Trying to describe what makes a car look cool is a little like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. With such a variety of tastes and build styles out there, you’d think there wouldn’t be a lot in common between them, but there are a few nearly universal traits that will cause any car to fall short in the visual appeal department.
In preparing this story, we realized we had the perfect example of how to do everything right in the stance department. Seth Wagner’s ’67 Charger was built by Alan Johnson and crew at Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop in Gadsden, Alabama. Alan is considered one of the top muscle car and hot rod builders on the planet (he’s built both Ridler and Street Machine of the Year winners), so with his permission, we took the Charger’s “rake” apart with a fine-tooth comb for analysis.
…we decided to morph the JHRS Charger into 13 different fake cars, with crimes ranging from minor misdemeanors to blatant felonies. "
To be sure, we’ve found plenty of cars with stance “violations,” and we’ll even confess to featuring a few of them. Rather than dredge up old photos of real cars that are sure to incite venomous responses from their very real owners, we decided to morph the JHRS Charger into 13 different fake cars, with crimes ranging from minor misdemeanors to blatant felonies. For this task we turned to automotive rendering wizard Kris Horton for his computer illustration talent (www.CarsByKris.com). We worked with Kris over the course of several weeks fine-tuning our violations, and we had a ton of good laughs in the process.
In the course of “destroying” Seth’s magnificent Mopar, it became obvious that we needed to have a sense of humor about it. Stance is one of those things that—with the exception of really egregious examples—isn’t going to change a car’s performance or value all that much one way or the other. No harm, no foul—so do watcha want, magazine opinions be damned. By the same measure, it doesn’t cost a lot to get the stance right; in fact, it ought not to cost any more than getting it utterly wrong. Every car needs wheels, tires, and suspension, so you might as well nail it. As a muscle car owner, you’ve already paid the high price of admission—so why look like a doofus?
And about that sense of humor we were talking about? This author has been guilty of several stance violations over the years, some of them very public ones. I count “Stinkbug,” “Gasser,” “Slamma,” “Low Exhaust,” and “Wide Track” among my past indiscretions. I point the finger in the mirror as much as I do at the many violations we see at shows and tracks around the country, so it’s been a bit of a learning experience for me too. This exercise is partly for fun, and partly to raise awareness of what makes “cool factor.” Before diving in, please check your pride at the door, load up on some levity, and keep an open mind. If you want to flame us anyway, throw your Molotov cocktail my way at John.Hunkins@sorc.com, and don’t forget to enclose a photo of your machine—violator or otherwise.
Unless you’re building a gasser (and this rendering is not), you want the frontend lower than the rear. This is called “rake.” Too many non-gasser hot rods have the gasser look, and that equals epic fail. Check out the huge gap between the top of the front tire and the fender lip.
Violation: Frontend too high relative to the rear
The cause: When asked why the front is so high, most people will tell you the rear springs have sagged over time, which may be a contributing factor, but it’s not the root cause. Aftermarket springs are the biggest factor, and “gasser look” happens when the front spring pigtail does not fit correctly inside the spring pocket on the control arm. Beyond that, most spring manufacturers build their coils for a “worst case” scenario for legal reasons. A 2-inch drop may be advertised, but if you’ve got a lightweight V-8 that’s been stripped, and the manufacturer built them to handle a big-block with factory iron heads, original A/C, power steering—i.e. fully loaded, you might not get any drop at all. In fact, it might end up higher than stock.
The cure: Switch to a drop spindle to keep the steering geometry correct. Don’t be afraid to supplement this with modest, incremental cutting of the spring coil. Keep in mind that if you’ve got a motion ratio of 2:1, a 1-inch cut to the compressed spring height will produce a 2-inch drop. Mopars can crank down on the torsion bars for free.
When is it OK? If you’re doing a retro thing, or building a real gasser, go for it! You’ll need to stay period correct with the rest of the equipment though.
We’re being gracious on this Stinkbug rendering by keeping the killer Billet Specialties Lobeck wheels. Fifteen-inch chrome nugget steelies with mismatched, dry-rotted white letter tires are far more common.
Violation: frontend too low, rearend too high
The cause: We’ve all seen this look back in the ’70s and ’80s when high-jacker shocks and shackle kits were big. Perhaps in the quest to perpetrate a proper rake, guys just can’t resist that shackle kit or spring spacer blister pack at Pep Boys. In those heady days before Pro Street, guys liked to jack up the rear to emulate the look of the early Pro Stockers and Funny Cars. There was pride in showing off chrome rearend covers, fuel pumps, tube mufflers, air shocks, and anything else that fell off the Super Shops truck. Unfortunately, some of those teenagers grew up and made it big in the contracting business, and are now dropping six figures on custom-built hot rods that look “jess like the one I wrapped around a tree the night of the REO Speedwagon concert back in 1978.”
The cure: Take off that shackle kit, or lower those rear coilovers. If you’ve got a Mopar, crank the torsion bars a tad higher.
When is it OK? This is your whiskey-runnin’ car, and the liquor tank back yonder is empty.
The infrastructure here in California is crumbling fast, and at the end of the day, the “floodwater” guys might have the last laugh. They’ll be the only ones able to drive their junk over the minefield of ruts, washes, and potholes.
Violation: The entire car sits too high
The cause: Also known as the “four-by-four”—this car sits entirely too high all over, and looks like it’s designed to ford small streams or go off-roading. This is clearly a case of going crazy with the JC Whitney catalog—over-tall Chinese springs, a shackle kit, over-inflated airbags, maybe even some spring spacers get thrown in the mix. And shame on Mopar guys for cranking torsion bars this high. (Chevelle guys actually seem far more predisposed to this look for some reason.) Sometimes, though, guys order springs too tall by accident, or manufacturers make them too tall. (We’ve yet to see a spring that was too short.) In the case of too tall springs, it’s laziness, or the fear of cutting them (an unwarranted obsession with product safety?) prevents folks from going the shorter spring route. Chronic “floodwater” also occurs when low-hanging headers and an ill-fitting exhaust force guys into the multi-way high-jack.
The cure: Get shorter springs, cut the springs, use drop spindles, crank the torsion bars down, remove the shackle kit, or pull those spring spacers out. Fix your exhaust.
When is it OK? If the crick is risin’ and the bridge is out. Also, if you’re going for the look that crazy guy had in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (the one with chickens in his trunk)—this is your rake!
We felt violated after doing this rendering. Nevertheless, somebody will get the bright idea to do exactly this. One word: don’t. It’s just wrong.
Violation: Obscenely large and patently unsafe wheels and tires
The cause: Like saggy pants, and ball caps with the tags still on them, the superlarge wheels on a donk have their cultural origins in shoplifted merch. That’s right, they’re supposed to look stolen. The theory is, when you’re swiping stuff, you can’t be picky on the size because time is of the essence (super small wheels on lowriders fit the bill too). Inner-city gangsters “got the tire rolling,” but like many subculture movements before it, donk wheels quickly gained steam in suburbia.
The cure: The mechanical systems of even modern cars are incapable of coping with the inertial juggernaut of supersized wheels (anything over 22 inches). The larger the wheel, the worse the physics nightmare becomes. Excessive rotating inertia makes panic stopping unsafe or impossible, and overall unsprung weight makes handling sluggish and incompliant. Ride quality is also severely impacted as the spring and shock package is overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the wheel and tire. No joke: Downsize your wheels, or risk injury.
When is it OK? If you insist on doing your part for evolution, by all means, thin the heard.
We worked with Kris over the course of several weeks fine-tuning our violations, and we had a ton of good laughs in the process. "
Check out how super-low ground clearance causes the front tire camber to go excessively negative. That’s not good for handling or tire wear, and it’s only one potential problem. Laying frame is cool, but only at rest.
Violation: Scraping frame while driving
The cause: We have no beef with laying frame in a car with a properly setup air suspension system. In fact, RideTech has one of the most capable suspensions on the market with their AirRide series. You get where you’re going, park, then lay frame. People will marvel how you did it. Driving around with a laid frame, however, will result in undercarriage damage, and front suspension geometry that’s out of its proper camber curve. Are you perma-laying frame without an adjustable air suspension? You’re asking for scraped headers, a smashed oil pan, bottomed-out shocks, unpredictable handling, and uneven tire wear. We like “low” in a traditional non-adjustable spring-type suspension, but too low is dangerous and silly looking.
The cure: Get the AirRide with adjustable ride height.
When is it OK? If your car is strictly for show. It comes off the trailer (good luck with that!), into the convention hall, and then back on the trailer.
Glance back and forth quickly between the images and see how a bitchin car can magically lose its manhood. It’s no optical illusion; we actually see a lot of cars that could look way better if their tires were positioned in the wheelwells properly. Tip-off: It may look like the car on the right is printed smaller, but it’s exactly the same size.
Violation: Tires sucked too far into the body
The cause: Bad planning, a lack of fabrication skill, and poor aesthetic sensibility are the biggest causes here. Wheels that hide from daylight are often the product of a rearend that’s too narrow, wheels with not enough outer lip (backspacing), cheaper chassis kits that aren’t designed for a specific body or frame, a poor conversion from a Pro Street car to a Pro Touring car, fabrication chops that aren’t up to snuff, or deciding on the wheel/tire package too late in the buildup. This violation is most often committed in pro-built ground-up projects where the “pro” part is more wishful thinking than reality. Stock-style suspensions usually skirt the issue because wheel manufacturers usually have something that looks good that fits (you’re still on the hook for ordering the right offset wheels). Swapping in a narrowed rearend that’s too small for the car can also result in disaster.
The cure: A true “pro” builder doing a chassis car will always mock up the desired wheel/tire in the wheelwell before turning on the plasma cutter. Don’t cut steel until the UPS guy delivers the tires! When he does, build the chassis and suspension geometry around the proper visual placement of the tires.
When is it OK? If you want to look like a woolly mammoth tiptoeing through the tulips, this is your strategy right here.
…check your pride at the door, load up on some levity, and keep an open mind. "
Try not to pass your soda through your nose when you compare the rear stance of the JHRS Charger with Billy Bob’s swap meet special on the right. This is just wrong, but we still see it everywhere. If you see this car on the road, the banjo music won’t be far behind.
Violation: Tires sticking out beyond the fender lip
The cause: Dude, you totally bought the wrong rims! Yeah, those 14-inch-wide cheater slicks on autodrag rims seemed like such a good deal at the swap meet lying there forlorn in all their 1988 Pro Street majesty. The price was good, and they were whispering hypnotically: “buy me, buy me…” The guy gets ’em home, they don’t fit under the fender lip, so he runs to the Western Auto to get some spring spacers—or heaven forbid—a shackle kit. “Now them suckers fit!” he says gleefully as he pops his 11th beer. It’s hard to see the violation when you’re seeing double and thinking half.
The cure: Just don’t be a dumbass, OK? If you put these on your car, you’re not entitled to a car that looks cool.
When is it OK? If you’re headed to the Car Craft Summer Nats, or attending a burnout contest in Australia.
A dished wheel always looks cooler on a muscle car, but sometimes a modern suspension will work better, which means forget having a big dish up front. Building a Pro Touring car with a newer suspension means you have to deal with this odd mismatch. This rendering is how not to do it. If you’re putting a Viper front suspension in your Mopar, (or a ’12 Corvette suspension in your ’69 Camaro) don’t go crazy with a huge negative offset in the rear, or it will look stupid. You can also mask the mismatch by picking a wheel that visually maximizes the lip.
Violation: No dish on the front wheels but plenty on the rear
The cause: This one is tricky because it arises from the desire to use a potentially much better modern front suspension. Late-model performance cars like the Corvette, Viper, and Camaro are often donor cars—or are used as the geometry models—for the suspensions in older muscle cars. They often have wheels with little backspacing (a high positive offset) in order to provide room for larger brake packages and to reduce the scrub radius—both good things. Thus, the front rim dish is going to be limited. (Project X, in fact, has a C6 Corvette front suspension, and high-positive—offset custom wheels.) Some builders, however, just throw in the towel. Resigned to the fact that the car will need a front wheel with little or no dish, they just quit worrying about the look.
The cure: If you must use a late-model front suspension, you can minimize the disparity between the front and rear wheel offset. Choose a design that accentuates the lip that is there, build the front of the car to fit as much offset as possible, and don’t get carried away with too much offset in the rear (i.e. keep it limited in back). Project X is a good example here.
When is it OK? If you don’t mind a really expensive car that looks like a half-breed bastard.
Every car needs wheels, tires, and suspension, so you might as well nail it. "
This is a cardinal sin if your name is Alan Johnson. When JHRS starts on a car build, the first thing they do is select the proper size tires for the car, letting the overall size and proportion of the body, along with the size and position of the wheel openings, be the sole decider of what looks right.
Violation: Sidewall height not proportional to tire height, or to the size of the car
The cause: When ordering tires, the owner or car builder is looking at the overall tire height without considering the sidewall height. In a staggered fitment where the rear is taller than the front, the rear should also have a proportionally taller sidewall. “Even Steven” will do in a pinch, but the rear should never be shorter. Another problem is that tire manufacturers often wimp out when it comes to building larger tires—especially for the rear. They will market a line toward muscle car enthusiasts often as an afterthought, when most of their sizes are for imports or front-wheel-drive cars. As tire makers and car builders court each other for sponsorships, a lot of uncool muscle cars get built with tires that have too short a sidewall, and also not enough width.
The cure: Just buy some Nittos and call it a day. Also, tire makers shouldn’t pretend to cater to muscle cars if they really don’t.
When is it OK? If you’ve got a front-wheel-drive hot rod that’s traction-limited up front.
Your eye flows easily across this Kris Horton rendering, but then your eye stops at the top of the rear wheel. You sense something is wrong, but why? The rake is good, but it looks back-heavy, not fleet on its feet. On a more common homebuilt street machine, you’d see the gaps between the tops of the rims and the bottoms of the wheelwells. When that gap is greater in the front than the rear—irrespective of rake—the car will look heavy in back.
Violation: Car has rake, but doesn’t look like it does
The cause: An aesthetically pleasing rake takes into consideration several visual cues, only one of which is the actual angle of the rocker panel relative to the ground. Fake rake happens when the builder only looks at the rocker molding; when the front is closer to the ground than the rear, he’s done setting his stance. The eye of the admirer, however, is also judging the distance between the top of the rim lip and the top of the wheel arch; when the top of the rear rim is too high relative to the rear fender lip (when compared to the front situation), the eye sees the front as being jacked up in the air—even when the car may be lower in front!
The cure: On most homebuilt street machines, the front is probably not low enough, and is the most common problem we find when searching for feature cars. On pro-built cars, having too large a wheel in the back often causes it.
When is it OK? If your car is truly fast, you can have whatever rake you want.
As a muscle car owner, you’ve already paid the high price of admission—so why look like a doofus? "
Frilly little spokes can turn a manly car like a ’67 Charger into a mimosa-swilling cross-dresser. The Euro tuner look works on smaller ponycars, but the insanity needs to stop before it escalates to midsize muscle cars.
Violation: Wheel center/spokes too thin for visual mass of car
The cause: Wheel shopping can be fun, and in the process of surfing the web, it’s easy to fall in love with a cool wheel that is otherwise not a good match for the size and visual mass of a larger muscle car. You see the wheel as it looked in the photo studio against a white background, but not on your car. The size of the wheel can be perfect, the size of the tires dead on, the rake laid out like a stealth fighter, but when you put ’em on, it just looks like the wheels are going to get crushed by the weight of the car. It’s kinda like Rosanne in a bikini—she can do it, but it looks hideous. We all know there is a preponderance of import tuner wheels out there, and they look good on those cars if you like that sort of thing. Tuner spoke wheels work best on cars with a compact silhouette. Smaller muscle machines like early Mustangs and Camaros can handle them fine, but a big B-Body like the ’67 Charger? Uh-uh.
The cure: Going to the drags: cool. Dressing your car in drag: uncool. Re-shoe your ride in wheels that nicely balance the visual mass of your car’s body. The heavier the car, the beefier the spoke should look. There’s also sound engineering support of this argument—heavier cars need stronger, more massive spokes.
When is it OK? If you hang out with the Fast & Furious crowd, have at it.
…it doesn’t cost a lot to get the stance right; in fact, it ought not to cost any more than getting it utterly wrong. "
Depending on how deft our pressman at the printing plant is, you may or may not be able to make out the shape and size of the black wheels in the top rendering. The second one shows a dark—but not black—wheel center, and a vibey red pinstripe. Stealthy, without disappearing.
Violation: Painting your wheels so black, they disappear
The cause: Obviously, the cause of this is the desire to have a cool, stealthy appearance. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but when the idea is taken to its maximum effect, uh, the wheels disappear. No eye can see them at a glance, and no camera that Canon or Nikon makes can detect them. Short of being picked up by an infrared sensor, these hoops are flyin’ under the radar. We get the look, but isn’t the idea of spending big on wheels that people actually see them?
The cure: Instead of going with stealth black, lighten up a bit. Try graphite or dark titanium. Maybe black works, but use a machined outer lip and/or a red pinstripe. You’ll have stealth, but the shape of the wheel will seduce rather than confound the admirer.
When is it OK? When you really need stealth, or don’t plan on washing your wheels for an entire year.
Low headers and exhaust, along with deep-sump oil pans, are perhaps the biggest cause of the jacked-up front. This leads to either the “Gasser” look, or the “Floodwater” look, compounded further by all the junk hanging down from the “onda-carriage,” as Jessica Simpson so succinctly put it.
Violation: Exhaust hanging down too far
The cause: Having a low-sounding exhaust is one thing, but having a low-hanging exhaust is both a pain in the rear (literally) and an eyesore. The silhouette of a muscle car can easily be disturbed by low-hanging pipes, mufflers, headers, and other suspension gadgets. We’re not saying you need to channel your body over the frame and run the driveline and exhaust through the chassis (although that is cool when the pros do it), we’re just saying take a little care to tidy things up. If you don’t, you’ll begin compromising the stance of your hot rod to make it over driveway ramps, speed bumps, chuckholes, and all the normal stuff you find on a road. Not only does junk hanging down look ugly, the low ground clearance means guys lift the frontend up to clear the bumps. No good on two counts.
The cure: A good rule of thumb is to have 4 inches of clearance, more if possible, at the high center point. Clearance is less critical at the axles than in the center or under the chin. Get the right headers, snug the exhaust up to the floorboard, and get the rake set right.
When is it OK? You live in a world with glass-smooth roads and really tall people.