daily driver use, he recommends replacing the front and rear suspension and shocks.
"I like to use Opentracker roller spring perches and all new upper and lower control arms along with the Shelby drop," Rusty stated. Being that the car will see daily use, Rusty also installs all new brake and fuel lines on the car--you simply don't want to rely on four-decade-old brake lines. Front disc brakes are a perfect upgrade for a daily driver, and four-wheel-disc-brakes are even better if the budget allows. A new master cylinder and upgrade to a power brake booster for modern braking is near the top of his list as well. To further the safety aspect of a daily driver, Rusty uses ididit collapsible steering columns in vehicles originally equipped with long-shaft-style steering boxes.
Since a daily driver sees a lot of use, Rusty recommends all new upholstery and carpet to his customers building a daily driver. If you're going to spend a good bit of time in the car, you want to be comfortable, safe, and you want whatever you're looking at (dash, console, steering wheel, and so on) to look nice. A dent in the quarter-panel or a rusty door skin is easy to forget when you're sitting in the driver seat going down the highway, but a faded and cracked dashpad or warped and yellowed gauge cluster is something you'll stare at the whole time you're in the car. Again, if the budget allows Rusty also suggests air conditioning when going through the interior.
While you don't have to go crazy with custom wheels, Rusty does recommend wider wheels and tires. Getting away from the narrow five-inch wheels found on most early Fords means having more traction, better handling, and better braking, all due to the wider contact patch the wider tires and wheels will have with the road.
When we asked about a higher-end budget, say our $20,000 ceiling stated in our opening text, Rusty added that he'd recommend the following upgrades over what we've already discussed for his daily driver builds:
A full weld-in front suspension replacement with coilover shocks. Rusty is partial to the Rod & Custom Motorsports Mustang II setups, as they are easy to install, offer plenty of suspension and braking options, add power rack-and-pinion steering, and give plenty of engine bay room.
Speaking of braking options, with a larger budget, larger brakes should be considered. He likes to see a nice 12-inch or larger setup with four-piston calipers to shorten braking distances, and allow repeated braking in stop-and-go driving without issues.
While our base budget build included the stock engine, Rusty recommends a modern crate engine for those with the wiggle room in their budget. A crate engine is the perfect way to get more power, efficiency, and easy installation, all with a warranty.
For daily drivers, fuel economy is certainly a consideration, so Rusty says an overdrive transmission, such as Ford's AOD four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual trans like the T-5 or aftermarket Tremec are both great options that he has been installing more of lately.
Lastly, a quality basecoat/clearcoat paint job to give the project some curb appeal and complement the interior and mechanical upgrades.
1 When it comes to daily...
1 When it comes to daily drivers or even a mild restomod, the stock suspension with a few upgrades (roller spring perches, sway bars, bushings) are more than adequate. This leaves money in the budget to be spent elsewhere where it will do the most good.
2 While a drag or open-track...
2 While a drag or open-track car user might prefer manual brakes to a power-assist unit (packaging, weight, and available vacuum), for a restomod or daily driver, an economical upgrade is a small 7- or 8-inch single-diaphragm booster with a dual-circuit master cylinder.
3 A tilt column is a great...
3 A tilt column is a great upgrade for a daily driver, but if you can swing the expense in your budget, upgrade to a collapsible version (if you own a car with a long-shaft steering box) like the Flaming River unit pictured here.
4 Any build will benefit...
4 Any build will benefit from subframe connectors, but none more than a drag or track car, as they both see a high amount of torsional twisting. These Heidts subframe connectors feature a bolt-in cross brace with a built-in safety loop for your driveshaft. Always weld in your subframe connectors for the highest strength.
5 Wheels can certainly make...
5 Wheels can certainly make a project. While the traditional five-spoke design is still very popular, don't be afraid to try something different. A pal that's good with Photoshop skills can take a picture of your car and add in different wheel styles and sizes to show you what your ride will look like with them installed, which is a great way to "try out" wheels.
6 Air conditioning is a nice...
6 Air conditioning is a nice feature for a daily driver, especially if you're in the south where in the daylight hours, ambient temperatures can average well over 90 degrees. If your budget looks tight, go for the basic "daily driver" systems. They still get the job done and blow cold air without all the bells and whistles.
If you're the type that likes to go in a straight line as fast as you can, then drag racing is most likely your deal. Going to the dragstrip with your daily driver or late-model ride is fun, but having a dedicated drag car means you can be more competitive and if something goes wrong, you don't have to worry about how you're getting to work on Monday. For drag racing, two key attributes are a good power-to-weight ratio, and being able to put that power to the track surface. A heavy daily driver with big wheels, air conditioning, and other comforts only adds weight and slows you down at the track.
We reached out to the Erich Bollman and the folks at Christiana Muscle Cars (CMC) to discuss building a drag car on a budget. If Erich's name or the CMC name rings a bell you're probably remembering it from their '69 custom SportsRoof "Nasty" that we ran late last year. What you probably didn't know, though, was CMC does plenty of race car prep for customers and even campaigns one of Ford Racing's '08 Cobra Jet Mustang drag cars. With credentials like that, we knew CMC would be able to give us some direction on building a drag car on a budget.
Chassis setup is a top priority in a drag car and even on a budget, things like subframe connectors, traction bars, and welding up the unibody for strength are all low on the spend-o-meter. A good rollbar, such as a bolt-in four point, will not only increase the chassis rigidity and help with weight transfer and traction, but is an important safety aspect as well. Depending upon how fast you ultimately go, you might need a six-point rollbar or more, so talk to your track officials to confirm what you'll need. As the budget increases, you can do more with the suspension, including a multi-link or ladder bar setup in the rear and free-moving control arms with 90/10 shocks up front. Even if you're only putting out 300 horsepower, you still have to get it to the ground to move the car, so concentrate on your suspension setup first.
Once your suspension is planned out, you have to consider your drivetrain. Will you be running 1?8-mile or a full 1/4-mile? What is your track's elevation? Do you want to run an automatic or a manual trans? You get the picture. Our preference leans toward an automatic, as you have more consistency in your launch and your shift points, but some guys just can't get over the thought of putting an automatic in their car. If that's the case, just be sure you have a manual trans that can handle your engine's output. We generally like to think of the manual transmission's clutch as the "fuse" in the driveline, as it is much cheaper to replace a clutch than a broken gearbox. What's under the hood is important, but like a track car or a daily driver, it shouldn't be where you focus your money on. Sure horsepower makes the car faster, but you have to get that horsepower to the ground first. Build your foundation with the budget you have and make the car consistent, then add horsepower as money allows.
It might be strange to hear someone say braking isn't as important with a drag car as it is with a track car or daily driver, but it is true. With a daily driver, you have to deal with emergency maneuvers and high traffic flow. With an open-track car, brakes are the utmost importance, which we'll explain in that section of this story. Generally speaking, the dragstrip's braking area is more than adequate for even a drum brake system (Some old school racers prefer drums for their lower weight and less rotational friction). However, if the budget allows, a decent solid disc drag setup will not only stop the car better, but will shave weight off of the car. Make sure your brakes are up to the task for the trap speed you are carrying, and upgrade as necessary to maintain safety. Otherwise, it's money that can be saved or moved to another line item on your budget.
Interiors for drag cars are spartan to say the least. There's no need for big, powerful audio systems, air conditioning, or even a back seat. Anything that can be removed (without compromising safety) means you're saving weight. Less weight means a better power-to-weight ratio, and thus the faster you can get down the track with the power you have. Ditch the back seat, the spare tire, the console, heck even the carpet. This is a drag car and you don't need that stuff to go fast. A safe, high-back racing seat, a four-point or greater harness, properly mounted to the chassis and rollbar, and the minimum of instrumentation, lighting, and so forth installed and all reachable by the driver with their belts installed and tight. The one caveat to this might be power windows, or at least a power window on the passenger side. When you're all strapped in and sitting in the staging lanes for 40 minutes on a hot day waiting for your lane call, it's nice to be able to easily roll the windows down without unbuckling your harness and wiggling out of your race seat enough to reach the passenger window.
7 One way to give your project...
7 One way to give your project some muscle is a nice dual-exhaust system. Besides giving your ride a sweet note from the tailpipes, you'll be picking up a few horsepower as well. For daily drivers where drone is a concern, be sure to choose your mufflers wisely and use a cross-over. For drag and track cars, be cognizant of your track's dB requirements and ensure you are in compliance. Finding sound clips on the Internet of similar cars/powerplants with various mufflers can help you decide which ones are right for you.
8 The classic carb and intake...
8 The classic carb and intake swap is still a great bang-for-the-buck upgrade. Not only do you improve your engine's breathing and performance, but you get the great look of a performance intake and carb under the hood. Intake type and carb cfm will be dependent upon engine size and application, but there's a combo for anything you're building.
9 While we'd all love to...
9 While we'd all love to drop in the latest crate engine, if you're toward the lower end of the budget, a good cleaning, detailing, and a few key parts will suffice. This small-block got hardened valve seats, a new cam, aluminum intake, Hi-Po manifolds, and a Pertronix ignition along with a bit of paint and detailing.
10 A great swap that never...
10 A great swap that never fails and can even help resale value is a late-model 5.0L EFI swap and an overdrive transmission. You get improved driveability and fuel mileage, lower maintenance, and as the budget improves, you have tons of upgrade options available to you.
11 If you've already spent...
11 If you've already spent good money rebuilding your engine (or dropped the coin on a crate engine), a great alternative solution to EFI is a bolt-on, throttle-body-based unit such as the likes of the FAST EZ-EFI, Powerjection, Holley, Edelbrock, and others.
12 Modular swaps started...
12 Modular swaps started gaining popularity with the exotic four-cam Cobra engines--the Holy Grail of which being the supercharged "Terminator" engine from the '03-'04 Mustang Cobra shown here. These engines are expensive and getting harder to find, but there are better options these days.
When it comes to building restomod type Mustangs and Fords, our very own Q&A columnist, Dave Stribling, has quite the track record. His shop's customers usually have to add extra shelving space in their trophy cabinets. While Dave's work has included everything from trailered concours cars to race cars, his current restomod builds take the term literally; adding modern accoutrements, safety, and handling while keeping the classic vibe of the car.
Like most builders, Dave sits his customers down and finds out what the primary focus of the restomod will be. "Is this a weekend play toy or is this going to be primarily my daily ride as well? Do I want to drag race on the weekend or do I need a baby seat in the back? Everyone's combination will be different, so where you spend your money is going to differ tremendously. Someone who drives the car daily may choose safety or audio components over performance goodies." Dave explains.
It's easy to get caught up in the current "flavor of the day," as Dave calls it. What some people consider a restomod is really closer to a Pro Touring or Pro Street effort.
"A set of Cobra valve covers is timeless. Big spoilers went out in the '90s. Chrome 'foot' gas pedals, crushed velour interiors, and neon under car lighting went out before that. You get the picture," Dave added. That doesn't mean you can't be innovative, but you have to be careful you're not getting too trendy.
When budget is a concern, Dave recommends sticking with items that will get you the most bang for the buck:
On the safety front, Dave starts out with three-point seat belts, four-wheel disc brakes (your Mustang must be able to stop before it can go), a collapsible steering column, good gas or adjustable shocks, and certainly good headlights for night time visibility (both yours and for others to see you).
We can't forget that restomod builds include some performance upgrades, and Dave recommends a good dual-exhaust system, which will give your car an aggressive tone (something every muscle car should have) and free up a few horsepower as well. A good radiator and fan setup to keep your ride cool and simple bolt-ons like intakes and carburetors, subframe connectors, and even rack-and-pinion steering if it is in the budget.
When it comes to restomod builds, styling can be somewhat subjective, but nice wheels and tires always help. Stick to something in the 16- to 18-inch range depending upon wheel well opening, ride height, and your ride quality requirements. Engine dress-up kits are a great low-buck way to spruce up the engine compartment Dave tells us too. Sometimes just a good cleaning and some paint will take an engine bay to the next level as well.
"Removing items like emblems and the horse and corral can give a more modern look without spending a dime," Dave stated too. Some billet goodies hold up well over time, but don't overdo it. You can end up spending all of your time cleaning rather than enjoying your ride.
Finally, a restomod isn't a restomod without some modern convenience items thrown into the mix. Dave likes to install tilt columns in all his builds (we're not getting any younger or any thinner unfortunately). Audio upgrades, seat upgrades for comfort and safety, and power goodies like power windows and locks are all part of the restomod recipe to consider in your budget plans.
As your budget level goes up, many of the items mentioned previously can be improved upon, Dave mentions. While four-wheel discs were on Dave's list at our lower budget point, for higher budgets, he recommends multi-piston calipers and larger slotted/milled rotors.
"As your performance increases, so should your brake system," Dave comments. Other safety aspects can be added with larger budgets, including fuel cells, two- or four-point 'cages, and so forth.
When a customer comes into Dave's shop and his budget allows for it, he steps up the performance aspect of the build with a good crate engine and aftermarket transmission. Further performance mods include rear axle upgrades such as the venerable 9-inch with stronger axles, steeper gears, and a locking differential. For the bigger budgets we specified to Dave, he also added tubular suspension upgrades, coilovers, and even IRS conversions to his list of parts he'd recommend to a customer.
With the deeper pockets of our larger budget, Dave also added more in the styling department. Fiberglass goodies like hoods, scoops, wheel flares, and more come into play now to make a unique build statement. Higher quality paint materials, more expensive wheels and tires that help in the looks and handling departments and more are the norm at these higher levels. Factory late-model hardware like seats, consoles, navigation, flush glass, and more are all open to suggestions when you've got $20,000 in your budget as well.
13 Say hello to the Coyote....
13 Say hello to the Coyote. Ford's new 5.0L, four-cam, all-aluminum 412hp crate engine from the '11-'12 Mustang GT. While priced a bit north of a typical small-block crate, these engines have all the modern tech in them for superior power and driveability and wild looks, if that's what you want for your restomod. The Coyote would also be at home in a daily driver (great mileage) or a track or drag car. Thousands of '11-'12 Mustangs hit the track every weekend with this engine.
14 If you really want a modular,...
14 If you really want a modular, but budget is a concern, the older four-valve engines from such cars as the Mercury Marauder, Mustang Mach 1, or even some of the Lincoln Mark VIIIs and SUVs can be a nice salvage yard find for cheap. This four-valve has been modified with a vintage shaker.
15 Sometimes all it takes...
15 Sometimes all it takes is a little detail to really make a car stand out and best of all they can be relatively cheap, possibly even free! This early coupe we spotted had a blacked out taillight panel. A little prep, a can of satin black paint, and some masking materials and you can do this in your driveway!
16 Fiberglass parts such...
16 Fiberglass parts such as hoods, deck lids, and fenders are a great way to save weight on a drag or track car and goodies such as wheel flares, scoops, spoilers, and more are nice additions to restomods or even daily drivers. Good quality parts are worth the extra money up front to reduce shop labor time.
17 Stand out from the crowd...
17 Stand out from the crowd with a set of stripes or even a two-tone paint finish. If your current paint is in good shape, the cost of a second color or just stripes is a real budget saver compared to a complete repaint. This coupe got a good scuffing, new stripes, and a fresh coat of clear.
18 Even cheaper is custom...
18 Even cheaper is custom pin striping. You can really dress up your daily driver or restomod with some hand painted stripes for just a few hundred dollars, sometimes less! This '68 received stripes at a local show for just $125 on site.
While restomods and daily drivers are certainly popular, and just about any car that passes safety inspection can make a pass down the 1,320 (or the 1/8-mile if that's all you have at your local dragstrip), it takes a much more dedicated and prepared car to have fun on a road course. Even the late-model guys will tell you that the stock suspension and brakes on their cars can only take them so far, and their stuff is worlds above what a vintage Mustang or Ford came with when it passed through the factory doors. Reaching out to someone with track car experience for this segment was an easy choice for us. We've known Paul Faessler and his Paul's Automotive Engineering for nearly 20 years. Paul's shop has put some of the hardest running vintage track cars out there and their cars have won six consecutive American Iron/American Iron Extreme National Championships! So Paul and his crew certainly have the credentials to help us help you with a track car budget build and where best to put your money.
"First thing for a track car is safety, which includes proper belts (at least four-point), a bolt-in rollbar (four point attachment minimum) with a horizontal bar to properly wrap the shoulder harnesses to. I always recommend the same safety equipment for the passenger seat, as beginners will normally have an instructor. Any beginner should always try to get an instructor every time they go on track," Paul's first comments were to us. Something else Paul couldn't stress enough of is another facet of safety--to bring a properly maintained car to the track. This includes at least new brake pads, fresh brake fluid, (Ford DOT 3 High Performance is a very good fluid), check all suspension mounting points and fasteners, and more.
"Reliability is the key to having fun and wanting to come back again," Paul added. This means having good prep, quality parts, and lots of seat time.
Cooling is very important for a track car. An oversized radiator with a properly sized fan will go a long way towards having a fun weekend at the track versus strapping a wounded track car back onto your trailer after your first session.
"The last thing I would worry about, and which is usually the first thing people spend money on, is more power. You will ultimately go faster by learning to brake late, and carry speed through the corners than flying down the straights and then over braking (usually too early)," Paul cautioned.
For a budget build of $5,000, Paul recommends leaving the trick coilovers and rack-and-pinion upgrades on the shelf.
"The stock suspension design's main weakness is the compliance in the control arm/strut rod/ spring perch/rear spring bushings. We use Cobra Automotive's components to remedy this," Paul explained. Paul recommends a nice budget brake cooling duct solution by using '67-'68 front parking light body bezels to make a nice air inlet for a 3-inch hose that can be routed to the center of the front brake rotor. "Weld in subframe connectors (we never install bolt-on subframe connectors), are a big help as well," Paul stated.
As the budget level increases, Paul starts recommending a good set of matching track wheels and race compound tires, and bigger brakes.
"Most people throw on a set of wheels and tires without considering the front brakes, and when they put on the big brakes, they have to get new wheels to fit the brakes," Paul cautioned. When you start getting serious about your track excursions, your brakes will be where you will spend the most money. However, it's where you will get the best value as well. Paul's shop uses Brembo race brakes on all of its American Iron cars. These packages start around $4,000. "That has been the best money we have spent on our race cars," Paul said.
At the higher budget levels, you can also start concentrating on a track-ready engine package, better rearend, and more. These upgrades are more for reliability than all out power. As stated earlier, the key to a good track car is suspension, brakes, safety, and ultimately your driving ability. We've seen plenty of 300hp cars run circles around 600hp cars because the 300hp car has a better suspension setup, better brakes, and/or a better driver. There's a lot of truth in the statement, "a road race is won in the corners."
"Everyone has seen the guys with a lot of power fly down the straights, but have a train of cars behind them when they get to the corners. Learn to drive the car deep into the corners and carry max speed through the corners, and it will surprise you how your low-horsepower/reliable combination will out run the high powered cars," Paul stated.
19 Overdrive transmissions...
19 Overdrive transmissions are one of the top upgrades we see for daily drivers. A quieter drive, better fuel economy, and less wear and tear on the engine are among the worthy benefits. If you plan to do a lot of driving with your restomod, an overdrive trans is certainly a vaulable consideration.
20 If you're planning a fuel-injected...
20 If you're planning a fuel-injected engine, be it pushrod or modular, remember to budget accordingly for the fuel system expense. To do it right, the pump should be mounted inside the tank, plus you'll have the cost of the high-pressure EFI pump, filter, regulator, and pressure and return lines and fittings to consider.
21 Sometimes it's best to...
21 Sometimes it's best to keep it simple. As Dave Stribling mentioned in his comments about basic restomodding, you can't go wrong with Cobra valve covers. The timeless look of these and a matching air cleaner, along with a few chrome bits and a coat of paint mean a great looking engine bay on the cheap!
22 Some custom touches should...
22 Some custom touches should be left to the bigger budgets. Shaved drip rails look good, but there's a lot of labor involved in getting the metal just right, plus the cost of paint. This is not something to tackle on a finished and painted car.
23 A Mustang-II-style front...
23 A Mustang-II-style front suspension can be a great value, as you're obtaining an easier to adjust, better handling suspension along with disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. However, once you add in popular options like adjustable coilovers, power steering and so forth, the price starts going up. For a daily driver or even a restomod, that's money that can be better spent elsewhere (or saved all together) unless you have to have the room for an engine swap.
24 Trick custom interiors...
24 Trick custom interiors are a hallmark of a restomod. We've seen several people tackle the modern dash swap into a classic. When done right, we think it really works, but unless you're getting the dash for next to nothing and have good fab skills, it's going to be an expensive conversion.
25 Easier on the wallet,...
25 Easier on the wallet, while still adding a great custom touch for a restomod or daily driver for that matter, is a custom console. Building a console or adapting one from another car means having all your switches in one handy location and allows mods like a tunnel mount parking brake handle and aftermarket shifters fit in neatly.
26 We've yet to see this...
26 We've yet to see this done in a vintage car, but for a daily driver, the Ford SYNC/My Ford Touch system from a newer Ford would be an incredible feature. Hands-free access to navigation, audio, HVAC controls and even a rear view backup camera are all things we'd use every day if we had a system like this in our vintage daily driver.
27 Another feature daily...
27 Another feature daily driver builds can consider, even at the lower budget levels, is a power window conversion. Even if you only do the front glass on a coupe, having power windows makes life easier when you hit the drive-through or need to roll the windows up when the rain starts coming down. No more leaning over and taking your eyes off the road; just hit the window switches.
28 Throwing a built 9-inch under your car is on everyone's wish list, but if you're talking a daily driver or a track car with less than 300 horsepower, you can easily get away with an 8-inch unit with a nicely built center section and new gears.