Pleasant Garden, North Carolina’s Wade Cleavenger has been working on and building cars for as long as he can remember. Like many others in this hobby, he got his start working on projects with his father, and continued to develop his skills and take on several projects of his own, including the beautiful Bimini Blue Mustang coupe you see here.
While the Fox Body Mustang is the go-to platform for many enthusiasts, Cleavenger has had quite the diverse collection of cars leading up to this project, including a 1971 F-100 4×4 with a full late-model EFI swap, a 1979 Mercury Capri, and a 1965 Mustang. His latest project, is this notchback, began life as a mundane, white, four-cylinder commuter car.
“My father and I built my first car while I was in high school and it helped me learn a lot, and I still drive that El Camino today,” Cleavenger says. Even Ford fans can’t argue that driving a 1970 El Camino in high school would be pretty cool.
The reason Cleavenger got into the Fox Body crowd was simple. His father owned a 1988 Mustang GT, but it met an unfortunate demise due to a traffic incident. The well-maintained donor car was just waiting around until someone could repurpose the pony’s parts.
“My father bought the GT when it was two years old, then my brother ended up wrecking it, so I was looking for a Fox to swap everything from the GT into,” Cleavenger explains.
As many folks were sequestered during most of 2020, Cleavenger got busy looking for a project, and found the notchback on Facebook Marketplace in July of 2020. It sat for quite some time, and it wasn’t until May of 2021 that the build began in earnest.
The goal was to make it to Mustang Week 2021 That didn’t leave much time, as the event was only a few months away. – Wade Cleavenger
“I started stripping it to bare metal and painted the parts of the car you don’t normally see, like the engine bay, door jambs, inside the interior, and the trunk,” Cleavenger details. He debated painting the Mustang Calypso Green, but opted for the ever-popular Bimini Blue for his ’87 model.
“After it was painted, I started taking the ’88 Mustang GT apart piece by piece, then cleaned and rebuilt all of the parts before installing them on the ’87 coupe,” he explains. “Everything was swapped, from the engine to the interior, and even the wiring harness. Everything inside was brand new and shiny, although I didn’t paint the body at this time.”
Cleavenger got the pony up and running in August, just a month before he drove it to Mustang Week. The exterior was still in primer, though he had tinted it blue, which gave it the base color he was going for. He then completed the paint job the following year during the Easter holiday.
“I painted this car in an old garage at 20 years old with a cheap paint gun, and people assumed a professional shop had done it,” he says proudly. That’s quite the accomplishment for the young man. Cleavenger noted the key was to load the clear coat on – five coats in total – so that you can wet-sand all of the contaminants out.
According to Cleavenger, the desired look of the finished project was an “OEM-plus kind of look…kind of retro from the ‘90s,” he tells us. We have to think that means basic bolt-on’s and a set of Weld wheels, for sure, and maybe a monster tach on the dash, and a nitrous oxide bottle in the trunk, too. As you might imagine, that OEM-plus begins with his father’s Mustang’s mostly stock drivetrain.
“I got to see how clean a well-kept, 175,000-mile, 302 cubic-inch engine is,” Cleavenger says. The potent (for the time) 5.0-liter V8 powerplant still wears its cast-iron, E7 cylinder heads, but they have been topped with a Ford Explorer GT40-style intake manifold for a little increase in airflow. As the GT was an ’88 model and Cleavenger swapped the wiring harness over, the Mustang currently runs on the speed-density-based stock EFI system.
No doubt part of the OEM-plus plan is a full aftermarket exhaust, and Cleavenger’s noise cannons of choice are a pair of Flowmaster 40 mufflers that work in concert with a BBK off-road pipe and BBK headers to provide that easily recognizable exhaust note that everyone loves about the 5.0-liter Fox Body Mustang.
Behind the 302 is the GT’s T-5 five-speed manual transmission—certainly another favorite option of the 80-90s Mustang era—that is connected to the engine via a McLeod clutch. Keeping with the OEM-plus theme again, Cleavenger swapped in a set of 3.73 gears to get those 28-spline axles shafts in the 8.8 rearend spinning a little more quickly.
Since this build was essentially a bare-unibody, ground-up build, Cleavenger rebuilt the suspension with polyurethane bushings, and equipped the triangulated, four-link rear suspension with period-correct HPM Megabite lower control arms, and B&M uppers.
The braking system remains stock for now and hidden behind a gorgeous set of Weld Racing RTS S71 forged wheels in an anodized black and polished finish. They are far more modern for this retro build, but you can’t argue that they are a suitable upgrade from the Weld Draglites that everyone used to run in the Fox Body’s heyday. The tires of choice are Mickey Thompson Sportsmans wrapped around the 15×4 wheels up front, and Nitto NT555R tires measuring 275/50-15 have been fitted to the rear 15×8 rims.
Moving to the interior, the base coupe model has now been fitted with a well-kept ’88 GT interior that includes the high-back tweed bucket seats up front. The gray tone of the all-stock interior components is the perfect contrast to the bright blue interior – likely why Ford offered the combination on the later-model, Bimini Blue-colored Mustangs. One particular item that Cleavenger singled out as one of his favorite parts of the car is working air conditioning—it would seem none of his more classic rides boast that, and a cool breeze is important when you live in the south!
Cleavenger’s pony isn’t just a daily driver or cruiser, though, as he noted that he takes at least one of his cars, including the Bimini Blue Mustang, to Piedmont Dragway for some tire-burning, 1/8-mile action. There, he says the car runs consistent times. He has extracted all of the potential from the current combination.
He plans to upgrade the stock E7 cast-iron cylinder heads to a set of Air Flow Research 165 aluminum heads and stick in a cam from COMP Cams for good measure. While he’s under the hood, Cleavenger also plans to perform a mass-airflow conversion for a little better drivability with the likely lumpy camshaft. That in total should give him a nice bump in horsepower over the not-quite earthshaking 238 rear-wheel horsepower the Bimini Blue coupe put down on the dyno during the Foxtoberfest event.
“We drive all our cars,” Cleavenger tells us. “My father has over 100,000 miles on his 1966 Fairlane. I don’t own any new cars, so I drive the Mustang or the 4×4 or whatever to work every day.”