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1967 Dodge Charger - Junkyard Crawl

Pilot Error

By Steve Magnante, Photography by Steve Magnante

Is this bashed '67 383 Charger a pilot car? No, we're not saying Chuck Yeager once owned it. Rather, the term pilot car applies to production-equivalent vehicles that are run down the normal assembly line in the weeks before actual model year production begins.

Why do pilot cars exist? To fully understand, put yourself in the shoes of an auto assembly line worker for a moment. Every 365 days, the calendar rolls over and another year arrives. When this happens, new models make the scene and it's your job to learn how to put them together. Sometimes they're lightly face-lifted versions of the previous year's offering; other times they're entirely new. Either way, you'll need to learn new techniques and operations to keep up.

This is where the pilot cars come in. Once the assembly line workstations are updated, revised, adapted, and finalized in preparation for the new year model changeover, manufacturers like to run anywhere from 20 to 200 cars down the line as a sort of dress rehearsal. Everyone from the plant manager to the freshly hired headlamp installation technician gets to play along as these first-run cars are assembled on the normal line, but in slow motion.

Without the frantic pace of the normal production schedule, everybody in the chain of responsibility has plenty of time to learn the new ways. As for the pilot cars, because above average attention goes into their construction, they're not a liability and are often OK to sell through normal channels, just like any other new car.

Other pilot cars may be provided to the automotive press for early evaluation. This way the published story hits the reader just as regular production models arrive at the dealership. Other pilots are used as employee demos, some are crash tested, and others are dolled up to become show cars for events like SEMA.

To see if your car is a pilot, just check the VIN. If the normal six-digit sequence number shows a bunch of zeros with single or double digits at the end, chances are it was part of the pilot assembly training process. Remember, most domestic automakers start the six-digit sequence number with the number one, not zero (i.e., 100001 rather than 000001). So are pilot cars valuable? Not necessarily. But discovering a super low VIN is a thrill just the same. Run to your garage right now!

By Steve Magnante
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