Vintage Views: Fox-Body Mustang

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Oct 27, 2021 | Ford, Mustang, Buyer's Guide | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Nov. 2015 issue | Never miss an article

[Editors Note: This article originally ran in the November 2015 issue Grassroots Motorsports.]

For decades the Fox-body Mustang has served as a cornerstone of our scene. Go to any motorsports event and you’re just about guaranteed to see these ubiquitous Fords. The general public, from groders to street racers, has been equally smitten.

Hate to break it to some of you, but those Mustangs date back further than you may think. When the Fox-body Mustang made its debut for the 1979 model year, we lived in a different era: The U.S. and China had just opened diplomatic relations, the Space Shuttle hadn’t yet escaped our atmosphere, and “The Dukes of Hazzard” was the hottest thing on TV. On the sports car front, you could still buy a brand-new MGB or Triumph Spitfire.

While the later half of the ’70s wasn’t exactly kind to performance cars, that new-for-1979 Mustang showed enthusiasts that performance wasn’t dead. Performance might have been taking a breather, but it wasn’t down for the count.

The Mustang’s top engine that year was a 302-cubic-inch V8 making 140 horsepower. Looking for the high-tech alternative? A 132-horsepower, 2.3-liter turbo four could also be fitted. (Remember, this is from a time well before the factories were unleashing 707-horsepower Hellcats and 580-horsepower Camaros.)

Shoppers could also choose from three body styles: convertible, two-door coupe and three-door hatch, the latter with optional, super-snazzy T-tops. Performance numbers would improve as the Mustang entered the ’80s: better heads, an improved camshaft and fuel injection gave the Mustang’s V8 engine 210 horsepower by 1985. Ford offered the optional Mustang SVO for the 1984-’86 model years, with its turbo 2.3-liter four eventually producing 205 horsepower in stock trim.

The Mustang got a big facelift for the 1987 model year: smoother nose and, on the GT models, totally cool side skirts featuring fake brake scoops. The big news could be found under the hood: Even better cylinder heads and pistons bumped the V8, now known as the 5.0, to 225 horsepower.

Where Ford limited the GT package to the convertible and hatchback body, the 5.0 engine and five-speed box could also be fit into any of the downmarket LX models, including the unassuming notchback. Suddenly we had a sleeper–pretty much the same recipe favored by countless highway patrol departments. Aside from the rare, high-output Cobra and Cobra R models sold during the final year of production, the Mustang carried on relatively unchanged through the end of the 1993 model year.

Thanks to the performance offered at a very fair price, Ford sold a metric ton of these Mustangs. While the supply once seemed unending, prices have been ticking upward. Hagerty, in fact, shows an $18,000 value for a Vanilla Ice-approved 1987 Mustang GT convertible, a 50-percent increase since the fall of 2012. At the other end of the spectrum, craigslist still contains a supply of project starters for less than a grand.

Shopping and Ownership

Flim Flam Speed & Custom’s Kevin Adolf has been working with Fox-body Mustangs seemingly forever. He says he knows them “way too well.”

Only a few big changes were made throughout the 14 years of Fox-body production, but I would say the 1992 Mustang GT is the best year to buy. It was the first year of clear coat and the last year of forged engine internals, so it has best chance of staying pretty on the outside and making safe power under the hood. All Mustangs before ’92 wore single-stage paint, and in 1993 the pistons went to the weaker hypereutectic versions.

If performance is more important to you than a pristine paint job, any 1989-’92 car would be what you’re looking. Their mass-airflow systems are easier to modify and tune than the speed-density systems found in the pre-1989 cars.

Fox-body Mustangs will definitely show signs of rust in a few common places. The inner fender aprons, bottoms of the doors, and areas covered by the GT body kit are known to collect the moisture, leaves and road grime that lead to rust. Cars delivered to areas that see winter weather were commonly undercoated, but that didn’t make them rustproof.

Failure points to look for specifically are the areas of the rear suspension where the control arms connect to the chassis–more notably the “torque boxes.” A Foxbody car that’s been driven rather “spiritedly” will show twisting and possible tearing in this area.

Door sag is also a very common annoyance. The bushings in the door hinges wear out, which eventually causes the plastic insulator on the door striker to break, leading to a hard-to-shut door. You’ll know it’s a problem when you open the door and it instantly pops out and down. Plus, shutting it properly will usually require a solid slam.

In 2015, the aftermarket for a 22-plus-year-old car couldn’t be stronger. The same companies that were around when these cars were brand-new still provide support for the chassis and the 5.0-liter powerplant. You also have countless new companies dedicating tons of their business to keeping Fox-body Mustang owners well supplied with tons of different aftermarket parts. From suspension upgrades that completely reengineer the stock suspension geometry to support for swapping in a more modern drivetrain (such as a Coyote engine), there’s no limit to what you can do with a Fox-body Mustang today.

Full-length subframe connectors are without a doubt one of the most important upgrades you can make to a Fox body.

If you want to start with only engine bolt-ons, then the usual heads, cam and intake are the biggest three. Getting rid of the heavy restrictions of the stock intake manifold, small camshaft and stock E7 cylinder heads means big gains in the horsepower and torque departments. Of course, some supporting modifications are needed to make sure all this new air is matched with fuel to ensure a safe tune.

The most logical next step is to open up the exhaust so all that air can escape. A nice set of long-tube headers and a catted X-pipe gives the 302 a nice bark and tons more power.

Aside from engine modifications, stepping up the rear gear ratio is a very good idea. Some of these cars came with a 2.73 rear ratio, so a jump to a 3.73 or 4.10 makes them feel like they’ve gained 100 horsepower. The seat-of-the-pants difference is huge in every gear.

Planning on upping the horsepower or taking your car to the track? You’ll definitely want to upgrade to rear disc brakes. To take it further, use this opportunity to easily upgrade to fivelug wheels and increase your front brake size.

A very common brake upgrade is to install front spindles, hubs, two-piston PBR calipers and 13-inch rotors from an SN95 Mustang Cobra. Running these larger brakes up front will most likely make you upgrade to 17-inch wheels, but there are some select 16-inch wheels that fit if you’re lucky.

The rear-disc conversion is equally easy whether you stick with four-lug wheels or upgrade to five-lugs. It’s just a matter of buying OEM Ford parts from the models and years you want. It all bolts together like it was meant to be there. A few companies have already packaged together everything you need, and with a click of a mouse button it can all ship to you. You can install it on your car in a few hours with tools just about everyone has.

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View comments on the GRM forums
oldeskewltoy UltraDork
10/29/15 4:56 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens:

My one, and only new car purchase... it was mid model year 1980. I came into a small amount of cash, and I decided to buy a new car....

Cars on the list came down to an overpriced leftover Mustang Indy Pace car, or a Capri with a few special ordered bits....

The Ford dealer wouldn't budge, so I ordered the Capri... Recaros, no A/C, TRX wheels/tires/suspension. Soon to be mods included running the Ferrari TRX tire (220, instead of 190), Koni Reds, Racer Walsh sway bar kits, and a Racer Walsh adjustable boost kit... 132 hp... HAHAHA, closer to 170 with water/alcohol injection

Ford built the engines with undersized pistons (dumb) many of those early turbo engines failed... I had 2 fail under warranty. An engine fire was what eventually led to its sale.

SEADave HalfDork
10/29/15 5:16 p.m.

Funny, I just drove an 86 5.0 GT the other day. Fun car, way smaller than I remembered them. Unfortunately the one I was looking at was a little too rough even for me. The word is out and prices on these are going up quick.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/29/15 6:00 p.m.

For years we pretty much took these cars for granted. There will always be a never-ending supply, right? Now, yeah, it's getting hard to find a good one, especially a 5.0/5-speed.

mazdeuce PowerDork
10/29/15 6:31 p.m.

I was gifted with three AX runs in a students 87 GT. It was a perfect survivor car, 45k miles and immaculate. On the stock size (and hardness) tires it was brilliant. Good power modulation. Great steering. You could hang it out and just hold it with power as long as you wanted. One of my favorite cars that I've been allowed to drive.
And no, it wasn't fast, but I didn't care in the least.

rustysteel Reader
10/29/15 8:11 p.m.

Great article! I own a mint, low km LX5.0L Notchback with windup windows and no AC. I love it, drive it on Sarurdays and autocross it on Sundays. Each year I own it I intend to upgrade it, but keep all the stock bits, just in case I do get a crazy offer for it. Last year I bought a used Corbeau race seat, rims and Dunlop Dirreza's. This year I want to do a 3:55 rear end, shocks/springs and rear disc brakes. Everything is just a click away on the computer, there's so much stuff out there for these cars. In my younger years I always had F body (Firebirds) and did my fair share of looking at these foxbody tail lights. I'm hoping I can keep it so my son and daughter can drive it, few years to go yet.


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/29/15 8:18 p.m.

There is something just so right about a notchback 5.0 Mustang. Thanks for sharing.

snailmont5oh Reader
10/29/15 9:12 p.m.

I hate that I can't keep from doing this, and I know I'm over sensitive to the subject because I drive a Fairmont, but...

Why do people keep calling them Fox body (or Foxbody)? It's the Fox chassis people! Ford never used body codes (like a GM F-body or a Mopar B-body). The body parts of a Mustang do not fit on the other Fox chassis cars without modification. Other Fox chassis cars include the (Ford/Mercury) Fairmont/Zephyr ('78-'82), Thunderbird/Cougar ('80-'88) LTD/Marquis ('83-'86), and Granada ('81-'82), as well as the Lincoln Continental ('83-'86) and Mark VII ('83-'93). I realize that it just rolls off the tongue, but can't we please acknowledge the other equally good/bad Fox cars, and the adaptability of the platform?

All right. I'm done.

dropstep HalfDork
10/29/15 9:25 p.m.

I love the fox platform. Ive owned 302 cars and a few i 2.3t swapped. The foxbody was a huge help in keeping the aftermarket alive, so many people stuff whatever motor they like in them for stock suspension drag racing. Its made cheap parts cars hard to find!

It was used in so many models that makes it fit all kinds of needs. Family outgrew the notchback so i found a wagon. It covers my wagon love and my favorite platform!

aussiesmg MegaDork
10/30/15 8:40 a.m.

I agree, but I may be biased

 photo 10985002645_defeccc814_zps6e263509.jpg

Jamey_from_Legal Reader
10/30/15 9:09 a.m.

If you spent your early driving years in the mid 70's to mid 80's like I did, the Mustang 5.0 GT was the first non-pathetic, attainable and practical thing to come to the market. I always wanted one, but I never got it (until last year).

I also love them for perpetuating an essentially endless supply of Ford 302 motors, (with decent EFI even!) to serve as donors for whatever craziness the collective spits out.

bmw88rider GRM+ Memberand Dork
10/30/15 2:18 p.m.

My first fast car was an 85 GT with the T-tops. So much fun. Too bad the car just fell apart faster than my college budget could stand to keep it toget her because I had so much fun with the car.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/30/15 2:35 p.m.

I worked for an attorney while in high school, and the head attorney's son drove a brand-new black/red 1987 Mustang GT. He could open and close the windows using his fob! My 16-year-old mind was blown.

dyintorace GRM+ Memberand UberDork
10/30/15 2:48 p.m.

My first car ever was a maroon over grey cloth 1987 Ford Mustang LX 5.0 notchback. The only mod I could afford was a pair of Flowmasters, which made it sound glorious. My parents foolishly bought the car for me new. I loved that car. Owned it for many years.

Fast forward to 2 months ago. I'm driving by a local, rinky-dink auto auction in town and spy a maroon over grey LX 5.0 notchback! Turns out it is a 1990 model, but looks pretty much identical. I worked with a friend to purchase it and am the proud new owner. Turns out it has aluminum heads, long tube headers, a clearly aftermarket clutch, gauges on the A-pillar and center console and a NOS set up! All for $2k before fees. It's like taking a time warp to almost 30 years ago!

Not sure if the car will become a $2016 Challenge car or get built into a road course carver, but I can't wait to start digging into it!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/30/15 2:54 p.m.

You should bring it to Gainesville for the $2016 Challenge. It's a great story.

SilverFleet UltraDork
10/30/15 7:14 p.m.

Thanks for reminding me how much I want a teal 88-93 Mustang. Make mine a LX hatch on Ponys.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/30/15 7:24 p.m.
SilverFleet wrote: Thanks for reminding me how much I want a teal 88-93 Mustang. Make mine a LX hatch on Ponys.

I could totally see you rocking that.

dyintorace GRM+ Memberand UberDork
10/30/15 8:13 p.m.
David S. Wallens wrote: You should bring it to Gainesville for the $2016 Challenge. It's a great story.

I think that sounds like a great idea! To get me motivated, here is a video my buddy sent me after he picked it up. It must have a NASTY cam in it!

Opti HalfDork
10/30/15 8:19 p.m.

My buddy was given, GIVEN, a teal 4cyl hatch, it had ponies on it. He never even picked it up, just put it up for sale on craiglist with a 5.0 and most of the components needed for a swap (which he also go free), got 2K for it.

It was probably the cleanest 4 cyl Ive ever seen. I wanted it SOOOO bad, and I dont even like fox bodies.

He did give me a 5.0 that I have no use for though.

Strike_Zero UltraDork
10/30/15 8:43 p.m.

In reply to dyintorace:

oh my!! That sounds excellent!!

neon4891 MegaDork
11/2/15 8:24 a.m.

This along with a copy of a Mustangs Unlimited catalog has me wanting a 4 eye notchback. Hopefully an '84 so I can have a birth year car. I haven't lusted for a fox mustang is over a decade.

Tom_Spangler GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
11/2/15 8:50 a.m.

I've owned two '89 hatchback LX 5.0s. Both moderately modified, both saw plenty of action on track, autocross, and drag racing. At one point, there were about 6 people in my group of friends who had modified Fox Mustangs. I still have a stock 5.0 motor in a storage bin in my garage. Eventually I got tired of trying to make that chassis handle well and moved on, but there's a part of me that really wants a black '86 GT with T-tops.

rustysteel Reader
11/2/15 9:07 a.m.
Tom_Spangler wrote: I've owned two '89 hatchback LX 5.0s. Both moderately modified, both saw plenty of action on track, autocross, and drag racing. At one point, there were about 6 people in my group of friends who had modified Fox Mustangs. I still have a stock 5.0 motor in a storage bin in my garage. Eventually I got tired of trying to make that chassis handle well and moved on, but there's a part of me that really wants a black '86 GT with T-tops.

Some guy on my street, when I was a kid, had a Black '86 4 eye that I wanted bad. Loved the sound and that flat black stripe on the hood, magic.

SilverFleet UltraDork
11/2/15 12:09 p.m.
David S. Wallens wrote:
SilverFleet wrote: Thanks for reminding me how much I want a teal 88-93 Mustang. Make mine a LX hatch on Ponys.
I could totally see you rocking that.

What didn't help is when I went to buy some cheap drag slicks off a Mustang guy over the weekend... for reasons... and the guy had no less than 3 Fox Body Mustangs on premises. Two were notchbacks and the other was a Saleen convertible.

Anyone want to trade a Mustang for a Shelby CSX project?

bravenrace MegaDork
11/2/15 12:10 p.m.

A notch, but you can barely tell in this view.

GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/2/15 12:26 p.m.

Vaughn Gittin Jr. says these are massively underappreciated platform for a drift car, and they're still dirt cheap...makes you think...

Dootz Reader
9/24/19 1:01 a.m.

The best Foxbody is an SN95 '94-'95 GT

earlybroncoguy1 New Reader
3/3/21 9:16 a.m.

Drove my '87 LX 5.0 hatch for years. Daily driver, autocrosser, drag raced it a few times. Mostly stock, with T-bird Turbo Coupe rear discs, Flowmasters, K+N.  Had 2.73's in the 8.8 but would still light 'em up all the way through 1st and a healthy 2nd scratch. Used to love setting off car alarms going through parking garages. Vinyl seats, but PDL's, PW, even power mirrors. Nothing special now, but in the late '80's it was luxury in a small car.

I moved the battery back to the spare tire well, put a empty battery case in the stock location under the hood, and always passed tech at the autocross and strip. The rear discs hid pretty well behind the factory aluminum wheels, no one noticed them unless they crawled under and looked hard.

Had to eventually give it up once the miles started accumulating and kids came along, but I miss it.

My dream 5.0 would have been a dark grey/charcoal notch, leather seats, 347 stroker, Flowmaster X-pipe, and 5 lug Pony wheels. Mine was a red hatch, but it was close enough.  

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