Can the Fox Body Ford Mustang Be a Legit Track Car?

That depends on your tolerance for pain.

Matt Farah Mustang Track Car
Matt Farah

There is a simple formula that powers the entire automotive universe, from faded, smelly old Corollas on Craigslist, to paint-to-sample Porsche 918 Spyders. As the purveyor of a YouTube channel that explores as much variety in cars as humanly possible, reviewing over 200 cars in the last 12 months, I can report that this formula has remained a constant.

Fast. Cheap. Good. They say you can only pick two out of three. You want a fast car that works properly? It won’t be cheap. You want a reliable car for cheap? It won’t be fast. A fast car for cheap? Roll the dice and pray.

As usual, I fail to follow my own, sagelike advice, and decide to throw money down a hole until I want to jump off a cliff. What started as a good idea, a simple idea, has now sent me and my hard earned dollars down into the depths of project car hell. And I’m looking for salvation.

In high school, my best friends all had Mustangs from the 80’s. There was Larry, now a superstar detailer and creator of AMMO Auto Care, with his 1989 “25th Anniversary” Mustang LX Hatchback. Even though his Mustang was eight years old, he had the cleanest car in school. And there was Jimmy, the son of a lifetime mechanic who spent 80 percent of his week either underneath his ’88 LX hatch, or drag racing it at Englishtown. Dan had an ’85 GT with the ugly four-eyed front, but it ran deep into the 12’s on street tires even though only the rust held it together.

I had worked at Foot Locker for three years by my eighteenth birthday, and spent my savings on a brand new 1998 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT sedan. But after a year with the Subaru, having ruined it with cheesy “mods” like phantom lights, a Yakima snowboard rack, and a (most likely) stolen stereo setup from Chinatown, I wanted to be one of the Mustang boys. Specifically, I wanted an 88-93 “notchback.” It was the lightest of any V8 Mustang made since the '60s and had a tougher stance than the hatchbacks. Mustangs had a reputation for being unkillable, and, unlike my pre-WRX era Subaru, the car had an actual aftermarket.

Mom and Dad, fair and generous as they were, veto’ed my Notchback proposal. I could have a muscle car, they said, but it absolutely had to have dual airbags. As usual, my parents were probably right, and if I ever have a kid who wants a cool car, I’m going to tell that kid exactly the same thing (as long as those airbags aren’t made by Takata). I ended up buying a lightly used 1994 Mustang GT, which served me well, but my lust for a notchback never died.

While semi-drunkenly browsing Craigslist (as you do) in the summer of 2013, I came across a prime example for a project car: a partially restored 1988 ‘SSP’ notchback. SSP stood for “Special Service Package,” and these cars were built for law enforcement. SSP cars were even lighter than the standard LX’s, with manual windows, manual door locks, no sunroof, base-level seats, and no fog lights. Even with an iron-block V8, they barely cracked 3,000 lbs out of the box. This car had spent the first decade of its life with the San Diego Police department, where, no doubt, it had the absolute shit beat out of it.

The seller was an aging career Ford tech who wanted to restore it to “better than stock” condition. It had brand new OEM shocks and springs, brand new OEM brakes, a brand new Borg Warner T5 OEM transmission, and, most importantly, a Ford Racing 302R/GT40 crate engine, rated at 350 horsepower and 350 lb/ft, with less than 500 miles on it. He hadn’t gotten around to the bodywork. It was stuck with a crap Maaco paint job and dozens of dings on every single body panel, the result of what I’d like to imagine was the cops using the car to bend over and cuff hundreds of perps.

It was a ten-footer for sure, but it had good bones, and that’s what I wanted.

I bought the whole car for $7,500; only $1,500 more than Ford Racing charges for the motor. I congratulated myself on a score well scored, and the old man teared up as I drove his pride and joy away.

The project seemed fairly straightforward: take the car I wanted in high school, and build it to do the kind of driving I like to do now, as an adult. It’s the same shit people have been doing with muscle cars for the last ten years, really; most call it Pro Touring. I wanted to take this car, known mainly for being a cheap, strong drag racer, and make it go around corners. Since I had this brand new engine and transmission, already making nearly 50% more power than the car came with from the factory, I could leave that alone and focus on chassis, brakes, wheels, and tires. How complicated could that be? After all, every problem has already been solved in the 25 years since Ford stopped building these things.

I took the car to Buttonwillow Raceway, having done absolutely nothing to it since driving it home, and laid down a 2 minute, 26 second lap time on Kelley tires and fucking drum brakes. At the conclusion of the video, I made the following declaration: “By the end of the summer, I want this Mustang to be faster than my friend Ryan’s E46 M3 track car, which runs a 2:09 here.”

By the end of the summer, huh? Of what year, exactly?

Matt Farah

I made that statement in April of 2014. Two and a half years and over $40,000 later, and my car hasn’t turned a single lap at any race track. I feel pretty stupid, but, as usual, I should have known better. I wanted fast and cheap when we started this project, but inch-by-inch, dollar-by-hundred-dollar increment, it’s turning into fast and good, and that’s not what I wanted at all. But it’s too late to go back.

The thing is, I can’t turn a wrench for shit, and I don’t want to learn how. I don’t enjoy it in the least. Some people relish the DIY weekends, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with diagnosing and repairing something yourself. I don’t have that. Every time I try to work on my car, I hurt myself, I break something, and I waste countless hours of my life when I’d rather be doing absolutely anything else. Because I fuck up, I end up spending more money fixing my own mistakes than if I had just paid someone to do it for me.

I’ve had the best shops work on this thing; Maximum Motorsports built a hell of a chassis; copying their American Iron-dominating IRS Mustang chassis but without series regulations, they installed a full racing-spec Independent Rear Suspension with a Torsen differential and Delrin bushings; custom-valved Bilstein shocks, tubular K-members, a custom driveshaft, a roll cage, and the 13” brakes from a 2004 Cobra.

To get the IRS and tires under the 1988 body, you have to either shorten the axles or widen the car’s body. A question like that isn’t a question at all, and so I asked HRE to make me a one-off set of wheels for the Fox, over which we would modify the body to fit. Those wheels became the HRE RS105—despite my repeated attempts to get them to call them the “MF1.”

HRE shipped them up to Maximum Motorsports for fitment. All seemed well, aside from the fact that just this portion of the build had taken nearly eight months, compared to the projected three. It now sat on 10.5” three-piece forged wheels with 295-section rubber at all four corners. Holy turn-in, Batman.

To make the overfenders and new air dam fit, I took the car to RDB LA, a well-known body shop with four times the Instagram followers than me. They convinced me to have them remove the dents and dings, since the car now needed a repaint anyway. The bodywork took another four months, since the overfenders fit like dogshit out of the box, but with enough massaging, sanding, grinding, and reinforcing, it looked mean as hell with a fresh coat of deep gloss black.

Finally, I took it down to BBI Autosport in Huntington Beach, CA, a shop that usually only works on track-focused Porsches. Betim Berisha, the owner of BBI, and Tony Thompson, one of their techs, were huge Mustang guys back in high school. Betim saw the car and thought it was the most bad-ass thing ever, and he was super excited to work on it. Plus, my videos of their cars have brought them tons of business, and so they do top-level motorsport work for me at pretty reasonable prices. This time, they did some finish work: Recaro seats, Sabelt harnesses, new steering wheel, gauge cluster, and a CoolShirt setup (don’t judge, it’s hot in LA and I like liquid-cooled clothing).

Then stuff started breaking. First it ran too hot, then it ran too cold. Then headers started cracking. The replacement headers didn’t fit, and the replacements for those got so hot they melted right through my plug wires.

A new thermostat, new fan relays and sensors, ceramic-coated plug wires and heat wrap, and I was back in business—for a day. Each new issue meant a trip back to BBI Autosport, 40 miles south of my house. In Kansas, 40 miles is no biggie, but in LA, going somewhere 40 miles away is a half day’s trip. Gotta drop off then pick up later? That’s a full day of doing nothing but shuttling a car back and forth.

Matt Farah

And Maximum Motorsports, the company easily capable of dealing with this stuff, is nearly 300 miles from my house. I don’t own a trailer, and don’t want to risk the six-hour drive up there. Plus, I can’t find anyone stupid enough to drive me back.

I brought it back to BBI and asked them to diagnose the issues. All these guys, like my friends Larry and Jimmy, worked on Mustangs in high school and then moved on. And I’m asking them to regress and deal with my pretty shitbox. These are all very smart people, and good at their jobs. But this is like asking Gordon Ramsay to make sushi. He probably did it in culinary school, and probably could do it today, but he hasn’t given it a single thought in 20 years.

The cracking headers, melting wires, and poor idle are blamed on a bad tune, and I enlist Powertrain Dynamics in Huntington Beach to get it handled, which they do. In an hour he’s got the thing running better than I’ve ever seen it run, and it lays down 306 WHP and 304 lb/ft at the wheels, which is consistent with what the engine should be making from the crate.

Out in the canyons on the first day, the handling was sketchy as hell, and beyond twitchy—it wasinconsistent. See, just because the car doesn’t handle, doesn’t mean I can’t handle the car. But a car that handles inconsistently from corner to corner is a really big problem. Again, back to BBI I go to report the issues.

A month goes by, then two. First we think it’s the steering rack, ripped from a 2004 Cobra at a scrap yard, but it’s not, which we learn after a rebuild. Then it’s the column, which we can’t find a replacement for anywhere, eventually settling on rebuilding the main bearing.

So much for the endless parts availability for Fox Bodies. Putting the car up on an alignment rack, we realize both my rear wheel bearings need replacing. And also, my driver’s side wheelbase is, somehow, an inch longer than my passenger side. I need to have the entire chassis adjusted.

Two more months of waiting for parts, then waiting for my experts to have time to install the parts.

Two years and change of spending money on something that should have been simple. But it just isn’t.

Eventually, BBI gets the suspension components, wheel bearings, and all the parts they need to button my car back up. When it’s in one piece, it goes up on the alignment rack for an IMSA-level corner balance. The car weighs 3110 lbs with all fluids and half a tank of fuel, and is corner balanced to 50.0/50.0 with me in the driver's seat. They send pictures, I get excited, and I share the pictures with eager fans who ask, “When is the next video with the Mustang?”

If they only knew. Two years and $40,000 in parts and labor later, and I’ve driven the car a grand total of 800 miles. It has never lasted more than two days of regular use without something breaking. On the one hand I expect this as part of the development process, but all project cars can’t be like this, right?

Actually, they can. When I schedule my One Take episodes on The Smoking Tire, I get cancellation emails with stories of failures big and small all the time. Even when experts build the cars for hundreds of thousands of dollars. SEMA cars, cars featured on Speedhunters, and many more. This shit happens on a weekly basis.

Two days after getting photos of the alignment, and getting myself all excited, I got the call. I had hoped it was Tony from BBI telling me to come get my car out of there, pay them, and go have fun driving it. It didn’t go that way at all.

Even though my car had traveled less than 100 miles since the dyno tune, it’s now running like shit again and breaking up. They can’t even go drive it to check the alignment, because it won’t run properly. I don’t get it; all they have done is move it in and out of the shop. How would that even happen?

I need a new distributor, they say. I’m not sure what killed the old one, but I’m now replacing parts that were brand new when I bought the car two years ago. This stupid car is nickel-and-diming me.

And yet, every time I look at it, or even at a photo of it, I develop a fatherly pride, focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, and smile.

I hope one day I can drive the car for a few months, or a few weeks, or a few days without something breaking. I hope one day this car really does rip up corners in reality the way it’s supposed to rip up corners in theory. Because I like driving, not wrenching, and certainly not paying someone else to wrench on my behalf, over and over.

Cheap, Fast, Good. Pick two. I picked cheap and fast but it morphed into fast and good. Turning cheap intogood is more expensive and more annoying than simply buying good. I could have bought a goddamn 911 if I had known how much it would cost to make a Mustang handle like a 911.

Is there a point to all this? Yes, actually: Manage your expectations. If you want to drive the car, buy it, don’t build it. Also: shop objectively, not emotionally. Manufacturers spend lots of time and development dollars making wonderful sports cars you can enjoy right out of the box, for years and years, without any extra work required. And if you must do a build, the rule is double/triple: Double the amount of money you think you’ll spend, and triple the amount of time you think it will take.

Lastly, don’t ever do something stupid like tell 400,000 people “I’m going to have this done by the end of the summer.” They won’t believe you any more than I do.