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The Fastback Mustang. My search continues…

If you know me, you’re probably aware that I have been shopping for a 1965-66 Mustang fastback for a long time. Since 2010 to be exact. What makes these cars so special? Beyond the classic styling, and the plentiful supply of restoration and hop-up parts, it really comes down to the chassis. These early Mustangs were some of the lightest muscle cars out there (technically they are classified as pony cars), and they can be as much as 500 to 700 pounds lighter than a similarly equipped Camaro or Chevelle. With a 2700 pound curb weight, it only takes about 400 horsepower to make things interesting.

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What could be so hard about finding a vintage Mustang, you ask? And what could make me drive all the way to Canada to find one? Even though the fastbacks were a little thinner on the ground than the coupes or convertibles, they still made 70 THOUSAND of them. So what’s the rub?

Well, like any unitized body car of the era, structural integrity is a paramount concern. Unibody cars do not have a separate frame like a Corvette or an MG or a pickup truck. When the car is in a collision, the entire body of the car can be distorted. Rust is another concern. Car companies in the 60s did not care about rust prevention, and when rust penetrates the shell of a Mustang, it will require lots of metal replacement to make the car structurally sound again. Particular bad spots include the cowl area just in front of the windshield (this internal area gets clogged with leaves and debris, and there was not even any paint on this metal from the factory!), the area behind the front and back wheels, the torque boxes in the rear suspension and pretty much the whole trunk. While Mustangs are relatively easy to work on from a mechanical standpoint, building a Mustang with body issues is like building a house with a bad foundation – no matter what was already done, you need to have a solid base to start from first, otherwise you will be starting your project over. Like I tell people – I don’t even get excited anymore until I see the underside of the car.

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Over the years, collision and rust damage have claimed quite a few Mustangs. And even though pristine examples can currently command anywhere between 25K up to about 50K (or up to 250K for the real Shelbys!), there was a time when these cars were not worth as much. And because of that, many Mustangs were patched together or repaired poorly. As values have climbed, the dogs have come out, so any prospective buyer really needs to do some homework to avoid purchasing a car in bad condition which will ultimately become a money pit – and nobody wants that. These days, it is easy to build horsepower with Ford small blocks – 400hp is no problem. However, the chassis needs some reinforcement to deal with that kind of power.

Before I even consider going to look at a car, there are a few specific questions I ask right off the bat to weed out cars that are in poor condition:

1. Does the car have a clear VIN stamp? On a 1965-66 Mustang, there is a VIN number punched right into the metal on the inner fender apron on the Drivers’ side. There is actually a notch in the top of the fender where this number is visible. The number was also punched into the passenger side as well, but was covered by the fender so it is usually not visible. If this number is missing, it usually means the front of the car was damaged and replaced from a collision. Or it may have been rusted so badly it was replaced. I remember one particular instance where an owner swore to me the car had all original sheet metal, but this VIN number was covered by a fake Shelby plate (Shelby riveted his own VIN plate over the Ford VIN and it is common for clones to place this plate on the fender). I told the owner I was not driving out to see the car unless he removed the plate and gave me a picture of the number. Guess what – he removed the plate and there was no VIN number underneath! I guess that car did have some metal replacement.

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2. Does the car have a door tag? Early Mustangs also had a metal tag that was riveted to the door that not only included the VIN but also which factory the car was produced in (San Jose, Detroit or New Jersey), paint and interior color, engine and transmission, etc. These tags can be reproduced, so you can not always trust the info here, but it is nice to have. Not a deal breaker for me if it is missing, but it can also point to door replacement, and then you have to start asking “why?”.

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3. Has the car had any metal replacement? This is a big one, and a hard one to pin down without seeing the car in person. SO MANY of the cars I have seen have had sub standard metal replacement, with sloppy welding, parts glued in that should be welded, mis-aligned panels, etc – the issues go on and on. And like any body shop guy will tell you, buy the best you can afford because once metal replacement begins, the cost of body work increases greatly. Shop time is not cheap. If a car has had floorpans replaced, it usually means there is a hole in the cowl, which allows water to leak down the dash into the footwell, wet carpeting, and the rust begins (and never stops). Doors can also be replaced, but the vinyl grain that was embossed into the metal on the inside is usually a slightly different texture on the repros compared to the originals. Replacement of trunks and hoods and front fenders is not a big deal – these are simple bolt-on items. It is also fairly common for rear quarter panels to be replaced, but the work needs to be done correctly.

RustyCowl

4. How long have you owned the car? This might not seem like a big deal, but it actually is. There are far too many Mustang flippers out there. If you plan to sell a car to make money, you are probably going to cut some corners to maximize your profit. It is always much more desirable to purchase a car from an owner that intended to keep the car and spent honest money and time to care and maintain the car. I once went to see a car in California. The owner said he completed the refurbishment of the car in less than 6 months – that should have been a big red flag. The car looked great in pictures, but the workmanship was very sloppy when I viewed the car in person. Lesson learned!

5. Who did the work on the car? These cars are all 50 years old, and they need more routine maintenance than the average car. So either the person is fairly mechanically minded, or they have a relationship with a garage. If they are doing the work themselves, they are usually all too happy to volunteer specs and details on their treasured ride. If they have to pay a garage to fix their car, they should have a stack of receipts and documentation to substantiate their investment. If they are short on details, that is usually a big red flag.

6. Does the car have a clear title? The car should have a clear title, which the owner has on hand with his name on it. A salvage title means the car has some kind of accident or theft history, which becomes YOUR problem when you own the car. It’s always prudent to match that VIN stamp on the fender with the number on the title, otherwise there could be real issues when you go to register the car.

7. Does the car drive? Again, seems like a no-brainer, but it is an important question worth asking, especially if you plan to drive the car home and the trip is a few hours. A car that has been sitting around or just pulled out of storage could be a real problem. I once went to visit a car that broke when the owner was pulling it out of his driveway. If it’s something small and you can fix it, it’s not a big deal. But it can throw a real wrench into your plans.

8. Do you have any pictures of the underneath of the car? Usually owners are all too happy to supply dozens of pretty pictures of the outside of the car. But it is the underside that tells the story. When you inspect the underside of one of these Mustangs, you can quickly see the quality of the welding if metal was replaced, and whether or not the person was concerned with a factory correct appearance. Loads of undercoating is usually a sign that the owner is trying to conceal something that otherwise would not look too pretty. Some owners completely detail the underneath of the car, especially if it has had a frame up restoration. THAT is what you are looking for, but it also means $$$.

So how did I end up in Canada chasing a Mustang? And if I answered all of these questions ahead of time, why did this endeavor end so badly? The answer is, it’s always an adventure. And it’s usually complicated…

Right now, Fastback Mustangs are a hot commodity. With the recent 50th anniversary of the Mustang, it has certainly rekindled people’s interest in the cars. The good cars usually sell to the first person that looks at them, and owners usually get calls the day the car is listed. So that means I have to move fast, especially if the car is out of state. That means I have to have my money at the ready, which means a trip to the bank for a certified check with the owners name on it – I don’t roll with briefcases full of cash like Richard Rawlings (I suspect he doesn’t either – it’s just a TV show). I also need to have inspection tools and a way to elevate the car so I can inspect the underneath. Bottom line: when you get wind of a car that looks good, if you snooze you lose. So you have to move fast, which adds another layer of pressure.

A quick way to scan car listings is to use a classified site aggregator like AutoTempest. It lets you scan eBay, AutoTrader, and Craigslist ads from across the whole country. Although it can seem like a lot of listings at first, once you start to wade through them you quickly spot the lemons, the overpriced cars that have been on the market forever, and the project cars. Use the site enough and you can see when a new car pops up. This particular 1966 Fastback in London Ontario caught my eye:

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From the pictures, I could see that the car was my preferred color (Wimbledon White with Guardsman Blue stripes), and it had modifications to turn it into a “clone” of a 1966 Shelby – namely the side scoops, alloy wheels, quarter windows, dash-mounted tach and wood steering wheel – all nice things. The car was also reported to have a rebuilt engine with added performance, a smooth-shifing Tremec 5 speed transmission, Koni shocks and chassis subframe reinforcements. If it was as advertised, 25K was a value, compared to similar examples trading between 35 and 45K! I had to see this car!

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After chatting with the owner, he also had a lot of positive things to say. He mentioned that he was a certified auto mechanic and had owned the car for 5 years now – both good signs. He sent me clear pictures of the VIN stamp, reported that the car was drivable and would have no problem making the 7 hour trip back to Chicago should I choose to purchase it. So I packed up my tools and was able to convince my brother-in-law Curt to come along for the ride to check out this car. “It will be an adventure!” I said – I was not wrong. Many thanks to Curt – I owe you a major favor BIG TIME!

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Initially there were some warning signs that now seem more obvious in hind sight. The seller mentioned that one person had already looked at the car and passed. We agreed on the listed price, but the seller also mentioned he just put an ad up on eBay. If I drove out there, he offered to sell me the car at the advertised price, and he would end the auction early. Great! However, he suggested the idea of securing the car with a non-refundable $500 deposit. No thanks. THAT was another red flag.

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Curt and I left Thursday after work and drove through the night covering half the distance and staying over at a friend’s house in Lansing. We woke early and covered the next leg of our journey, as well as our passage through to Canada the next morning. London Ontario is an hour past the Port Huron border crossing. We made it to the seller’s house around 11 – right on schedule. That would give us enough time to inspect the car, test drive it, close the deal at the seller’s bank, drive the car back to the border and another hour to a friend’s house in Algonac where we could either stay overnight and drive the car back to Chicago the next day or leave it there and arrange transport at a future date. A very carefully constructed plan. But everything had to go as planned. And it never does…

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Upon arriving at the seller’s house, there was another red flag – the house that the car was pictured in front of (a large, stately home) was not the house the car was currently parked in front of. A quick walk around the car netted a few more red flags – white overspray all over the front of the car. A poorly fitting front headlight bezel that looked way worse than it did in the pictures. And a layer of grime and surface corrosion over the entire car that suggested it had spend some time outdoors in the elements. The alloy wheels were pitted and even had a rust spot on them! Also, there was some staining on the paint from leaves. The seller mentioned this on the phone – how bad could it be? The paint was ruined. Not great, but still not a deal breaker.

The seller finally came out and we opened up the car to view the interior, hood and trunk areas. This is where things took a turn for the worse. The seller mentioned that the car had some metal work done. Turns out, the entire back of the car had been reconstructed. Unfortunately, the work was shoddy. The following pictures tell the story.

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This was the picture of the trunk area that the seller provided. Other than the visible dirt, no real warning signs here.

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This is the picture I took. What the heck is that? It looks like the quarter panel was fiberglassed in place. I doubt it was even welded in! Right about now is when my heart started to sink. Things are not looking good.

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The other side did not look much better. It is not uncommon for water to pool at the corners of the fastback window, leak inside the trunk and start causing serious damage. This car was originally from the Midwest (another red flag) and had the telltale signs of serious rust. Unfortunately, it was not repaired correctly. It would take a lot of money and body shop time to set this car straight. Time to look underneath the car and see what other surprises await…

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This was the shot of the underside provided by the seller. One red flag is the generous use of undercoating. And some serious dirt and grime. When I crawled under the car, what I saw was much worse. Holes in the floorpan that had been patched with silicone. Bad welding around the rear wheel houses and the front radiator support (yes, the whole front of the car from the front shock towers had been replaced as well). I stopped taking pictures at this point because I had seen enough. Could this car have been saved? Of course, but it would have meant undoing a lot of the work that had already been performed, plus the serious time and cost of doing the job correctly. Why not just do it right in the first place?

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I think the owner must have sensed by displeasure. He excused himself and disappeared into the house while I was crawling around underneath the car. Up until this point, it would have been like any of my other Mustang stories – it was not a quality car, time to move on.

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Suddenly, the owner comes bursting out of his house. “Sorry guys, the car is sold. A guy from Minnesota contacted me through eBay and offered to buy the car sight unseen for 27 grand. I just made 2 grand more than you were offering! You could have given me a deposit but you didn’t. He just gave me a grand, the car is his. Sorry, it’s just business.” What a shady seller! I understand that it was a favorable outcome for him – he just found a sucker to buy the car sight unseen for even more money. That person is in for a surprise when they take delivery of this car. Maybe they are made of money and figure “how bad can it be?” – I can not be as cavalier in my car purchasing.

I would have been even more upset if I had actually wanted to buy the car after inspecting it. But this guy did not even give me the chance. And he had zero sympathy for the fact we drove all that way to see the car. We didn’t even get to test drive this Mustang, which was also disappointing. It was quite a surprising outcome, and another example of just how fast these transactions move. In this case, the seller was just as dirty as his car.

So what is to be learned here? Heavy undercoating underneath a car is usually a bad sign. If the seller is so eager to sell the car they want a non-refundable deposit, that is also a bad sign. Buying a classic car off eBay is very dangerous. You need to see these cars in person – there is 50 years of history to uncover, and it simply can’t be done with pictures. You can’t run a Carfax on a vintage car, so it’s down to your own ability to inspect it. Or hire an expert, which is not always possible given the fast pace of these transactions.

Hopefully my Mustang is out there somewhere. All I know is that is was constructed some time between 1965 and 1966…

MustangGT350woman

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