There is no such thing as “impossible” with classic and muscle cars anymore—just glance through the features and ads in any issue of PHR and check out the unbelievable list of parts available. If you can point at it on your car, someone probably makes an improved version of it. On one level that spoil of riches is great, but it can also be overwhelming when planning what to do with your car and where to spend your hard earned money.
Nowadays the sky truly is the limit. Or said another way, performance still costs money, and you’ll need to choose exactly what level of modern car you want to match. You can go crazy with custom stuff (and we totally encourage that), but before you do, don’t neglect the easiest stuff that can transform the driving dynamics of any vintage car.
Back in the Dec. ’12 issue, Editor Hunkins wrote an editorial titled “The Low Hanging Fruit,” which pointed out a few of the easy mods that apply to pretty much every car, regardless of make, model, or style. The suggestions revolved around chassis, suspension, and safety mods rather than power, because, well, to be honest most gearheads focus way too much on power numbers first. Horsepower and torque are great things when wielded properly, but you need to have a sound foundation to put them to any practical use beyond bragging rights. Plus, they do nothing for the driving experience of your car. Trust us, these are the 11 easy mods that every vintage car needs. Unless you’ve done these, you have no idea how enjoyable your car can be to drive, and you’re not getting the most out of what you already have.
Stock versus stock, there is simply no comparing the responsiveness of modern muscle to vintage, and there are several good reasons for that, all of which are remediable. Check out the size of the steering wheel in most vintage American cars and you’ll note that it’s markedly larger in diameter than most cars built today. Couple that with the average 17:1 or slower ratio in the steering box and you’ve got one slow responding car that requires a lot of driver input. In most cases, a super simple swap to a quicker-ratio steering box (usually 15:1 or numerically lower) will have a dramatic effect on the car’s response without any degradation of steering travel or geometry. Classic Performance Products (shown), Flaming River, and Borgeson make bolt-in boxes for most popular muscle cars, and many of those boxes will crossover to several other more pedestrian cars. As for that school bus–sized steering wheel, go for a smaller diameter custom wheel for a few bucks extra.
But don’t stop at the box; if there’s a single original part still sullying your steering system, replace it. Outside of suspension, there’s nothing else in your chassis that moves more than your steering linkage and they wear correspondingly. Ball joints, tie-rod ends, drag links, and sometimes even pitman arms are the culprits that contribute to a “looser” feel to the front end and degrade the quality of feedback through the steering wheel. They’re all relatively cheap and easy parts to replace, so when you go for the box swap, take the time to make everything new in the system, and you’ll be rewarded with the most precise steering your car’s engineering can offer. These are available from just about any serious restoration shop, such as YearOne.
You can only go as fast as your brakes will let you. You can get away with drum brakes on the rear for street driving since the majority of stopping power comes from the front of the car, but if you drive your classic car often, you need disc brakes up front. (A top-of-the-line Wilwood six-piston system is shown here, but basic dual-piston kits are available from them for under $700.) We know the old argument, “but people drove these cars for years with drum brakes just fine.” That’s because everyone else had a 300-plus foot 60-0 stopping distance too. Nowadays, even family sedans are in the mid 100-foot zone. Even if you can manage to maintain a decent space between you and the car ahead without someone merging in, if they slam the brakes there’s no way you’ll be able to stop in time to avoid a collision. That’s because that “safe following distance” of about 1 second per 10 mph only accounts for driver reaction time and assumes the two vehicles have roughly the same stopping power. If you’ve got drum brakes (especially manual ones) you have to add several seconds at 60 mph to be in a “safe zone.”
Beyond that, the performance potential is light-years apart. While drums are quickly susceptible to heat and fading with hard or repeated use, disc brakes cool much more quickly no matter the diameter. Perhaps worse than that is the propensity for moments of near complete loss of braking power if you happen to run through a puddle with drum brakes since they cannot evacuate water quickly. In short, unless you’re doing a numbers-matching restoration, just include a disc brake conversion in your hot rodding budget.