Every month we get a few e-mails and letters complaining about how many Camaros and early Novas we have on our pages. Inevitably these readers want us to show more offbeat cars that have been given the g-Machine treatment.
The truth is, we can only feature what you guys build. We are as guilty as the rest when it comes to building "me too" cars like First-Generation Camaros and Mustangs, but what else is out there? The answer is, a lot! The problem with so many people coveting such a small sampling of cars is that the prices for these cars go up as the availability goes down. The forgotten cars of our past are perfect for someone who can't afford an expensive starter car or for the guy that just wants to stand out from the crowd.
For this story the staff of PHR got together and picked nine overlooked cars that we though would be cool to build. Some are more popular and have been done before, but are still not as popular as they should be. Others are more on the "say what?" side of the spectrum and were picked as much to try and get you thinking outside the box as they were because they looked cool all done up. We're not expecting everyone to sell their '69 Camaros and start buying up Chrysler Imperials and Lincoln Mark VIIIs, but we do hope that this selection gets your creative juices flowing and thinking of what is possible with some imagination and a little--make that a lot--of hard work.
The different ways you can build these cars are endless and you probably have your own vision of how each of these cars should be built. Some of you might want to build the car to tackle a road course while others will want cruisers full of high-tech components. If we get a hundred letters telling us how we could have built these cars then we will be happy that we accomplished our goal: to get you to think and dream about how you would build a ride that stands out from the rest. And if any of you end up building a car that resembles one of the cars on these pages, be sure to drop us a line. After all, there is more to life than Mustangs and Camaros.
1973 Chevrolet Laguna
Early-'70s Chevelles are another GM car whose prices are steadily going higher into the stratosphere. However, GM loved to sell essentially the same car under different names. Case in point is the '73 Laguna. Aside from a specific nose and body-colored front bumper, the Lagunas were basically Malibus, and as such, there are quite a few aftermarket parts available to help give this car the g-Machine treatment. At $3,179 brand-new, the Laguna was a bargain in its day, even if it was stuck with an anemic 145hp 350 V-8 (although a big-block 454 was available for an extra charge). You can thank the oil crisis and new smog requirements for that one. Still, the car has great potential and you will never get accused of following the herd if you build one.
Just fill in the huge side-marker lights and maybe go with some C5 Corvette door handles to carry along the modern look. The retro-styled stripes give the Laguna more visual interest and are also a nice nod to its racing heritage. Give it some new 18-inch TrackStar S/S wheels from American Racing (cool, huh?) and 13-inch brakes with a dropped stance and your friends will wonder why they didn't think of doing a Laguna themselves. If you have a hard time finding a Laguna, then you might want to check out the El Caminos of the same year.
Not a Chevy guy? Then try an Olds Cutlass 442, Pontiac LeMans or Buick Century A-body. All the suspension and chassis parts interchange, and the styling is different enough that they won't look the same.
1967 Mercury Cougar
The first Cougar was designed to be a luxury European-style coupe. It was also given the nickname of "the Mustang's bigger cousin." Given that it rode on a stretched Mustang chassis, the name fit, but it never really gave the Cougar a chance to be seen on its own merit. For those in the know, the Mercury Cougar was exactly the right car at exactly the right time. What is not to love about the neglected Cougar? It is a great car with tons of potential and there are a decent amount of suspension upgrades available for it. A good example will set you back about $5,000 or so, but slightly rougher cars can be found for less. Back in the day you could get a performance GT package for a mere $323 bucks, an option that adds thousands of dollars to the price today. There was also an XR-7 appearance package that upped the looks of the car over the base model. Over 150,000 of the '67 models were sold and the car was impressive enough to be named Motor Trend's Car of the Year. The '68 cars were pretty close to the original '67 and the '69-70 Cougars were tweaked around a bit. While not as prolific as their Mustang cousins, you can still find quite a few on the market. What more could you ask of a project car with rarity, price, and good looks on its side?
To get the right look, smooth out the body to accentuate the lines and shoot it the bright color of your choice. The hideaway lights lend themselves to a modern look, so high-tech rolling stock will look like it was an offering from the factory. For the engine, how about a newer 5.0L 'Stang motor or, if you have deep pockets, you could go with a supercharged mod motor from a new Cobra. We have all seen a few fixed up Cougars at the local cruise night, but this is one car that has not been given the full attention it deserves.
1981 Chrysler Imperial
Another car that is in the "dare to be different" category is the '81 Chrysler Imperial. If we can make this car look cool then there is hope for just about anything. We honestly didn't even consider it seriously, until we accidentally ran across a picture of Buddy Arrington's '81 NASCAR super speedway car. Talk about a bitchin' g-Machine that was--too bad he didn't win any races with it.This car was very exclusive with only a little over 7,000 produced. Only craftsmen with 25 or more years of Chrysler assembly experience built them and that was done on a special line with special tools. (The lead crystal Pentastar hood ornament should've been a dead giveaway.) The best of the best in '81 was put into this car. All Imperials were painted in two coats and were wet-sanded in between. The body panels were fitted by-hand, and every solder joint was hand-finished. Every car was then put on a road simulator and later driven 5.5 miles through a road test circuit by professional drivers. It was a special car and it was treated like royalty. In 1981 dollars, the $18,000 sticker price was a lot of coin and today you can find them between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the condition. We came across an old Motor Trend magazine where they test drove a new Chrysler Imperial and all they did was rave about the quality, fit and finish of the car.
Nobody will accuse you of being a sheep when you roll up in this ride. Slammed to the ground on airbags, this car is more about cruising than tearing up a road course. Color-match all the chrome and brightwork to the body color, fill the side markers, and shave the door handles to bring the Chrysler into the 21st century. High-tech forged 19-inch mesh wheels with low-profile performance tires will help nail the look. The Imperial came with a yawn-inspiring 140hp lean-burn 318 V-8 that was able to propel the 4,000-pound Imperial to 60 mph in a mere 12 seconds. Warranty problems with the fuel-injected motor prompted Chrysler to simply replace all problem engines with new, carbureted 340s! Needless to say, this won't do, even for a cruiser. Picture this car stuffed with one of the new all-aluminum 6.1L Hemis from Dodge. Couple this high-tech motor with a modern four-speed overdrive and you will own the boulevards on cruise night.
1966 Buick Riviera
Big cars are in style and they don't get much bigger than the mid-'60s Buick Riviera. While not considered a musclecar, the '66-67 Riviera made a huge impact when it hit the streets of America. This was one of Detroit's most successful attempts at grabbing some of the European automotive style and performance in a big car. It was cutting-edge then and it still looks very hip today. Retractable headlights, deleted vent windows and new body lines were just some of the changes introduced in 1966. The base price of $4,408 sounds cheap today, but in '66 it was top-of-the-line. Over 45,000 were sold in 1966 alone, so finding one is not too tough. Pricing for a starter car in good shape will set you back somewhere around $6,000. Not the cheapest car out there, but on a cost-per-pound basis, it is still a heck of a deal, especially since it came from the factory with a nice 425 V-8 that, in stock form, put out 340 hp and a whopping 465 lb-ft of torque.
This car was pretty slick when it came off the factory floor, so not a lot needs to be done to the body. Shaved or modern door handles keep the clean lines flowing while a dark-on-light two-tone paint job makes it look even lower and longer than it really is. You can build it to handle or just make it a very cool boulevard cruiser with 20-inch wheels and an Air Ride suspension. For the engine, how about rebuilding that torque monster factory 425 nailhead and tossing a paddle-shifted 4L80 transmission behind it? There have been enough.
1972 Ford Gran Torino
Sure, Starsky and Hutch made the '74 Torino famous, but it doesn't take a detective to see that the '72 model has a lot going for it as well. Ford gave the '72 Torino a brand-new futuristic design that made a big splash when it hit the scene. The convertible option was history, but new model names like the Gran Torino and Gran Torino Sport made their debuts. New emission laws forced a reduction in engine size down to the optional 351 "Cobra Jet" engine, although most cars had the less-powerful 351 Cleveland motor. About 140,000 Torinos were sold in '72, so finding one is easier than getting information from Huggy Bear. Pricing runs anywhere from $3,000 for a clean driver to over $8,000 for a nice car with the more rare Cobra Jet option. In fact, we found one with only 33,000 miles on the odometer for $9,000.
It's all about the body with this car. Ford did all the hard work by designing a vintage car with futuristic lines. A Sport hood with twin scoops helps break up the long hood line and, like all big cars, this benefits from a big engine with even bigger tires. Shave the trim, side markers, and door handles to bring even more attention to the lines of the car. For suspension, consider a Shockwave performance airbag system and a set of chromed 19-inch Ford Racing 10-spoke wheels. No smog worries on this ride, so take your pick of FoMoCo powerplants; maybe a punched out 351 or how about a ProCharged 5.0L either of these could be just the ticket. Another cost-effective choice would be a Ford Motorsport 393ci short-block Winsdor stroker topped with some TFS heads, an AirGap manifold and a roller cam, just make sure it packs plenty of torque to move this heavy car down the highway. Engine Master's Challenge entries built to prove out the viability of a pump-gas 600hp naturally aspirated Buick, so a later Buick V-8 would also be a good choice. Do it right, and the only problem you will have is finding a parking space long enough.
1980 Olds Cutlass
The '80s saw turmoil in the American car industry. Less than 30 percent of the domestic cars had V-8 engines, and those were only shadows of their former glory. Government CAFE standards went up to 20 mpg, so that meant smaller engines, smaller cars, and more emphasis on aerodynamics. Oldsmobile redesigned the venerable Cutlass in 1978 to eliminate the failed Colonnade styling and move to the more classic notchback design. The car was smaller, but still retained the V-8 engine and rear-wheel-drive design. Old enough to be dirt-cheap on the resale market and new enough that they are still in pretty good shape, these cars are a great choice for some loving. Aftermarket A-/G-body suspension parts are readily available from companies like Hotchkis and Global West, so it can handle as good as it looks.
You could color-match the bumpers and ditch the vinyl top to get a more updated look. Reworking the door handles, side markers, and keeping trim pieces to a minimum will go a long way to making this diamond in the rough shine. Keep the polish and chrome to a minimum with some 19-inch Forgeline wheels with a low-gloss painted center. Project g/28 showed that you could make some respectable horsepower and still abide by the smog laws, so don't be afraid to step up the performance a bit. A T-56 six-speed trans or maybe a TKO five-speed will get you noticed, or even better, do this car as a tribute to the 442. A four-barrel carburetor, a four-speed manual transmission, and a dual-exhaust system will make you the talk of the town. To keep the theme of the 442 and still have a car good for the highway, you could bolt on a Gear Vendors overdrive unit to keep those revs in check.
1993 Lincoln Mark VIII
If you think this is the first time a '93 Lincoln Mark VIII has been in PHR, then you would be mistaken. The Jan. '93 issue had the crew of PHR taking a new Mark VIII from the showroom, and with a few tweaks, mainly for safety, run the Lincoln to a top speed of over 181 mph on the salt flats of Bonneville. Even today that's considered fast, but back then it was a record-setting feat. When this car hit the market it was expensive and its smooth aerodynamic lines just made it look right. Bad news for those that bought it new, but great news for you is that depreciation has hit the sleek Lincoln hard. With cars in the nicest condition going for about $9,000 and basket cases being almost given away, you can pick up a good condition example for less than $4,000. Considering what they cost when new, it is a heck of deal. Since they are only 12 years old you will not have to worry about too much rust and most of the replacement parts are still available.
This car was born sleek, so even things like shaving the door handles are not necessary. The car came from the factory with an air suspension, so with a little work you can drop the '93 down a good 4 inches. Toss on some 18- or 19-inch wheels that are low on bling, and people will think you're cruising some new prototype out of Detroit. For performance, the factory Intec four-valve mod motor is a great staring point. Making 280 hp in stock form, the four-valve mod motor is mod-friendly, with many aftermarket parts (including blowers, cams, stroker kits, and cylinder heads) developed for its younger brother in the '96-02 Mustang Cobra. Even the four-speed automatic has heavy-hitter proponents in the aftermarket industry; just pick up a copy of sister publication Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords for a plethora of powertrain sources. Either way, we can guarantee that you will most likely never see another one at the track or cruise night. Being different has a coolness factor all its own.