Buying a Fox body Mustang

A cool thing about Fox body mustangs is that you can find one in pretty decent shape for a reasonable price ($3000-$6000). There are a lot of survivors out there, but a lot that have been beat to hell as well. How do you discern the two? Like shopping for any vehicle, you do a careful examination of it. It's also a good idea to have a friend come along, for a second perspective.

These cars are notorious for their weaker-than-weak frames. I.e, the 5.0L V8 engine up front, even in stock form, is enough to wreak havoc on the stock torque boxes and overall alignment of the subframes. Thus, it is very important when looking at these cars that the frame is in good condition. Harsh driving without proper subframe reinforcement will lead to a twisted frame, guaranteed. When I am looking to buy a Fox body, here is my usual procedure. If you wish to skip to a particular section, use the links below.

Body and Frame
Engine
Transmission
Interior
The Test Drive
Pricing
Making a Decision
Passing Inspection


Updated Nov 2016

Body and Frame Inspection

  1. Run a hand along side the windshield and hatch glass pillars. Any cracks, bulges, indentations or other mutations are a likely sign of the frame twisting.
  2. Check the alignment and spacing of the fenders and moldings (GT's). Inconsistent alignment or misalignment may dictate the car was in an accident at some point, or again the frame has twisted somewhat.
  3. Check the strut towers in the engine bay for rust. Foxbody Mustangs are notorious for rusting on the front strut towers (especially the lower portion, where they meet the frame). If there is heavy rust there, I would back off, unless you are very handy with metal work. It is possible to patch in new strut towers, but again, this is a pretty big job (not for the faint of heart!). In my books, bad strut towers means the car is one to leave behind.
  4. Check the torque box at the rear of the car. This is another weak area of the Foxbody platform, and heavy abuse will certainly show up here. The stock torque boxes are only tacked in place and will show lots of distortion if the car has been beat on (they may even be ripped apart). If they are in bad shape, they can be repaired, but it is a pretty big job to do. Reinforcement kits aren't very expensive, but there is a good amount of labor involved to fix the torque boxes.
  5. Check the alignment of the radiator supports. Misalignment here probably means the Foxbody was involved in a collision at some point.
  6. Check the floors for rust or holes. Replacement floor plans are cheap, just annoying to replace. All the tack welds need to be drilled out (or somehow removed) on the original pan before putting in the new ones. Rotting floors are common on Fox Mustangs living in any of the salt belt states.

Now, an issue found in one of the above sections is not necessarily a deal breaker. Most of these issues, within reason, are not the end of the world and can be used as a bargaining tool. It comes down to your personal preference. Do you mind owning a car that may or may not have been involved in a collision? Can you take on a big job, such as replacing the strut towers, or pay someone else to do it? Personal preference ultimately will dictate whether or not the car is worth buying. In my opinion, the #1 factor is the frame and body. Slight issues with either, like stated, doesn't have to be a deal breaker. However, significant frame issues on a Foxbody means that Foxbody should be left behind.

Engine

The great thing about the engine (and all mechanical components) is that they can be fixed or replaced. With some hard work and determination, most any backyard mechanic is capable of replacing any mechanical component on these cars. Blown engine? No biggie. Rotted frame looks like swiss cheese? Well that's a little different. When examining mechanical components of the car, just keep in mind anything mechanical can always be fixed, for a price. Don't let an oil leak otherwise deter you from an unmolested body.

  1. Prior to turning on the car, check underneath to see if you can see any visible signs of fluids leaking or fluid stains on the surface beneath the car. TBH, I'd be surprised to find out a 20+ year old car doesn't leak.
  2. When you do start the car, have you or your friend watch the tailpipes for any smoke or discoloration coming out.
    • Blue smoke is burning oil. It is not unusual for a high mileage engine to burn some oil, but if it is continuously puffing blue, or everytime throttle is applied, it is likely the rings are shot and the engine will need a rebuild.
    • If you see white smoke being blown out of the tail pipe, this is coolant (coolant also has a sweet smell to it). Blown head gaskets is a common cause for coolant to mix with the gas.
    Either blue or white smoke coming out of the tail pipe means the engine will need somework, but, again, not necessarely a deal breaker, just another mental note on what may need to be fixed (and another bargaining tool). If the owner is willing to negotiate the cost of the repair off of the purchase price (unless the price is already reflecting these repairs), you are still good to go.
  3. Verify the oil pressure of the engine, and have a look at the oil on the dipstick. Ask the owner what oil he uses, and when it was last changed.
  4. Check the placement of the heater controls. An old trick for an overheating car is to run the heater on full blast, to pull extra air through the heater core. If the owner is running full heat in 80 degree weather, this Fox is probably running a little hot.
  5. Speaking of the heater core, verify that the heater does actually work. It is relatively common for the heater cores to clog or break. Under this curcumstance, many owners just bypass the heater core because it is a big job to replace (again, the heater core itself is not expensive, but labor intensive). Check the firewall to make sure that the heater hoses both plug in and out, and are not connected together in one continuous circuit. If the heater core has blown, well, if you live in a climate that doesn't require heat, it's not really a big deal. But if live somewhere where it can get chilly, a working heater is something to have. Not only for your own comfort, but to defog the windshield and windows.
Transmission

The transmission is another important area to analyze, as it is both an expensive and complicated repair or replacement if that is the case. To verify the transmission is in good working order, a test drive is necessary. A visual inspection is not enough.

For manual transmission equipped Foxbody Mustangs, check that the shifter is smooth moving through all the gates while driving and shifting at various RPM's. Check that the clutch isn't slipping simply by giving the 'ole gal some gas. If she revs but doesn't move much, or moves out of proportion to the amount of gas your giving, then the clutch is on its last legs (but don't purposly slip the clutch - it isn't yet your car!). Keep in mind that reverse is a non-synchronized gear, so if you shove the car into reverse before giving it a few seconds to slow down, expect to hear a nasty grinding sound! The solution to this is before going into reverse, shift into any forward gear and wait a few seconds for the transmission to slow down internally. I personally do 1-R, but many prefer 5-R, as it is right above.

For automatic transmission cars, the same rule applies - a test drive is necessary. Prior to driving, check for any leaks underneath, and pull the transmission fluid dipstick. It should be red, and have no burning smell. Once under way, when you first shift it out of park into gear, is there a noticeable loud clunk or slam? This could be worn u-joints, or something internal (the transmission could also be modified, so ask!). While under power, is it slipping, are the shifts smooth, is it downshifting properly (again, a lot of people modify their autos, so it may differ from a stock feeling but otherwise be functioning perfectly. This can be verfied with receipts for the parts/labor). If it is an overdrive equipped transmission, does it engage and lock? After the test drive, check the fluid again for burning or discoloration.

The interior

The condition of the interior is a good indication of how the car has been treated. If the interior is meticulously tidy (no garbage, stains etc), more likely than not the rest of the car has received the same car (i.e: good care, reg maintenance).

Concerning the dash and instruments, check the dash for cracks. Gauges in these cars are notoriously inaccurate and frequently stop working or only work partially.

Concerning the odometer, if the numbers do not line up evenly, then most likely the odometer has rolled over. US cars only go to 99,999 miles before rolling over (Canadian versions will go to 999,999 km before rolling over). Therefore if you see the car has 13,000 mi on it and the numbers aren't quite even, most likely it has rolled over and really has 112,999 mi on it.

The horn button is frequently worn out, as is the mechanism that holds the ashtray door closed. Both of these are inexpensive and easy to fix.

The test drive

The test drive is the biggest factor in examining a car. If the owner will not take the car for a test drive, it probably means he is hiding something.

I always like to have the owner drive first. This way I can see how he drives the car, and subsequently I get an idea of how it's been treated. Every owner certainly has their favorite patch of asphalt to let that 5.0L loose, but if every piece of asphalt is the favorite asphalt, then you know this Pony has been ridden hard. Watch how he shifts, brakes, does this and that, if he has any tricks (both good or bad). Again, all this observation is telling you the history of the mustang.

Of course, a car over 20 years is going to have squeaks and rattles. Just make sure that rattle is not actually the transmission ripping itself up (this may sound more than a rattle ;)). Speaking of transmissions, note how it shifts, how the clutch feels. Shift smoothly and consistently? Good. It doesn't? Oh well, T5's are pretty shitty anyway. AOD's too, but that is just because they are automatic. Don't believe me? Check the torque ratings: T5 torque ratings. Keep in mind, during the test drive, it still is not your car! Therefor, be respectful.

Foxbody Pricing (updated Nov 2016)

This is one of the most difficult areas to address, as there are just so many factors involved. Certainly, location plays a major area. In some areas, a Fox will be twice as expensive as somewhere else in the country. Having done a lot of reading, and I mean a lot of reading, here are some ballpark figures.

PriceComments
< $3000This a project car. Expect a rough body, or rough mechanics, or likely both.
$3000-$5000Looking better, but probably needs a few things to run 100%. Paint is probably not great.
$5000-$8000Solid foundation. Should run and drive well, look pretty good. Upper end of the price range will be lower mileage, or well modified.
$8000 +At this price point, expect a great, lower mileage Fox, or a heavily modified monster. Body and frame should be as good as they get.

Deciding to Purchase a Fox

At the end of the day, the decision is all yours. Do you like the car? What do you like about it, what don't you like about it? What needs to be fixed, what doesn't? All of these factors play in to what your final offer may be. Just keep in mind that priority #1 is the frame, priority #2 the body, and everything else after those 2. All other mechanical components can be fixed or swapped, in my opinion, with relative ease. (I'd rather turn a wrench than operate a sander).

Also, be realistic. At best, the Foxbody you're looking at is a minimum of 20 years old. Any car that is 20 years old is going to have some wear and tear, squeaks and groans. Factor in that in fact you are looking at a Mustang, which probably has seen at least one or two owners over the years with a heavy foot, you cannot expect a flawless vehicle. If you want new, buy new. It is very frustraing as a seller to be dealing with buyers that expect a flawless car for $4000.

Most importantly, always verify the owners claims by asking for receipts or any type of legitimate paperwork that can attest to the history of the car. If the seller is claiming the car has brand new aluminum heads on it, well that should be easy to see. A receipt in this case is icing on the cake, but you should easily be able to confirm if the heads are aluminum or not. Now, what if the seller is claiming the stock heads have been ported and polished, or that the motor was recently rebuilt? I would expect to see the bills for this. It is very common to hear a certain component has been replaced or rebuilt, but there is no bill for it because "the previous owner did it". You know the old saying, talk is cheap...

Importing a car or passing a safety inspection

Frequently, the perfect car is found out of state or out of province. At least for me it was. Anyways, quite often when you buy a car that is not registered in your district, it will have to undergo some sort of safety inspection before it can be registered to use in your area.

When examining a car out of state, here are some key things to notice.

  • Brakes are working smoothly, braking power evenly distributed
  • Working e-brake or parking brake
  • Undamaged windshield or hatch glass (no cracks)
  • All exterior lights work correctly and are clearly visible when illuminated
  • Headlights, tail lights, flashers, brake lights
  • Side view, rear view mirror are present, in correct place and firmly attached
  • If it is a manual transmission, the car will not start unless clutch is depressed
  • Functional horn
  • Good tires & tire tread
  • If you have to pass emissions:
    • Catyltic converters are present

The above are really just some basic checks, but any safety inspection will look for, at a minimum, those listed. Really, these checks should be done on ALL cars despite where you buy them, but this list becomes especially important when the car will have to pass a safety inspection.