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Monday, November 29, 2004

Enthusiasts turn old muscle cars into road warriors

Trick is updating technology, safety equipment while maintaining authenticity

By Earle Eldridge / USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES -- While they look great and have power, classic muscle cars from the 1960s and '70s also can have weak brakes, frail tires and flimsy handling.

Most owners will agree that you'd better pray before heading off on a freeway exit ramp at 70 mph in an old muscle car.

A new breed of car collectors wants more. So they are giving classic muscle cars updated disk brakes, oversized radial tires, better shocks and other equipment to get the ride and comfort of today's cars. Some enthusiasts also install traction control, anti-lock brakes and air bags to give the old cars the latest in safety equipment.

The key to all of this is keeping the original look of the car while hiding the new technology under the hood.

"The stock muscle cars were really kind of primitive and crude," says Gary Meadors, president of the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association. "Installing today's technology makes a big difference."

The upgrades range from simply bolting on disk brakes that are sold by many parts makers to completely overhauling the suspension, engine and interior, including adding air conditioning.

The costs vary according to what equipment is added and the quality of that equipment. A new engine out of the crate from an automaker can cost anywhere from $1,600 to $15,000.

Extreme upgrades can be found in comedian Jay Leno's recent modifications to a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado.

Leno, an avid collector with more than 80 cars, added to the Toronado a new V-8 engine, the chassis and suspension of a 2005 Chevrolet Corvette, disk brakes and special 17-inch radial tires that look like the original 15-inch tires they replaced. He also had his machine shop build chrome rims that look like the originals.

Because Leno and his garage staff did most of the work themselves, it's difficult to put a price tag on the upgrades. But had Leno paid a custom shop to do the work, he likely would have spent more than $100,000.

"I always liked the look of the '66 Toronado," he says. "But I wanted to be able to drive it every day and really do something different."

Leno worked with General Motors Performance Parts division to get exclusive parts that will later be sold at GM dealerships.

He made the front-wheel-drive Toronado a rear-wheel-drive screamer with a dual turbo-charged engine that pops out an amazing 1,000 horsepower.

"There is an unmistakable character here that exemplifies confident American car design," Leno says. "And it just happens to be backed up by, oh, a thousand horsepower and the reflexes of a Corvette."

While Leno's upgrades are the extreme, many enthusiasts do a lot on a cheaper budget. They will buy a carcass of a classic muscle car, find a high-performance used engine and get new suspension and brake components made to fit their car from parts suppliers.

Jim Menneto, publisher of "Hemmings Motor News", a 50-year-old monthly magazine popular with car collectors, says he sees a lot more upgraded classics at auctions and car shows.

"You will find a lot of cars that have gone through that process," Menneto says. "The only problem is that once it's done, then it's done. You better be sure you want it that way, especially if you want to resell it."

Any changes to the original factory-delivered car decrease its value with purist collectors, who typically pay the most for classic cars. But the purists often are more interested in putting their classic cars in shows rather than driving them regularly.

Upgraders, who are more likely to drive their cars, say they are trying to be safe when almost all other cars on the road can stop faster and take exit ramps at freeway speeds.

Menneto, who put radial tires and disk brakes on his 1967 Pontiac GTO, says "Hemmings" lists thousands of upgraded parts ready to bolt onto classic cars.

But some modifications, such as installing a different engine and upgraded chassis and suspension, require knowledgeable mechanics and body experts because new bolt and attachment points are needed that might damage the safety of the vehicle if not done properly.

At the minimum, classic car owners should switch to radial tires instead of the bias ply tires used years ago. Radial tires absorb road imperfections better and don't drift and jar the car on bad roads.

Corky Coker, president of Coker Tire, says his company specializes in original tires for classic cars but most recently has begun making radial tires to look like the originals.

"Baby boomers have a number of cars that stood out in their mind when they were younger," Coker says.

"For some of them, it doesn't make sense to have a 1965 muscle car without the latest technology."

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thats why i bought a new gto, you couldnt come close to a 66 for 25,000 even if you did it yourself ,i know... i have done it and you end up with a 25,000 car with 50,000 into it !!!!!!
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