(first posted 4/16/2013) Today, I’m presenting a Curbside Classic, a Car of a Lifetime, and a Curbside Tech all rolled into one. You may recall seeing this Mustang II on Curbside Classic before, since it appeared in the background in one of my first articles (on the 1973 Toyota Carina). However, at that point I did not want to write it up, since I had just purchased it and planned to make a number of improvements before sharing my pet with you.
This is not the first Mustang II to appear in Curbside Classics, as Paul wrote one up as a Deadly Sin some time ago. I’m hard pressed to disagree with Paul when he said “The simple truth is that the Mustang II was a pathetic little toad” (article linked here). However, I always liked the concept of the Mustang II, despite Ford’s poor execution and subsequent lousy product management. While the cars built in 1974 came close to the intended target, Ford quickly moved away from the initial vision of the car, modifying it in an attempt to appeal to multiple audiences. While they found plenty of buyers for V-8s, Cobra II packages, and the “Mustang II MPG,” these models were not so much engineered as kludged up.
The original model offered in 1974 did not suffer from these excesses and I always kind of liked it. While it isn’t the best looking Mustang ever, the black painted rocker panels on the Mach 1 help lengthen the car visually and none of the lines on the early cars are corrupted by tacked on spoilers. In addition, I’ve always felt the 2.8 V-6 was all the engine this car needed, assuming it delivered proper power levels. I’ll explain what I mean by this a little later.
Putting all these thoughts together, I started looking for a Mustang II a couple of years ago, and it proved to be a fairly daunting task. While initially popular, Mustang II sales quickly faded away, and those mounting 4 cylinder or V-6 engines became just another disposable car.
Even worse, Ford equipped these cars with a front sub frame that provided the perfect base for Hot Rod projects. Given the desirability of the sub frame, and the low acquisition cost of these cars, thousands of these little ponies donated their front ends to Dad’s project car, and headed to an early grave.
Searching around, I found two types of cars: Highly modified and overpriced, or highly used up and underpriced. I wasn’t interested in someone else’s project, and there’s little aftermarket support available for the II, so no car needing new trim pieces would come together very easily. I wanted a car in good enough condition to take to shows, but with a kid approaching college age, I needed to keep my budget tight. After six months of searching, this Mach 1 appeared in the local Craigslist. It seemed to meet all my criteria, but I wasn’t real taken with the color. Ford called it “Medium Lime Yellow,” but most people just call it green. Some parts of the car have been repainted, but I believe the black rocker panels and MACH 1 labels were factory original, making the car something of a survivor.
However, the interior was in fairly good shape (despite its shockingly bad shade of avocado), and a test drive demonstrated that the mechanicals were solid. The owner had an offer from someone who wanted to strip the car down and build up a drag car, but he didn’t want a car in such nice shape taken off the road. I think he preferred to hear that I planned to keep it on the road and leave a V-6 in it. While the test drive was encouraging, I still dithered back and forth on the purchase. I liked the car, and considered his $2,800 asking price reasonable. However, I didn’t have $2,800 lying around in cash, and the color (both inside and out) kept me on the fence.
The car had a few nicks and scratches, but overall the car had an honesty about it you don’t see in the typical trailer queen. Because of that, I found myself leaning towards a purchase despite the garish color scheme. After discussing it with my wife, we decided to offer the owner a low ball price based on our cash on hand. I didn’t think the owner would go for $2,200, but he agreed right away, and I suddenly owned a ’74 Mustang II Mach 1 with V-6 and four-speed manual.
Several months after acquiring it, I drove from LA to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for a yearly Mustang Roundup. I lived in Colorado for thirty years, and bringing a Mustang up to this show every year was one of the rationales behind my purchase. The car acquitted itself well on the 2,000 mile journey. It burned up an air pump climbing the Colorado Mountains, and the shift linkage vibrated apart on the return trip through Utah, but both problems were easily addressed and I made it home in one piece. I came up with the name “Soul Survivor” while making a signboard for the event. The Mustang II is really more Disco than Soul, but this car is definitely a survivor.
At the event, I received a trophy for my efforts. There were four cars in the Mustang II class, and they handed out three trophies, so in retrospect my odds of winning were pretty damn good. Yet another reason to buy a Mustang II instead of the more common sixties-era Mustangs.
Driving back to LA, trophy in hand, the car burrowed its way into my heart. I’d wanted a car I could take on the road to car shows, but still use as a daily driver. This car appeared to be the right answer.
However, our time on the road (especially through the open vistas of Utah) reminded me that I wanted a little more punch in the engine bay. I also discovered that the 3.50 to 1 final drive called out for an overdrive gear, both for greater peace at highway speeds, and improved fuel economy.
Before I bought the Mustang II, I knew the Cologne 2.8 V-6 lacked punch. While the 2.6 in the 1971 Capri had decent power, emissions requirements and the increased weight of the Mustang II had emasculated the engine to the point that its power was barely adequate.
In addition, I’m a big fan of modern engine technologies, and this car had none. Solid state electronics have made a huge improvement in engine performance and drivability, and the only chip under this hood was the electronic voltage regulator. Hell, in 1974 Ford still used breaker points!
To solve this problem, I kept my eye out for a 2.9 V-6 out of a Merkur Scorpio. All 2.9 Cologne V-6s were fuel injected, but I was concerned that the plenums on the engines used in the Ranger and Bronco II would not clear the Mustang’s hood. Since I used to own a Scorpio, I knew the induction system had a very low profile and would fit without question. After a few months of looking, I found a donor car out in 29 Palms, California. It seemed the Gods had reached down and blessed me. Not only was the asking price under $500, the car was located about 2 miles from my where I intended to do the conversion work!
I had to tow the car over to my work site, but I fired it up prior to engine removal, and the 2.9 seemed to be in good health. It was a promising start to what proved to be a lengthy project.
To give you an idea of the project scope, here’s a shot of the Scorpio after we extracted the motor. All the work was done in my buddy Paul’s driveway (Paul is that handsome chap in the center of the picture). Once we started working on the Mustang II, we put the rear axle up on ramps, and raise the front using jack stands. 29 Palms is in the California high desert, so we also got to deal with a couple of days of triple digit heat. While a fully equipped shop and four-post lift would have made our life easier, Paul and I knew we could get the job done with the tools at hand. As Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge, “You improvise, adapt, and overcome!”
By the way, that ’59 Willys truck in the background is another example of Clint’s philosophy. Powered by a Chevy 327 with TPI injection, Paul built it pretty much singlehandedly. Four Wheeler Magazine was impressed enough to write an article on it a few years ago, so I knew I was in good hands.
While I have many more pictures of my engine swap project, let’s jump to the final result. Here’s the Scorpio 2.9 in my engine bay. In addition to the new motor, I installed a T-5 manual transmission out of a Fox body Mustang (to better describe that harrowing experience, I’m writing a transmission swap post for later this week). While I’m still chasing a few bugs, so far this engine/transmission combination is everything I need. It won’t keep up with the current pony cars, but it also doesn’t add more weight to the II’s already overloaded front tires. It’s about 40% more power than the original 2.8, so it can put me out in front when the light turns green. In addition, the overdrive fifth gear is a godsend–I’m actually looking forward to future road trips.
Speaking of road trips, I’m planning on driving my little Mach 1 up to Las Vegas for the Mustang 50th Anniversary celebration this week. Of course, I only drove it home last Sunday, and there have been a few bugs. Just this evening, I had to solder the fuel tank pickup tube to quell a small fuel leak, but with God’s blessing, I’ll make it. Several buddies from Denver are also headed out to the event, so it looks to be a good weekend. So far, over 2,000 owners have signed up for the event, so we’ll have plenty of company. Personally, I’ll be shocked if there’s more than a dozen Mustang II’s at the event, and I’m sure over half of those present will include the Cobra II package.
But as a representative of Curbside Classic, I’ll have my daily driven, somewhat flea-bitten Mach 1 parked out amongst the trailer queens. Even better, under the hood of my car beats the heart of another Curbside Classic, the Merkur Scorpio. As our motto states, “Every Car Has a Story,” and this has been the start of an exciting chapter for mine.
For more information on the Soul Survivor’s driveline, check out this link: Installing a T-5 into a Mustang II