American classic ownership made easy? | First-generation Ford Mustang Buyer's Guide

Photography Courtesy Ford

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

The first Ford Mustang is the very definition of iconic. As the quintessential pony car—hey, it’s actually a horse—no one except orthodox Camaro worshippers will pooh-pooh you for owning one of these. A classic Mustang always gets respect.

They’re cool regardless of what you do with them. Whether it’s an all-original, six-cylinder automatic or it’s restomodded with a Coyote motor, onlookers will still give an appreciative nod. Enough were made that finding one is easy, and the cost of entry is still low; there’s a first-generation Mustang for every budget. It’s a win-win way to get into the classic car hobby.

Part of its magic is that there is no magic to the Mustang. Nothing is unobtainable or high-tech. In fact, it’s all very standard stuff. From engine and driveline to suspension and brakes, its components are common across Ford platforms from the era.

The car’s iconic status is deserved. When properly put together, it’s a sprightly, fun car to drive, with good balance. Gobs of power can be available with the right engine. It’s capable on a race track or drag strip, or you can build it to be a comfortable, sporty touring car. Thanks to the million-plus made, current trading figures for the standard models are well below the six-figure mark.

Because of its iconic status, the aftermarket is possibly the most robust of any single car in the world. “You can buy every last square inch of the car,” says Rick Schmidt, vice president of National Parts Depot, a major parts house for the Mustang.

That includes all the period-correct screws, nuts, bolts, interior pieces and anything else you can imagine. Everything’s documented. Getting a complete, correct interior, for example, is often as simple as calling a supplier and reading off the data plate on the driver’s door. 

And when you’re done, you’ll have spent a fraction of what it costs to restore most other cars. Outside of maybe the MGB, a non-Shelby Mustang is probably the least expensive car to rejuvenate. This makes an easy DIY car if you’re after a fun project—partly because there are tons of books to help you on your way. 

These cars are just dead nuts simple. Everything is done logically. It’s even easier to own than a Beetle, as the maintenance is less intensive.

To get started, just look around. You can get one in any style you’d like: hardtop, convertible or Fastback. As usual, get the nicest one you can afford.

Get into Iacocca’s icon, and start doing the classic car thing the easy way. Buy a Mustang and never sweat parts availability.

“These days, the cars are so damn old, they’ve been cobbled and screwed up by previous owners,” warns Schmidt. “Everything could be out of spec.” Wrecked cars may not have been put back correctly. Body and suspension pieces could be out of alignment. Some lazy or cheap owners may reinstall worn-out chassis components alongside new parts. That kind of incomplete renovation contributes to a false reputation for poor driving quality. 

It’s not rocket science. The standard Ford drivelines are rock-solid, and will last a quarter-million miles. “The C4 automatic is so robust, it’s still popular with drag racers up to today,” Schmidt says.

Any V8 car is a solid choice and has plenty of power. The six-cylinder engines are decent at keeping up with traffic, but they’re a bit too slow to be much fun. Don’t get hung up on getting a Hi-Po engine, though; those have solid lifters, meaning regular valve adjustments. They also fetch more money.

As a classic car, a Mustang is very livable. You can get one with power steering and air conditioning, or both can be retrofitted. You can add a/c to any of these cars without hurting their value, and it works really well. In fact, the car can be modernized with many possible updated suspensions, gearboxes, engines, brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. It’s tremendously versatile. 

Schmidt says that though a damaged roof can make expenses snowball, rust in the cowl is most common and the toughest to deal with. “[Mustangs] can rust anywhere, but when the cowl rusts, it lets water onto the floors, which then rusts the floors on the passenger and driver’s side,” Schmidt says. “A rusty cowl takes time-consuming and difficult surgery to correct.”

“The price of ownership can be very little if you demand little,” Schmidt advises. “The cost of entry can be really affordable. Just about anybody can afford a Mustang.”

If you buy a basic 289 coupe, nothing you need will be very expensive. Everything is available as a reproduction part. Only if you’re dealing with rare options or are after total originality, do things get pricey.

Convertibles are of good design, though not exactly as waterproof as a modern car. It’s typical of any 1960s ragtop, and it will leak a little bit. “Nothing as bad as a 1970s GM T-top,” Schmidt says. By now, the top’s been replaced at least once, if not several times. “Whether it comes back together waterproof or not is on the restorer, not the design,” Schmidt notes. 

When new, they never had overheating problems, but the cooling systems have lost efficiency over the years. Larger radiators are a popular upgrade.

None of the brake setups is up to track use in stock form. “I don’t mind going out in stock brakes in traffic,” Schmidt says. “When put together right, they’ll stop the car adequately.” Most cars had a single-circuit system with four drums, but front discs were an option equipped on a minority of the cars. Upgrading to a split braking system is a must.

Big blocks screw up the car’s weight balance. Keep the small-block V8 and be happy.

Avoid hotrodded or drag-raced Mustangs built in the ’70s or ’80s. There are still enough good, solid cars out there that you don’t have to undo past modifications.  

The most valuable cars have an engine, gearbox and chassis with the date codes in the same ballpark as the car’s assembly date. 

An upgraded car would have stock a/c that’s made to work better. Upgrades that improve the car are acceptable, but changing engines, valve covers, manifolds, adding big wheels or doing wacky paint jobs, can cause depreciation if not done tastefully. “Modified Mustang values depend upon the quality, performance and good-taste of the decisions, and values can range wildly from higher-than-stock to much-worse-than-stock,” Schmidt says. 

Some of the best deals are the Shelby clones. You can drive around looking cool and not worry about ruining the value. That’s a lot of car for the money, and if you’re lucky, you can find a Shelby clone for less than a standard Fastback.

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