Why The Old Stuff Was Cool

It’s hard to imagine a 7.4 liter V8 that only made 200 hp. It did. Back in ’76, the year my Pontiac Trans-Am left the Norwood, Ohio line. And my car was pretty much top-of-the-pile. The typical V8 of that era offered up perhaps 170 hp. Some less.

Seems sad, right?

Sure.

Modern fours a fourth the displacement make that much hp today. Some of them a lot more than that. And the Trans-Am’s 0-60 run — just under eight seconds, if you were good with the Super T-10 — is only about twice as long as it takes a new Mustang GT or Camaro Z28 to get there.

But it wasn’t all bad — and some of it was very good.

It depends on your perspective.

You may not have got a lot, power/performance wise, back in the day. But what you did get (a simple V8, no computer) had potential. So does the new stuff, of course. But the old stuff’s potential differed in that it was easily (and inexpensively) accessed. This mattered if you were a kid in high school — where the love affair with cars used to get serious.

Doubling the 455’s horsepower from the factory 200 to 400-plus is about a $1,500 job in today’s money, if you’re decent with a wrench. What it takes is a new camshaft (about $200 today for a kit with lifters) and maybe some new heads — or machine work done to the heads you’ve got.

The factory exhaust system was usually garbage; but unlike today, back in the day there were just pipes (cheap) and mufflers (ditto) to replace and a good set of headers cost maybe $250 because they didn’t have 02 sensors or need to be EPA/CARB certified and you could install them with basic hand tools and some determination.

Teenagers on a part-time, fast food job McBudget could swing this. And so, they did. Maybe not all at once, but over a summer or two? Sure. I know it was doable because I did it and so did my friends. We worked on cars and so came to love working on cars. Which led to most of us loving cars.

We bonded with them. They were ours.

It was the difference between getting an already assembled display quality model ship and building the thing yourself.

One looks good, the other made you feel good.

Anyone (with the money) can buy a new SS. Only you — a 17-year-old! — had that 383 stroker small block you put together in the garage, then put in your ’78 Rally Sport yourself, super tuned yourself… got just right, yourself.

Everyone knew your car. Which wasn’t like anyone else’s, no matter how much money they threw at it.

We’d change out steering wheels (you could do that, before cars came with air bags), add gauges (most cars didn’t come with them), were constantly fiddling and fooling around with them.

Even minor changes yielded major improvements. This kind of thing is immensely gratifying when you are 17-years-old.

You’d start with something that didn’t cost anything, like flipping the air cleaner lid over. Maybe one of your buddies told you about this. A gnarly hissing/vacuum sound ensued. The car suddenly seemed a lot tougher.

No tools required.

Maybe the next step — after studying Hot Rod magazine (instead of Spanish) would be fiddling with the ignition timing. All you needed was a $20 timing gun from Pep Boys and a 9/16 distributor wrench to loosen the hold-down bolt.

You’d carefully turn the distributor by hand and watch the timing mark on the balancer advance or retreat, note the change in pitch of the engine. Set it, then drive it — see how it felt. Sometimes, it felt better. Sometimes, it knocked — too much advance! — and back to the driveway pad for some adjustment.

With your own two hands.

Feel it, see it.

The tactile, mechanical experience — the communion with the car — was wonderful. And it was nearly free. (If you had a buddy with a timing gun, it was free).

Similarly, modding a carburetor.

You could see how it worked. It was a contraption, not a computer (whose workings you cannot see). Put it on a bench, take it apart. Put it back together. Hopefully, successfully. Eventually, you would. Or, go from two to four barrels. Maybe add a spacer. Swap out the intake for a hi-riser. This sort of thing appealed to teenage boys, who have a natural affection for things mechanical. How does this work? What would make it work better?

You made adjustments. You fine-tuned the thing. You tried different jet sizes, altered the float level, maybe hogged out the needle and seat. None of this cost much money.

It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, too.

Then came Saturday night.

Cruise the local fast food joint or mall with your friends. Show them what you did; see what they did. Confer, boast, admire. Dream and scheme.

Damn, we had fun!

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