A Muscular Battery For Your Muscle Car

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There are two battery-related challenges to owning an old muscle car.

First, the old beasts can be hard to start – especially if the engine is a big V-8 with high compression, which makes it tougher to crank – which places high demand on the battery.

Second, classic cars often sit for weeks at a time,which can be harder on a battery than daily use because it’s not being constantly recharged by the car’s charging system – which of course only works when the engine’s running.

A solution to both problems could be a high-performance battery such as an Optima spiral cell (see here).

These batteries – available in both current 12 V and 6 Volt versions for antique vehicles – are physically and functionally different from conventional batteries. Each battery contains six spiral cells (instead of plates in line) that wind around a central core. Instead of liquid electrolyte sloshing around between the plates as in a conventional battery, the Optima’s electrolyte is held in suspension on absorbent mats that act like a sponge. The design allows more total plate surface area, which results in superior performance in a compact design that is also leak-free and corrosion-free, because there is no flowing electrolyte. Even turned upside down, it won’t spill – because it can’t spill.

When you hit the ignition key, Optima claims you’ll get the “strongest 5 second burst” of power available, which should make starting even the hairiest big block a snap.

I got one (RedTop version with 1,000 cold cranking amps) recently for my 455-powered ’70s-era Pontiac Trans-Am and the results were excellent. Where the old battery – a conventional plates-in-a-row type – often noticeably strained as it tried to rotate the big V-8 despite having the same exact same 1,000 CC amps rating, the Optima spins the 455 over as easily as the PR materials claimed, with a near instantaneous start. I also really like that the Optima is completely sealed and leak-proof. No more acid-rot on my battery pan and inner fender liner.

Superior hot-start performance – a big issue for muscle car owners – is another plus. With the old-style battery, my Pontiac would sometimes not re-start until it had cooled down for 20 or 30 minutes. So far, no such issues with the Optima.

The design is also better able to withstand vibration (another issue for muscle car owners, especially if your car has a lumpy cam) and because the battery is completely spill proof, you can safely mount it in the trunk, even  on its side, if you wanted to.

An Optima battery is more expensive up front (about 40 percent more than a similarly rated, plate-type premium battery) but in addition to being able to start your car reliably, every time, the Optima will last longer because the spiral cell design is inherently more durable, doesn’t shed lead paste (as happens routinely with the plates-in-series suspended in electrolyte fluid found in a conventional battery) and can take being “cycled” (discharged and recharged) more often without affecting its ability to hold a charge. The increased surface area of the spiral-wound cells, meanwhile, also gives faster recharge times. (More in -depth technical date here).

One more plus: Optima batteries are generally a bit more compact than the units they replace, which helps with installation and mounting. In my case (’70s-era Pontiac) getting the battery in and out is now a lot easier. The unit also came with the same factory-type side terminals as the OE battery, so the stock cables bolt right up. The only downside, other than the higher cost, is that these batteries are clearly not “factory” in appearance – which some hobbyists won’t like because it can cost them points at old car shows. I’m not a fanatical purist. I like my old stuff to work. So I’m ok with this. Of course, you could always rig a dummy box (or cover)  that looks like the factory battery, and slip the Optima inside.

The RedTops are available for pretty much any classic muscle car and are ideal for modified vehicles and hot rods. If you have a lot of aftermarket electronics, Optima’s YellowTop line is what you want. In addition to the superior starting power of the RedTops, the YellowTops are designed for maximum cycling (discharge/recharge) capability. As such, they’re well-suited for use in hybrids (see here for info about that).

Marine and RV versions – Blue Top – are also available.

Check  ’em out!

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Do they make em for bikes? My twin cam road king grew from 88 ci to 95ci and in the rocess aquired non stock heads, cams and carb. It can be a bit persnickity if it’s sat for a while or it’s a bit chilly. And the restart thing you described for the old muscle cars is a very real thing for this bike.
    K-

  2. I think one of the best things to have for an old car that sits a lot is a cut off switch at the battery. This prevents the wires from holding a charge and bleed power all the while. I installed one on my camino a long time ago. Down side, you have to pop the hood each time to flip the switch when it’s time to fire it up. I leave my hood unlatched when stored anyhow, so no big deal.

    • I used to do that but ever since we “bought the farm” I keep everything on trickle chargers. I have – let’s see – 10 battery powered vehicles (cars, trucks, bikes, machinery). Batteries can get expensive! So I try to get the longest life out of them I can. I’m not sure that keeping them on the trickle charger does a better job than just disconnecting them, but it seems like it ought to – especially if you have a “smart” charger that never lets the battery voltage drop below optimum. Still, it’d be interesting to do a controlled test to see. Two identical batteries in two identical vehicles. One disconnected when not being used; the other hooked to a charger during down times.

      • It’s worthy of a test for sure. I have a friend that races RC cars. He does something to classify the discharge rates of the batteries, then notes it all. Think he called it indexing. Has a special battery drain machine. I’ve heard on consumer electronics it’s good to charge them, then let them discharge at a normal rate, then charge all the way back up again (cycling). Car batteries are totally different though. I think you are right keeping it fully charged always.

        • lead acid batteries really don’t need anything that fancy. That’s the sort of thing that’s done for NiMh or Li-Ion or other more advanced chemistries.

          I have a fancy charger for NiMh AA’s that I use in my little video camera. It does all the charge/discharge conditioning and such. It cost like $50-60 but because of it I can buy cheap harbor freight cells and get better life out of them than I get with the name brand stuff on a simple charger.

        • A big factor is probably use. A battery in a vehicle that’s driven (or ridden, etc.) regularly that also has a properly functioning charging system will probably be fine. But if it’s in a vehicle that sits for weeks at a time, like a lot of my stuff does, then I think keeping it charged up via a trickle charger is probably a good idea.

  3. I used an Optima red top in my K1500 after a fine old DieHard battery reached end-of-life status (it didn’t owe me anything.) Since the truck’s 5.7 liter small block wasn’t high compression, the Optima spun it over as easily as a child spins a top. Neat.

    Yes, the price of admission was a bit salty, but you gets what you pays for. Buy once, cry once.

    • Old Pontiac V-8s are notoriously hard-starting when hot. I used to have to leave the thing running when filling up, or else have the time to wait for the engine to cool enough to re-start after gassing up. No problems now. I also like the near-immediate start, too. Less cranking. Just key the thing and – presto!

      I only mention products I personally have had good experience with. The Optima batteries are one such. Might be overkill for a regular (late-model) car. But for an older muscle car with hot-start issues especially, these things are fantastic!

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