Most of the project cars we deal with have been around for a while. Heck, even "late-model" stuff from the '80s is 15 or 20 years old. As such, many of these cars have witnessed numerous automotive trends over the years, and much like the guy who still wears his Members Only jacket with pride, some of these cars are stuck in the past. Maybe you built your car a long time ago and haven't changed it since. Maybe you've recently acquired a vehicle that hasn't received proper attention in a long time. Either way, by selecting the right parts, you can make major headway in bringing your car up to date without completely rebuilding it. The best part about a makeover is that you can enjoy the thrill of something new without expending the cash and effort required for an all-new project. Though we didn't spin any wrenches for this one, we did scan the local cruise spots and other automotive gatherings for fugitives from the automotive fashion police, while we gathered ideas for easy ways to freshen your image. Many offenses are quickly remedied, and we've compiled some suggestions for your perusal. What are you doing this weekend?
EngineOnce the hood is up, it might be apparent that paint and a few new accessories aren't going to cure the real problem. Maybe it's time for a new engine. But instead of replacing what was already there, this might be an opportunity to upgrade. This could be the excuse you've been looking for to go for that big-block. Another alternative is a high-tech engine swap using a late-model fuel-injected mill. These swaps have become quite popular in recent years, and this is yet another area where the aftermarket can help out.
It's probably a bit ambitious to think an EFI engine swap could be completed in a weekend, but it has been done. For these swaps, it's often best to acquire a donor car and transfer everything across. For common swaps like Chevy TPI and Ford 5.0 EFI, aftermarket kits are fairly complete. Keep in mind you'll have to have a fuel system that's up to the task of providing a constant flow of high-pressure fuel to the engine, complete with a rear-mounted electric fuel pump and suitable high-pressure feed and return lines. Sometimes this stuff can be pirated from the donor car, and in some cases the aftermarket can provide fuel tanks and plumbing for vintage vehicles being outfitted with late-model drivetrains.
Body TrimAlong the same lines as reproduction factory graphics packages is reproduction body trim. Since many of the cars we own have lived long and not-so-charmed lives, it's likely that much of the factory-installed brightwork has either been damaged or removed. Back in the '80s, after most of this stuff had disappeared from dealer shelves and before it was available from the aftermarket, it was common practice to either shave bright trim or paint it. Shaving trim can still produce favorable results, but many '60s cars look better with a little garnish. All those cars that had their grilles painted body color during the thick of the '80s monochrome period can be "updated" by simply returning them to stock. In the late '70s and throughout the '80s, lots of cars also received black-painted trim, which can be a bit of an eyesore today. Maybe all you need is a new chrome hood spear, an aluminum taillight panel surround, or a set of wheel lip moldings. Little details can make a big difference.
ExhaustOn most cars that have been subjected to high-performance use, the factory exhaust system was trashed long ago, and 30 years later, there might just be a real mess hanging in its place. That 15-year-old muffler shop dual-exhaust system, bent using 2-inch tubing that's crushed nearly flat in the bends, isn't doing much for your car's engine output. The headers and header mufflers routine isn't only illegal in nearly every state, it's really annoying to anyone that has to be in your car for more than 10 minutes. And that universal-fit side-exit system that hangs lower than anything else under your car probably sounds as crappy as it looks.
First, the headers: If you've got an old set in good shape that fits and flows well, take 'em off and send them out to be sandblasted and ceramic-coated. If they never fit very well and some of the tubes were hammered flat during fitment, junk 'em for a newer set that actually fits and spend the extra dinero for the coating. Got manifolds and want to keep them? Those can also be coated to clean up their appearance.
For pipes, many musclecar owners are fortunate enough to be able to buy kits featuring gorgeous mandrel-bent tubes in large diameters specifically designed for their cars. You can probably do the install yourself, though you might need the muffler shop to weld up the collectors and such. Make sure to use tailpipes this time.
Engine Bay Much like its interior, your car's engine bay should be functional and attractive. If your ride has been a victim of overzealous motorheads for the past few decades, there are probably all sorts of crimes being committed under its hood. This is another area where minor changes can make major improvements.
The most obvious parts to check are the valve covers and the air cleaner-if either has been in place for more than 10 years, it is likely to be rusty, cheesy, or both. Trade up from that '82-spec Taiwanese chrome dress-up kit and consider a set of cast-aluminum covers, which can be had in polished, machined, or black matte finish in a number of clean designs. The choices for air cleaners are vast, so you should have no trouble losing that mushroom-shaped Cal Custom unit. One of the hottest, though perhaps costliest, looks in accessories these days is the fabricated aluminum approach, where components are made from TIG-welded aluminum sheetmetal and left with a bare finish.
Of course, the engine itself will likely need refinishing, and here again, the aftermarket has stepped up with high-quality engine paints in all the OE colors for restorations. Or go with something a little more modern. A popular look right now is the metal-finish effect, using paint colors that mimic titanium, aluminum, and other high-tech alloys. These go well with machined-aluminum brackets and accessories, as well as the aforementioned sheetmetal parts.
Finish the bay out with cleaned-up wiring, a fresh set of modern spark-plug wires, and maybe a thermal barrier coating on your headers, and you'll no longer be embarrassed to raise your hood.
InteriorThe cockpit of a 30-year-old performance car can have many frightening, or at least, annoying features. A good interior should be visually appealing as well as functional and comfortable. The most obvious trouble spots are the seats, which might be trashed or worse-transplants from another car.
If your seats are torn up or beset with outdated custom upholstery, have them re-covered. New reproduction covers are available for most popular cars from back in the day, and even for some that were not so popular. If covers aren't offered, you can try to round up some original-style fabric or upgrade to a more contemporary cloth, though you'll probably need a trim shop to do the stitching.
If your stock seats are missing, or if you want to ditch the big, flat bench, consider upgrading to aftermarket buckets. Quite a few companies offer universal-fit buckets with application-specific mounting brackets for most cars.
But the seats aren't the only interior elements that need to be addressed. Maybe it's the cheesy aftermarket steering wheel, or the dime-store gauges, or the incredibly frustrating and equally gaudy ratchet shifter. All of these items can be quickly and easily swapped for either updated aftermarket equipment or the stock stuff you removed years ago.
Wheels And TiresProbably the single biggest improvement you can make to any vehicle's appearance is to change the wheels and tires. Altering the type, size, and style of the rolling stock has been popular since guys first started messing around with cars and will likely continue until The Jetsons era arrives. If your car is from the late-'50s through early '70s, it probably came with narrow 14-inch rims and tiny bias-ply tires. Aftermarket wheel swaps were popular by the mid-'60s, so if yours is a performance model, it may have received a set of American Racing Torq-Thrusts (or a clone from another manufacturer), Cragar SS wheels, or something similar. Wheels like these are back in vogue, so they're good to have. Unfortunately, it's more likely that any cool wheels installed in the '60s were swapped in the '70s or '80s with something less desirable.
Although the Cragar SS remained popular through the '80s, Torq-Thrusts and the like were not only out of style, but out of production. In their place came a wide variety of chromed "tech" wheels that today are truly hideous. Some of these were even offered in gold tone, or perhaps worse-faux anodized colors.
These evils can be cured in no time flat by installing something less trashy. A factory rally wheel might be the simplest solution, or maybe even a set of plain-steel wheels with poverty caps. If you go this route, try to move up to 15-inch rims that are at least 7 inches wide so you can dress them with suitably meaty rubber.
Of course, you could step up and try the larger-diameter wheels and tires that are all the rage these days. Although some may scoff at the whole Pro Touring thing, we find that big-inch rollers, if selected properly, can really make cars look tough-especially big, old cars with huge wheelwells. You can try some of the big-inch rally wheels offered by Wheel Vintiques, Stockton Wheel, and others, or choose a larger-diameter version of a traditional wheel; both Torq-Thrusts and Cragar SSs can be had all the way up to 20 inches.
DrivetrainWhether you opt to upgrade to a late-model engine or not, you may still want to consider giving your existing powerplant a drivetrain makeover. Currently, the most popular trend for vintage rides is a swap to an overdrive transmission. This includes automatics or manuals, and in many cases, isn't too tough. Chevy fans have the venerable 700-R4, which is pretty much a bolt-in deal, though driveshaft mods will usually be required. There's also the 200-4R, which maintains the same overall dimensions as the super-common Turbo 350 and Powerglide and can also be fitted to Buick/Olds/Pontiac bellhousings. Ford guys have the AOD, but that will only mate to small-block bellhousings. Even Mopars can be fitted with automatic overdrives by using the A500 or A518, which are overdrive versions of the old TorqueFlite 904 and 727 'boxes, though again, adapters are required for big-blocks.
For manual boxes, the choices are more diverse. Ford and GM products were fitted with overdrive five-speeds at the factory, usually incorporating a Borg-Warner T5 gearbox. Though that trans isn't known for its durability in severe duty, the Tremec five-speed is, and it's offered in swap kits for Ford, GM, and Mopar. Richmond Gear offers a five-speed box that easily replaces many four-speeds (though Fifth gear is 1:1) and also offers an overdrive six-speed. Overdrive six-speeds have also been offered by some OE manufacturers for nearly 10 years now, mostly from GM.
But maybe all you really need is a rearend swap. Those 4.56:1 gears may have seemed cool back in the day, but now they're just aggravating. Swapping to a set of 3.42s or even 3.08s might suit your needs better, and you'd be amazed at the difference in road manners on the highway.
Suspension And BrakesMaybe the part of your car that needs changing is its very foundation-the chassis. If you're rolling around on a clapped-out suspension, you don't need us to tell you to rebuild it. This may be yet another opportunity to upgrade. Performance gas-shocks are a no-brainer-they're just too simple to install and relatively inexpensive to purchase. If you're still riding on oil shocks, you'll be astounded at the difference. If your car doesn't have antisway bars, you absolutely need them, at least in the front. The reduction in body roll will be dramatic if you use a fat aftermarket bar, and the number of applications available is amazing. Then there's urethane suspension bushings, readily available for most American cars from the mid-'60s-on. The ride will get a little harsher, but if you like to corner hard, it'll be worth it.
What about brakes? Still relying on the manual four-wheel drums? Shame on you. Most cars assembled back when they were still building cars with four-wheel drum brakes can be upgraded to discs by swapping on parts from a newer model. If junkyard scrounging isn't your thing, the aftermarket has you totally covered with nice, new components.
Even if you've already got front discs, you can upgrade to rear discs by sourcing the aftermarket. If you need really brutal stopping power, go for a mega-inch disc upgrade with trick calipers, as offered by Baer Racing, Master Power, Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation, Wilwood, and others. These companies have most popular vintage musclecars covered and are adding new applications all the time. You really can't have too much braking power.
Flames And Paint GraphicsCar crafters have been dabbling with paint and graphics since the beginning. Rather than repainting your entire car, which for most of us takes a lot more than a weekend, consider complementing the existing paint with graphics of some sort. Flames have been popular forever and are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Licks can be laid down freehand with a grease pencil or chalk (some guys like to do one side and then make a stencil of it to flip to the other side for symmetry) and then outlined with tape and paper before painting. Precut flame stencils are also available if you don't trust your artistic ability. Paint can be applied from rattle cans or a proper spray gun. The design, coloring, and shading are all up to you.
Alternatives to flame jobs include airbrushed detail stripes, stenciled rally stripes, or a simple blacked-out hood or taillight panel. If you've got some creative talent, try something a little more intricate. Just remember-the overall idea is to enhance the car's appearance, not destroy it. Sketch your ideas on paper first. Better yet, use your computer and alter photos of your car onscreen using Photoshop or similar image-manipulation software like we did for the illustrations that accompany this article.
An even simpler way to accent a car's finish is to utilize factory stripes. Most of the cool muscle-era stripe packages are available today as reproductions. Some of the more basic stripe schemes were painted on, while the more intricate stuff was usually done with decals. These days, repro stencils and decals are offered for even the most obscure musclecars. Some outfits also offer computer-designed replicas of factory stripes with custom lettering to suit phantom models, e.g., an SS502- or 451-powered Road Runner.
StanceStance goes hand-in-hand with your ride's wheel and tire combination, and it may be just as critical. Even the coolest rollers won't keep a car from looking dorky if it sits wrong. Are you still running that tail-up stinkbug rake from the '70s? Are the rear springs hopelessly sagged? Do you regret opting for the A/C-equipped big-block front springs for that aluminum-headed small-block car? All situations can-and should-be remedied ASAP.
In fact, even if you can't swing the bucks for a new set of wheels right now, you can still give your car a powerful attitude adjustment by giving it a simple altitude adjustment. A recent trend that has spread to the musclecar world is lowering. With classic muscle, the drop is best applied sparingly to give vintage performers a down-and-dirty vibe and enhance their meanness, although some might prefer a full-on in-the-weeds look. In many cases, this makeover might simply involve setting your car back where the factory intended.
Most of the cars we deal with have front coil springs, so lowering one involves either swapping springs or cutting the existing set. Again, if you've got the cash, predetermined-ride-height lowering springs and even drop spindles are available for a number of popular vintage musclecars and certainly for '80s-and-later stuff. These pieces can help you avoid the process of removing the stock springs, cutting a little off, and reinstalling them to see if you got it right. However, if the springs are to be cut, make sure it's done with a proper saw or cut-off wheel, not a torch, and don't heat the coils to sag the springs-the heat can alter the temper in the steel. Mopar guys have it easy here. They can just crawl under and adjust the torsion bars for the desired ride height.
Out back, you'll be dealing with either more coils or leaf springs. Lowering with leaves can often be accomplished with spacer blocks placed between the rear axlehousing and the spring pads. The aftermarket also has lowering leaf springs available. If your car is too low in the back, skip the air shocks and shackle kits and get new springs.