Bob McCormick’s old article on Hot Rods of the New Millennium (from June 1999) really took me back. In my last year of high school and the first few years of college, I was a licensed NASCAR and NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) driver, and my buddies and I built sever muscle cars, a few just for racing.
I will never forget the 1969 340 Dodge Charger we built. We bought the Charger body from the junkyard, in perfect shape except for a bent frame. We tossed EVERYTHING but the body and bought a new frame, and then designed our own blue printed and balanced 340 “six-pac” high performance engine. A total of 428 BHP to the wheels, this little baby ran only on gasoline we could buy in 50-gallon drums from Sunoco (a station we did not have on the west coast) because it had high enough octane to run this baby. It was designed to run the standing quarter mile, and it did so in amazing speed, sound and beauty at a best time of 10.1 seconds, topping out near 160 miles per hour! That’s 0 to 160 in 10.1 seconds! That is FAST! Running in a class called “modified A-production”, we were VERY limited on what changes we would make to the car to lighten it, so it was all about true horse power in as light a car as we could find.
But the other car that stands out in my mind and is probably responsible for my racecar driving interest, was the first car I ever bought at age 16. My parents and I were shopping the used car lots and there it was, a sleeper that the salesman had no clue to what he had. From the outside, it was an ugly, bright, turquoise blue 4-door Galaxy 500 sedan. It was fairly ugly in color on the inside too, with bench seats, also in blue, a column shifter automatic, and lots of vinyl for the time, but it was outfitted with all the accessories of the time as well. It was a Galaxy 500 XL LTD, which was an unusual combination for this 1965 Ford. The XL mean extra luxury, which actually was the sporty model of the Galaxy, while the LTD meant extra things like AC, wood trim, electric clock, automatic door locks, AM/FM stereo (no, no tape player at that time), and 4 doors. (Typical XL’s were 2 doors.) My grandmother owned a gold, 1965 Galaxy 500, and my parents were Ford freaks, so they REALLY wanted me to have a Ford, but they too had no idea what I found.
But the most amazing thing about this car was the small, blue emblem on the side, which was an indicator of the engine size. Normally the Galaxy 500 had a red emblem for the 390, or a black emblem for the classic 352 engine, which was what my grandmother’s car had. But I noticed when I approached this car, that the oil pan was rather large, and hung exceptionally low for a Galaxy. I also noted that the automatic transmission was a bit larger than usual as well, both of which caught my attention. If you open the owner’s manual to the back pages, the book states the standard engines available for order in 1965. The 352 were standard, the same big block used in most tow trucks, and standard with, believe it or not, the towing package! The 390 were Ford’s larger, more powerful engine, but was also considerably heavier, and its extra horsepower was lost in its weight. But there, under “special order” was the 429 Cobra engine available this year in this car! And this baby had one, in its full glory, with a special order “C6” high performance automatic transmission right behind it. There were very few of these ever built (I learned later) and the Ford used car salesman was clueless. I bought this car for $1600 in 1970, only a few days after my16th birthday, and I think the salesman was happy to dump this 5-year-old Galaxy off his lot!
To put it in perspective, we custom built our 69 Duster and it did 10.1 in the 1/4-mile best time. This car, in its stock, off the shelf form, could do the 1/4-mile in 11.2 seconds topping out about 140 MPH in about 11.5 seconds. WOOSH! Amazingly fast for such a big boat, but then again, look at that engine. I later discovered, doing a bit of research, that the car had been bought by a mother and her son together after their father died. The son wanted a fast car; the mother wanted a car to take to the store, so they compromised and bought both. From the outside, it looked like the typical sedan your mother would drive, and if you kept your foot light, drove just fine. But when you punched it, this baby could leave a skid mark for 100 feet and disappear with a roar heard for blocks!
It was a bad thing as a first car. I later pulled the engine (and replaced it with a 352 and sold the car for $1200) and then sold the engine with the transmission for considerably more than the car’s originally cost, but what I would not give to have that engine in my garage today. It also started me down the road to speed cars, owning several Datsun Z cars (240Z, 280Z, 280ZX, a Pantara, a finally a 1984 Corvette. Today I drive a Lexus SC300, still no slouch, but not a muscle car either.
While I agree with Bob’s comment about today’s hot-rods being computers, they are also still cars too, and they do indeed scratch the tires in third, many with automatic transmissions as well, of you know how to make them do that. Rather than simply look at a car’s pure horsepower or cubic displacement of the engine, which are as meaningless as comparing MHz in processors, what you really need to look at is the power to weight ratio of the car. The old Ford 390 as Bob points out could easily put out 400 BHP, but the damn thing was in cars so heavy, that for the most part, the horsepower was lost pulling a large, heavy car. Many of today’s cars with newer, lighter weight engine and body materials easily beat the power to weight ratio of the muscles cars of the 60’s and 70’s. Many of today’s cars, including, believe it or not, Lexus, Infinity, Nissan, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, and Chevy (any many more) make cars with significantly more power to weight ratio than most of the classic muscle cars. Look at a BMW M5 for great example (what a road rocket that is), or the new Corvettes as well are amazingly fast, powerful cars. But even the new Turbo VW Beetle today has a greater power to weight ratio than that Ford Fairlane Bob mentioned, and could probably beat it in a street race today. Of course, nothing compares to the roar of an old muscle car, and today’s “muscle cars” outperform their older siblings in a quiet, dignified manner, but the power is still there, and the thrill of the speed is just as fun, if only quieter. (Note that the fastest car I have EVER driven now, including the old muscle cars I owned is the new M5 BMW, with an acceleration curve of a small airplane! My buddy owns one, and he also owns a 280 HP Shelby Cobra. The BMW is faster by a great deal. Talk about Whoosh!) And if you defeat the electronics on these new cars, which prevent the tires from ever “breaking loose” in acceleration or breaking, the cars will indeed scratch the tires in ALL gears. Find a quiet side street and have some fun, or take your car to a local race track where you can ignore the speed limit and push the car a but faster.
So while you bench race the latest copy of Grand Theft Auto on your 2.5 GHz speed demon computer, remember that the muscle cars are actually back again! They may look like a VW or a Mustang coupe, but the power is they’re waiting if you need a physical thrill.