It’s difficult to believe, but 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the last time the fabled Fox body rolled off an assembly line, and for many of the Mustang faithful it seemed that darker times were ahead. We’re not knocking the models that followed at all, in fact the SN95 offered a wide variety of improvements over the then 14 year old Fox body platform. While SN95 cars shared much of what made the Fox body good, their added heft, and seemingly lesser performance would send many in the Mustang nation scrambling to either buy a used Fox body or hold onto the one they already had.

With over 20 years under their belts, many Fox body cars are fighting the rust demons, and losing.

In spite of their age there are still solid Fox body cars out there waiting to be bought and transformed into killer street machines capable of taking on any car they meet at the track or street. We recently began the search for a new StangTV Fox body project car. In this feature we’ll highlight some of what to look for when searching for your next Fox body project car.

Where to Look

It would seem that just a few years ago small car lots, parking lots, and even Sunday drives on rural roads were easy picking grounds for finding a Fox body at a reasonable price. At one time there was even a weekly publication called Mustang Trader a spin off of the Bargain Mart and Auto Trader classified ads. With the age of the cars, and the platform’s continued popularity, those old standbys have either gone belly up, or been replaced by electronic alternatives.

Left: This 1990 Hatchback obviously had a lot of mods, we were tempted but it was over 90 minutes of driving just to go look at it. Right: This 1980 coupe looked to be a prime candidate with an ideal price tag. When we called we were told that the seller already had a deposit on the car.

We turned to Craigslist, eBay, and social media for help locating a car. There are drawbacks to each of these. Wherever you look, you can find hundreds of Mustangs for sale, although sometimes it takes a bit of search wizardry to find the right combination of key words to get the car you want to pop up. We probably called, emailed, or text’d on at least two dozen cars, and looked at a handful before settling on one and striking a deal.

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Caveat Emptor

The odometer only shows five mileage digits with the sixth one for tenths of a mile, make sure you find out how many times it's been rolled over if you're planning on driving the car right away.

Unfortunately old cars often come with age related car problems, as such buyer beware. We’ve compiled a short list of some of the common things you should watch out for when looking at any Fox body for sale.

Title

Make sure the owner has a title in their name. Some states can make you jump through massive hoops to get a car titled in your name if there is not one with the car for sale. Contact your local DMV and find out what you’ll need to do to get a title if necessary. Also find out what you’ll need to do to transfer and register the car in your name. Each state has different laws and requirements, from simple VIN verifications, to safety checks and in depth inspections, to tail-pipe emissions testing.

Left: One of our dream cars, who wouldn't love to do a real 79 Pace Car, under its collectible exterior shell could be hiding a behemoth of a power train. It made our stomach turn to read the condition this car was in. Right: This 1989 Hatchback was typical of many of the drivable cars we found, lots of mileage. The seller never returned calls, text, or emails

Modifications

We can’t begin to count the number of cars we passed on because they were heavily modified. It is true that pure virgin Fox-bodies command a premium these days. Small bolt-ons are one thing. Exhaust, throttle bodies, shifters, those sort of things are hard to mess up. The bigger jobs, like ring and pinion, superchargers, or engine mods are the ones to watch out for. We’ve seen countless cars with excessive mods sold to unsuspecting buyers because they had problems. That’s not to say they’re all bad, but just beware before you put down your hard earned cash. If you’re buying a modified car, make sure you know who did the work, and have it checked by a shop for trouble.

This was the ad that lead us to the car. We weren't interested in any of the extra parts, but mainly the car. We watched the price come down on this car for several weeks until it was finally in our budget.

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Collision Damage

Compression Check

If you know how to change spark plugs then you’re capable of doing a compression check. After a cold start, let the car run for about five minutes. Remove an easy spark plug to get to, (1 and 5 are easily accessed). Disconnect the coil to prevent firing, and hold the throttle wide open while cranking the engine several times. Check the results against the published spec, we’d recommend doing this on at least one cylinder on each bank. Most engines will have 140 psi spec for cranking compression pressure. Up to a margin of 20 percent is acceptable as a compression loss.

This is another area where a keen eye is helpful. We’ve seen all manner of botched repairs. Be aware that shifted frame rails, and other misaligned components will carry a hefty price tag to get corrected.

Rust

This is the big one that plagues old cars. Rust can be anywhere, the body, the floor pans, frame rails, strut and shock towers, trunk floor, trunk lid, torque boxes, fuel tank, core support, and k-member are common areas. Look the car over thoroughly. Gently poke or prod soft looking areas with a finger tip or screw driver, to see if they’re rusted through. Some body panels are more easily replaced than others, but rust is a warning sign, like an insect infestation, where you see some, you’re likely to find much more.

Mechanical Issues

If at all possible try to see the car when it can be cold started. This means it has not been started at all that day, period. Beware of anyone who “warms up” the car before you get there. Many cars can have cold start issues that disappear when warm. Things like bottom end knock, lifter chatter, rough running, slow cranking, low compression, and smoking, all may disappear once warm.

Left: A previous owner of our project car had installed these spark plugs. While there's nothing wrong with the plug itself, it's not the correct one for this application, something easily corrected. Center: The top of the timing cover and water pump were wet, indicating to us a likely thermostat or intake gasket leak. Right: A culprit on nearly every pushrod 5.0 we have ever owned, this car too suffers from valve cover gaskets leaking engine oil. None of the mechanical repairs were a deal breaker on this car for us.

Fluid Leaks

Oil leaks are common on any car of this age. Valve cover gaskets and rear main seals are common culprits that are not major repairs. Also look at intake manifold gaskets and the thermostat housing for signs of coolant leaks. Automatic transmission pans, and rear differential covers are also known culprits that may be leaking and require attention.

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Emissions Equipment

Smog pumps, catalytic converters, and EGR may be required to get a car tagged in your area. Know the laws as some or all of these parts may have failed or could have been removed long ago on a car you’re looking at.

A common malady on hatchbacks is rust around the trunk latch, this requires either major surgery by a skilled professional, or more likely a replacement hatch.

Inside

Check to make sure things like all the electrical switches work. Power window switches, the wiper/multi function switch, headlight, and power door lock switches are all easily replaced, and notorious for wearing out with age. Check the seats for “gangsta lean”, an indicator of broken or damaged seat frames. There are replacements for nearly every piece inside a Fox body with the exception of the plastic trim panels and dash itself. Since interior wear is common even on newer cars, we don’t feel that most interior issues are a deal breaker. Also check to see if the heater core is leaking, or has been bypassed. This is a large job that will take you most of the weekend in your garage or cause you to part with several hundred dollars at a shop. It’s a common problem on all Fox body cars.

A previous owner relieved this car of all it's stereo components and speaker grilles. We're afraid to remove the snug fitting parts store seat covers. Look for a complete interior resto and color conversion in an upcoming article.

Suspension

The years will not have been kind to the suspension or steering components either. Look for play in the ball joints, tie rod ends, and front wheel bearings. Also broken, or severely rusted parts, and play or slop in the steering rack and steering column. All of these can be fixed but they’ll add additional costs to your budget.

Left: The rust around these torque boxes might be easily cleaned off and then the metal sealed. This is just one example we found of rust near the suspension components. Center: Rust on the frame and strut tower to this degree is much more serious as seen in this photo. Again this is for example purposes only but in a situation such as this a replacement frame rail, or more extensive repairs might be necessary. Right: Floor pan replacement is becoming a more common job on old Fox body cars these days. Coupe and convertible owners should also be sure to check the trunk floor.

Brakes

This should be a no-brainer. Look for signs of brake fluid leaks, check pad and rotor condition, if you have time and can remove a drum check the rear shoes for wear or cracking. Also look for signs of wheel cylinder leak or axle seals leaking.

Top: On our car, damage like this broken tail light lens, and cowl cover are easily repaired through simple replacements. Bottom: Rust on the front fender will require it's replacement, as will the rust in the rear quarter, bot areas are spongy, and one has even been covered with spray painted tape. We were aware of this at time of purchase and already have sourced some repair parts.

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Odometer

Project cars are like elephants, you can eat it one bite at a time. -John Cotton

The Fox body had only a five digit odometer. It would be easy for anyone to misinterpret mileage as low. Doing a little title history on a car, or looking at old service records if available could help in verifying the validity of the mileage.

Top Tips For Project Car Hunting

  • Take Your Time. Chances are you’re not replacing your daily driver, don’t get excited by the first car you find and buy a dud.
  • Check Often. Check listings often, we called on several cars the same day they were listed only to find we missed them by a few hours.
  • Check it Over. Don’t be afraid to crawl around under the car, take a few tools. If someone won’t let you thoroughly inspect the car that could be an indicator they’re hiding something, walk away.
  • Take a Friend. Take a friend with you who knows the cars too, but who can be a level voice in the buying process and would talk you out of making a mistake in your excitement.
  • Watch For Deals. We actually saw the car we bought drop in price and be re-listed over several weeks, it finally came into our price range, and that was when we called.
  • Be Realistic. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, as our friend John Cotton has told us “Project cars are like elephants, you can eat it one bite at a time,” meaning if you have the skills, the time, and the budget, you can build almost anything. However don’t buy something that will leave you overwhelmed and end up back in the classifieds with you as the seller.
  • Set a Budget. Stick to what you know you can afford, and don’t go over, no matter how good of a deal you think you’re getting.
  • Be prepared. Have an idea of what you want before you start looking, set a range of years, colors and options that are acceptable. Decide what you will and won’t buy ahead of time.
  • Negotiate. Don’t be afraid to make an offer, just don’t be insulting.
  • Cash Talks. Cash as in dead presidents. Have your finances in order, but if you’re negotiating remember what the Gambler said, don’t count your money at the table, only show what you need to.

Meet the latest StangTV project car, this 1988 5.0 Coupe with 77,000 original miles. This car is proof that viable candidates for project cars still exist. We have some ambitious plans for this car. Look for a full introduction to this project coming soon, as well as more articles to follow.

We’ve covered just a few things in this story about what to look for. Ultimately for our project we found an ’88 Coupe with some body issues that are easily repaired, and a couple of oil leaks. The car we found has 77,000 miles and included a statement from the DMV stating this mileage was correct. We negotiated a price under $3000 and drove the car home that day. We’ll highlight more about this new StangTV project car in an upcoming article. Until then keep looking for your next Fox body car, and let us know what you bought by commenting below.

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