The Gen-X cult car remains true to its affordable performance roots
A new Mustang GT hit the ground galloping in 1982 and Ford shouted its return with the slogan: "The Boss is Back!" Hitching the Boss legend to this new pony made good marketing sense, but the Fox was no retro-themed throwback. It would go on to inspire a new generation of enthusiasts and launch dedicated magazines and websites, as well as become a darling of the aftermarket.
Old-school, American rear-drive performance mounted a comeback in the 1980s, ushered in by cars like the Buick Grand National, the Chevrolet Monte Carlos SS, and the Camaro IROC-Z. But, when new, these vehicles were priced out of reach of many young people on entry-level salaries. Also, the GM contingent offered manual transmissions only as exceptions rather than the rule.
Not so the 5.0. Ford priced the Mustang GT affordably and, beginning in 1983, offered a real-deal Borg-Warner T-5 fives-peed manual transmission. For '86, Ford dumped the Holley carburetor and made multiport fuel injection plus a roller camshaft standard—exotic parts for a low-dollar production car back then. While Chevrolet charged a premium for all the good stuff, Ford lowered the price by offering the el-cheapo LX with a 5.0 powertrain. Not only was it less expensive, but the notch-window body style, exclusive to the LX line, was lighter than the hatchback/convertible GT.
As younger buyers scooped up Fox Mustangs, the aftermarket responded in force with go-fast parts. Bolt-ons like centrifugal superchargers, deeper geared ring-and-pinion sets, cat-back exhaust, subframe connectors, and more were practically mandatory on the street. Then there were cylinder heads and intake manifolds, injectors, camshafts, etc. for those chasing sub-13-second quarter-mile times.
Today, 5.0-powered Fox Mustangs are still plentiful and affordable. Nice driver-quality examples can be found for less than $10,000 and we've seen closer-to-pristine, low-mileage cars sell at auction for less than $20,000. Unmodified Foxes are a safe bet, but a solid car with typical period upgrades (the blower, deeper gears, exhaust, etc.) can be a lot of fun and pack a nostalgic performance punch. By today's standards, the Fox Mustang seems primitive on the road, but then, its chassis and cockpit weren't exactly state of the art in their day. Look, you didn't buy a Mustang expecting it to replicate the driving dynamics and interior quality of a BMW E30 3-Series. You bought it because it was cheap, fast, and cool. Popular price guides show Fox Mustangs appreciating but, due to the sheer numbers of these cars out there, it's hard to see demand ever outstripping supply. For the foreseeable future, the Fox Mustang will remain true to its original mission: bringing performance to the people. Of the breed, the 1987-'93 editions, identifiable by their flush headlights, offer several refinements, performance improvements, and advanced engine management over their predecessors—though the earlier quad-headlight editions make great collectibles as well. Here are some points to consider when shopping.
The 5.0 rumbled into 1987 with 225 hp, thanks to an improved intake manifold and cylinder heads, a larger throttle body, and new engine management computer programming. Mass airflow metering would become standard issue in 1989 and make the 5.0 more adaptable to mild modifications.
Many of the changes that made the 1987- '93 Mustang more desirable occurred under the hood. For '87, the 302 V-8's horsepower increased to 225 from 200 thanks to some upgrades to the top end of the engine. Cylinder heads that shared a design with Ford truck engines (designated E7TE) replaced the 1986 (E6AE) castings. The position of the valves in the E7 heads required the use of pistons with valve reliefs in place of the 1986's flat-top pistons. The intake was new, too, as was a larger throttle body and the engine management computer's programming. In 1988, California-bound Mustangs went to mass airflow metering, replacing the speed-density arrangement—that change went nationwide for 1989. In speed density, the engine management computer relies on an array of sensors measuring engine rpm, manifold vacuum, throttle position, coolant temperature, and more to determine the engine's air and fuel requirements. In mass airflow, a sensor mounted at the front of the air inlet directly measures the airflow into the engine and—in conjunction with many of the other sensors used in speed density—uses that to determine the correct air/fuel ratios. Mass airflow is more flexible and more accurate under typical everyday driving conditions and the 5.0 crowd welcomed it with open arms, because it could adapt more easily to mild engine modifications.
Speaking of mods, one of the more popular was the swap from E7 heads to GT40 heads (and intake). Not only were they superior but they were junkyard gold in the late 1990s/early 2000s, as one variant known as the GT40P was standard issue on V-8 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers. The GT40 setup was also used on the 1993-'95 Cobra as well as the 351-powered Lightning and was available over the counter from Ford. (Edelbrock and Trick Flow heads were equally popular with the 5.0 crowd.) These are highly regarded updates in the 5.0 world so, while a used car so equipped might have been flogged, if everything else seems in order we'd consider them an asset over the stock components—an integral part of the 5.0's performance legacy. Along with head swaps, camshaft and injector upgrades were common and, if done properly, can make a Mustang more fun to drive.
From a reliability and durability standpoint, there isn't much to fear with a 5.0. Look for aged vacuum tubing and under-hood hoses that need replacing as well as oil leaks—none of which are cause for great concern.
The 8.8-inch rear axle, first used under the Mustang in 1986, is another reason that 1987-'93 5.0 Mustangs are preferred over the earlier cars (that used the 7.5-inch axle). The 8.8 was designed as an all-around replacement for the bulletproof, but heavy, Ford 9-inch axle, and it's a reasonably close facsimile of the GM 12-bolt. The 8.8 was a sturdy design, though its one weakness in the Mustang was the 28-spline axle shafts. These are perfectly fine for normal use, but could be upgraded to a 31-spline setup if the plan includes sticky tires and large amounts of horsepower. The gear ratios that Ford packed inside the Mustang's axles were tall in the interest of fuel economy. A T-5 manual was paired with a standard 2.73:1 ratio and an optional 3.08:1, while the AOD came with a 2.73:1 gearset or optional 3.27:1. It was very common for 5.0 owners to install 3.55:1, 3.73:1, or even 4.10:1 gears in an effort to drop their quarter-mile ETs.
The Fox Mustang's front suspension was a modified MacPherson strut design: The springs weren't mounted on the struts, but sandwiched between the lower control arm and a spring pocket in the front crossmember. A 1.3-inch anti-roll bar helped lessen body roll and, for 1987, refinements included new struts, spindles, and lower control arms that provided ½-inch of additional travel. The 5.0's K-frame was also reworked for '87 with repositioned lower control arm mounts that helped improve the suspension geometry.
The '87 model year also brought larger (10.84 inches) vented front disc brakes. Rear discs weren't available on the GT until the 1994 redesign, so these cars made do with drums. Rebuild parts for the stock brakes are inexpensive, as are aftermarket upgrades. These cars all had four-lug hubs and axles, but upgrading to five lugs affords a greater choice of wheels as well as the opportunity to install rear disc brakes. (It's possible to convert to rear discs and retain the four-lug pattern, as well.) Finned 15 x 7-inch aluminum "turbine" wheels were new for '87 and shod with 225/60R15 Goodyear Eagles. For '91 the GT was outfitted with 16 x 7-inch, five-spoke wheels with 225/55R16 tires. Original-style wheels are still available, used and refurbished. There are also many aftermarket offerings, but the options increase if a car has been converted to five lugs.
Leather upholstery with vinyl bolsters was optional and took the Mustang GT's interior uptown. The World Class T-5 was preferred by the 5.0 performance crowd, but the AOD automatic is a good choice for casual cruising.
Body and Interior
Ford gave the Mustang GT a makeover for 1987 that included aero headlamps, an airdam with round driving lamps, ground effects, and 1980s-appropriate louvered taillamp covers. Not everyone was in love with the new look, so, for those buyers, Ford offered the less flamboyant 5.0 LX. Rust is the Fox Mustang's biggest rival these days. Pay close attention to the rear torque boxes where the control arms attach to the body and the strut towers in the front, both for rust and for fatigue. The front frame rails and door attachment points are also areas to check carefully. Floors, lower doors, rocker panels, and fender arches are all rust prone. Reproduction sheetmetal is available, including fenders, quarters, floorpans, and a variety of patch panels, but full doors or door skins are not being reproduced as of this writing.
WHAT TO PAY
Brake drum: $36
Brake hose (front): $17
Brake line set (steel): $65
Brake or clutch pedal pad: $6
Door handle (original Ford part): $85
Door handle (reproduction): $7
Fender emblems (5.0): $8
Five-lug, four-wheel disc brake kit: $1,557
Floorpan (complete reproduction): $400
Front fender (reproduction): $60
Hood (stock style, reproduction): $280
Quarter panel (hatchback, 1987-’90): $355
Radiator core support (reproduction, 1983-’89): $142
Rocker panel (reproduction, outer): $45