The hot-rodding mentality covers all aspects of vehicle modification. It can be as simple as applying tire dressing or as major as a full vehicle rebuild. There really is no limit to the personalization and modification of a vehicle, as once you’re “finished,” you can do it all over again differently. That said, one must start somewhere, and for Bob Gruber, it was performance bolt-ons for his 1994 Mustang.
Purchased in 1995, Gruber’s pony served as his daily driver for quite some time. His very first bolt ons got the sound right with an aftermarket exhaust system and other performance bolt-on components. He eventually upgraded the factory tan cloth upholstery with a leather kit from Katzkin.
It was around 2004 that a shopping cart incident had him looking at the paint on his 1994 Mustang a bit more. He hadn’t realized when he bought it that one of the panels was a slightly different shade of black, and now that the shopping cart had made its mark, Gruber decided it was time to straighten things out.
“I finally took it to a guy close to me,” Gruber recalls. “He asked me about doing something unique.” They decided on a set of Amethyst Pearl Shelby-style stripes, but when the basecoat went on, the painter called Gruber up and asked him to come to the shop and take a look, as they first looked pink. Gruber was ready for the process to be done and told him to go ahead and clear it. The decision would be the right one as the color changed dramatically after the clear coat went on and it looked more like what they were expecting. Other modifications during the paint process included the addition of a Harwood hood and a Saleen S-351 rear wing.
By 2009, the 1994 Mustang GT had accumulated more than 170,000 miles, the clutch was finally giving up, and Gruber realized he needed to make some changes to the car.
I couldn’t take it anymore with people messing around with me anymore. The car looked like it had a lot of power, but only had about 190-horsepower! Bob Gruber
With that, Gruber decided to go big and gut the 1994 Mustang from stem to stern for a full overhaul. To accomplish such a task, he contacted Tony’s Fast Lane Performance in Lyons, Illinois.
“Tony was awesome. He would say ‘Come on down and I’ll guide you and you can do some of the work to save some money.’ I learned a lot from that experience,” Gruber says. “I sold the motor and transmission and started going nuts.” From there, he began collecting parts such as a new K-member, suspension pieces, and more. And like any big build, the plan changed and evolved throughout its course.
“I told Tony I had this idea to make routing the exhaust easier with the lowered suspension,” Gruber explains. “I got the idea from watching one of the TV shows building the Stabil Camaro. Tony stood back, looked at it and said, ‘We’re doing it,’” Gruber recalls how they would terminate the exhaust system and route it through the side of the body. The fabrication commenced, the rear seat was deleted to provide additional real estate, and 3-inch tubing and a pair of SpinTech mufflers were used to create one of the most unique features of the Mustang.
Having lived with the stock engine for so long, Gruber found himself going completely in the opposite direction—as far as he could go—and found an X275 racing engine on RacingJunk.com.
“It had a big turbo, so we softened it up, changed the valve springs to streetable springs, and the cam to a blower cam,” Gruber says. The new powerplant is based on an SVO R 8.2-inch-deck block and offers up 360 cubic inches of displacement. It’s been filled with Oliver connecting rods, a SCAT crankshaft, and JE pistons, along with a solid roller camshaft from Bullet Racing Cams and Crower solid roller lifters. Harland Sharp roller rocker arms manage the valves in the Trick Flow Specialties R cylinder heads, and the induction system is completed with a Trick Flow R-series lower intake manifold and Reichard Racing Upper.
Replacing the as-purchased turbocharger was a new ProCharger F-1X supercharger replete with cog drive and an air-to-air intercooler, while 160 lb/hr fuel injectors and an MSD Grid provide the fuel and spark, respectively. Larry at LRS Performance Inc./ASSC performed the tuning duties on the Big Stuff 3 engine management system and dyno testing. With a steady diet of VP Racing Fuels C16 coming from the gas tank, the new, “de-tuned” engine combination put down 1,017 horsepower with 22 psi of boost.
With that kind of power output, Gruber picked up a TREMEC T56 six-speed manual transmission, that had its internals cryo-treated by American Powertrain for extra strength. He coupled that to the engine with a capable, yet streetable McLeod Racing RXT clutch.
Just as Gruber needed to upgrade the transmission, he also needed to improve other systems in the Mustang to match the over-the-top powertrain. To that end, the braking system was upgraded with Wilwood Engineering six-piston calipers and 11.88-inch rotors up front, and Strange Engineering disc brakes bolted to the 8.8 rearend. Said rearend was suitably upgraded with 3.73 gears, a spool, and exterior braces to keep the axle tubes in place.
The whole setup is suspended with UPR Products trailing arms and managed by one of the company’s drag-racing anti-roll bars. At the front, we find a QA1 tubular K-member that provides additional room for the Kooks stainless steel long-tube headers and QA1 coilovers propping up the nose.
Knowing how a 1,000-plus rear-wheel horsepower can both tweak a chassis, as well as propel it, Gruber decided to have Tony’s Fast Lane install an 8.50-certified roll cage that not only includes swing-out door bars, but also has very nicely tucked front down bars to maintain visibility and street-friendly usability.
Between the bars of the roll cage we find updated bucket seats with new black leather upholstery and carbon-fiber-look inserts in the center. The factory instrumentation has been changed out for AutoMeter Phantom-series gauges that are fitted to the driver’s cluster, dashboard, and A-pillar. Lastly, we have the aforementioned rear seat delete, a center console now wrapped in leather, and Gruber went a step further and had the various interior pieces painted to match the stripes on the exterior of the car.
All of this work was completed around 2018, and Gruber and his girlfriend, Margaret Babiarz, took the 1994 Mustang to Myrtle Beach for Mustang week. It was a pleasant trip to be sure, but what you really want to know is what can that four-digit horsepower really do!
“I’ve always wanted to do a drag-and-drive event,” Gruber explains. “I was almost like a stalker for the longest time. I would watch the cars on the routes and finally, I was like, ‘I got to do it.’ Tom Bailey put out his announcement about this event and I got online early in the morning and registered,” Gruber says of his entry into the inaugural Sick Week drag-and-drive event held in Florida in 2022.
“I scrambled from October ‘21 to February of ‘22 gathering parts,” Gruber recalls. “I knew I couldn’t compete. I think I had maybe 10 passes under my belt before Sick Week, but still jumped in with both feet. The first pass I made, I realized I had never been over 130 mph in my life,” he explains. “The 60-foot didn’t work out so well, but the feeling at the top end of the track made up for it.”
The first pass was like a 12.5 at 125 and I thought I was flying. I had to get used to the speed. Now I’m at 20 passes and I’m still getting used to it, but my best is a 10.80 at 138 mph.” The improvement was not only achieved through more wheel time, but also the RC Components drag wheels shod with sticky Mickey Thompson rubber.
“It was just me and my girlfriend and it was stressful,” he says of the week-long adventure. “She asked me during the event if I would do it again and I said, ‘Ask me in a couple of weeks.’” He averaged 11.19 seconds over the five days and finished just outside the top 10 of the Stick Shift class.
Gruber later put the pony back in the show ring and displayed it at the World of Wheels. “I showed it with the trailer to represent the drag-and-drive community,” Gruber says. “They didn’t know how to react to the idea. Lots of people asked questions regarding the trailer.”
A year later, and Gruber hoped to return to Sick Week and get into the top five in the Stick Shift class. He had the engine freshened up over the winter by Mark Enwia at MJE Performance Unlimited in Lake Forest, Illinois, but parts shortages prevented him from replacing the rocker arms as he had hoped.
“I had driven the 1994 Mustang around Myrtle Beach, the Woodward Dream Cruise, as well as the 850 miles at Sick Week and knew the rockers had a lot of wear and tear on them.” But the new rocker arms didn’t arrive in time and Gruber moved ahead, starting with a tuning session on the chassis dyno. “With the help of Nick Larson and Dan Schmidt at Street Car Shenanigans Performance in Antioch, Illinois, and Larry at ASSC, we made six dyno pulls and made 1,200 horsepower at around 30 psi,” Gruber says.
“Nick and Dan weren’t off the hook yet—we were on a crunch and up till 4:00 a.m. on Friday, and we were supposed to leave in a few hours,” Gruber says of his thrash to get to Florida for the event. “We had to pull the transmission and adjust the pivot ball, fix an oil leak, adjust the rear suspension, and get the different tires fitted, among other odds and ends. Because of the efforts of Nick and Dan at Street Car Shenanigans, we made it to Florida in time to make two hits on Sunday. I was still learning how to leave off the two-step and getting used to the ignition cut between shifts, as these were both new features of the build.”
On Monday, the first day of the event, Gruber made his best pass ever, with a 10.64 at 135 mph. In a situation such as that, many drag-and-drive contestants pack up and head to the next track and that’s what Gruber did.
“We got to the first checkpoint with no problems, then later started to hear a miss and a clunk. We pulled over on the side of a road, I pulled a valve cover and found a broken rocker arm,” Gruber explains. “I had brought spares—the valvetrain and fuel system are your big key areas in a drag-and-drive. I swapped it out and got on the road.” But 10 miles further down the road and the engine started making a now-familiar noise. Another rocker swap and the 1994 Mustang was up and running again, but problems arose once again as they were approaching their hotel for the night.
“It was the last part of the drive to the hotel and after the second checkpoint I got on the highway and at 3:30 a.m., it happened again. We had the rocker swap and adjustment procedure down to about 15 minutes,” Gruber quips. “We made it to the hotel around 4:00 a.m., got a few hours of sleep, and started calling people in the morning. But, we couldn’t find a set of new rocker arms.”
At that point, Gruber threw in the towel and with the help of a Sick Ward driver, they headed back to Orlando to get his truck and trailer.
“The event’s camaraderie, fun, and personal people are really what makes it a fun event. It definitely makes it less intimidating for a novice like me.”
Attrition is a part of every drag-and-drive event, and while one might be deterred by such an outcome, many competitors also realize the struggle is what they all have in common and just finishing is an achievement. “It was extra disappointing as I was in seventh place after day one and only .1 of a second out of 6th. I found out two of the quicker cars ahead of me had dropped out so I would have been in fifth!”
Still, Gruber went home with a new personal best and he qualified for one of Sick Week’s additional events this summer. We’re sure he’ll be busy over the next several months preparing his 1994 Mustang for another go at it.