COAL – 1986 Ford Mustang GT – Rollin’ In My 5.0

I had sold my 1969 Dodge Charger, and my 1985 Honda was developing a clicking halfshaft and a slipping clutch that foretold expensive repairs in the near future. As I nursed my Honda along, I weighed whether to sink money into it or to replace it with another car. At the time I didn’t have a garage, and my experiences parking two cars on the streets of San Francisco had made me think that perhaps I should stick to one vehicle at a time. A number of interesting 80s performance cars were starting to depreciate downward into my budget, and I wondered if I could find something that combined the power and enjoyable driving experience of my Charger with the usability and reliability of my Honda. “One car to rule them all” so to speak.

I’d vaguely considered a 3rd gen Camaro or Firebird, though looking into them, the build quality and overall design didn’t appeal to me. The Monte Carlo SS seemed like a prospect in theory, but used examples were rare and expensive and the actual performance didn’t seem all that impressive. I’d been aware that the Fox-body Mustang had been through a dramatic transformation in the mid-1980s, and I began to look into them as a possible next car.

The California Highway Patrol has for many years run a weekly vehicle auction out of Sacramento. At the time (the late 1990s) you could phone a recorded message ran down what cars were coming up for auction that week. Back then the CHP still ran a few Fox-body Special Service Mustangs, and I would call the line periodically to check if there were any retired ones being sold that week, but only tired Crown Vics or Caprices seemed to be on offer.

Riding my bicycle home from work down San Francisco’s Market Street one day, I caught a glimpse of a white 1986 Mustang GT in very nice shape with a For Sale sign in the window. I didn’t, initially, get the number off the sign, but the car definitely appealed to me. A week or so later, I saw the Mustang again, and this time I was able to copy down the phone number from the sign – and also saw that the sign mentioned it had a 5-speed. I was intrigued.

While I had initially set my sights on a 1987-1993 Fox Body Mustang, the 86 was visually more appealing to me. The Mustang had been through a restyle in 1987 that had grafted on a Taurus-inspired aero front end onto a car with otherwise boxy and sharp-edged design language and it never looked right to me. The GT package also was much more garish on the 87-up cars, with lower-body cladding and an odd cheese-grater-like taillight treatment. Below is a comparison of the 1986 Mustang GT with the 1987 one.

The 86 5.0 was mechanically very similar to the 87-up cars. It had the sequential fuel-injected 5-liter V8 with the same roller cam and tubular headers, exiting through dual exhaust, though slightly different heads meant advertised horsepower was 200 rather than 225 as on the 87-up cars. It also had the same T-5 transmission and 8.8 limited-slip rear ends, and largely similar underpinnings. A huge aftermarket for the Fox Mustangs was developing, and many of the same upgrades and bolt-ons for 87-up cars would work on the 86. I went back and forth a bit on whether I should hold out to find an 87-up car in my price range, but the clean styling of the “four-eyed” Mustang did appeal to me. I do remember being aware that Fox-body Mustangs were frequently stolen, and thought that the older body style might be less of a target to car thieves.

I phoned the seller – he was a supermarket employee who had bought the Mustang new and had taken very good care of it. It had somewhat over 90 thousand miles on the odometer, and a test drive convinced me that the 200-HP engine in the 1986 GT was more than adequate for my purposes. In the past, cars tended to take a nosedive in resale value right around 100,000 miles due to a general public perception that they were worn out once the odometer turned over. My Mustang may have been the last car I bought where I was able to take advantage of this 100k depreciation. I can’t recall the exact purchase price but I believe I negotiated a few hundred down from the asking price of $4,000.00.

The Mustang GT came in two versions that year – mine was the lower of the two packages, which meant it had manual door locks, hand-crank windows, and a “standard” rather than “premium” sound system. For a car that small, I actually preferred hand-crank windows.

At the time, I worked managing international distribution for a small book publisher in San Francisco, and my job had recently been through some remarkable transformations. The computer terminal on my desk was replaced by a PC with email and internet access, and orders, customs documents, and shipping paperwork that were formerly sent to and from my office via fax, mail, or overnight courier could now be filed electronically.

How I researched and worked on cars also went through a similar transformation. Before, I’d relied on shop manuals, advice from friends, and accumulated experience. Access to the internet now gave me a wealth of information and advice  — some good, some less so.

The Fox-body Mustang community seemed to be an early adapter of going online – having tackled EFI, they clearly weren’t afraid of engaging with new and unfamiliar technology. I’d frequently browse sites like on lunch breaks, reading discussions about shifters, dyno tests of different components, and assorted general discussions of how to get the most out of the cars.

One of my first modifications, which I learned about online, was to pull the airbox silencer which lived inside the fender. This was supposed to free up a few horsepower at the cost of a bit more intake noise. I can’t say I felt any difference in seat of the pants performance but the intake now had a throatier sound.

Pulling this silencer from a 5.0 Mustang was supposed to free up a few horsepower.

I also removed the 5.0 badges from the fender, figuring it made the car less of a theft magnet. I still have them somewhere in my garage.

The Mustang was a relatively new car, in good shape, and proved quite reliable. I probably spent more time than necessary taking care of various routine maintenance tasks such as changing plugs, putting in new belts and hoses, and changing the fuel filter. The last task required depressurizing the fuel system, and I apparently didn’t relieve all the pressure, as I was sprayed with a face full of gas as I disconnected the old filter.

About the only issue that presented itself was the car’s thirst for oil. It would use a quart of oil around every 2000 miles – sometimes more if it was used hard or on shorter trips. I was initially concerned, thinking the engine was worn, but it was apparently normal for this era of 5.0 V8 which, like mine, had forged pistons. Ford put out a Technical Service Bulletin stating that it wasn’t a problem unless oil consumption reached some ridiculous level (I think it was a quart every 500 miles?), and online research showed high oil use was a common issue. 5.0 Mustangs came stock with a “Check Oil” light on dash which lit when the oil level was low which apparently alarmed some owners who thought that it was an oil pressure warning light.

For 1993, the final year of the Fox Mustang, Ford switched to hypereutectic cast pistons to address the oil consumption issue, but many Fox owners preferred the sturdier forged pistons. Having owned older cars I was used to checking and topping up my oil, and I got in the habit of carrying a spare quart with me. I did sometimes remind myself that the 5.0 V8 was a descendant of Ford’s original 221 small block introduced in the 1962 Fairlane, and perhaps should be judged by the standards of an older era.

I took my Mustang to the Wednesday night bracket drags at Sears Point to see what it could do. I arrived in late afternoon and was able to run a few practice rounds before the elimination rounds. Sears Point is now known as Sonoma Raceway, but the run-what-you-brung weeknight drag races are still a regular event there.

In basically stock form, and despite being a neophyte at launching on a dragstrip, I got the car to run mid-15 second quarter miles. The picture below is taken out of my windshield as I was in the staging lanes heading to the starting line, and you can see my 15.60 dial-in in white shoe polish on my windshield from my first attempt at bracket racing.

Over the next year or so, I made a number of changes aimed both at improving my quarter-mile time and making the car more enjoyable to drive.

First, I upgraded the shifter — there were several aftermarket ones available, and after reading online forums discussing the pros and cons of each, I ordered a Pro 5.0 shifter. The stock Mustang shifter was mounted in a set of rubber bushings (it seemed like Ford’s solution to any noise/vibration/harshness issue was to insulate the offending component with rubber) and had a fairly long throw. The Pro 5.0 shifter was a solidly built mechanism made of billet aluminum, with shorter, more direct throws, and adjustable stops so you could slam it from gear to gear without overstressing the transmission. I topped the shifter with a T-handle shifter and the T5 transmission now could be flicked from gear to gear.

I also drove the car to Rearend Specialties in Santa Clara to have the stock 2.73:1 rear axle gears changed out for a set of 3:73:1 gears. I had picked up the correct speedometer gear for the new ratio, and they performed the gear swap in an afternoon. As they dropped the car from the lift, the service writer gave me a photocopied sheet explaining the break-in procedure for the rear gears. One of the key points was that after driving the first 15 to 20 miles,  I should stop and let the differential cool for at least 30 minutes before proceeding, and that I should limit my speeds to 55mph or less during this initial period. The rear end shop was about 45 miles from my home, so I realized I had a longer drive back than I had anticipated. I decided to drive the car up El Camino Real (a former Spanish road that is now a surface street that runs much of the length of California) and as I neared the 20-mile mark on my trip odometer, I came across The Oasis – a beer and burger place in Menlo Park. This establishment has since closed, but many years before, my father had proposed to my mother there, so it has a special place in my family history. I pulled over and let my gears cool as I enjoyed a relaxed lunch.

Changing the rear end gears was by far the biggest bang-for-the-buck upgrade that I made to the Mustang and transformed the feel of the car. The overdrive 5th gear became far more usable. I assume that the relatively stock tall gears were installed with an eye to improving the fuel economy ratings of the car rather than for driveability. And as the first gear was now lowered, the car launched much more decisively both on the street or on the dragstrip.

The lowered first gear and the resultant torque multiplication also made the car even more prone to snap oversteer and unexpectedly kicking the rear end out. Fox Mustangs (and Mustangs for several generations following) have a 4-link rear suspension which is prone to binding under hard launches, and the lower gears magnified this effect. There are countless online videos of Mustangs leaving car shows that dramatically demonstrate this tendency, and I became adept at sensing when the rear end was breaking loose and quickly countersteering it back into line. If there was even a tiny bit of rain on the pavement, it could break loose even on fairly gentle starts – there was an uphill left turn getting onto Skyline Boulevard that seemed especially prone to this.

The stock mufflers were in perfect shape, but I had a set of Dynomax mufflers welded in as some tests I had read said they could free up a few horsepower. I noticed no difference in performance, but the car now had an agreeable throatier tone, and it was thankfully not all that much louder. At the time, Flowmasters seemed more popular among 5.0 Mustang owners, but the exhaust tone never appealed to me — it always reminded me of a truck driving through a tunnel.

I returned to Sears Point a few times, and managed to get my quarter mile down to 15.3. My car wasn’t all that “quick” by dragstrip standards, but for a street car I never found it wanting.

I also addressed some aesthetic issues. Although the car was generally in good shape, the matte black decal on the hood had faded to the color of a charcoal briquette and developed a network of cracks. In the photo below, also taken at Sears Point, the cracked and faded decal on my hood is just visible on the lower left.

An autobody supply shop suggested Woodgrain and Stripe remover, cautioning me it was nasty stuff and to use it outside. Donning gloves and old clothing, I sprayed it on and watched as the decal curled and puckered. I scraped off the remover and chunks of decal, leaving behind bits of adhesive on the hood.

Some followup work with acetone and a plastic scraper, followed by a clay bar, finally got the remaining residue removed. I was glad I had a white car, as there was no “shadow” of the decal produced by paint fading on the hood but not under the decal. Reproduction decals were available and I briefly considered putting a new one on, but ultimately decided to leave the hood in the decal-less state you can see on the lead picture. When researching replacement decals online, I did briefly contemplate putting on a decal kit from an older Fox Mustang.

It was out of this same somewhat odd impulse that I “backdated” a few things in the interior. My 86 Mustang had the same basic interior as 1979-up Fox Mustangs (the interior was redesigned for 1987), and poking around the then-plentiful supply of older Fox Mustangs at local pick & pull salvage yards, I noticed that many of the components had changed in design over the years but would interchange. I swapped in a few components like armrests, door panels, and climate control knobs. The effect was subtle, and I’m probably the only one that noticed, but I enjoyed it. If I’d had to spend my time working on actual mechanical issues, I doubt I would have found time to do things like swap out armrests. I never came across a full houndstooth interior as shown below, but if I had, I do wonder if I’d have been moved to take my project to the logical extreme. I hung onto my original interior pieces for a while but ended up selling them to someone who was in the process of restoring a Saleen Mustang of a similar vintage.

My Mustang continued to be a reliable and enjoyable daily driver, and it made the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles a number of times without a hitch. It was a good road trip car with one passenger, but the back seat was relatively small and it seemed a bit crowded with four adults on board.

I probably would have continued to slowly upgrade my Mustang, as the aftermarket presented a dizzying array of possibilities and the old adage of “speed costs money, how fast do you want to go” held especially true for the Fox Mustang, but several years into my ownership of the Mustang, I picked up at almost the same time a non-running 1965 Falcon and a rental garage near my apartment. The Falcon began to consume my free time and attention and the Mustang was relegated to secondary status. My pleasant experiences with the 5.0 motor in my Mustang made me want to try swapping one into the little Ford, which I’ll detail my next COAL installment.

After getting my Falcon running, a friend asked if I’d be at all interested in selling him my Mustang. He had initially asked me for advice on finding a 5.0, and the conversation turned to whether I’d care to let mine go. I hadn’t, up until then, thought about selling it, but he made me an attractive offer and my Mustang ended up changing hands. I’ve definitely owned cars that I’d be hesitant to sell to a friend, but my Mustang was one that I felt I could pass on to someone with confidence.

As the buyer and I were friends and ran in the same circles, I’d still see the car occasionally after I sold it. As far as I know, it continued to provide reliable transportation, though I never asked him what he thought of the somewhat retro interior details I’d put in. It did suffer an unsuccessful theft attempt at one point — the thief apparently had some difficulty getting it out of the parking spot and inflicted some front-end damage before giving up on their attempt. My friend eventually left town and sold the Mustang and the car passed out of my life.

Quite a few years after I sold my Mustang, I came across the covers for its Marchal foglights in a drawer – I’d removed them not long after buying the car as I didn’t want to have to pull over & remove the covers whenever I used my foglights. I listed them on eBay and was surprised at how they were quickly bid to over $100.00.