Debating what to do with the Mustang

Four weeks ago, I handed my keys off to my friend Dan, hopped on an airplane, and flew from Fairbanks, Alaska back home to Detroit. Dan then proceeded to bring the car home for me, taking the car on his own adventures, driving the car from Alaska through Canada and finally back home to Detroit, pulling into my driveway three weeks ago.

“Canadian Dan,” as he is called in my circle of friends, is one hell of a wrench, a lover a beat up jalopies, and perhaps just as crazy as the friends who joined me for the Alcan 5000, and was the perfect guy to hire to “deliver” my car back home for me. When he offered to drive the car back for me sometime earlier this year, it was an easy decision to make; I wrote him a check for what I estimated would be the cost of shipping my Mustang back home via truck transport, and told him to have fun. He could do whatever he wanted with the car, I’d cover any additional parts and repair costs, and the only requirement was that the car eventually make it home.

During his trip back to Michigan, Dan had to do a little bit of work on the car to ensure its survival back to my driveway. And, by “a little bit of work” I mean do a basic tune-up of the car, replace nearly all of the ball joints in the suspension, tighten up everything that had rattled itself loose over the course of two weeks of hard driving on extremely rough roads at arguably foolish speeds, and put the spare tire on the car to replace a front tire that had nearly completely worn down the inside edge as a result of the very compromised suspension geometry.

Dan, tending to front suspension issues while in Calgary.

There were some things that went unresolved. Dan tightened up the wheel bearings as best he could, but he recommended that they be replaced as soon as possible. During our text message conversations, I told Dan to do as little as possible to the suspension, as the plan was to rip all of it out and replace it with new stuff. Anything he put on the car during his drive back home wouldn’t be on the car in a matter of months, if not weeks.

When the Mustang finally arrived back home, she was shuffled into the garage and promptly abandoned as I turned my attention to my Volvo 245 wagon and my Mazda Miata. I didn’t drive the Mustang until several days later, when I decided to take the Mustang out to Dollar Burgers night on a Sunday evening.

A funny thing happened as I drove the car the short 30 minutes to the bar — I found myself in the unusual position of not trusting the car, despite having spent 8,000 miles just weeks earlier pounding the roads with this car all the way up to the frontiers of Alaska. The car drove sort of the same as before, but everything was just a bit… off. The clutch effort was all wrong and the clutch pick up point was much lower than I remembered, and more worryingly, there was a constant low whine that would pick up in pitch as one approached highway speeds. I checked the clutch assembly after the drive and found that the push rod for the clutch master was being pushed off axis, and I’m pretty sure that constant whine I was hearing were the wheel bearings protesting their current condition.

After getting burgers and drinks that evening, I pulled the car into the garage, hooked it up to the battery tender, and let it sit. It’s been sitting in the garage ever since.

The Mustang as it currently sits, in limbo as I try to make up my mind.

The issues

No surprise, the car is in pretty poor condition. The paint, which I’ve beat up before doing local road rallies on rough roads and many thousands of highway miles, is looking much worse for wear now. The suspension, as noted earlier, is completely shot, and much needs to be replaced. I can’t be certain that nothing in the front suspension is bent until I take everything apart and inspect. The cheap KYB shocks, installed right before the road rally and meant to serve as placeholders before upgrading the suspension, are very much worn out.

Driving the Dalton Highway was a wonderful experience, but it took its toll on the car.

The biggest issue I have with the car, which honestly has been the “big issue” with the car for many years, is the body. The car is mostly rust free, but there is rust in the rear quarter panels forming, and I’m all but certain that there’s rust underneath the windshield and backlight seals, both of which look to be original to the car and probably have been slowly leaking water into the interior and the trunk for the past two decades.

Before the trip, I discovered that a seam in the floors right behind the driver seat that opened up, letting water splash onto the carpet in the rear driver side passenger footwell and soak the carpet anytime the car is driven through the rain. For me to be happy with the body, I’d want new rear fenders, new window seals all around (and to perform rust repair or treatment found during said seal replacement), and new floors on the car.

Redoing the body would also allow me to fix all of the little niggling things on the car that has bothered my OCD ever since I became knowledgeable about Mustangs. Whomever painted the car back from the non-stock dark metallic blue back to the stock celery green color went through all the trouble of doing a decent repaint, but couldn’t be bothered to put the badges in the right fucking place? The GT badge was placed in the wrong spot on both front fenders, and the Mustang letters were placed over the tape stripe (instead of the cutting the tape stripe out) — and were even spaced out totally incorrectly. The worst part? These badges and letters are pinned to the body, so someone went to the effort of putting them in the wrong place.

The engine, while still running strong, is definitely in need of some help as well. It used to be that it would only smoke on startup, but now there’s a constant fine white smoke coming from the tail pipes at all times. It burns about a quart of oil every 1k miles, and is probably due for a rebuild. I suppose I did get plenty of use out of the motor — it was rebuilt at some unknown point by the previous owner, and then I proceeded to put another 40k miles on the thing in the six years that I’ve owned it. I do wonder if I’m going to be in for a surprise when I open up this motor; judging by all of the “surprises” I’ve found on the body and the electrical system, I really shouldn’t be surprised if something weird comes up in the “I don’t have any specs for you, I just wrote a check to the engine builder and told them to make it better” motor.

The original Plan A: Fix this car

The original plan, upon return from Alaska, was to treat the car to the full rebuild it deserves. I’d remove the engine, remove the wiring harness, strip out the interior, and send the car away to a restoration shop for metal repair and paint. I’d get the car back and then reassemble it myself in the garage, fixing all of the little annoying things as I went along.

During the rebuild, I’d make the car the ultimate long distance cruiser I’ve always wanted it to be. Any poor condition interior parts would be replaced with new. I’d install three point belts to go with the headrest-equipped and heavily bolstered reclining seats I now have installed in the car. I’d clean up the audio wiring and figure out a better solution for the sound system. Maybe I’d add a tilt column steering wheel to make it easier for me and others to get in and out of the car.

On the ride and handling side, I wanted to go ahead and lower the car 1 inch all around, doing the Shelby drop on the front axle (better camber curve) and replacing the rear springs with lower, stiffer leafs. On the front, I’d either go with the traditional 600 in/lb coil springs, or go full hog and put in the Street or Track front coilover system that I really like. Either way, the front suspension would get all new arms and strut rods, and the tie rod ends would be replaced with modern-style tie rod ends with adjustments for fighting bump steer. Tying everything together would be the Maier Racing subframe connectors and their z-brace, with a Maier Racing panhard bar locating the rear axle. I wanted sort of a “Street Touring Lite” build for my Mustang — enough work to make it a little less floppy and a more predictable car to drive at the limit, but still comfortable enough to drive 10k miles in three weeks.

I’d do the most basic motor rebuild possible. I’m not looking for more power, just reliability. Stock heads, stock intake manifold, stock cast iron headers. Basic.

And finally, if the budget allowed for it, I’d put throttle body fuel injection on the motor and upgrade the fuel system to match. If I still had more money to burn, I’d put air conditioning in the car, the cherry on top for a fully functioning, extremely comfortable, long distance cruiser with the chops to keep up with sports cars on twisty roads.

The goal would be to rebuild the car in three years, getting it ready for the London to Lisbon road rally in Europe. One of the Alcan rallyists planted that idea in my head after talking about how he might take his rally-prepared Mercury overseas to do the rally. It’d be really cool for both of us to be there together.

Plan B: Get another Mustang

The only problem with my original plan is that it will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time to rebuild this particular car. The fiscally sensitive side of me insists that the proper thing to do is abandon this Mustang and go buy another Mustang that someone else has already restored, and then proceed to do all of the fun things to that Mustang instead.

There’s no denying that Plan B would ultimately be a cheaper and faster route to a cool, road cruising and road-rallying Mustang. I wouldn’t have to spend any time or money or effort on bodywork, which would be the biggest drag on executing Plan A.

Going this route does deal a blow to the irrational, emotional side of me though. Me and this Mustang have been through a lot. It introduced me to new friends and solidified a friendship when I took it down to Charlotte, North Carolina for the 50th birthday celebration that the Mustang Club of America threw for the Ford Mustang, solidified another friendship when I took a friend out on a local road rally, not to mention all of the countless road trips I’ve taken with the car, with one cross-country road trip to California, Oregon, and back plus this recent trip to Alaska. I know every mechanical, electrical, and sheet metal niggle on this car, and has weathered all of the battle scars I’ve inflicted on the car — and there are a lot — without quitting.

Emotionally, this feels like my Mustang and it feels like I should “do it right” and fix it up.

But here comes to logical side of me, arguing that it’s just a conglomeration of metal and fabric and that it can be replaced with another assembly of metal and fabric. And I browse Hemmings and Craigslist and eBay, the excitement of submitting to my car ADD slowly creeps in as well.

I estimate that it would take $20-25k to do the body work on my car, and that’s before the cost and labor or putting the thing back together. That kind of money can buy a really nice Mustang coupe. I could even sample a different flavor of Mustang this time, and get a ’67 or ’68, cars marginally larger than my ’66 but with the benefit of not looking stupid on 17″ wheels and modern tires. There are choices abound.

Plan C: Get a different car

Alternatively, I could completely submit to my car ADD and simply get myself a completely “new” classic car. The itch for a Model A Ford has come back with a vengeance, and I’m still young enough that I could enjoy such a car doing dumb trips and adventures that perhaps I would be unwilling to do in the future when I’m 20 years older.

There are also a whole plethora of other more modern classic cars that I could sample and enjoy. I could save my pennies and instead of blowing $30k on a nicer Mustang, I could try and stretch and buy something a little different. I could get an 80’s air cooled Porsche 911 before they become truly unattainable for someone like me, or delve deeper into the world of British sports cars. Maybe the correct answer is that I buy another Morgan Plus 4, this time one that I wouldn’t have to rebuild and restore to be happy with.

I’m reminded though every time I go drive a different old classic car that there was a reason I ended up choosing a Mustang over all of the other fascinating (and pretty) options that I was considering at the time: Mustangs look cool, are easy to maintain, and most importantly, are easy to drive long distances. The Mustang has proven itself to be an excellent road trip car in a way that few other classic cars can match. Who knows? Maybe I’d try to run Plan C only to end up back at Plan B.

Maybe I’d choose something similar to a Mustang but different. There are plenty of options from the GM side of things — the Camaro the Grand Prix or GTO immediately come to mind.

Plan D: Sell the car, reduce the fleet down to two cars

I could just sell the Mustang (and the Volvo, though it’s slated for departure regardless of what happens to the Mustang) and not replace it.I would just have a Fiesta ST and a Miata. This would be the most fiscally sensible option, but it might be a bridge too far for someone who bought a house specifically for its four car garage…

Saving up money for the Mustang fund

So assuming I do either Plan A, B, or C, I’m going to need money. The amount of money will depend on how resource intensive I want this replacement or refurbishment to be.

I’ve got my budget planned out for next year, and I’ve tried to balance out all of my competing priorities into something that I’m happy with.

The problem is that, as I’ve gotten older, my priorities have shifted into something that younger me probably wouldn’t recognize. I’d like to, for example, redo the kitchen in my house. That alone would be a $10-12k proposition, and one I would never consider in my younger years, but here we are. That said, the budget is biased towards the Mustang, so if I need to limp along with my kitchen for a few more years, I can do so. But the fact that it’s now a thing I want to do is telling.

Also, I’m making a shift in my motorsports plans to something that may or may not end up being more expensive than the usual autocross stuff I do. I’ve been having a lot of fun running my Miata at the new SCCA Time Trials series, and plan to run as much of the new-for-2019 season as I possibly can. If things go well, then all I need to do for the Miata is feed it tires. If things don’t go well, I’ll have to budget for further improvements or — hopefully it doesn’t happen — repairs should I drive my car into a wall.

According to my budget, I’ll have $14k saved up for Mustang things by the end of next year. If I sell the Volvo, I can add $3-5k to that amount. Then I figure that I have $2k in unused car parts that I can sell, and about $1k in unused film cameras and lenses to rehome. Next year’s bonus, if we even get one, would go directly to the Mustang fund as well. I could have about $25k saved up for Mustang things by the end of next year, and that’s with me still maintaining my current 401k and investments savings rate and a couple thousand dollars for doing Time Trials stuff with the Miata. Anything else I save on top can go towards the Kitchen fund.

The time scales involved in saving up the money — borrowing money to restore a car is pretty stupid — to rebuild the Mustang seems daunting to me. I wonder if that’s going to be what pushes me over the edge to get rid of the current Mustang and get something else; instant gratification is a tempting seductress and it’s hard for me to resist.

In the meantime, the Mustang sits in garage with four blown shocks, two bad wheel bearings, and an engine constantly puffs out a thin white cloud of smoke. It’s still sitting there, waiting for me to make my decision…