This 1966 Ford Mustang Hasn't Been On The Road In 23 Years. Here's How I Finally Got It Running Well

Illustration for article titled This 1966 Ford Mustang Hasn't Been On The Road In 23 Years. Here's How I Finally Got It Running Well
Image: David Tracy

My brother’s 1966 Ford Mustang hasn’t been registered since 1998. The last time it ran was in 2013, but even then it could barely make it 10 feet down the road without stumbling. Lately, I’ve decided that the vehicle cannot continue wasting away in my garage; I want to enjoy this beautiful Candy Apple Red machine. Here’s how I got it to run properly for the first time in possibly a quarter-century.

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A little backstory on my brother’s Mustang: When I was a 20 year-old college student, I kept biking past this sad old ’66 Ford Mustang sitting in a gravel lot, its interior full of old tires. “Man, that’s a cool old car,” I’d think every time I pedaled into downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Sometimes I’d pause my ride and ogle, and on occasion I’d scan to make sure nobody was looking as I opened the door to peek at the interior.

“Man, my brother Mike would love this,” I thought. Mike has a true passion for 1960s Mustangs. Since he was about 10, his birthdays and Christmases involved his receiving some sort of 1960s Mustang memorabilia. Shirts, calendars, toy models — like any young child, the only gift he ever wanted was a pony, and year in and year out, he received just that. But never the real thing.

One day in 2012, I left this note in the dirty old Mustang and continued on my way downtown to eat some crepes:

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Image: David Tracy

That note joined about a dozen others that had been left in the old coupe. After a few months, it was clear to me that this passive method was not going to work, but I didn’t know what else to do. One day, I made my ritual visit to the 289 V8-powered Mustang, let a few drops of drool dribble onto my shirt as I stared a bit too longingly at the filthy steed. Then — just before I hopped back onto my bike — for some reason I decided to ask a random guy walking down the sidewalk if he knew who owned the vehicle.

Why would he? He’s just some guy out for a walk. Sure enough, he had no clue, and frankly, I don’t think he wanted to talk to me. But he did help. “I don’t know dude,” he quipped. “Just call the number on the side of that limousine or something.” There was a limo parked near the Mustang, and there was a phone number on it. The guy walked away; I called the number.

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The short of this story, which you may have already read, is that I bought the Mustang for $4,500 from a lawyer handling a now-dead professor’s estate. I then called my brother in Hong Kong and showed him. “See this car?” I told him. “It’s yours.” Yet again, Mike had received a pony as a gift. But finally, after 15 years, it was the real deal. All was right in this world.

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Image: David Tracy
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I’ve been storing the car since 2012, since the vehicle is my brother’s. (There it is in a Richmond, Virginia, garage before I towed it to Michigan with a 2017 Honda Ridgeline.) But life is a complicated thing, and even though wiping the dirt and grime off the Mustang would reveal a surprisingly beautiful paint job, it wasn’t enough to get my brother to upend his life in Hong Kong and move to the states.

“He’ll be back,” I always figured.

Well, now he has a girlfriend over there and an interesting job that he’s very good at. And he has a healthy appreciation for how amazing Hong Kong really is.

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This, combined with the fact that 2020 has significantly changed the way I plan to live my life, has me realizing that The Time Is Now to do things I want to do. This Ford Mustang is too beautiful and has the potential to bring me far too much joy. Why waste that? Mike agrees.

So I’ve spent the last two weeks fixing the machine, and though I’ve had issues with diagnosis, the Mustang is amazingly easy to work on. It’s not laden with any of the convoluted emissions systems found on my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle or 1985 Jeep J10. Even though it has a V8, the engine bay seems small thanks to the simplicity of 1960s car tech.

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The first thing I did was remove the spark plugs, hook up the battery from my Jeep and hit the Mustang’s heart with its flywheel-spinning defibrillator. As you can see in the second video of the Instagram album above, the motor cranked beautifully.

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I then replaced the plugs, spritzed a bit of starting fluid down the carburetor throat, pumped the throttle and twisted the key. The Mustang fired right up and even idled!

But it doesn’t take much for a vehicle to idle, especially at over 1,000 rpm. The engine was stumbling a bit, so I set out to adjust the ignition timing and idle air/fuel mixture. Here’s a little clip showing how I adjusted the timing (i.e. when the spark occurs in relation to the piston position). I’ll write an in-depth explainer on how to tune a carburetor and adjust timing later on. For now, I’ll keep it broad.

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Unfortunately, I was not able to get the engine to idle at a nice, steady 500 rpm. It wanted to idle around 1,000 while warm, and that’s just too high — and it also suggested that there was a vacuum leak. How else would it receive the air it needs to idle at 1,000 rpm if the idle speed screw (which opens and closes the throttle plates) is spun all the way out? A few squirts of starting fluid near the base of the carb, and the engine surging that followed, confirmed the theory of a vacuum leak.

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The next step, after checking that no vacuum ports had been left wide open, was to replace the gaskets at the base of the carburetor, as that seemed to be roughly where the leak was. This did not solve my high-idle problem. So, figuring that the problem was a leaky throttle shaft, I ditched the carburetor, rebuilt the Holley unit (see its float bowl below) I had sitting in the back of the Mustang, and slapped it onto the intake. The vacuum leak persisted.

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Image: David Tracy

I replaced the ignition points and condenser as well as the coil. But that solved nothing. In fact, it created other problems, because the car didn’t even start due to the new condenser being faulty. It took me a while to figure that out, but in the end, I now have a nice, crisp spark at the plugs.

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From there, I figured the issue was an intake manifold leak, so I removed the intake manifold, which required draining the coolant. Since I was doing that, I swapped the water pump and accessory belts. None of this was hard, especially once I’d removed some hose clamps and the four bolts holding the radiator in place, creating a bit more space to work on the front of the engine.

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Once I had the new intake manifold gaskets in place, I fired the engine up, but still the vacuum leak remained! What the heck?! I’d checked my vacuum ports and tried new base gaskets, a new carburetor and new intake manifold gaskets! That’s when I turned my attention to the one-inch aluminum spacer between the intake and carburetor. Maybe it was warped? To check, I lathered it with some silicone, figuring that would fill any gaps that exited due to the spacer not seating perfectly against the carb.

I then drained half of the nine year-old old gas from my tank, and diluted it with seven gallons of fresh gas, installed a new fuel filter, and cranked the motor. The results were great!

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The engine still stumbled a bit when I abruptly let off the the throttle, but I adjusted the dashpot (basically a spring that slows the throttle plate down a bit just before it closes) and now that’s all solved. I do think there’s still a tiny vacuum leak, as adjusting the idle screw still doesn’t cut the engine off (it does bring the idle speed down to under 400 rpm, which is a huge improvement), but I’ll solve that by sending the spacer to a machine shop to have it shaved flat, and then slapping on a new set of gaskets.

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The whole thing was frustrating. I rebuilt a carburetor, had to unbolt and then lift a 40 pound intake manifold off the engine (very difficult, as I had to do this while leaning into the engine bay) so I could replace gaskets and fiddled endlessly with ignition timing and idle mixture, only to find that the problem was a little aluminum spacer. Days wasted, but hey, that intake manifold gasket won’t need to be swapped anytime soon, and that carb won’t need a rebuild for some time, either. That’s the silver lining I choose to look at.

I have brake parts coming. Those include a dual-bowl master cylinder to replace the Widowmaker currently in the vehicle, new brake lines, new wheel cylinders, new shoes and new drum brake hardware.

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When the brakes are done, this Mustang will have the ability to both stop and go, which, really, is all I need to get this machine back on the road for the first time (legally) since 1998. The world — especially my world — will become a better place because of it.

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Owner of far too many Jeeps (Including a Jeep Comanche). Follow my instagram (@davidntracy). Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me.

DISCUSSION

That’s when I turned my attention to the one-inch aluminum spacer ... To check, I lathered it with some silicone

*twitch* :-) I picked up a parts bike where the PO had used what looked like a full tube of silicone while chasing an intake leak.

While we’re on the subject of vacuum, are you thinking about a mechanical-advance distributor? Possibly not now, since you replaced the points and condenser, but maybe at some point.

Dumb question inbound: is that spacer absolutely required? I’m guessing it’s there to insulate (so to speak) the carb from the manifold, which I assume is cast iron given its weight. Could you remove the spacer and run the engine temporarily and strictly for troubleshooting purposes?