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Best Generation For A Ford Mustang Project Car

Oct 10, 2023

Due to its affordability, versatility, and widespread availability, here's why the Fox Body Mustang is an excellent choice for a project car

Though Chevrolet Corvette fans might disagree, the Ford Mustang isn't just the most popular vehicle ever made, it's the most iconic American car of all time. Having been in continuous production since 1964½, over 10.2 million fabled pony cars have been sold. With the Dodge Charger and Challenger being discontinued this year, and the Camaro next year, the Mustang is also the last true muscle car left standing.

With an abundance of stock and the Mustang's legendary status, it is the perfect project car for restoration and/or super-modification. The problem is, there are so many amazing generations of Mustangs to choose from it is hard to nail the perfect one down. The actual definition of a classic car is any vehicle 20 years or older, which is hilarious because a 2003 Saturn Ion is technically a classic. It also means that fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-generation Mustangs aren't great candidates for a project.

Everyone can agree that the fourth-gen Mustangs of the mid-90s were the ugliest, and the "Pinto" Mustangs IIs of the early-70s second-gen are the wieniest, so those two are out. The obvious choice is the first generation, but those are real classics that should be faithfully restored and that's not as fun as building a tricked-out street rod. By the process of elimination, the third-gen Fox Body Mustangs are the perfect generation for a project car. You can't argue with science.

RELATED: 10 American Muscle Cars That Make Perfect Project Cars On Any Budget

Of the 10.2 million Mustangs to ever roll out of the factory, 2,603,339 of them were third-gen Fox Bodies. From 1979 to 1993, Ford cranked these babies out, which means there's plenty out there to choose from. The law of supply and demand dictates that high supply and low demand means low prices and these underappreciated cars can be picked up for next to nothing. The biggest key in any project car is not breaking the bank on the initial buy, because there will be plenty of opportunity to burn money on the resto-mod.

A running and driving Fox Body Mustang can be purchased for as little as $3,500. Bring a Trailer auctions has dozens of great condition and fully-restored Fox Bodies from every year, starting under $10,000. Obviously, a fully restored car isn't a fixer-upper, but if you don't have to worry about bodywork, you can put those resources into mechanical upgrades and badass wheels. For one that needs some serious work, A.K.A. a project car, these suckers can be had for a song, which leaves plenty in the budget to go crazy with.

Additionally, the third-gen Mustangs came in a variety of body styles that were either cool or had the potential for coolness. The convertible and anything with the Cobra or GT trim was immediately awesome, but the somewhat understated two-door coupes and three-door hatchbacks just need a little style to shine. The biggest issue was the god-awful hubcaps Ford put on the lower trims, including those wimpy wire spoke atrocities. Slap some killer mags and fat tires on a 1987 LX notchback coupe, and suddenly it looks ready to kick some ass.

RELATED: 10 Exciting Facts About The Ford Fox Body Mustang

The Fox Body Mustangs came with a variety of engine options, including a pretty decent turbocharged four-cylinder in the 1979 Cobra, but it's the 5.0-liter V-8 that put butts in the seats. Almost as iconic as the Mustang itself, the 5.0 used to be called the Windsor small block 302, but after the Fox Bodies became known simply as the "Five-O." In reality, the 5.0-liter was only 4.9 liters because that's the actual metric displacement of 302 cubic inches, but thankfully Ford rounded it up as "Four point nine" which doesn't sound as cool.

While certainly not mind-blowing by today's standards, they were the first high-performance engines in American cars after almost a decade of detuned and underwhelming power plants. Hot rodders and rat rodders love the Five-O because they can be found everywhere and are infinitely customizable and upgradeable. They're also cheap as hell, with Powertrain Products Inc. selling remanufactured Ford 5.0-liter engines starting at around $2,000. For the price of the Floor mats and Cup holder package on the 2024 Mustang Dark Horse, an entirely rebuilt V-8 can be had. That Dark Horse package may not actually exist, but you get the point.


Engine Output

2.3-liter inline-four

88 horsepower, 120 pound-feet of torque

2.3-liter turbo inline-four

132 horsepower, 143 pound-feet of torque

3.3-liter inline-six

85 horsepower, 143 pound-feet of torque

2.8-liter Cologne V-6

109 horsepower, 142 pound-feet of torque

3.8-liter Essex V-6

120 horsepower, 205 pound-feet of torque

4.2-liter V-8

119 horsepower, 194 pound-feet of torque

5.0-liter V-8

225 horsepower, 300 pound-feet of torque

In addition to the Five-O being a great project car engine, the FoxBodies are more attractive because finding parts, both original and aftermarket is quite easy. If you are restoring a 1929 Duesenberg Model J, there's a zero-percent chance you'll find anything down at the Auto Zone that will help. Even finding classic muscle car parts, especially Mopars, is difficult and expensive. A vehicle for which almost 3 million were made however is a breeze. Ford made Fox Body parts for 36 years and so did a thousand aftermarket companies.

RELATED: 10 Mods That You Need To Do On Your Fox Body 5.0L Mustang

Ten years ago, everything was about the zombie apocalypse, so back then a good project car would have been making some kind of Mad Max wasteland assault vehicle. Now, however, 1980s retro style is hot, and no car is more associated with the decade than the Fox Body Mustang. Really, a 1988 5.0 Mustang GT convertible with the two-tone trim screams the 80s as much as the Safety Dance, Billy Idol's hair, or Peter Venkman getting slimed in Ghostbusters. Currently, the 80s are dominating popular culture from Stranger Things to Wonder Woman 1984.

It's human nature to wax nostalgic about the good old days. Baby Boomers grew up in the 50s and 60s, so when they hit a certain age (in the 1980s) all media was dominated by throwbacks to rock 'n roll greasers and hippy psychedelia. Generation X grew up in the 70s and 80s, and they are now hitting middle age, which means they are demanding those things they remember fondly from their formative years. It's going to suck for Millennials and Gen-Zers when they hit their nostalgia age because the only flavors their decades have are cyber-stalking, COVID-19, and social justice riots.

The 80s however were a fun time and now that Gen-X has achieved the disposable income years, dropping some coin on a Fox Body restoration/customization makes perfect sense. Maybe there's a guy, like this editor, who used to have a sweet red '88 Five-O Mustang hatch, who wants to relive some good times, driving around with friends while Metallica blasted out of the 12-inch kicker-boxes. Or perhaps there's someone, or a whole bunch of someone, who just remembers how radically cool an 80s GT looked zipping down the road.

RELATED: 10 Reasons Why Ford Needs To Bring Back The Fox Body Mustang

Fox Body Mustangs aren't just great projects for Gen-Xers, they appeal to gearheads of any generation. If you put an EcoBoost in a 1967 '68 GT, people will look at you like you're mental and if you drop a '69 Boss 429 into a lowrider, chances are you'll be burned at the stake as a heretic. The third-gen Mustangs on the other hand are an open pallet that can be tweaked and customized a million different ways that won't offend the purists.

A Fox Body Mustang can be a dragster, track car, street rod, or even a ridiculous extreme-camber drift car and nobody will judge. Not too long ago, MotorTrend declared, "the Ford Fox-Body Mustang is America’s Top Hot Rod" because of all the reasons stated here. They're cheap, parts are plentiful, and they look damn cool.

The fact is, you are guaranteed to turn heads with a killer third-gen custom job. Or, you could just restore one and add some horsepower upgrades to the 5.0-liter for a great retro ride that will also draw some attention. The best part about picking a Fox Body Mustang for a project car is that it's the most affordable way to put a kickass set of wheels in the driveway.

Brian Anderson's love of cars started at an early age with Hot Wheels, slot-car racing, and building model kits. When he was old enough to drive, he got the fastest thing he could afford, which was 1973 Pontiac LeMans with a 350. After an experimental phase with Toyotas and Nissans, he eventually gravitated to Mopar. He currently has a 383 Magnum and a 5.7 L Hemi sitting in his driveway.

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