Mark Houlahan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
December 13, 2013

It's probably safe to assume that everyone reading this magazine would love to have a '66 K-code GT fastback or perhaps a '69 Boss 302 in their garage, fully restored and ready for the show field. Truthfully, we're betting that the majority of our readers have a '66 C-code hardtop or a '69 SportsRoof in need of a whole lot of work. That's OK, really. You've already fulfilled part of your dream just by being a vintage Mustang owner. We know it takes a lot of time and money to restore a vintage Mustang (or even modify it). It's rare when we come across someone who can "do it all" and has the skills to perform mechanical work, paint and body repairs, welding, electrical, suspension, and upholstery. Even those well-versed in Mustang knowledge usually beg off on big projects and certainly paint and body work, so there's no shame in farming work out. What you have to do is become educated and make smart decisions by doing what you can, where you can to help your project dollars go further.

If you already have a Mustang, you're one step ahead, but for those who are still looking to purchase, you have to consider a few things. Do you buy a bottom dollar car and spend a lot of time fixing it up (possibly a good thing for modified builds)? Or do you put more money into the purchase price to get a better car up front that leaves you with little or no money to fix the car up further? We've always been big believers of buying the "most" car you can afford. We'd rather put our money down on a solid six-cylinder hardtop than a rotted out V-8 fastback that needs every sheetmetal panel in the NPD catalog. We know some people just have to have a fastback, especially a '67-'68 (the whole Shelby and Eleanor thing), but hardtops are still fun and that six-cylinder can be a nice, efficient cruiser. Or you could update to a V-8 drivetrain (either stock appearing or heavily modified).

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Knowing what you want to do with your Mustang is just as important as buying the right car for your budget. If you have two kids in college, a mortgage, and a car payment eating away at your checkbook, restoring a 428 SCJ Mach 1 is going to put you in the poor house. Don't be discouraged though. If you have financial responsibilities, perhaps a '65-'68 Mustang hardtop would be more feasible. You can still enjoy the hobby, shows, cruises, working in the garage with your kids, and be proud of what you built. Know your limits, both financially and under the hood. When it comes to a budget, be smart and know that most budgets often end up doubled or tripled by the time the project is done. This is where tackling as much of the project yourself and knowing every detail of your project will pay you back and keep money in your pocket that you can wisely use when you have to call in the professionals for paint and body work, welding, engine rebuilding, or whatever segment of the project you must farm out.

If you've owned a '65 hardtop in the past but are now looking for a '69 SportsRoof project, don't assume "all Mustangs are the same." Besides the obvious body differences, there are many other considerations, including how the '69 comes apart, what parts are available for them, the cost of those parts, and more. Be prepared. Knowledge is the answer here. Get your hands on every book, magazine article, website, and fellow Mustang owner who knows about '69 Mustangs and learn everything. That's the only way to know if the car(s) you're looking at is worth your investment in time and cash. Know what you want to do with the car (driver, track car, weekend cruiser, fully restored show car, etc.) and let that guide you to the knowledge you need. Building a weekend track car is a lot different than a full-on show car.

Once you’re under way with your project, the number one thing to consider is organization. We’re not just talking about storing parts, but keeping track of expenses, project time, and more. We spoke to Dave Stribling of Dave Stribling Restorations (www.davestriblingrestorations.com; 765/362-1967) to get a glimpse inside a pro shop along with opinions about several topics relating to budgets and building vintage Mustangs. Dave Stribling Restorations is known for not only concours winning restorations but also for modified builds that epitomize the restomod movement with classic styling and modern safety, performance, and convenience upgrades. One of the biggest issues Stribling sees with lack of organization is people “losing" parts and then ordering a replacement to keep the project going or to prevent holding up a shop. Later, the original part is “unlost," usually when the owner is searching for another part. You’ve just wasted your budget on a part you didn’t need!

Knowing in advance what you plan to do with your Mustang will ultimately save you money. If you start off building a track car and then half-way through decide to go the show car route, you’ll be throwing money away. Make a plan and stick to it. Building a track car or drag car is often cheaper, but they can have limited use too.

Stribling sees a lot of customers who tear down their Mustangs and then has Stribling do the repairs, such as welding in new metal, paint and body, and sometimes even the trickier side of interior work like headliners or recovering seats. The important thing to know here is what the shop expects versus your expectations. Make sure that you and your shop are on the same page. Don’t tell your body shop you’re building a driver and then complain when the paint job isn’t fully wet sanded and buffed out to show quality. Alternatively, if you are building a show car and the paint job isn’t the quality you agreed on and paid for, don’t be afraid to bring it back and discuss the issue with the shop.

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You can save yourself some time by performing the grunt work. Many shops don’t mind if you want to tackle the cleaning and painting of small parts. While they’re working on installing a new floorpan and quarter-panels, you could be sanding and painting the steering column, replacing ball joints, and other small cleaning/repair/painting sub-projects. There’s a lot of labor cost involved with these areas and many shops would just as soon have the owner take the parts away than have to deal with paying their staff to clean them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a bead blast cabinet, parts washer, a bench top grinder, hand tools, and so forth is a lot cheaper in the long run than paying a shop to do everything on your project. “Three hours blasting a headlight bucket at current shop rates is big money—you can save a bunch by cleaning this stuff and taking it back to the shop ready to go," Stribling says.

One area that Stribling says to be careful in is with replacement and reproduction parts. Most shops today are dealers for sheetmetal, restoration parts, or aftermarket performance parts. When you bring cheap parts to a shop for installation, it can often cost you more in labor due to the extra time it takes the shop to get your ill-fitting parts to work. Plus, if there’s an issue with the parts, it’s up to you to handle the problem, delaying the progress and holding up the shop. Talk to the shop first. Often they can get the same part from their vendor and they know how that vendor’s part works/installs, saving you labor costs and ensuring the work is done right. “At today’s shop rates, we’ve seen an ill-fitting reproduction panel cost the customer more than using the expensive original panel," Stribling tells us.

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Which engine compartment do you think is easier on the wallet to restore—the lightly modified ’65-’66 small-block or the ’70 Boss 302 with its specialty and limited production parts? Knowing what you’re getting into from the beginning means doing your research. If you have the budget to build a ’65-’66 Mustang into a modified cruiser and stumble upon a great deal on a ’70 Boss 302 and buy it, it won’t be such a deal when you go broke trying to restore it due to the cost of the specialty parts you’ll need.

When we asked about one of his specialties—modular engine swaps—Stribling said to research custom modifications or changes. "I'm on the phone daily with other shops [that are] installing mod motors in older cars," Stribling says. "These guys are having to do the research to find me and then pick my brain for info that they need." This research costs time and money, something you can do in advance for your shop so they can jump right in. Alternatively, seek out a shop, like Stribling's, that specializes in what you are looking to do with your vintage Mustang. If you're planning to build a track car, you should look for shops that build and maintain race-level vintage Mustangs, such as Cobra Automotive or Christiana Muscle Cars. If you want a restomod effort with all the gadgets, then you should look at The Restomod Shop (a division of Mustangs Plus) or Stribling himself. Don't be afraid to even farm the work out that you can't (or won't) do to more than one shop. Just because a shop churns out pro-level paint and body doesn't mean they are at the same level when it comes to wiring and electronics. Much like a racer will send his car to a chassis shop, then to a paint shop, and finally a wiring shop before finishing the drivetrain and details themselves, you can do the same with your vintage Mustang project.

Understand what any modifications can do to the value of your Mustang. Tasteful mods and standard upgrades like disc brakes are usually no problem at resale time and often add value. Making your Mustang too "personal" can mean a tough go at selling it in the future if you have to.

Undoubtedly the one area you'll be hard pressed to save money on is paint and body. Paint materials today are expensive. Sure, you can find some super cheap paint to throw on your Mustang, but you get what you pay for. Unless you're a paint and body man by trade, learning bodywork on your vintage Mustang is not the place to start. Most restoration-level paint shops will not paint over someone else's bodywork either. The finished product, no matter how radical the engine or how custom the interior, comes down to the paint finish. If that finish starts bubbling or flaking off a year later due to painting over poor body work, then it is a reflection on their shop. This is another area where your budget can be wasted. You can spend a lot of time and money getting the body work right and then have a really tough time of finding anyone to squirt your color over it. So if you think you're saving money by doing your own body work, it really only becomes a saving if you're painting the car as well. If not, then leave the body work and paint to a qualified shop with references. This way, the work is guaranteed and done right. Otherwise, you'll find most shops will want to redo the body work to their satisfaction—costing you more time and money out of your budget.

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In the end, you are in control of the costs on your project and no one else (well maybe the wife, but we're not going to go there). Research your project ideas, parts costs, and typical labor rates before you jump in with both feet. Doing so will mean your project will go smoothly, you won't waste money from your budget, and you'll be happy with the end results. Failing to do your due diligence means wasting money, frustration, and overall resentment of the project. Don't be that owner who ends up selling a half-finished project because they ran out of money, patience, or both. Keep a watchful eye on your budget, know what you are capable of, and look for the things you are not able to do. Seek out reputable shops and keep the lines of communication open and clear so everyone is on the same page, and we promise you you'll love every minute of your project and love driving the finished result even more.

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Regular readers will remember this budget engine detailing project from last year. This ‘66 Mustang is used as a cruiser and weekend fun ride with decent paint and interior, but the engine bay was seriously lacking. With nothing more than some manual labor, elbow grease, spray paint, and a few detail parts, a couple of club members had this engine bay whipped into shape in a couple of days. These are the kind of projects that have great visual impact/results without spending a fortune.

Lastly, have fun with your vintage Mustang. Just because it isn’t a show car doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Many shows are non-judged or have “in progress” classes where you can display your project as you work on it. This owner had some fun earlier this year at the Silver Springs Ford & Mustang Roundup by displaying his ’67 Mustang project with a “preservation fund” donation can on the front fender along with a bottle of rubbing compound! Now that’s humor we can appreciate!