Living With A Classic: Part Three
Choosing Your Victim : The Muscle Car
If you're living here on planet Earth, the American muscle car is arguably the absolute avatar of classic car culture. One really can't deny the allure of the long, beefy silhouette, the gurgle of the American V8, the fat and wide shoes of North America's greats. Yes, they're big, and yes, they're kind of cumbersome (sort of like America, itself), but they are pure fun, and there's little doubt that if you love cars, you'll love pressing your foot down to floor in a classic muscle car.
The history of the muscle car is well documented elsewhere, so there's little need for me to dive too far into the lore. Not to mention, too many people will know far more than I can contribute, so it's just a way to embarrass myself. Nonetheless, I know a thing or two about owning an old American muscle car, and as usual, I won't shy from offering my opinion.
The Lay Of The Land
For many American car enthusiasts, their choice of a muscle car is dependent largely on brand allegiances. Like anything, muscle car fans can be annoyingly loyal, to a fault, and will often become aggressively defiant if you slag their favorites. For the purposes of this series, let's agree to disagree on almost everything, and just take a general look at some affordable American muscle that you can adopt as a first classic.
The definition of the muscle car era is in constant debate, but in general, the golden age is basically between 1963-1970. There are some that fall outside of those limits, but this is at least a point of little disagreement. In the early 1960's, manufacturers were starting to take cues from the booming hot rod culture, and beginning to design cars that were fast from the get-go, by streamlining them and building bigger powerplants. Throughout the 60's, all American manufacturers were building their idea of the best muscle car, and they built them in staggering numbers. As the 1970's hit, increasing emission regulations and the global gas crisis brought the American V8 to its knees, and neutered most of what was lovable about these cars. At first, the cars became way too big, as Americans became obsessed with size. And then, the engines became gutless. It was the death knell for American muscle, until its revival in the early aughts.
The truth is, classic American cars were built competing with one another. The Chevelle and Oldsmobile 442 were built to compete with the Pontiac GTO. The Camaro was built to rival the Mustang. There are dozens of examples of one manufacturer responding to another with a new design, intended to knock the socks off the American buyer. Because of this, there is really no shortage of good muscle cars, and your pick is as good as mine. No matter how much I like to make fun of the sloppy handling of American cars of this era, the fact is, competition inspired innovation, and it revolutionized car culture forever, even overseas. What resulted was one of the richest and most exciting periods in motoring history.
The Pony Car... or, How the Mustang Won the Battle
Yeah, I do remember that I sorta slagged the Mustang in my bit about sports cars. Well, I didn't really slag it, but I did say it's not a sports car. And I'm right. It's also not really a proper muscle car. Purists will chastise you if you call it anything but a 'pony car'. I don't like those rules, so I'm still going to call it a muscle car, but a compact one. The later, big block versions are most certainly muscle cars, but the original V6 Mustang was still built to be fast in a straight line, albeit on a smaller chassis than the 'intermediate'.
Mustangs are like cockroaches. They're everywhere. Really, just go on Craigslist and you'll find dozens within 50 miles of wherever you look. Ford churned these out with unparalleled speed to satisfy the demand, and amazingly, huge numbers still exist today. Many of them have been modified, and a good deal of them have been partly restored, as they've been a popular with the virgin car collector for decades. Parts are indescribably cheap, and you can find them in every nook and cranny of everywhere but Target.
There are so many variations of the Mustang that I would be a fool to unpack them here, but truthfully, though not a pure muscle car, the Mustang is a perennial favorite for the budding car collector. They're handsome, quick, and frankly, I do love the interiors of almost all Mustangs. I wanted to last the whole article without mentioning 'Bullitt', but really, how can one avoid it? McQueen loved the Mustang, so it must be good. In fact, they are great fun, no doubt. They're also dead easy to work on, and they look brilliant. Many people began their car collections with the ol' cockroach, and surely many more will follow suit.
If the smaller chassis of the pony car floats your boat, the Mustang is definitely not the only game in town, though. You've got the Camaro, which I personally have always found to be rather ugly, and there's also the Pontiac Firebird. Both of these cars shared the same platform, though the FIrebird looks a lot more handsome to my eye. GM felt they needed a crisp competitor to the Mustang, so they developed the F Body for just this purpose. Needless to say, they never sold in the numbers that the 'stang did, but they managed to be popular with collectors nonetheless, and as a result, they can be found for reasonable money, usually.
The Usual Suspects
I find that when people talk about muscle cars, they're usually talking about only a handful of cars that have become the benchmark for collectors. The Oldsmobile 442, the Chevy Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Dodge Charger. There are more of course, but these names come up often. They sort of carry the torch of the muscle car, and collector prices reflect that. The other well regarded names, the Plymouth Barracuda and the later Dodge Challenger, though known as muscle cars, were properly pony cars with their 6 cylinder base engines. They often were bought with V8 options, or got swapped with bigger V8s as the years passed, so they get thrown into the muscle car group quite easily.
Now, these cars are all fantastic in some way or another. There's a reason they became synonymous with muscle car culture, and eventually became iconic. They're powerful, fast, and yes, muscular. But, these cars come with a big price tag usually, and for obvious reasons. Good examples of the GTO or the Chevelle sell for well over $40-$50k these days, so it's not a surprise that beginning car collectors might be looking elsewhere for their kicks. Sure, you can find rotted out carcasses, but you've got to be prepared for the gut check. A full, frame up restoration of one of these is going to cost you well more than the value will ever net, even if they are simple to work on. The cost of metalwork alone is the real killer here, and if you're not prepared to wield the welder yourself, you best be prepared to cut a big check.
The good thing is that there is a huge network of parts suppliers for these cars, so you're unlikely to find yourself hunting down a rare sensor, or even a piece of trim. The other benefit is that virtually every mechanic in America has wrenched on any number of them over the years, so help is never too far away if you get stumped. And of course, with the nature of US car makers sharing their platforms across several models, there is rarely an outlier that was built in tiny numbers, with no aftermarket support.
The problem with these cars though, is that they're sort of well.... typical. Yes they are fun, and they're absolutely wall porn for many young car fans. But, they're predictable. Go to any classic car meet on a Friday night, and you'll see these usual suspects, puttering into the parking lot, one after another. It's almost like you can guarantee there will always be at least one GTO, one Chevelle, one Charger, all parked next to one another, hoods open, prideful owners astride. And that's fine, sure. But it's boring. Yeah I like looking at them, but once you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all, unless the owner has done something completely insane to it. However, the unintended but beautiful side effect of this phenomenon, is that it forces many a new collector to go looking in other, far more interesting corners, to satisfy their muscle car itch. And that leads us to The Big Studs.
The Big Studs
The classic car world is filled with pompous pricks who will not hesitate to correct you aggressively if you misidentify the year that Chrysler changed the counterbore for the crankshaft of their slant 6 engine. And you know what? That sucks. It sours people to the culture and the fellowship of collecting. And then there are the opinions. Sure, I'm opinionated, but I also share the view that opinions are like arseholes. Indeed, we all have one, so I don't always need to share mine or worse yet, shame yours. To that point, there's one thing that really sticks in my craw, and that is the muscle car 'purity test'.
Most people will loosely acknowledge that the definition of an American muscle car is that it has an 'intermediate' chassis, has a V8, and was built especially for drag racing. That's all fine and dandy, but I just don't like rules, and it seems I'm not alone. There are loads of American cars that were built from the early 60's into the early 70's, that are pure fun and good looks. Many of them are 'luxury' versions of their racing brethren, and others were simply marketed as upscale family transport.
One of my favorites of this group is the Buick Riviera. The Riviera is not necessarily an outlier, in the usual sense. Plenty of people are hip to how cool they are, and anyone who has driven one will attest to how fun they are. But they still don't command the prices of their peers. You can find great restoration candidates and even all original examples for well under $20k, needing only a bit of love to get them tip top. The best part is the desirable 1964 and 1965 models are just brilliantly good looking. Yes, they're full size sedans, but you'd be hard pressed not to fall in love with that stance, and those ridiculously cool headlights. Buick's 401 Nailhead V8 was a superb performer, putting out over 300bhp. The higher performance 'Gran Sport' version was even more thrilling, putting the Riviera into a class all its own.
The later versions of the Riviera, from 1966-1970, are the forgotten bunch. Still sporting excellent engines and good performance, the styling suffered, and they're nowhere near as desirable as the 63/64/65 versions. These cars can be had for a song, and they're most certainly not ugly. They're just heavier and arguably a bit more clumsy. The Riviera restored itself admirably with the super handsome 1971-1973 'boattail' version, but sadly the 455 engine was neutered by emissions standards, and the bodies were large and heavy. These cars have come up in value significantly over the last several years, as the earlier models get first call more often, but one can still find good boattails for very low money. Just be prepared for a much slower car. At least you'll look good doing it.
Another favorite of mine is the much maligned Thunderbird. Ford had a tough time with the Tbird after 1957, and always found itself not quite knowing what to do with it. It was marketed as a middle class semi-luxury car first and foremost, but the mid to late 60's Thunderbirds are fantastic cars, plagued only by large and heavy bodies. The Ford 390fe engine, while perhaps outgunned by its GM rivals, still made good horses, and pardon me, but they just look good. Sequential taillights? Hell yes. A steering wheel that swivels out of the way when you put it in Park? Good god. Yeah, the 57 Tbird gets all the attention, but don't forget about the later ones. The good thing is that you can find them all day long for low money, mostly because they were family transportation, and nobody thought much about rodding them out. Most examples are untouched, though maybe rusty and with some tattered interior bits. And prepare to go hunting for certain bits of trim and non moving parts, as the aftermarket isn't quite as robust as others.
The Dark Horses
Though proper muscle cars really ended in the early seventies, there are a few cars from the early 1980's that share DNA with their drag racing predecessors. Though most of them produced only a shadow of the power of their earlier versions, they often look fantastic, and deliver decent performance, especially for the money. I mean, c'mon, who hasn't fallen in love with Alonzo's 1979 Monte Carlo in the film 'Training Day'? That is a sexy car.
Some of the prime candidates from this period are the Chevy Monte Carlo, the Ford Mustang 5.0, the Pontiac Trans Am, the Olds Cutlass Supreme, and the oft-maligned late C3 Corvette. These are all pretty easy to find, and though they lack the power specs of the golden years, they can be modified to put more power to the ground, and quite easily in some cases.
Once again with this group, the liability will always be resale value. After you sink a ton of money and effort into the car, it will likely be worth far less than your investment. So here, it pays to find a car that is in good shape to begin with, and doesn't cost a fortune. That's easier than you think. If you're in love with the styling of the cars from this era, you could do a lot worse than spending four or five grand on a decent Monte Carlo, being able to drive it and enjoy it while you soup it up. Your local adverts are probably teeming with these cars, and while there are some obvious collector versions from this era, there are plenty of worthy alternatives if you do your homework.
Left In The Dust
There are really so many possibilities if you open up to buying something that isn't standard 'muscle car' fare. The Dodge Dart, the Chevy Nova, the Ford Torino, the Pontiac LeMans. The list is dozens long. America was the foremost builder of mid sized and full sized family cars during the 1960's, and remarkably, many of them had powerful engines that can easily be tuned to generate even more power. The single biggest liability once you get outside the normal definitions of 'muscle car' territory, is that resale value may suffer, and you may have a hard time finding bits that are readily available for the more popular models. Thankfully, every junkyard in America probably has dozens of every car ever made stateside, so chances are you'll be able to source that hard to find dash clock with a bit of looking.
And who cares about the purity test, really? Those days of the $500 barn find Chevelle SS are over, so why bother getting into an arms race? There are so many cool looking Detroit bred beasts from this era that it seems a waste of money to focus only on the usual suspects. I mean hell, a brand new high performance crate engine costs less than putting a new roof on your house, so you can basically make a muscle car out of anything these days.