God only knows how fast we were going, but we were flying. From my vantage point in the passenger seat, I could not see the speedometer, and Editor Glad was busy scanning a path through traffic on the congested 405 freeway. What neither of us missed was the unmistakable black and white roof of a California Highway Patrol Crown Victoria. We were in the left lane on the southbound side as he was approaching on the northbound side. Our ’12 Boss 302 Mustang must have seemed like a Competition Orange blur rocketing past, and the monolithic concrete divider was the only thing between us and massive points on Doug’s driving record, because it was impossible for him to make a U-turn and come after us. “He flipped his lights on, did you see that?” Doug asked later. Apparently motivated by either frustration or outrage, the Chippie had fired up his light bar for a few seconds as if to say, “I saw that. I can’t come after you, but I saw you speeding.”
We were headed to Long Beach to shoot this new Boss—which we had on a three-day loan from Ford—together with Kenny Maisano’s meticulously restored ’70 Boss. On the way, we stopped briefly in Irvine to pick up Doug’s ’06 Mustang GT. Arriving at the photo shoot rendezvous, Doug leaped out of his car. “Sit in this thing. It feels nothing like the Boss.”
The differences were startling.
In the ’12 Boss 302, the clutch feel feels light, and the engagement is progressive. One wouldn’t exactly say the same about the ’06. It doesn’t feel bad, but it requires more effort. And while most of us assume more effort equals more power, that theory is disproved after driving the Boss—a car with more power stock but with a lighter-feeling clutch. The same holds true with the shifter. The Boss has very short throws and really close gates; the handle practically falls into the next gear. The ’06 is much less precise, and Doug has complained for several years about missed shifts at high engine speeds, especially at the 2 to 3 upshift, a result of the remote-mounted shifter handle. The seats feel different, too. Yes, the Boss has Recaros, so of course they feel better, but the seating position and relationship to the steering wheel are better than the other ’06.
It’s amazing the difference just six years made in the development of the Mustang. Both of these cars are technically the same platform, the S197, yet just a few minutes behind the wheel of the Boss had Doug contemplating trading in his ’06 for a new 5.0-powered car. It really is that much better. Which brings us to the point of this article: If you are in the position (financially or otherwise) to buy a new Boss 302, do it. You will love the car—we guarantee it. For the majority of us who can’t go out and buy one, here are some options to make your car feel and drive better.
We address Mustangs this month, but hang in there, Dodge and Chevy guys. We will follow up in the next couple of months with versions for your cars, too.
Old Boss vs. New Boss
Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss. We mean that in a good way, though. In the late-’60s, Ford engineers wanted to create a car that would win SCCA’s Trans-Am series. For those unfamiliar with Trans-Am, think of is as Super Stock racing around a road course. Certain modifications were allowed, but the cars were basically the same as when driven home from the local Ford, Chevrolet, or Dodge/Plymouth dealership. It was exciting racing, and the competition among the Big Three was fierce.
Ford complemented its new-for-’69 body style with a high-revving 302 with a forged reciprocating assembly and the massive-port cylinder heads from the then-new 351 Cleveland engine. According to Ford’s own literature, the chassis engineers were issued a mandate from President Bunkie Knudson to build “the absolute best handling street car available for the American market.” Their efforts paid off when Ford took the Trans-Am championship in 1970.
The original Boss 302 was produced in the ’69 and ’70 model years only, with a combined production of 8,641 models. It was replaced in ’71 with the Boss 351.
Fast-forward about four decades and Ford has finally brought the Boss 302 back. Again, it will be a limited-production model, and again, the philosophy was to build the quickest and best- handling Mustang ever made. “A beautifully balanced factory-built race car that [customers] can drive on the street,” describes Mustang Chief Engineer David Pericak. To accomplish those lofty goals, Ford made a number of small but significant changes to the powertrain and chassis of the just introduced ’11 5.0 Coyote-powered S197 car. The engine was upgraded with a forged rotating assembly (regular 5.0 engines have cast pistons), more aggressive camshafts, CNC-ported cylinder heads, and a short-runner, velocity stack intake manifold. All these changes are good for 444 hp and 380 lb-ft, compared with 412/390 from the plain-Jane Coyote. The Getrag six-speed transmission is a carryover from the Mustang GT, but the clutch material was upgraded, and a Torsen limited- slip differential is available as an option. To improve handling, the Boss was upgraded with higher-rate springs and adjustable shocks and struts, with five different valving options that can be easily changed at the top of the piston—you don’t have to crawl under the car to change the settings. Brembo brakes are standard on the Boss, and the front-brake rotors are an inch larger. In addition, Boss 302s have more aggressive brake pad material than that of the GTs.
Scott Mortara, testdriver for our sister publication Motor Trend, describes the ’12 Boss as, “definitely the best Mustang I’ve ever driven, and it’s also one of the most fun to drive cars I’ve driven in the last couple of years.” Strong praise coming from a guy who’s driven every car sold in America as his job as road test editor since 2006.
The Boss 302 is a benchmark car—one that only a few people will be able to own but many will aspire to. Even if you can’t afford one, it is possible to build your own car to match or possibly exceed the high standards of the Boss 302.
Let’s address a bit of bad news first. There is no way to make an old car feel like a new car. We talked with the owners of three different suspension companies—Maximum Motorsports, Maier Racing Enterprises, and Global West Suspension—and all were in agreement on that point. “You can get them close, but if you want a new car, you should buy a new car,” Mike Maier says. “There is only so much you can do with a 40-year-old chassis.”
But one of the most common questions suspension companies are asked on a regular basis is how to make an older car feel like a new car. We were as guilty as the next guy. After driving the new Boss 302, we were trying to think of ways to make all our cars feel that good. And for lack of a better term, that feeling is what most people refer to as ride quality. The problem, though, is that ride quality is such a subjective term, and there is no good way to quantify it. To some, a car with good ride quality has a stiff autocross suspension and really responsive steering, while to others, it’s a quiet drivetrain with little NVH in the chassis or interior. For the sake of this article, we’re going to dismiss the latter notion as crazy talk, and assume if you read this magazine on a regular basis, you will agree with the following statement: A car with the best ride quality has the ideal combination of acceleration, braking, and cornering abilities, given the dimensions of the vehicle and what it is mainly used for. Daily drivers don’t need alignment settings of 4 degrees negative camber and 1 degree of toe-out, but some auto- crossers do. Likewise, an autocross car does not need 600 hp to be competitive, but an open-track or street/strip car might.
“The first thing we determine is how the customer uses his car—drag race, autocross, road race, or street driven,” says Maximum Motorsports’ Chuck Schwynoch. “We also have to ask how often the car is used that way. When some people say they don’t drag race very often, it means they only get to the track twice a month, instead of every week. For others, not very often means only a couple of times a year. So we have to ask a lot of questions to determine the best combination of parts for that application.”
Global West’s Doug Norrdin echoes that statement. “We need to know what the customer wants the car to do. You can make these things handle with the right combination of parts.”
Maier Racing’s ’65 Mustang autocross car. Mike Maier just won the autocross competition at
Mix and Match
The right combination of parts is the difference between a car that feels like an extension of your body and one that is barely driveable. Suspension parts are expensive, so you want to get the combination right the first time. To improve the ride of your Mustang, we suggest you go with one of these companies and stick with their products all the way through. You can’t go wrong with any of them. These guys have done all the research and testing; they know which parts work well together. Be aware that Maier and Global West specialize in classic Mustangs while Maximum Motorsports specializes in Fox-body and newer Mustangs.
We would also suggest resisting the temptation to buy the cool looking coilovers right away. Instead, your best initial investment is in subframe connectors and chassis-stiffening pieces. We have firsthand experience working on all generations of Mustangs, so believe it when we say there is not much material keeping the front and rear suspensions connected. Flimsy floorpans and rocker panel stampings let the chassis flex a lot. Remember, the original Mustang was built on a Falcon unibody, which was never intended to be a performance car. “Anything you can do to reinforce the body is good. You can’t have a stiff enough chassis,” says Maximum’s Schwynoch. He explained that when the chassis flexes over bumps or in a hard cornering situation, the rear axle can come out of its intended alignment with the centerline of the car, and when this happens the rear wheels essentially begin to steer the body into a different path than that of the front wheels, which should be the only wheels doing the steering. “You can feel it in steady curves like an onramp or a constant radius turn on a road course. You have the steering wheel pointed in the right direction to complete the turn, but you find yourself having to make steering corrections mid-corner because chassis flex causes the rear end to change directions.” Eliminating all the slop in the unibody will allow the stock suspension to work that much better. You will definitely feel a difference.
Maximum Motorsports’ Maximum Grip Box installed on an SN-95 Mustang.
The next step should be a set of good wheels and tires, according to Mike Maier. “They should be at least 16-inch wheels and 18 at the most. Those have the widest variety of tires and sizes available.” Tire technology has improved radically since the original Boss 302 hit the streets, and we’ve proven it in countless performance tests: Good tires give you the biggest improvement in your car’s performance.
After tires, “springs and shocks offer the best bang for the buck,” says Maier. He likes Bilstein Sport or Penske re-buildable shocks, but be sure to consult the tech guys at whichever company you choose to buy from. They will recommend the best combination of spring rates and shock valving for whatever you want your car to do.
They will also recommend parts to buy in increments, if you are not able to afford all the suspension components you want at once. “We don’t want customers to backtrack. We will help develop a long-term plan, so customers can buy in stages without spending money on parts they won’t need in the future,” says Global West’s Norrdin.
After the basics, you can consider control arm and leaf spring upgrades, and even coilover shocks. Each of the companies we’ve mentioned has an array of hard-core suspension upgrades. We don’t intend to have this article read like a catalog, so we will mention some of the more interesting pieces. For more information, go to the respective company’s website.
Adding an overdrive transmission will transform the feel of your classic Mustang. Modern D
Maier Racing sells reinforced factory control arms with a relocated ball joint to offer better camber gain as the suspension is compressed. Global West offers Negative Roll tubular upper control arms with their patented Del-a-lum bushings. If you want coilovers, check out Global West’s tubular lower A-arms, which replace the factory control arm/strut rod combination.
Lots of options exist for the rear suspension as well. Global West offers its Cat 5 leaf springs with spherical bearings in reverse eyelets. The bearings allow the springs to pivot as the body rolls during cornering, preventing individual leaves from twisting and thereby increasing their spring rate. More exciting than that was Doug Norrdin’s news that Global is finalizing testing and development of a torque-arm rear suspension for early Mustangs. This is state-of-the art stuff that will replace the leaf springs with a better-handling combination of a torque arm, coilover shocks, and a Watt’s link. Those products should be available by the time you read this.
Fox-Body and newer Mustangs
Maximum Motorsports has the market covered for ’78 and newer Mustangs. You can buy a kit with a range of parts that simply lower the car or choose a full competition suspension kit, which includes a new front K-member with revised alignment geometry and a torque arm rear suspension. It’s basically the same stuff the company uses on its American Iron series race cars. And this is one scenario in which race car stuff really can be driven on the street. Your author had the opportunity to ride in Maximum’s ’96 Mustang GT autocross car, outfitted with its American Iron suspension package, and it was incredible: flat, stable, predictable, and drama-free handling. Need more proof? Maximum’s Mike Croutcher drove the car to California Speedway from the company’s headquarters in San Luis Obispo nearly four hours away. And by the way, this car posted the fastest time through the cones in that weekend’s competition.
Global West’s front coilover conversion package.
So far we’ve focused on the Mustang’s suspension, but the powertrain also plays a crucial role in a car’s ride quality. So we’d also suggest upgrading to an overdrive transmission. We spoke with both Bruce Couture and Paul Coffey of Modern Driveline, a company specializing in five- and six-speed manual transmission conversions. Both guys emphasized the need to match the driveline components. If your transmission and ring-and-pinion are geared properly, that will keep the engine in its powerband at just about any road speed. As an added bonus, you will experience a gain in fuel economy—not a bad thing these days, either. Give Modern Driveline a call and have your cam specs, curb weight, and tire size available. The company will match a trans and recommend a rear axle ratio that will make your car a pleasure to drive.
Works In Progress
To drive these points home, here are a couple of examples of cars in various states of build.
Brian Anton’s 70 Mach 1
Classic Mustang fans will like Brian Anton’s ’70 Mach 1. He recently purchased it from Diversion Motors in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. A lifelong Mustang lover to the core, Brian has owned several, including a ’00 Cobra R and his current Whipple-supercharged ’03 Cobra. He’s just beginning the build on this car, but his goal is a Trans-Am look (see how neatly we tied that back into the original Boss 302?) with modern amenities, such as four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch wheels and wide tires, an overdrive transmission, and suspension upgrades as he can afford them. The 351 Cleveland still runs strong, so Brian will concentrate his efforts on the driveline and chassis for now.
Christian France’s 86 Coyote Fox
We first featured Christian’s ’86 Mustang in our May ’06 issue, when it still had pushrod power under the hood. He just completed a Coyote V8 swap, one of the first in the country, and we were there for its maiden dyno pull. On the Dynojet chassis dyno at Racers’ Edge Tuning in Downey, California, Christian’s car made 399.7 hp just on the crate engine’s base programming. With a little tweaking, RET owner Greg Monroe coaxed a few extra ponies out of the Coyote, ultimately making an impressive 407 hp and 388 lb-ft, in a car that is significantly lighter than our Boss 302 press car’s 3,600-pound curb weight. What’s more, he’s basically got the same suspension components that are on Maximum Motorsports’ ’96 Mustang GT mentioned earlier in this article. By the way, Maximum Motorsports offers the only Fox-body modular engine swap K-member that also fits the new Coyote engine. You can read about the swap in Christian’s blog on his company’s website (HighFlowFuel.com). Click on the Coyote Blog tab on the top of the page.
Ken Maisano’s 70 Boss 302
In case you’re wondering, that’s BASF Medium Blue Metallic paint.
Yes, it is a real Boss—let’s get that clear from the start. Ken bought it on eBay from a seller in Atlanta. It needed a full restoration, but that was OK. He owns Mascar Paint and Body in Costa Mesa, California, and was planning on restoring the car all along. “Honestly, I hadn’t been interested in owning a Boss 302 before, but I was restoring one for a customer in Michigan and got the bug during that job,” Ken says. He treated his car to a full rotisserie restoration, managing to save all the original sheetmetal save for a small section of the floor aft of the firewall. He also rebuilt and blueprinted the engine. “I detuned the engine a little,” he quips. “I lowered the compression ratio to 9.0:1 so it would run on 91-octane, and I also went a little smaller on the cam.” The stock cam specs are 228 degrees of duration on a 114-degree lobe- separation angle, but Ken chose a cam ground with 224 degrees of duration on a 110-degree LSA. “It helps keep velocity up in those huge intake ports and improves overall driveability,” he says. Ken tells us he just ran the car at California Speedway and recorded a 14.0-second pass with a 103-mph trap speed. “It would have gone 13.50s if traction were better,” he admits. Still, that is an impressive number for a basically stock Boss 302 (a car intended for road racing, by the way). What’s even more impressive is that Ken isn’t afraid to run a car this valuable down the track in the first place.
3430 Sacramento Dr., Unit D
San Luis Obispo
Racers' Edge Tuning
8107 Phlox Street
Global West Suspension
655 S. Lincoln Ave.
4312 Clipper Drive
Ford Racing Performance Parts
15021 Commerce Drive S
25308 Arroyo Ct
High Flow Performance
152 Aero Camino Unit E