By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Owning an old muscle car can be a lot of fun. But it’s not all fun — and you ought to know what you’re getting yourself into before you get yourself into it.
First, some definitions.
Muscle cars are old.
Nothing new — nothing modern — qualifies as a muscle car. The defining attribute of a muscle car is not horsepower or performance. Nor that it has a V8 engine feeding power to the rear wheels. There are many new (and modern) cars that do that. And they are not muscle cars, even if some of them look like they might be (and perform better than the real ones did).
What, then, defines a muscle car?
One thing, above all: It was made before the Era of Control. That time — long ago — when it was possible (legal!) for a major automaker to build a car with a huge engine and a completely outmatched rest of the car. No computer to modulate the outbursts of power. It was on you to keep it under control and that was no easy thing. If the car in question has anti-lock brakes, traction control or air bags it cannot — by definition — be a muscle car.
Muscle cars were — let’s not mince words — dangerous.
It is why they are no longer made. It is why they were — effectively — outlawed. First by the insurance mafia, which (with government’s help) made it increasingly impossible, financially, to own one of these death missiles. Muscle cars — the real ones — were chiefly bought by people under 25, if you can imagine. Now imagine a young twentysomething in a two-ton mauler with a 7 liter V8 up front, 14×6 wheels underneath and drum brakes all around.
Add beer and Saturday night.
Muscle cars were about disproportionate, unbalanced power. They were scary as much as they were fast and that was the point. Modern performance cars are very fast but rarely scary unless driven with deliberate recklessness and then it’s the driver more so than the car. Trying to keep something like a ’70 Formula 400 Ram Air III Firebird in a straight line (and from climbing up a telephone pole) with the pedal to the floor and the carburetor’s massive secondaries popped open is no easy feat. But even just poking around, a true muscle car is a hard beast to manage. No hydraulic assist for the clutch — which made changing gears man’s work (no offense, ladies). The steering, meanwhile, was either overboosted or farm tractor-like. The brakes, of course, sucked. Most muscle cars had big engines… and way too small radiators. They often overheated.
These things tend to get lost in the shuffle — romanticized away. So much time has passed — arguably, the last trickle of factory-new muscle cars petered out in the mid-late 1970s, some 40 years ago — that most people under 40 today have no direct, personal experience of those animals and what they think they know about them comes from reading about them.
Which brings us back to those things to know about muscle cars — things to think about before you buy one, if you’ve never owned one before:
* Are you knowledgeable about ancient technologies?
Most muscle cars had ignition points, which gap had to be adjusted and set just right (and set just right often, at least twice a year, typically) for the engine to run right (or even at all). Do you know how? And if not, do you know someone who does? How about carburetors? All true muscle cars have one (or more) of these leaky, finicky fuel delivery devices. Do you know how to set secondary air valve tension? Adjust a mechanical choke?
Many shops will not touch muscle cars (or other truly old cars) for the altogether sensible reason that their techs don’t know how to work on them. They know trouble codes and computers. They do not know the fine art of gapping points, of dwell, of epoxying leaking fuel bowls. Do you? Are you confident you can learn how? If not, you’ll need to find a competent old-school mechanic and (believe me) they are not easy to find. Most people who own muscle cars know how to keep them up — and for them, it’s part of the fun. But it kills the fun of owning a muscle car if the thing won’t start, doesn’t run well, leaves you stranded — and you have no idea how to deal with.
* Have you got suitable quarters?
Muscle cars are rustbuckets. All cars made before the ’80s are rustbuckets. If left outside, if allowed to get wet, they will rust. People have generally forgotten how bad it was. Today, you can park a car (a modern car) outside, never wash it — drive it in winter and marinate it in road salt — and probably the body will outlast the engine. With muscle cars, it was the reverse. Their cast-iron V8s can last decades. But most of them started to rust — their bodies — after as little as five years and by ten or fifteen years old, the majority (those not kept indoors, in climate controlled garages) had serious rust problems. These cars are now all 40 years old and older. You will find they come one of two ways, usually. The first way is the pristine restored or the very rare original, low-miles car that was cared for like a Faberge Egg from the day of delivery to today. The second way is the survivor car that’s still functionally viable but will need work. The first will rust if not cared for like a Faberge Egg; the second is already rusty. Cars of 40-plus years ago had horrendous body integrity, Grand Canyon gaps between panels. Even if meticulously restored, the restoration has merely reset the clock — and it’s ticking, bub.
So, you will either be dealing with the fear of your car rusting out — or dealing with rust already there.
Realistically, the only way to keep a muscle car from rotting if it hasn’t already begun to is to keep it dry. That means a secure garage, ideally one with some form of humidity control. It absolutely means forget about carports and car covers outside. All they do is accelerate decomposition by helping moisture to get where it’s not wanted. You must avoid the rain. Forget using your muscle car as a daily driver. Learn to accept having to keep close track of the weather — and what might be coming this afternoon — before you take ‘er out for a spin. Don’t drive too far from home base. Never drive it in winter.
If it ever gets wet, you’ve already lost.
* Do you like Snipe Hunts?
Maybe you were a Boy Scout and remember this gag. The Scoutmaster would organize the troop and announce a hunt for the mysterious Snipe — a creature that, of course, did not exist. The boys spent many hours hunting, nonetheless.
Do you enjoy hunting for impossible to find things? This is part of the fun of owning an old muscle car. It means spending a lot of time, sometimes, surfing eBay and CraigsList and driving long distances to swap meets and car shows, hoping that — just maybe — you’ll be able to find that critical (or maybe just important) part you need to finish the resto. Or just get her running again. Said part hasn’t been made in more than 40 years and now there are more people who need that part than there are parts left in circulation. Even if you happen to find what you need before they do, you’ll find you may have to pay a stupefying sum for it. There will be no choice, because she’s gotta have it. But if there’s another “she” in your life, there may be a conflict. What happened to that $2,500 we were going to put into the 401k? You spent it on… what?
The mundane (and fairly cheap) things can be a hassle, too. For instance, I own a Pontiac muscle car (Trans Am). Pontiac, the company, has been gone for more than a decade — and the last time Pontiac built Pontiac engines was the early 1980s (arguably, the late 1970s as the last 301 Pontiac V8 made in ’80-’81 is its own weird thing and doesn’t share parts with the earlier, better-known line of Pontiac V8s). This means even routine maintenance stuff like changing the oil has to be planned for — because most auto parts stores no longer stock things like oil filters for engines that haven’t been in production for going on 40 years. You will need to order supplies from specialty suppliers. Also the oil, by the way — because old muscle car engines require oils that have certain anti-wear additives (e..g, zinc) that’s been all but eliminated (for emissions control reasons) from off-the-shelf oils.
Fuel filters (remember, carburetors), ignition/tune-up parts, hoses and belts, gaskets, wiper blades, headlights and bulbs, etc. … they’ll almost always need to be found — and ordered.
Tires — especially performance compound tires — are almost impossible to find because the 15×7 (and 14×6) steel wheels most muscle cars came with are obsolete. You’ll be stuck with mediocre-quality passenger car radials, but the good news is these tires are much better (in terms of grip/heat dissipation and so on) than the crap stuff they were making — and putting on cars — back in the ’70s.
You will want to check into applicable laws before you buy a muscle car. Because of what someone else may have done to said muscle car.
Most muscle cars have had several owners by now — and almost all of them have been “modified” by one or all of them. Often, these mods involved gutting the factory emissions systems (yes, muscle cars had them — at least, those 1968 and newer). Things like Air Injection Reaction (AIR), Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) and the system of vapor/vacuum hoses that — back in the day — created driveability problems that many early owners dealt with by simply removing the offending item and throwing it away.
Here’s the problem: Some states require emissions compliance, both functional and visual, before the car can be registered and plated. The visual component is the tough one. A given car’s actual tailpipe emissions maybe in specification, but if it has a non-factory intake manifold (such as an Edelbrock aluminum one, for example) without EGR… if it has a non-factory air cleaner… if the AIR system has been removed… if all the factory vapor/vacuum lines are not there (and operational) the inspector will fail the car and it will be — legally speaking — undriveable. May the motor gods help you if the car has a non-original (e.g., crate) engine and the inspector is a fussbudget and checks VINs and stampings and notices this. It can be a huge hassle — and a monster expense.
Related to this is the decision you’ll have to make about how to register (and insure) the thing.
In most states, you can choose either “normal” (like any other car) plates and registration, or “antique vehicle” tags and registration. The upside to the former is there’s no limitation on how you may drive the car; the downside is you’ll probably have to take the car in for regular state safety and emissions testing (most states require them — which means handing over your baby to a greasy-pawed stranger with an air gun. The upside to the latter — antique tags — is that (in most cases) your car will be exempt from regular safety/emissions testing and (at least in my state, Virginia) the tags and registration are permanent — no annual renewal fee. The downside is that — legally — you’re only allowed to drive the car on a limited basis, to and from car shows and for “testing” purposes. Legally speaking, you’re not allowed to drive the car regularly, as daily transpo. As a practical matter, you can get away with occasional local pleasure driving. But wander too far from home to be plausibly “testing” (or headed to a car show) and you could find yourself being hassled by a cop. Keep in mind that you will stick out like a stripper at the Vatican in your 40-something-year-old muscle car and every cop you pass will look you over.
Final thing: Insurance.
You will probably want to go with specialty coverage — and probably will have to as many (most?) standard policies are not designed to deal with 40-plus-year-old cars. For one thing, it is almost impossible to assign a “ballpark” value to any given car because — after so many decades — their condition today varies wildly. This is why most classic car policies have what’s often referred to as “agreed value” policies that are based on an appraisal of your specific car and its specific condition. Some insurers will have a guy come out and look at your car, or ask you to provide pictures, receipts and so on to determine its approximate value. It is actually very good — and very important — that things are done this way. Because if some bozo T-bones your restored muscle car that you put $50k into, you don’t want to find yourself haggling over what it was worth. With an agreed-value policy, you and the insurer have agreed on the value of the car — and in event of a loss, they’ll cover it up to that amount.
The downside is most specialty/antique vehicle policies have mileage and other limitations. Some require annual odometer statements. Most require the car be stored indoors, in a garage. But the upside is the policy cost is usually very reasonable — because it assumes limited use and limited exposure — both of which reduce the odds of something happening to the car.
Ponder all these variables before signing up for the keys to a piece of automotive history… and everything that comes with that set of keys.