Pontiac Trans Am vs. Ford Mustang vs. Dodge Challenger - Pony Express!
Three Very Different Ponycars From The '70s Gallop Into The Future With One Thing In Common: They All Kick It On The Street.
From the July, 2009 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Robert McGaffin
Enough with all the doom and gloom, please. We've been through this drill before, so put a sock in it, preferably one that reeks of stinky and politically incorrect hydrocarbons that will drift all the way to Kyoto. Sure, history has proven that overzealous regulation--courtesy of Feds who roll in SUVs with lobbyist checks spilling out the back--can castrate our beloved performance cars in no time flat. With rumors that a car czar, presumably imported from 16th century Russia, may soon be crowned to oversee the Big Three, it's certainly understandable why some hot rodders are worried. While we can't predict the future, we can look to the past for glimmers of hope.
Standing before us are three such glimmers, each from different points in that emissions-choked era known as the `70s. One's a corner-burning original '70 Challenger T/A that will handily embarrass a new '09 Challenger SRT-8 around a road course. Another's a 625hp '73 Mach 1 that runs deep 11s, and is surprisingly easy on the eyes. And perhaps the most outrageous of all is a daily driven '78 Trans Am powered by a blown, sprayed, and methanol-injected 498ci big-block Olds that belches out 847 rear-wheel hp. From the darkest hours in performance car history, one that supposedly produced very few viable hot rodding platforms, has emerged three kick-ass street machines each built for distinctly different purposes.
The recent reengagement of the ponycar war is still raging furiously, with the General, Ford, and Chrysler each dispatching brigades of retro warriors to the frontlines. Even if some brilliant lawmakers enact 50 mpg CAFE standards or mandatory hamster-powered hybrid assist motors, this trio of machines from the '70s proves that hot rodders won't go down without a fight. No matter what the circumstances, we will go fast and we're going to look damn good doing it, too.
The Trans AM
Even the Governator--with his advanced hyper-alloy endoskeleton and acute cyborg reflexes--isn't man enough to hang with Tony Panterra. A stuntman by trade, Tony's the guy behind the wheel in epic high-speed chases in films like Terminator 2, True Lies, and Heat. He does the powerslides, jumps, and J-turns through plumes of incendiary devices while chumps like Arnold and Al Pacino get all the credit. That's not a knock on either of those Hollywood legends, because very few people can hang with Tony, especially when he's stalking the streets in his '78 Trans Am.
To experience this car is to instantaneously forget every wisecrack you've ever heard associating second-gen Trans Ams with trailer parks. Tony's F-body packs a Vortech-blown, 116-octane burning, nitrous- and methanol-injected 498ci Oldsmobile big-block that lays down 847 hp and 760 lb-ft at the rear wheels. That's without the nitrous hooked up. Considering that he gets paid to pound on cars for a living, it's only natural that he drives his Trans Am often, and drives it hard. "After a night of partying on the Sunset strip, I love beating up on yuppies on the freeway," he quips. "These rich guys in Italian suits driving Ferraris, turbo Porsches, and Aston Martins try to mess with me all the time. All I have to do is hit the gas for a couple of seconds, and it's over. They see how violently the car jumps, and just give up."
Trans Ams of this vintage are typically owned by die-hard Pontiac buffs or fans of that Burt Reynolds flick, but neither applies to Tony. He's actually an Oldmobile guy who still owns his first car--a '69 Cutlass--to this day. "When I found out these Trans Ams had 403 Olds motors in them from the factory, they started growing on me. Then I came up with the idea to put a 455 big-block Olds in one, and the love affair started," he recollects. He purchased the car in 1993 for $800, and although it was straight and rust free, Tony says that it was a complete pile of junk. To get the car running, he dropped in a 350 Olds small-block and a 700R4 trans. Unfortunately, he gave the car to his then-girlfriend, and when they split he thought he'd never see it again. "After seven years, I somehow managed to get the car back. From that point on, it was my goal in life to finish it. I had to put some bad memories behind me and make some new ones."
As someone who works in the movie-making business, it's hardly surprising that his inspiration for the buildup was another car guy cult-classic film. "I wanted to build a Cannonball car that could run long distances at extremely high speeds, and do it comfortably and reliably without overheating," he explains. Tony went through a 455 and a 468 before settling on the current 498. Built by the Olds experts at Mondello Performance, the combo puts out 650 hp in naturally aspirated trim, thanks to a set of Batten cylinder heads and a behemoth 292/292-at-0.050 solid-roller cam. Stout, yes, but that was just the beginning. "Even though I was running 12.5:1 compression, my friends talked me into putting a blower on it. That switch now requires running 116-octane race gas, and I also had to rig up a boost-referenced methanol injection system. It may be expensive, but I still drive it in bumper-to-bumper traffic almost every day, and the car never overheats. Just the other day, I got an $1,800 shipment of race gas drums delivered to my house."
Tony hates garage queens with a passion, so he has big plans for the Trans Am. "I'm so sick of people bragging Yenko this and matching-numbers that; SS this and all-original that. So you're matching-numbers 427 big-block makes 425 hp and has a four-speed? Oooh, I'm scared," he opines. "As soon as I work out the bugs, I going to run the car at the dragstrip and go open-road racing. I think it will easily go high 9s in the quarter, and run well over 200 mph at Silver State." For someone as passionate over the matter and as skilled behind the wheel as Tony, we don't doubt him for a second.
Like a water injection system,...
Like a water injection system, methanol is administered only when boost hits a preset level. Likewise, the nitrous is jetted at 175 hp, and only called upon to cool the air/fuel mixture and beef up low-end and midrange performance. The blower is set at 10 psi, and a Hydroboost master cylinder assists with braking.
With two nitrous bottles,...
With two nitrous bottles, a six-gallon methanol cell, and an intercooler water tank, the Trans Am's trunk is crowded to say the least. Even with all the street time the car sees, the methanol supply lasts several weeks between fill-ups.
The suspension has been fully...
The suspension has been fully modernized with tubular Global West control arms, Koni coilovers, and a Hellwig 17/16-inch sway bar up front. Out back are Global West leaf springs, a custom panhard bar, Koni shocks, and Calvert Racing traction bars. The metallic orange paint is off of a Lamborghini.
Centerline built custom one-off...
Centerline built custom one-off 18-inch wheels for the Trans Am. Peering out from between the spokes are Aerospace brakes with billet four-piston calipers.
|BY THE NUMBERS |
|'78 PONTIAC TRANS AM |
Tony Panterra, 42 * Encino, CA
|Type: ||Oldsmobile 498ci big-block |
|Block: ||factory Olds, bored to 4.200 inches |
|Rotating assembly: ||Eagle steel crank |
offset-ground to 4.500 inches,
Mondello aluminum rods,
Speed-Pro 12.5:1 pistons
|Cylinder heads: ||ported Batten aluminum castings |
|Camshaft: ||custom Mondello |
292/292-at-0.050 solid roller,
0.778/0.776-inch lift, 108-degree LSA
|Induction: ||Batten single-plane intake manifold, |
Carb Shop 950-cfm blow-through carb
|Power adder: ||Vortech YSi-trim centrifugal |
supercharger, NOS nitrous system jetted at 175 hp
|Exhaust: ||custom 2¼-inch long-tube headers, |
dual 3-inch Flowmaster mufflers
|Transmission: ||FB Performance Ford AOD auto and |
3,500-stall converter; B&M shifter
|Rear axle: ||Chassisworks 9-inch rearend, 35-spline axles, |
3.00:1 gears, limited-slip differential
|WHEELS & TIRES |
|Wheels: ||custom one-off Centerline 18x8, front; 18x9, rear |
|Tires: ||BFGoodrich 255/40R18, front; 285/40R18, rear |
No one does old and cool like Hugh Hefner, but 75-year-old Bruce Wasserburger isn't far behind. Unlike the Hef, it has nothing to do with Bruce's ability to pick up big-busted blondes one-third his age, although we certainly don't think that there's anything wrong with that. While his peers are content piddling around in fiberglass street rods powered by lame 350 crate motors, Bruce is busy manhandling the 269/276-at-0.050 solid roller cam in his stroked 351C-powered '73 Mustang. He concedes that it drives terribly on the street, but to him it's better than throwing a limp-wristed bumpstick in it, and bragging about fuel mileage and streetabilty to his buddies while sipping on a can of Ensure. He's not just a talker, either. The 625hp Cleveland is tied to a Tremec five-speed, and he doesn't let off the gas until it's time to shift at 7,500 rpm. At Los Angeles County Raceway--a track infamous for its thin air and poor prep--Bruce ripped off an 11.16 at 123 mph before the place shut down. Like we said, he's the Hugh Hefner of hot rodding.
Ever since he was kid in his early twenties, Bruce has been competing in some form of organized racing. He drag raced a 12-second '50 Olds fastback for several years before getting hooked on power boats. After 20 years on the water, Bruce started getting back into cars when his son picked up a '69 Mustang with a 428 Cobra Jet. "I used to be a GM man, but from that point forward I was in love with Mustangs," he says. "I needed to get a Mustang of my own, so I picked up a '72 coupe that had a 351 Cobra Jet motor. I really liked the exterior styling of the '69, but I became a big fan of the spaciousness and overall interior design of the '71-'73 cars. Eventually, I used the '72 as a driver and picked up a '73 Mach 1 that I planned on restoring some day."
Ultimately, it took a long time for that day to arrive, as the Mach 1 sat in a garage for 24 years. Once Bruce starting working on it five years ago, however, he made sure to make up for lost time. What started out as a plan to merely get the car in running condition turned into a full-blown restoration. "The car only had 51,000 original miles on it, so overall it was in very good shape. The interior was immaculate, and when we stripped it down to bare metal it only had one small patch of rust on the passenger fender," he explains. "I've always felt that the '71 Boss 351 Mustang--which was only built for one year--was underappreciated by enthusiasts, so I built my '73 Mach 1 as a tribute to the Boss. The Boss 351 had a solid-lifter cam and more compression than a standard Mustang, along with a Top Loader four-speed. To that end, I built a solid-roller 351 for my car, and ripped out the C6 trans for a Tremec five-speed."
Since Bruce's Mach 1 was built as a tribute and not a clone, the 411ci stroker Cleveland he dropped in it has the oats to utterly destroy any stock Boss 351 of the day. In addition to the nasty cam that peaks at 7,200 rpm, he matched it up with set of epoxied and ported stock iron heads. A testament to the enormous potential of the Cleveland castings, they flowed an impressive 325 cfm after the wizards at Pettis Perfomance (Hesperia, California) got done with them. "I think it's a product of my power boat racing days, but I just can't bear to build a weak motor no matter how roughly it runs."
To complete the tribute, Bruce ripped off the ugly vinyl stock bumpers and fitted steel units off of a '71. Likewise, he applied the appropriate "Boss 351" graphics to the front fenders. Nonetheless, not everyone's a fan. "These cars are not popular at all, and since they're so big, people call them Clydesdales. People come up to me all the time at shows and tell me it's the ugliest f'n Mustang they've ever seen," he quips. "And that's why I like it. The car's different, and definitely not something you see every day. What I like about it the most is that it runs 11s, draws lots of lookers, and the fact that something this ugly can win trophies at car shows." Sure, its aesthetics aren't for everyone, but we think Bruce's Mustang looks pretty sweet. Given the keys for a day, we'd have to try our luck at picking up some big-busted blondes with it just to see what happens. If we were half as cool as Bruce, we'd surely succeed.
The interior remains mostly...
The interior remains mostly stock. The only tweaks are a set of Procar seats, and Auto Meter water and oil temp gauges mounted on the steering column. In order to avoid cutting the floor, the motor was angled upward so that the TKO trans would clear the trans tunnel.
To stiffen up the chassis,...
To stiffen up the chassis, Advanced Performance (Hesperia, CA) built custom shock tower braces and subframe connectors. The two-tone paint scheme carries over into the engine bay where the silver paint really makes the motor pop.
In lieu of vinyl, the graphics...
In lieu of vinyl, the graphics and silver stripe were painted on. The suspension has been beefed up with Global West front control arms. At the corners, it utilizes Mustang Plus drop springs and KYB shocks.
By pulling molds off of the...
By pulling molds off of the stock steel hood, 1st Class Auto Body (Hesperia, CA) was able to make a fiberglass replica. Between it, the heater and A/C delete, and removing the heavy plastic bumpers, Bruce took 300 pounds out of the car. It now weighs 3,420 pounds.
|BY THE NUMBERS |
|'73 FORD MUSTANG |
Bruce Wasserburger, 75 * Hesperia, CA
|Type: ||Ford 411ci Cleveland small-block |
|Block: ||factory Ford bored to 4.040 inches |
|Rotating assembly: ||Eagle 4.000-inch forged |
crank and 6.00-inch steel rods;
CP 10.7:1 pistons
|Cylinder heads: ||factory Cleveland castings |
with 2.08/1.65-inch Manley valves,
heads ported to flow 325 cfm
|Camshaft: ||Comp 269/276-at-0.050 solid roller, |
0.670/0.670-inch lift, 108-degree LSA
|Induction: ||Edelbrock Torker single-plane intake manifold, |
Holley 750-cfm carb
|Exhaust: ||Thorley 1¾-inch long-tube headers, |
dual 3-inch Flowmaster mufflers
|Transmission: ||Tremec TKO |
McLeod billet steel
flywheel and clutch
|Rear axle: ||Ford 9-inch rearend, |
28-spline axles, 4.11:1 gears,
Auburn limited-slip differential
|WHEELS & TIRES |
|Wheels: ||American Racing Hopster |
15x8, front; 16x10, rear
|Tires: ||Hoosier 26x7.50x15, front; |
Mickey Thompson 27x11x16 slicks, rear
It's all about the feel, baby. Unlike dynos that can objectively measure improvements in engine performance, discerning the handling characteristics of a car's chassis requires a well-tuned hiney. Naturally, this makes suspension tuning particularly challenging. For a racing vet like John Hotchkis, however, it's second nature. Over the years, he's competed in Formula 3, SCCA Trans Am, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Now this is a man who knows how to make sense of the tugs and pulls a car exerts on his back, bottom, torso, and hands, while powering through corners. His latest development mule--an almost all-original '70 Challenger T/A--is about to help unleash loads of lateral grip on the Mopar faithful.
Although the bulk of Hotchkis' parts development has been dedicated to GM machines since the company's inception, John admits that he's had a soft spot for Mopars since he was a kid. "I wasn't old enough to drive them when they were new, but I've always thought that Chrysler made some of the fastest and best-looking muscle cars of the era," he opines. While the Challenger certainly whets his Mopar appetite, it serves a more practical function as well. "In the past, a lot of Mopar guys were traditionalists who weren't into Pro Touring or heavily modifying their cars, but I think the market is changing now. The owners are getting younger, and a lot of them want things like fuel injection and improved handling. These guys aren't content sitting around in lawn chairs at shows anymore. They want to go out and drive their cars."
Since the goal was to develop parts, not restore a car, John started out with a completely finished Challenger. Other than a set of Hooker headers and a Tremec TKO five-speed trans, the car was entirely stock when purchased. Having found the perfect test bed, John wanted to dramatically improve the car's handling while keeping things as simple as possible. "Many Mopar owners we talked to recognized the handling deficiencies of their cars, but at the same time they didn't want to cut up their cars and make permanent modifications to them either," John explains. "With that in mind, we decided to design a completely bolt-in suspension system. This approach was much more time consuming, but in the end we felt it more directly addressed our customers' needs."
By today's standards, the Challenger's combination of front torsion bars and rear leaf springs seems downright archaic, however, John says tremendous improvements are possible even with simple hardware. "You don't have to go all crazy with a coilover setup in order to have incredible handling. Torsion bars are extremely efficient, and in fact, Porsche used them through much of the '80s," John explains. Beneath the front of the Challenger, Hotchkis designed and installed new tubular control arms, tie rods, strut rods, torsion bars, shocks, and a bigger sway bar. Out back are Hotchkis leaf springs, spring relocation mounts, shocks, and a beefier sway bar. "Our front upper A-arm changes the camber curve when the suspension compresses to dramatically improve cornering grip. It also increases caster for better straight-line stability. Our tie rods virtually eliminate bumpsteer, and our leaf spring relocaters raise the front of the spring to greatly reduce rollsteer."
At the end of the day, the suspension tweaks are good for a 10-mph improvement through the 600-foot slalom. That's drastic in anyone's book, and John says the results are attributable to the company's racing heritage. "During the track and on-road testing phase, you need to have a keen sense of how a car turns in, transfers weight, and manages power application on corner exit. All that's impossible to do unless you have a racing background," he says. "Our chief engineer is a championship-winning autocrosser, so we definitely have a depth of minds on how a car feels in the corners. It may take us longer to bring a product to market, but once we do, we have absolute confidence in it. We're just really excited about finally entering the Mopar market."
One of the only visual cues...
One of the only visual cues that separates this Challenger T/A from a stocker are the 18-inch Forgeline ZX3R wheels. Since the car sees lots of time on the autocross, a set of StopTech brakes scub off speed.
From the factory, the Challenger...
From the factory, the Challenger T/A was rated at 290 hp, but actually produced 20-30 hp more. The functional scoop feeds the air filter, which seals up against the bottom of the hood.
To keep things simple, the...
To keep things simple, the Hotchkis E-body suspension system uses a beefier torsion bar while retaining the stock K-member. The company may develop a coilover system in the future, but first wanted to show what can be done with a suspension system that still looks stock. Suspension parts are also available for B-body Mopars as well.
|BY THE NUMBERS |
|'70 DODGE CHALLENGER |
John Hotchkis, 44 * Santa Fe Springs, CA
|Type: ||stock Chrysler 340ci small-block |
|Induction: ||Chrysler Six Pack |
|Exhaust: ||Hooker 1¾-inch long-tube headers, |
stock mufflers and side pipes
|Transmission: ||Tremec TKO five-speed manual, Hurst shifter, Centerforce clutch |
|Rear axle: ||stock Chrysler 8¾-inch rearend, 3.90:1 gears, Sure Grip differential |
|Front suspension: ||Hotchkis tubular upper- and lower control arms, |
heavy-duty strut rods, lightweight tie rods,
torsion bars, shocks, and sway bar
|Rear suspension: ||Hotchkis leaf springs, shocks, |
sway bar, and subframe connectors
|Brakes: ||StopTech discs front and rear |
|WHEELS & TIRES |
|Wheels: ||Forgeline ZX3R |
18x9, front; 18x10, rear
|Tires: ||Yokohama Neova 265/35R18, |
front; 295/30R18, rear