Written by independent automotive journalist Steve Magnante
If you’re one of the growing number of vintage vehicle owners who enjoys driving your cherished relic on public roads in modern traffic conditions, you’ll agree that any car or light truck built more than 40 years ago can be very much out of place motoring down the road. Sure, it still burns gasoline, uses oil for lubrication and has air in its tires like modern cars, but if it’s over four decades old and is factory stock, it surely – and sorely – lacks modern features like anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic stability control, occupant air bags, an overdrive automatic transmission, electronic fuel injection (EFI), gas shocks and even radial tires.
Though preserving the low-tech nature of older vehicles is beneficial on the show field (where judges treasure originality), it can be a major handicap on the open road, lacking the superior handling, braking, fuel economy and (often) acceleration capability enjoyed by today’s SUVs, crossovers and even the cheapest sub-compact economy models. And it’s a folly to assume other motorists understand the difference between your quaint old-timer and their bread-and-butter transportation modules. They don’t. If the distracted driver ahead of you slams the brakes after pressing “send” on the latest text, it’s on you and your microscopic drum brakes to stop just as quickly. The same goes for highway on-ramps and merging at high speed. If your engine lacks the suds to keep up, you’re the problem!
I personally discovered I was risking my life by trying to use a 1959 Rambler American as a daily commuter in Los Angeles not long ago. With its manual 9-inch drum brakes, molasses-slow automatic transmission, anemic 90 horsepower Flathead-6 and total lack of seatbelts, it was truly a menace, through no fault of its design or driver. Over and over, it proved that driving too slow can be as dangerous as driving too fast. But I had no choice; even after a rebuild with a hotter cam and enriched jetting, the power of its prewar-designed Flathead-6 just wasn’t there.
Because modern traffic starts, stops and corners much faster than when Rambler’s design team conjured it in 1950, my little silver turtle was a daily menace as I traversed the 31-mile commute from my El Monte, California, home to my job at Hot Rod magazine on Wilshire Boulevard on the edge of Beverly Hills. But it didn’t have to be that way. With a little more free time, I could have up-fitted the Rambler with a mild 250- or 300-horsepower small-block V8, 4-wheel disc brake conversion kit, overdrive transmission (automatic and manual offerings exist aplenty), modernized suspension system, wide radial tires with stylish mag wheels – and proper seatbelts. In this mode, it would have been partly restored – including the cute Continental spare tire – and partly modified, fitting squarely into the highly popular specialty car category known as the Resto-Mod.
Though I sold the humble Rambler before any plans took root, I was very much open to the Resto-Mod strategy because of its win-win outcome. With elevated power, braking, handling and safety elements added to its charmingly homely looks, it would have been improved in every way – and worth much more money on the open market. Only the most strident preservationists could complain. For them, including the inferior stock 6-cylinder engine, 3-speed manual transmission and other take-off items as a tag-along package would hush any cries.
And so it goes in today’s specialty car realm where Resto-Mod C1, C2 and C3 Corvettes, Tri-Five Chevys, baby T-Birds (two-seaters from 1955-57) and pre-Fox Mustangs all bring as much as – or even more than – correctly restored matching-numbers examples at every Barrett-Jackson collector car auction. As growing numbers of owners seek to enjoy the driving experience, the automotive aftermarket has risen to the occasion, with literal truckloads of high-quality offerings meant to elevate vintage-appearing cars and light trucks to modern performance and safety standards.
Regardless of your particular vehicle type, there’s a good chance you can find a suspension upgrade kit, four-wheel disc brake conversion kit, compatible overdrive transmission and modern fuel-injected crate engine to transform its capabilities and make it the equal of anything on the road today. Inside the car, upgraded, form-fitting seats are offered, some visually inspired by the stock original units but with added bolsters to keep you in place on a road course. And safety is also a key element in the Resto-Mod arena. Numerous three- and five-point harness kits are offered for virtually every application.
While the lucky owner of a matching-numbers Ram Air IV Firebird convertible, HEMI ’Cuda, Boss 429 Mustang or W30 Olds 442 (hopefully) knows better than to mess with a true rarity, there’s no harm done in bringing more pedestrian base-model Firebirds, Barracudas, Mustangs, Cutlasses – or whatever else – up to snuff for improved drivability in the modern world. Again, so long as the original parts are properly removed, documented and stored for future restoration, where’s the harm?
Sure, we should take care to make sure any modifications made can be undone, but if we’re to spread the car hobby world to others, we can’t do it with our cars parked in the garage for fear of being run over in traffic on the way to the show. And remember this: Whenever we’re out and about driving our special cars, we’re active ambassadors for the collector car hobby. Don’t be the guy hogging the fast lane in an underpowered Rambler. The angry people in the cars behind you might just turn out to be legislators seeking to rid the world of “clunkers.” By the same token, don’t leave them behind in a cloud of tire smoke at every stop sign. But then again …
For a look at what Resto-Mods and other extraordinary vehicles are headed to the Las Vegas Auction in October, check out the Preview Docket HERE.