Have Your Classic, and Drive It Too

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I grew up in the 80’s, not a terribly exciting time in automobile history.  In addition, my family, while sharing great stories about cool cars in their past, never owned anything particularly exiting while I was a kid.  Maybe the coolest car was the Volvo 145 Estate which we owned when I was very young.

Back then, if you were a car guy you had two options.  An american musclecar with a big block intended only to go from 0-60, or through the traps 1320ft or 660ft away as quickly as possible.  Stopping? Let’s not worry about that, shall we?  The other choice was a foreign car, usually japanese, and usually not particularly quick sporty by virtue of the excellent handling and braking abilities.

I started out by going down the musclecar route.  My first car was a 1967 Ford Thunderbird.  It had suicide doors, manual windows, no A/C and the (fairly rare) 428FE engine option.  The original owner was clearly only interested in going fast, in spite of the luxury inherent to the Thunderbird.  I may never know the story of the original owner, but I like to imagine that it belonged to a hip dude with his wife and 1.86 children.  I’d like to imagine that the car went to fetch groceries, and surprise an occasional mustang or camaro on it’s way.

The car was a lot of fun, and it was a big handful too.  As my first car, with a big block in the front driving two skinny tires in the back I saw the rear of the car pass me more than a few times.  It didn’t stop very well, the tie rod ends, rag joint, and steering box were all well worn, so I literally drove it like the hero in the last action b movie you watched.  You know the drill, tossing the wheel about 1/8 of a turn either direction from center rapidly while looking in the rear view nervously.

Sadly, the true muscle car experience was never really meant to be for me.  Since it was my first car, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on it so I didn’t repair a lot of the things which were in dire need, and I had no real concept of how to maintain a car like that.  It lasted for a little over a year in my possession before it protested the neglect whilst traveling 105(ish) northbound on the 101 at a little past midnight.  I heard a subtle “clunk” and a loss of power, and then no matter how far I pushed the pedal down, the car continued to lose power.  Eventually, I stopped, smoke billowing from the engine compartment, and my mind racing trying to figure out how I was going to get home.  Little did I know that I had been being followed for many miles, by the California Highway Patrol.  After keeping me in suspense long enough, the police finally put me out of my misery and let me know that they weren’t going to give me a citation, and that the state of my car was punishment enough.

I did manage to get the car apart, and to rebuild the engine, and the transmission.  But then it sat.. For years… Many other cars came and went, but the Thunderbird sat.  My father finally insisted that I get it out of his shop, so the car got reassembled, but I was newly married, and had arguably less disposable income than I did when I first bought the car.  I sold it for $2500 with surprisingly little remorse.

I also had the small import experience a little later on.  I got sucked into the import culture, and wound up buying a 1989 Honda CRX Si.  This car was quick, and fun.  It wasn’t as powerful, visceral as the Thunderbird but it was composed and handled with surgical precision by comparison.  I even got to customize this thing a bit, lowering springs, high performance tires, and a decent high end stereo.  I really enjoyed this car, but I just grew out of it.  Not figuratively, not emotionally, not the fact that I’m growing up and it’s no longer appropriate.  Nope, around 23ish I actually grew an inch or two, and I simply did not fit in the car anymore.  I sold it, and I still kinda miss it, more than the Thunderbird sometimes, actually.

Neither car was exactly “right” though.  I really want a car that drives small, and handles well.  But, I really dig the acceleration G forces that can only be generated by a rear wheel drive rig with lots of ponies under the hood.  When I owned the Thunderbird, the thought that it could possibly handle like a small car was not likely.  Not only was it not “acceptable” to the muscle car purists, but the parts simply didn’t exist.

Enter the increasingly popular pro touring car.  Opinions vary on exactly what “Pro Touring” means but for me it means a synergy of a classic car’s undeniable style with all of the conveniences and luxuries that have become standard on modern cars.  Things like a smooth idling fuel injected motor, polyurethane suspension bushings, climate control, cup holders, a modern stereo system.  All of the things that we simply take for granted in our modern performance cars.  The common theme of a lot of pro touring cars you might read about in car magazines is their astronomical price tags, but in my opinion it doesn’t need to be that way.

Imagine picking up 60’s or 70’s coupe (or sedan, no shame in that) that’s in good shape.  Chevy, Ford, Mopar, pick your poison but you should be able to pick up a car that doesn’t require a whole lot of body work on the cheap.  Since we’re planning to put a modern drivetrain in it anyway you could even find a nice rolling chassis that was an abandoned project or a well cared for car who’s engine met an untimely demise, and you can save even more cash.  The next step, find a modern engine and transmission.  That doesn’t have to be particularly expensive either, your best bet is to find a modern ride that’s been wrecked, or spend a few minutes trolling craigslist or eBay.  You should be able to have your pick of fuel injected modern engines with relatively low mileage.  Now, spend some time addressing the little maintenance issues and other small fixes on your classic donor, and stuff that modern drivetrain between the frame rails.  If you play your cards right there’s probably some off the shelf parts for your particular swap to ease the effort and cost.  Chances are you’ll have spent less than $15k to build a car with all of that classic style, and the reliability and fuel economy of a modern car.  So which would you rather have, a Honda Fit, or a custom classic that you can drive every day?  Yeah I thought so.