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All American Muscle

Shaun Tolson

Like most 12-year-old boys, Drew Alcazar looked up to the older, “cooler” boys in town—a group that naturally included Alcazar’s scoutmaster. With a flock of impressionable adolescents under his watch, that scoutmaster didn’t need to do much to gain his troop’s admiration. He could have played varsity sports; he could have had a pretty girlfriend; he could have played in a garage band. But in 1970, Alcazar’s scoutmaster had the one thing above all others that made him undeniably cool: a muscle car.

Driving a new green and black-striped Chevrolet Z28 Camaro equipped with a 4-speed transmission, split bumpers, and a large rear spoiler, Alcazar’s scoutmaster was a god in the eyes of his troop. “He practically walked on water as far as we were concerned,” Alcazar recalls. And at that first sighting, Alcazar instantly fell in love with four-wheeled American muscle.

A few years later, when he was old enough to get behind the wheel himself, Alcazar turned his key in the ignition of a 1971 Mach 1 Ford Mustang. “Can you imagine a weapon like a Mach 1 Mustang in the hands of a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old kid?” he asks rhetorically. “Hell, I barely could see over the hood scoop. Even today, that’s a degree of insanity that makes my head spin!”

These days, while baby boomers like Alcazar reflect back on the eight-year period of the American muscle car and scrutinize its safety—or lack thereof—especially when operated by young, inexperienced teenage drivers, those same baby boomers also romanticize the cars and seek them out as bastions against the unrelenting reality of growing old. “American muscle cars are just a harkening of my youth and [an attempt] to capture those days that are uniquely American,” says Alcazar, the cofounder and CEO of auto auction company Russo and Steele (www.russoandsteele.com). “Now there’s this generation that wants to relive that. They want the cars that they couldn’t afford [40 years ago]. That’s the connection to American muscle cars today and their collectability. It’s recapturing those experiences.”

The Origins of Strength

Some might say that the can-do American spirit that has long defined the country and its breadth of possibilities was best epitomized during the 1960s—an era in which NASA successfully put a man on the moon, racial and gender movements ushered in new opportunities to once-oppressed women and minorities, and younger generations began to rebel against a pervasive materialism that had grown prevalent during the 1950s. With a fledgling philosophy that the automobile can be a reflection of personal tastes and lifestyles, and recognizing that a younger generation was carving out its own unique identity, automakers looked to create a car that stepped out of the shadows of the large and ponderous Buicks and Cadillacs of the previous decade. “The American muscle car was the first lifestyle-extension automobile for the masses, which was a wonderful, blooming middle class that now had the ability to make a statement through their automobiles,” Alcazar explains. “This youth market had started to emerge, and as a reflection of the times, they wanted sporty, cool, and fast.”

Opinions fluctuate as to when the American muscle car first came to be. Some enthusiasts consider the Corvettes of the late 1950s to be just as worthy of the muscle car tag as the Mustangs, Camaros, and Chevelles that graced the roads during the mid and late 1960s. That being said, most experts point to 1964 as the true beginning of the muscle car movement, and by that token, it was Pontiac’s GTO that was the first off the line. In the wake of General Motors’ ban of auto racing involvement, Pontiac’s chief engineer, John DeLorean, married a midsize sedan to a big-block engine and, in doing so, created a street-legal automobile that stayed true to the brand’s performance-based identity. At the time, Pontiac was about to unveil its redesigned two-door Tempest, which boasted a front-engine, front-transmission, rear-wheel-drive configuration. By replacing the Tempest’s traditional 326 cu in V-8 engine with a 389 cu in V-8 found in the Catalina and Bonneville, DeLorean created a model that was heavy on performance. However, as Alcazar explains, “no one was ready to bet the farm on this concept early on,” so Pontiac designated the GTO as an optional package and limited the initial production to 5,000 cars. When GTO sales quickly skyrocketed, other automakers eagerly followed suit. “It was like pouring gasoline on fire,” Alcazar says. “All of a sudden you had a go-fast, sexy-sounding car that other manufacturers wanted to get in on.”

Yet, as quickly as American muscle cars rose to prominence, they faded from the spotlight just as fast. While European sports cars provided a framework for American muscle in terms of styling—DeLorean looked to the Ferrari 250 GTO as inspiration—the long-hooded body design was the only overlapping characteristic. The Pontiacs, Chevys, and Fords of that time were unapologetically one-dimensional. “The American muscle car was about one thing: horsepower,” says Alcazar. “And that was sort of its demise. You had horrible braking systems and the cars handled horrifically. The natural results of that … people were wrapping themselves around telephone poles.”

It would be years before American automakers had the technology to develop a car that safely handled the amount of horsepower that those classic muscle cars put to the ground. And as a current collector who drove those cars in their heyday, Alcazar can attest to the inherent risk of opening them up on public roads. “The horizon disappears,” he says, describing the initial period of acceleration where the front end of the car seems to rise, limiting the driver’s visibility. “All of a sudden you’re going real fast and your ass is coming out of the chair because you’ve got both feet on the brake pedal hoping the car stops in time.”

The questionable safety of those muscle cars came under scrutiny as early as 1965, when Ralph Nader published his book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. Lambasting automakers for the marginal braking systems, handling capabilities, and tire adhesion in those high-performance cars, all the while protesting their sale to young drivers, Nader’s work led to surcharges and greater insurance premiums that suddenly rendered the cars unaffordable to much of the middle class. When the Clean Air Act took effect in 1970 and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to set emissions standards for new automobiles, the American muscle car was all but sentenced to death. The final nail in the coffin came in 1973, when the OPEC oil embargo led to gasoline rationing, further forcing Detroit’s automakers to build more efficient and thereby more timid automobiles.

These days, the classic American muscle car is as popular as ever before, thanks in large part to companies dedicated to the task of restoring the originals and also custom-building new reproductions. According to Frank Mecum, the consignment director at Mecum Auctions (www.mecum.com), muscle car popularity never waned, but he says the prices that those cars have demanded at auction have continued to climb over the last decade, largely due to the very generation of enthusiasts who inspired such cars to be built in the first place. “That generation finally came into the age where they’re toward the end of their careers and [approaching] retirement and they came into a position where they could afford that extra luxury,” he says. As a result, cars like a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda, a 1967 Chevrolet Nickey/Bill Thomas 427 Stage III Camaro, and a 1969 Chevrolet Yenko Super Camaro sold for $550,000, $400,000, and $345,000, respectively, at a Mecum auction in May.

But not everyone wants to work the auction scene. For those looking to start or expand a collection—and prefer to do it without a bidding card in hand—various restoration experts and custom shops can deliver vintage or modern-day muscle cars for the same price (or sometimes less) than what a prospective buyer would need to spend at auction.

Modern-Day Muscle

Joey Wigley will be the first to tell you that he turned a hobby into a successful business, though it’s one that he also admits is not motivated by the almighty dollar. The 52-year-old founder of Jen Jac’s (www.jenjacs.com), a Savannah, Ga., auto restoration company, made his entrepreneurial mark years earlier as the owner of a company that outfitted interiors for corporate aircraft. By the late 1980s, the company was booming and Wigley found that he had the means to purchase a 1970 Chevelle SS—a car that he had owned when he was 16 years old. Wigley’s new acquisition was in desperate need of restoration, and thus began his hobby of restoring and collecting classic muscle cars, a hobby that would lead to a collection encompassing more than a dozen different makes and models.

By the time Wigley’s aircraft-outfitting business had grown to 150 employees, a California-based company approached him and made, as Wigley recalls, “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” Deciding that he was too young to retire, Wigley opted to turn his passion for restoring classic automobiles—particularly muscle cars—into a business. Just as he was building a 23,000-square-foot facility, the 2001 terrorist attacks of September 11 rocked the economy, but while the stock market floundered, the market for restored vintage automobiles grew stronger. “People wanted to take their money out of the bank and invest it in a car,” Wigley recalls. “They were buying them and saying, ‘at least I can enjoy some of this investment, and it’s better than losing it in the stocks like I’ve been doing and it’s better than 3 percent [interest] in the bank.’”

Wigley figured that even if his restoration venture crashed and burned, the market still could be profitable for him as a collector. He saw restored muscle cars as a safe and fun investment opportunity. “I thought, if I didn’t do anything but buy them myself and store them for a few years, I’ll do better with my money than with it being in a bank or invested in a portfolio package,” he says.

Wigley’s new business did not flounder, and now, almost a decade since he first launched the company, Jen Jac’s provides auto enthusiasts with a suite of services that includes custom-built, modern-day muscle cars and complete vintage restorations from the ground up. But Wigley emphasizes that a Jen Jac’s restoration project covers every aspect of the car, and on that point he will not compromise. “I want to cater to a higher-end customer, but I want to do the whole car or none of it,” he says. “When it rolls out and has our name on it, I want it to be the best that it can be, and not everyone can afford that.”

Wigley’s team of technicians currently completes about four restorations a year, although before the most recent recession, that number was approaching double digits. An average restoration ranges from $75,000 to $125,000 and will require at least 1,000 hours. However, the more-involved projects can require as many as 1,800 hours and, if the customer insists on using as many authentic or original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts as possible, the cost can quickly reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Some people are purists, and they’d want the original air in the tires if it’s possible,” Wigley jokes. “But most of them aren’t willing to make the restoration cost double, and that’s what it could do. Twenty-five percent of the time, we get someone who doesn’t care about the added cost.”

While the demands from his clientele will vary on any given project, there is one certainty that Wigley has ascertained about his customers. “They’re either custom fanatics and don’t give a hoot about a car built back to factory standards,” he says, “or vice versa.”

When RK Motors (www.rkmotorscharlotte.com) opened last November in Charlotte, N.C., it introduced a business model not typical for the car restoration industry and also provided enthusiasts with a new retail option rooted in flexibility and greater peace of mind. On any given day, the company’s 80,000-square-foot showroom displays about 150 classically restored vehicles dating as far back as 1925 to as recent as 2011. But unlike at an auction, where interested bidders must stake their claim on a car based solely on catalogue notes and outward appearances, at RK Motors, an interested customer can get behind the wheel and take the car for a spin. “The person buying a car at auction, they don’t have the ability to do a proper mechanical check or authentication before they buy it,” says Joseph Carroll, the president and CEO of RK Motors. “They might pay a little more than they would at auction,” he adds, describing the RK Motors experience, where cars are authentically restored and scrupulously inspected in a 15,000-square-foot service center adjacent to the showroom. “But the difference is they’re always going to get exactly what they paid for.”

Currently, muscle cars are a popular draw on RK Motors’ showroom floor, and Carroll credits that to a generational pattern of collecting. “When a guy is between the age of 45 and 65, he wants what he had or what he wanted to have when he was 18,” he says. “Right now, the sweet spot is 1965 to 1975.” Naturally, the in-demand era for collectible cars is always changing, which is why RK Motors established a trade-in program. Carroll says that his customers are buying anywhere from five to 20 cars a year, and many of those cars will be traded back to RK Motors for a new purchase within a year or two. In fact, most cars that make their way back to Carroll’s showroom floor have gained only a few hundred miles, and as such, will not see more than a 5 or 10 percent reduction of trade-in value. “The nice thing about these cars,” Carroll says, “is that they tend to go up in value over time and not down.”

Many of the cars available for sale at RK Motors are authentically restored, but Carroll will gladly modify them in any way to meet a customer’s requests. Most modifications include the addition of a climate control system, brake and suspension upgrades, wheel and tire conversions, and the installation of a concealed modern audio system—one that usually includes iPod connectivity. Such alterations are sure to outrage the purists—a devout group of collectors that Carroll says does dominate the hobby—but Carroll also has noticed that over the years, greater emphasis and money has been spent to produce cars that “have a classic look and feel, but stop better, handle better, and can cool you of when it’s 100 degrees outside.”

The new installment of car enthusiasts who are seeking out muscle cars are doing so with an appreciation for the classic looks of the cars and for how they sound; they’re not as intent on preserving the cars as a piece of history. And Carroll, who confesses that he used to be a purist, believes that’s the better way to approach them. “When you were first starting to get excited about cars and the prospect of driving, you didn’t sit around and wonder if the water pump specifications were correct,” he says. “You thought about how cool you would look driving around in the car. You talk to guys in that era and the first thing that they did when they got a car, they start replacing parts and modifying them! They’re not idols to be worshipped; they’re just cars. The idea is to enjoy them and have fun with them.”

Power-Packed Projects

Kevin Long, the project director at Campbell Auto Restoration (www.campbellautorestoration.com) in Campbell, Calif., says that most of the company’s customers place greater emphasis on modification projects, rather than true OEM restorations. “Most people who are restoring these muscle cars forget what it was like to drive them,” he says. “So we’re updating them with better brakes and that sort of thing. We do the whole range, from a disc brake conversion to making a completely new drivetrain with fuel injection and overdrive transmissions.”

However, according to Long, Campbell’s specialists are equally proficient when it comes to 100-point restoration projects. While the Campbell team, led by co-owners Mark Schwartz and Tom Dillard, is capable of restoring any vintage muscle car, it specializes in classic Chevrolets. “Our definition of restoration is to make it like it was when it left the factory,” says Long. “All the stampings, the overspray, all the original character that was in the cars when they left the factory in the ’60s or ’70s, that’s all there. All the weird little paint marks and inspection marks, we put that stuff back.”

Almost all of the restoration and fabrication work that the Campbell Auto Restoration team does is completed in-house, with the exception of any necessary engine machining, which the center outsources to Top of the Hill, a full fabrication center in nearby Livermore, Calif. Unlike at Jen Jac’s, where Joey Wigley insists on doing all of the work himself, at Campbell Auto Restoration, if customers want to get involved in the process or solicit an outside expert to handle specific aspects of the car, they can do so without reproach. Such is the case with a current, custom-built 1969 Camaro, where the customer has requested that his nephew, a builder of racecar engines, be responsible for the car’s power plant. Subsequently, the finished car will roll out of the shop with close to 1,000 hp. “He’s familiar with how a good European or Asian car drives,” Long says of the customer, “but he wants that American grunt. It’s everything that you’d expect from a supercar, it just happens to be a ’69 Camaro body.

“Is he going to use all of that horsepower?” Long asks. “Never. But it’s something that he decided that he wants. A lot of that is bragging rights.”

In much the same way that Campbell Auto Restoration is building supercars in muscle car form, Jason Engel at Classic Recreations (www.classicrecreations.com) in Yukon, Okla., is assembling authenticated Shelby GT 500 CRs. Engel and his team begin by refurbishing original 1967 or 1968 Mustang fastback bodies and then—using parts molded and designed from an original 1967 Shelby GT 500—they build an authentic, numbered Shelby Mustang. Carroll Shelby and his team inspected and approved Engel’s design, thereby ensuring that each Classic Recreations vehicle will hold a spot in American automotive history. “Our cars are listed in the Shelby worldwide registry,” Engel explains. “You’re going to open a book a few years from now and you’re going to see these cars next to cars that are history. That’s really cool.”

Perhaps cooler than that is the level of customization and special features that Engel will build into any commissioned vehicle. The types of features that Engel has successfully added to this point suggest that, had Ian Fleming chosen to make his special agent American, the Mustangs that emerge from the Classic Recreations shop likely would enjoy the notoriety now reserved for Aston Martins. As an example, Engel describes a $12,000 night-vision option that he installed for a car that was delivered to a customer in the United Arab Emirates. A 22-inch wide, heads-up display that Engel acquired from Gulfstream allows the driver to cruise at night on the highway with the headlights off.

“He didn’t explain why he wanted this [option], and I didn’t ask,” Engel says with a chuckle. But regardless of the customer’s motivations, the night-vision option illustrates Engel’s commitment to building unique automobiles. “We want you to understand that when you order the car, it’s yours,” he says. “I’ll do whatever you want, within reason. You’re getting the nostalgic look of an old car, but you get some really cool options if you want them.”

More than combining a nostalgic look with modern-day drivability, Engel’s Shelby Mustangs can deliver far more power and performance than the originals ever could. Available in three configurations starting at $119,000, $149,000, and $199,000, the middle and top-range models offer adjustable, coil-over suspensions and larger brake calipers (with 14-inch rotors), among other upgrades. In particular, the $199,000 model—offered in a limited edition run of 75 cars—is equipped with a 427 cu in engine accented by an F1R pro charger that produces 21 pounds of intercooled boost. All told, the car produces more than 900 hp to the ground and is, as Engel describes it, “an animal.”

The stories behind each restoration company and how those companies build their modified muscle cars may vary, but the motivation that auto enthusiasts cite when choosing to build a “resto-mod,” as the technicians refer to them, remains the same. “They want the reliability of a 2012 muscle car,” Engel says. “They want it to look like an old car that they don’t have to put in an air bubble. They get the nostalgia of a muscle car and the drivability of a new car.”

Achieving Immortality

Experts may look to the eight-year period from 1964 to 1971 as the true era of the muscle car, but any auto enthusiast will point to the new Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs as an extension of that era. It may be the baby boomers that yearn for authentically restored muscle cars from the 1960s and ‘70s, but they are not alone.

If you ask Drew Alcazar, it’s the symbolism of the muscle car and its prevailing essence of “coolness” that will assure the longevity of the style, more so than a specific generation’s connection to that era of automobiles.“Truth be known, muscle cars are ingrained into the American psyche,” he says. “They are a very uniquely Yankee concept. It’s American pie, baseball, and the muscle car.

Upcoming Muscle on the Block

A 1965 Shelby Cobra CSX2461street car sold for $649,000 during Russo and Steele’s Monterey, Calif., auction last August, making it one of the most expensive cars sold during the three-day event. Built three years after Carroll Shelby first began combining high-performance Ford V-8 engines with British-manufactured Ace-Bristol roadsters courtesy of AC Cars, this particular Cobra benefitted from advancements at both AC Cars and Shelby American Inc., and it represented the quality of engineering work that Shelby was beginning to incorporate into the Ford Mustang.

At Russo and Steele’s upcoming Monterey auction August 18, 19, and 20, a number of equally intriguing cars are prepped for sale, including a 1969 Ford Boss 429 and the first 1970 Chevelle LS6.

During the late 1960s, it was Chrysler’s 426 cu in Hemi V-8 that dominated NASCAR racing. Ford’s rebuttal was the Boss Nine, a 429 cu in V-8 engine, but to meet NASCAR’s homologation requirements, the company had to incorporate that engine into a regular production car. Even though it was Ford’s Torino body style that graced the NASCAR tracks at that time, the company decided to allocate the engine to the Mustang. However, because the traditional Mustang body was too narrow to house the motor, Ford contracted Kar Kraft in nearby Dearborn, Mich. to perform the necessary modifications—alterations that included lowering the suspension and moving it further outside, relocating the battery to the trunk, hand-rolling the fenders, and hand-fabricating the hood to accommodate an oversize air scoop with a manually controlled intake flapper valve.

The finished product earned the distinction of being the most powerful and—at $4,800 per car—the most expensive Mustang ever produced to that point. From January to July 1969, Ford produced only 857 Boss 429 Mustangs, and only 93 were painted Raven Black (as this example is), making black the rarest of the five factory colors that were available. In its prime, this particular car competed primarily in drag races not far from where it was built; and over an 18-month period from 2005 to 2006, it underwent a complete restoration back to its original factory-issued condition.

Also up for sale in Monterey is the first 1970 Chevelle LS6 that Chevrolet ever made. Ordered by a GM executive and built on December 9, 1969, this car boasts two build sheets, one of which is labeled “Pilot job” with a handwritten note declaring, “if it had wings it would fly.”

With 450 hp at 5,600 rpm and 500 ft lbs of torque at 3,600 rpm, the LS6 Chevelle represents the pinnacle of GM auto engineering. It also was the only full-production vehicle in history to surpass the Corvette in horsepower rating. In 2010, this particular LS6 received a concours-level restoration at the hands of MuscleCar Restoration and Design in Pleasant Plains, Ill., and since that restoration, the car has logged only one mile of road time.

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