• Frank Oles

The Search for Shelby

Updated: Nov 21, 2019


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. So what could be so hard about finding a vintage Mustang, you ask? Read on to find out.

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.

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. 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.

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?".

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.

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 $$$.

Follow all these steps, and chances are you have a cherry car on your hands. Remember... just because a car is priced at the upper end of the market does NOT mean that it is worth the high asking price. Sometimes shiny paint is all it takes to close the sale. But hidden surprises await! Granted, these cars are 50+ years old at this point, so you can't expect them to be factory fresh unless there has been a rotisserie restoration. In which case, bring your wallet. Unfortunately, I am no closer to my dream Mustang than the day I started looking. However, I am way more educated and I saved my self the grief and financial strain of buying a rotten car. In the mean time, I think I'll watch Ford V Ferrari again to keep the dream alive...

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