The Beauty of the Burnout

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One thing I really like about old muscle cars is the freedom to do a burnout without having to beg a computer for permission first.

I got to talking about that the other day with a friend who, like me, is into old Pontiacs. He has a ’79 10th Anniversary Trans-Am with the “T/A 6.6” high-performance version of the 400 Pontiac V-8 and 4-speed manual transmission (last of the line; Pontiac discontinued the big 400 V-8 after 1979).

We both agreed that there is something wonderful about bringing up the revs, sidestepping the clutch and being in full charge of what happens next. With an old muscle car – no computer, no traction or stability control – there’s an element of real danger involved. The back end first slides violently left, then snaps back right as the tires fight for grip – the driver countersteering while modulating the throttle to keep the car in line. You must be brave to keep your foot in it. And you’re in the now while you’re doing it – balancing delicately on the knife edge of controllability.

Surprising things can and sometimes do happen; every trip down the quarter-mile’s an adventure.

This kind of thing took skill – which made it a challenge. And that made mastery of the art a real achievement, something to be proud of. It took an expert driver to hook up an old school muscle car with a big-inch V-8, skinny tires no computer-assisted electronics and extract the maximum performance of which it was capable without killing himself in the process. Here I’m reminded of legendary stunt man Evel Kneivel; the guy did 100 yard jumps on a no-suspension Harley; that took either serious balls or serious stupidity – as well as incredible skill. The kids on their purpose-built Motocrossers doing “extreme” stuff today have no clue how genuinely extreme things were in Evel’s day. The dude was The Man.

Now, there are some potent new cars being built today. I recently spent some seat time in a new Corvette Z06 and the thing will do tricks that full-on race cars could not do when I was in high school (1980s).

But with the old stuff, you’re riding The Beast; not merely a passenger along for the ride. Anyone can drive the new stuff fast.

The other thing my Trans-Am buddy and I got to talking about was the quirkiness of older stuff – even when it was new.

Today’s cars are incredibly uniform; the paint’s nearly always perfect, for instance – and you never encounter weird disparities in body panel alignment, fit and finish. Back “in the day,” in contrast, it was not at all uncommon to find two examples of the same brand-new car that were in a number of ways very different from one another. The night shift at the plant might have had less conscientious (or, let’s face it, sober) line workers – so one car got put together a bit less precisely. Or maybe you’d see orange peel in the paint of one – but not another. Maybe the guy spraying the second car was pissed at GM. Today, new cars are painted by machines – not men. The machines never get tired, hung over – or hostile. So the paint jobs are almost always show quality perfect – every time.

And believe it or not, some otherwise identical cars back in the day would run better than others, too. It sucked if you got a bad one – and it was a happy day if yours was a good one – but the lottery-like nature of the new car business in those days made for variety, good times (and bad times) and always some interesting stories.

Today, old car restorers go to elaborate lengths to document – and even reproduce – the eccentricities of the factory. That will likely never be necessary with modern cars when they become old cars – because build standards have tightened up and there’s virtually no slop in the line anymore. Standardization has been honed to the nth degree. It has given us vastly superior quality control, reliability and longevity that would have been unimaginable in the ’70s.

But when it comes to personality, individuality – soul – there is nothing to compare with sliding behind the wheel of something put together in that more slapdash (and long-gone) world.

Every time I light the back wheels up, I’m taken back to Then.

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    • Well, it’s a two-parter:

      There is no question that new (late model) cars are – as a rule – much more reliable for longer than old (pre-modern) cars. Its not even debatable. Almost any new/late-model car doesn’t require much more than occasional oil/filter changes for the first 8-10 years and 100k or so. Older (pre-modern) cars required much more frequent minor maintenance and by 100k, most were obviously tired.

      However, pre-modern cars could be cost-effectively kept running much longer. With modern cars, once you get over about 15 years, the more complex systems become more failure prone and are much more expensive to repair. Thus, the useful service life of an older car is potentially longer than that of a modern car.

      For example, I can probably keep my ’76 Pontiac in good running order for the remainder of my life – another 40-plus years, I hope.

      That would be harder, if not economically unrealistic, with something like a 2012 Camaro.

  1. Hello kindred soul. Been reading you for several months now and really enjoying it. 27 years ago I was the proud owner of a 69, and then a 70 Mach1. Both had the same 4 barrel 351 Cleavland with about 325 HP. I was forced to learn to drive well or die, and I’m still here…

    I switched to the indestructible Toyota pickup in 1983 and have been driving one ever since. My current truck is a 2002 reg cab 2WD Tacoma with Mustang wheels, BFG G-force Sports and KYBs, and my interest in the 600 pound heavier, nanny-laden 2005+ model is near ZERO.

    In early February we had BLIZZARD 2011!!!! (one inch of snow) in Austin, which as it always does brought the city to a grinding halt. As has always been my custom when it snows I went out to laugh at the idiots. My rear BFGs were BALD at the time, so I had probably the worst possible snow/ice vehicle on the road. In 60 miles of driving I must have seen 25 other “drivers” who had run off the road, wrecked or rolled. And they were ALL late models with .gov mandated nannies, many were 4WD. I made it home without a scratch.

    Monday I chased a last gen M3 at MUCH higher than “legal” speeds for 15 miles of my mostly rural commute. The WTF on his face when he slowed to turn off and I went around and waived was priceless. If he’s reading this; Happy trails dude.

    Clover, please stop reproducing, your family is plenty big enough. Oh, and F U.


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