We ran the story on Richard Trujillo’s ’69 Mustang back in the May ’12 issue, and it remains a great example of how paying attention to details and picking the low-hanging fruit can net big dividends without spending a lot.
This month marks a propitious date: It’s the first of what we hope to be many more annual Popular Hot Rodding Muscle Car of the Year competitions. For MCOTY, we invited the most capable street-legal Pro Touring muscle car performers we could find, and tested them all on the same day in three grueling tests. The cars ranged from full-on track-prepped, to spit-shine show cars. All of them, however, are equipped with maximum-effort suspensions, chassis, brakes, and powertrains.
Being the alpha dog with the fastest hot rod in your neck of the woods is certainly an admirable goal, and cars like the ones in the MCOTY are the type we hold up as shining examples every month. But does everybody need to have a full-blown Pro Touring car to enjoy the muscle car driving experience? The short answer to that is “no.” Guys with crazy fab chops or buckets of cash can afford to go maximum effort, but the rest of us have to keep things real.
At the end of the day, I think what 95 percent of us really want is a muscle car that can hang with a new Camaro, Mustang, or Challenger. Can it stop confidently without swerving violently off course? Can it handle a corner without resembling a chase scene from Mannix? Can you hold a conversation without losing your voice or going deaf?
There are a handful of simple, relatively inexpensive mods that people can do to bring their muscle cars up to (and arguably past) the level of most new production cars. Yet when I cruise through the aisles at a car show, it’s amazing to me how few cars have even the most basic upgrades to make them handle as good as, say, a 30-year-old Buick, and that doesn’t even acknowledge that most cars don’t handle as good as they did when they were new. Here are the eight things—call it the low-hanging fruit—that you can do to your muscle car that will transform your driving experience:
Wider tires. Nothing else matters if you don’t have good contact with the road. The stickier and larger the contact patch, the better. A modern ultra high-performance radial tire in a 17- or 18-inch diameter is ideal, but even a wider 15-inch tire—like all four 275/60R15s on Project Laguna, can make a huge difference. A shorter sidewall (17- or 18-inch) has the added benefit of a quicker mechanical reaction time to turning input.
Disc brakes. Disc brakes stop shorter, stop more reliably, and stop more repeatedly than drum brakes. Even if you can only afford them on the front, you need them. Wilwood makes inexpensive disc brakes for virtually every muscle car—even some fitting 14- and 15-inch wheels. For about the price of a set of forged pistons, keep your pride and joy from careening into the car stalled in front of you.
Bushings. If you haven’t changed the rotted stock rubber bushings for new polyurethane ones yet, do it. Energy Suspension makes excellent body bushings, control arm bushings, and sway bar bushings—all of which should be replaced, along with new rod ends and ball joints. Your ride quality, handling, turning, and braking will all improve, often to the point of feeling like a new car. It’s huge bang for the buck.
Overdrive. We’ve really grown accustomed to the low cruising revs and good gas mileage of an overdrive trans. Not having one back in the day was at least livable—because we didn’t know any better—but now it’s downright punishment with anything resembling a performance gear ratio. Any overdrive will work, but if you need something that can handle a ton of power, see the story on Performabuilt’s bulletproof 700-R4 on p. 60.
Front sway bar. You can argue that it’s better to rip out all the suspension bits and start anew, but don’t count out the factory suspension. Sometimes a simple front sway bar upgrade is enough to flatten out the handling for spirited driving. It can make a huge difference for just a couple hundred bucks.
Subframe connectors. Unless you’ve got a Corvette, fullsized GM, or midsized GM muscle car, you’ve got a unibody. This means it was made with a calculated compromise that trades rigidity for weight savings and manufacturing simplicity. Decades later, you are now on the wrong side of that calculation. If it’s not got a full frame, the front and rear sections can benefit greatly from being tied together.
Seats & seatbelts. This one isn’t obvious until you try piloting your stock car through an autocross. A seat that holds you well (I like those from Corbeau and Scat) will allow much better car control. The same goes for the seatbelts, especially once you add the shoulder harness. Both are relatively inexpensive and have safety benefits beyond the performance improvement.
Quick-ratio steering box. Old OEM steering boxes are notorious for having slow, sloppy turning. A new or rebuilt quick-ratio box (15:1 or quicker) costs way less than a rack-and-pinion conversion, and will endow any ride with sharper handling, making it feel lighter and more agile.