Flip This Car: 1992 Ford Mustang LX 5.0 Convertible—Part Three

By Christopher Smith

February 27, 2012


There is a serious problem with this car.
It’s not the leaking oil pan gasket that became quite a bit worse after part two of this series posted a little over a month ago. Nor is it the convertible top, which is 20 years old and graced with small but noticeable rips in the fabric that, if I’m honest, generate a fair amount of wind noise at speed. It’s not the fuel mileage, which at approximately 18 miles per gallon on average isn’t terrific, but for a 20-year old V-8 in winter that tends to get the better of my right foot on a daily basis, it’s understandable. It’s not the lack of a tilt steering wheel, or the two-way (as in forward or backward) adjustable driver seat that keeps chiropractors in business, and it’s not the complete lack of bolster support that makes attaining appreciable G-loading in corners something of a challenge.
It’s not the gaudy red, outdated plastic interior that looks like it came straight from a Ford Tempo, and it’s not the miles-long reach to access the vintage AM/FM cassette deck either, which I smartly replaced with a remote-operated CD/MP3 player after straining a shoulder trying to reach the volume one morning. It’s not the surface rust, which shows up on white paint better than a zit on prom night (and I might add, makes one just as self-conscious in a car such as this). It’s not the trunk, which has the storage capacity of a post office box, and it’s not the hideously 1980’s luggage rack, which I’ve never seen anyone actually use for luggage—on any car—in my 20 years of licensed driving.
It’s not the way the car wiggles unnervingly in the dry on its skinny 205/65-15 Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi snow tires, and it’s most definitely not the way those tires carry the 5.0 through the white stuff, which can only be described as heroic. My apologies (or possibly raspberries) to the doubters who were expecting me to pound the ditch on a regular basis in this car, but thanks to that rubber and a couple bags of concrete stowed in the boot I’ve endured conditions that even surprised my inflated ego. Parked at a snowbound hotel in Gaylord, Michigan during Rally America’s Sno*Drift 2012 a few weeks ago, the 5.0 actually became something of a conversation piece. That particular Saturday night in the northern Lower Michigan snowbelt brought near-zero visibility with snowfall rates of three inches per hour, perfect conditions for massive powerslides in the abandoned parking lot of a nearby restaurant. Nearly as much fun, however, was simply traversing the local roads that appeared to be the exclusive domain of four-wheel drive pickup trucks toting plows. Don’t get me wrong—even equipped with good snow tires, a V-8 Mustang in the snow is still a handful at best, but I have no doubts this car is nearly as capable as front-wheel drive in low-traction situations. The difference is the Mustang requires far more diligence and demands all of your attention to accomplish the same journey. I think for many people, making that kind of investment in the act of operating a motor vehicle just isn’t within their capabilities, or worse, their interest. For others, that kind of heightened awareness might be too much stress to justify using such a car year-around. But hey, that’s a problem with the driver, not the car.
One thing working to my advantage this winter is the Mustang’s lackluster accelerative performance. There’s no problem with missing power, rather it’s just misdirected. The four-speed automatic does a decent job of changing gears without the gooey slushbox slip most people associate with this era, but the cogs could be better placed. There’s enough space between third and overdrive to build and staff a fleet of starships, but it certainly helps fuel economy when the engine can turn a lazy 1400 RPM at 60 miles per hour. Aiding that lack of motivation is a 2.73 rear end, the tallest gear set available for a 1992 Mustang. The result is a car that musters all the immediacy of a DMV visit when nailing the throttle from a dig, but there is hope. Stay on the gas and the power continually builds to the V-8’s 3000 RPM torque peak, at which point you’d better have a good grip on the steering wheel because the backside will step out on anything other than dry, clear pavement. I’m told a set of 3.55s would address the initial lag without turning the car into a screaming pony on the highway, but if I’m honest, the mushy low end doesn’t bother me that much. Do I really want to invest the time and money into a gear swap just to pick up a half-second on my 0-60 time? I’ll probably feel different about that once Mid-Michigan Motorplex opens in a couple months, but until then, consider me on the fence.
What I’m not on the fence about is an exhaust upgrade. There’s nothing wrong with the current setup, save that it has four catalytic converters and two sizable mufflers. And yet, despite those sound absorbers the 5.0 still has quite the resonant rumble, even at idle. The soundtrack gets even better as the revs climb, but the stock exhaust never really hits the crescendo so closely associated with Mustangs of this era. I know what these cars sound like with a properly uncorked set of pipes underneath, and it’s not like I only have a few upgrades to choose from. H-pipes, X-pipes, headers, header-back systems, cat-back systems, the list goes on and on. In fact, my biggest stumbling block right now is simply deciding which manufacturer to go with. I suppose that could be considered a problem, but it’s the kind of problem enthusiasts love to have.  
I don’t have any problems with the Mustang’s chief operating officer, the legendary Ford 5.0-liter (okay, 4.9 if we’re being technical) V-8. This is the engine that powered a smorgasbord of Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns from the late 1960s until its retirement in 2001, and I’m talking everything from pickups to vans, family station wagons, performance cars, you name it. It’s not a stretch to call it one of the greatest American engines of all time, and having recently owned one of the other great American engines—namely GM’s 5.7 V-8 during my Buick Roadmaster saga—I find myself liking this one just a bit more. It has a healthy powerband, it’s rock-solid reliable, it’s not overly complex, and it has the potential to be so, so much more. Observing the bottled up exhaust and the tiny mass air meter, I can easily see how people achieve appreciable horsepower gains with just a few basic bolt-ons. And once the winter snow turns to spring storms, I’ll be on a horsepower hunt of my own.
All isn’t completely well in the engine department, however. I did find myself cussing out the Ford engineer who designed the thermostat housing with virtually no clearance to remove the lower housing bolt. Despite the thermostat’s location right at the top of the engine, that particular project cost me several hours and some seriously cramped fingers. It also appears the best way to replace the leaking oil pan gasket is to actually pull the entire engine, and for that kind of effort I’ll be replacing the rusty oil pan as well. Still, I’m looking forward to it all. This is very much an old-school engine, devoid of plastic covers and miles of wiring connecting sensors to sensors, and that’s the kind of work I like to do. In fact, this could be the perfect time to host a weekend wrenching party. Call on the Mustang faithful for two days of scraping knuckles, swapping parts, getting greasy, and rebuilding an American classic. Time to stock up on frosty beverages and GoJo hand cleaner, which I discovered last week now comes with a cherry smell. I’m still not quite sure about that; the original GoJo smell has become synonymous with weekend garage parties the world over, but this is the first bottle my wife allows in the kitchen. I even caught her using it the other day. Now if I can just get her to let me put car parts in the dishwasher I’ll be all set.
But I digress. There’s a serious problem I need to address here, and it's been in the back of my head since part one of this series.
I’m an avid listener to NPR—National Public Radio for those of you not in the know. No, that’s not the problem but it is a rather telling symptom. Aside from the talk I very much enjoy jazz and classical music on my driving excursions, but I can’t listen to any of that in this car.
It’s not because of the noisy top or the speakers or anything like that. The radio tunes the station just fine, and though the top is a bit noisy, it’s not remotely close to drowning out the six speakers crammed into the Mustang’s smallish interior.
I can’t listen to NPR simply because the Mustang won’t allow it.
Straight up, this car is a hooligan. It’s a rebel. It’s the friend that sets the bad example. Listening to NPR in this car is like going to church wearing leather chaps and a sleeveless shirt that says Sex instructor: beginners welcome. Even with the poor gearing and crummy seats, this car is a party animal that wants to get loud and sideways at every opportunity. It’s constantly taunting me, reminding me there’s a pair of wheels behind my head being driven by a gutsy V-8 up front, with a short wheelbase in between. The ride is harsh and the steering heavy, but those attributes bring a welcome amount of feedback on what the car is doing, and more importantly, what I must do to ensure the survival of both vehicle and passengers. How sideways can we get? How long do we want to hold it?
And this is the polite Mustang. I’m counting the days until warmer weather, when the top can spend more time down than up and I can strut along on the factory Ford 16-inch pony wheels I recently acquired.
In plain speak, this car brings out the 16-year old in me (which admittedly doesn’t take much) and reminds me every single day that fun behind the wheel doesn’t always require gobs of power, or precise handling, or refined road manners. The Mustang has none of those, but it does have style, and attitude, and enough blood and guts to be exciting. And yes, it has that 5.0 soundtrack that’s addicting enough to be sold by the gram. More importantly, I feel like the Mustang enjoys driving as much as I do, and that’s not a quality often found in vehicles, performance oriented or not. With the Buick there was no real communication between car and driver. With the Mustang, there’s not just communication, there’s connection.
And that is a very, very serious problem in a series scheduled to conclude in a few months with the sale of the car. Very serious indeed.
1992 Ford Mustang LX 5.0 Convertible
Vehicle status: Sideways  
Miles driven: 3050
Observed fuel economy: 18.60 mpg
Times in the ditch: 0
Close calls with the ditch: 2
Broken parts since the last article: Thermostat, turn signal relay
Total parts investment to date: $11.99 (thermostat and new housing gasket), $5.99 (turn signal relay), $21.98 (oil and filter), $131.20 (CD/MP3 player, including installation), $200 (new summer wheels and tires), $515.98 (parts total from part two) = $887.14