Inspection & Test Drive
Buying a Mustang, or any car totally sight unseen is always going to be a risk. If at all possible you should make the effort to inspect it before buying. But when it's located half way across the country it may not make sense to spend the time or money to travel and see it first hand. If so there are still resources at your disposal to have the car checked out.
Do a search for Mustang clubs located near the car you're considering. Often a member will be willing to take a look at it for a small fee. Online Mustang forums can have the same community feel of a club and you may be able to find a member who lives close by. One advantage is someone else will typically be more subjective in their assessment of what you think is your dream Mustang. They won't have the same emotion tied up in it, which is a plus when looking at Mustangs for sale. Larger towns and cities may also have a Mustang parts house or restoration shop. They'll probably charge more to go see the car, but they'll have the experience and knowledge to give you an accurate report.
It's always best to inspect your car in person if you can. If you lack the technical knowledge you can always pay an expert to go look at it. But even so you should tag along and learn as much as you can.
- Always bring someone with you. Obviously it helps if they're knowledgeable about cars, but even if they aren't it's important to have someone else there to lend a hand as well as give a less emotional opinion of the car then you may have. Always look at a car in daylight and good weather. Dusk makes paint look much better than it is and nighttime viewings are simply worthless. You want the weather to be good because you'll need to get down on the ground and climb under the car. You also want to take your time, which you won't do if it's 30 degrees and snowing.
- Compare what you see in person to what the seller told you on the phone. Slight exaggerations about condition are to be expected from most sellers. They're trying to put as positive a spin on the car as they can. But blatant lies or misrepresentations are not acceptable. This should throw up a huge red flag and your best bet is to pass and find another car.
- Bring a tarp and flashlight to crawl under the car looking for rust and damage. See sidebar on typical rust areas.
- Sight down all the body panels to check for waves or wrinkles in the reflection. Pay attention to the gaps between body panels. They should be consistent. Any large difference points to a replaced body panel or past accident causing the misalignment. Bring a soft refrigerator magnet to look for body filler. The magnet will stick well to painted sheet metal, but not as well through Bondo. You can also get a fairly cheap tool specifically for this, which gives you an estimated thickness of body filler as well. Look for any bubbles in the paint or vinyl top. This is a sure sign of rust and unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. Small amounts of rust bubbling through paint means lots of rust in the metal below. Don't be fooled into thinking small bubbles are an easy repair.
- Check to be sure the engine is cold before you start it up. If the seller has warmed up the engine it may be a sign he's trying to hide something. When you start it for the first time have your friend stand back and watch for smoke out of the tail pipe.
- While the engine is warming up check all the little things; turn signals, brake lights, wipers, lights, horn, radio. Once the temp gauge says it's warm turn on the heater full and check both for heat and defrost. Pay attention for the sweet smell of anti-freeze. If you smell it the heater core is probably leaking. Also sniff around for any mildew, indicating other water leaks.
- Cowl leaks are a very common (and expensive) problem on early Mustangs. The seller may not be crazy about this, but try to spray down the windshield and cowl (air vents between back of hood and base of windshield) with a garden hose. You don't want to spray with any force. Just run water directly into cowl and then tuck your head under the dash looking for leaks.
- If possible try to test drive without the seller going with you. Leave your car as insurance. You don't want the seller talking during the test drive when you should be listening for noises and paying attention to details. Get into as many typical road situations as you can in a reasonable amount of time. Drive both surface streets and freeway speeds. Pay attention to any vibrations at speed (balance and/or alignment), squeaking over bumps (suspension), grinding noise (rear end or front bearings) or brake noises. Test the brakes fairly hard at a couple of stop signs. Don't get crazy. This isn't your car yet. But brake hard enough to tell if they work well and if the car wants to dive off to one side. Drive slowly past your friend or a wall close to the road with your windows open. The idea is to listen for noises from the engine or drive train that you might not hear in the cockpit. These sounds will bounce off the adjacent wall and back through your open window so you can hear them. If possible have your friend follow you down the road in their car to verify that your potential purchase tracks straight. If the front and rear tires don't seem to line up this is a sign of a fairly major past accident.
- After the test drive park it in a clean spot of driveway so you can notice any leaks. Keep the engine running and pop the hood to listen for any tapping or clicking. Then shut it off and check all the fluids. You're not so much checking the fluid levels (although they should all be full) but rather you're checking the color and smell. Is the oil dark and sludgy? Does is smell of fuel? Is it milky? If so there's a water leak in the engine. Does the transmission fluid look dark or smell burnt? Same with power steering fluid? Look around the brake master cylinder for signs of leaks. Brake fluid will bubble paint, so if you see any in this area it could mean a leak, or at least a sloppy refill of the fluid.
- While you're under the hood look at the sheet metal in the engine bay. You're looking for wrinkles or welding indicating a past accident.
- Right before you leave peak under the car again looking for new leaks since you parked it. Also, start it up one last time, again with your friend standing behind looking for any smoke from the exhaust.