Leaving Well Enough Alone

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I could improve the reliability, traction, handling and braking of my antique muscle car – update the thing – but that would miss the point. One could also replace a battleship’s guns with a flight deck and missiles and have a much more effective fighting ship.

But it would no longer be a battleship.

Something would be lost rather than gained.

I feel the same about my 1976 Trans-Am, which is nearing 50 years old. Like an Iowa-class battlewagon, it is obsolete in every objective way. But also like an Iowa-class, it is still a thrill in all the intangible ways that new cars aren’t.

And can’t be.

The 455 cubic inch (7.5 liter) V8 under its hood – the biggest V8 ever put into a muscle car and thus the internal combustion analog of the Iowa’s 16-inch artillery – doesn’t start right away – and idle smoothly – like a modern car’s engine always does.

There is a process.

Before you turn the key – there is no button-pushing here – you press the gas pedal once to the floor, then release it. This sets the choke, an old-timey mechanical fuel-enrichment device that cars with carburetors had. A metal flap partially closes, to restrict airflow into the cold engine – thereby richening up the air-fuel ratio. The foot action also squirts a little gas – raw fuel, you can smell it – into the engine, kind of like spritzing charcoal with lighter fluid, pre-barbecue.

Now turn – and hold – the key.

If cold – and it’s been awhile – the huge engine will rotate a few times before it catches. And then it does. With both a roar, as the explosion bellows through the pipes and an inward rush – of vacuum – as the shaker hood scoop’s backward facing flapper door opens just a crack in response to the negative air pressure of the 455 drawing breath, like a living thing.

A second tap with your right foot releases the choke and the engine settles into a normal, slightly lopey idle. Something else else you will never hear emanating from any modern car, even the ones with engines making 500-plus horsepower. They are the run-silent nuclear carriers to the battlewagon’s fuel-oiled concatenations.

Performance cams used to have a sound immediately recognizable to the hip – who knew this was something special under the hood. The sound of overlap and – if you were really lucky – that clattering sound made only by solid lifters.

There is another sound . . . the audible, slightly menacing hiss of air being drawn into the engine that can be heard if you’re standing outside the car or have the windows rolled down, as you should.

But that’s just the overture.

The shaker scoop’s flapper door will open wider as the engine breathes deeper. Past about three quarters of the way to the floor, the vacuum hiss gives way to a heavy moan that wells up from deep within as the Quadrajet four-barrel’s secondaries open up, the engine now gulping air like Satan’s Hoover.

Nothing fuel-injected approaches this hair-raising aural experience.

This open-to-the-air event horizon of internal combustion hasn’t been heard emanating from a new car in decades, for reasons of noise-abatement and emissions control.

My TA was built at a time when lip service was given to such things – but no more.

The mid-’70s was the era of the catalytic converter “test pipe” – yes, really. Leaded gas was still on tap.

People wanted to spin the tires.

New car advertising copy didn’t tout the number of air bags the TA had – because there weren’t any. Nor the car’s crash test scores. No one cared about such things back in ’76, other than a few marginal nags like Joan Claybrook.

Nannyism was merely a bacillus then; it hadn’t yet infected the general culture.

The ad copy did tout the Hurst shifter for the Super T10 four-speed transmission, the machine-turned dash facing for the instrument cluster and the chromed “splitter” exhaust tips – both of them Trans-Am (and Pontiac) trademarks. There were pictures accompanying the text of what lay under the hood. When was the last time you saw a new car ad with a picture of the hood up?

There’s nothing to see, of course.

Less to do, too.

In terms of driving. Push the button, put the shifter in drive . . . and then do anything except actually drive. That activity having been so discouraged – and punished –  that people’s attention is now focused on other things.

Apps and touchscreens.

My TA is the antidote to all of that.

If I replaced the Quadrajet with a fuel-injection set-up, the TA would start immediately. No need to wait while it warms up and for the idle to settle down. But the smell of raw gas would be a memory . . . and the secondaries would no longer moan.

A modern aluminum LS1 engine would make twice the power than the 455 – which was made in 1976 but dates to 1955 in terms of its basic design. But I prefer the cast-iron Indian, because it isn’t an LS1.

And because it does lope.

Replacing the factory 15×7 steel Honeycombs with 18 or 19-inch alloys would shed probably 100 pounds of deadweight and let me fit the TA with modern high-performance tires, which you can’t get for 15×7 wheels.

I could probably match moves with a new Mustang.

Modern brakes, coil-over front end. An IRS rear end. LED lights. An AC system that doesn’t use Freon.

But then it would no longer be a ’76 Trans-Am. It would have lost everything except the silhouette that makes it what it is – and was.

Which was – and still is – different from everything else.

This is the charm of the thing.

And it is among the many things which, somehow, have slipped past us with regard to new cars. Which are without question objectively better cars.

But that’s a different thing, too.

When I drive the Trans-Am, I am driven to another time. In many ways, a better time – if you liked cars and enjoyed driving. It was a time before anyone except a few neurotics obsessed about “safety” and many people still cared very much about style and performance and personality.

Cars were fun, then – even if they weren’t especially reliable, didn’t get great gas mileage and were more likely to go off the road if you weren’t paying attention to it. But the crazy thing is, we did pay attention . . .  because cars were fun to drive.

And because you kind of had to.

Cars then were like horses once were to cowboys. More than merely transportation – as cars have, sadly, become.

There are a few exceptions, here and there. The current Dodge Challenger/Charger Hellcats come to mind. They are fun, too. But it’s not the same kind of fun.

My car is no match for the Challenger/Charger in any objective way – but it blows them both out of water in the one way which matters most to me:

It’s a piece of the past that I can summon to the Now anytime I feel the need. Not just to remember – but to experience.

And to forget.

Which, these days, is a need I feel often.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Keeping it original when you BOUGHT It original is one thing.

    Me and my son are dealing with resurrection of an old sled of a 1966 Plymouth Fury II from the dead, having rescued it from a cow pasture near Gridley, CA, last year. Though the old 318 Poly engine could be rebuilt, we’re going a tad more ‘modern’ just to get this heap going while we take our time to do the “Poly” right…so we’ve gotten an ’85 360 4 barrel (Mopar bought Rochester Q-Jets from GM as Carter had, by then, gone under), but we did also get an old Carter Thermoquad in decent shape and I’m rebuilding it. And, before it hits the streets, either we find some vintage C-body disc brakes (just finding something like a ’76 Newport is a bit challenging) or we bite the bullet and go “new”, and it will have the dual master cylinder with proportioning valves and new lines, as to just go “old school”. IMO, is foolhardy, given that this will be more than a “trailer queen”. We’re also saving the original distributor from the poly, but when it’s time, we’ll swap out the distributor from the 360 as it does fit, to keep the 70s-80s vintage Chrysler Electronic Ignition. Otherwise, it’d be an Accel dual-point for an LA engine.

      • Hi John,

        One of the things I dig about my ’76 TA is that most parts interchange from 1970-81. You can for example easily swap in WS6 suspension parts from a ’77-81 car. Or put a 455 HO in an ’80 – which only came with a 301 or (egads) a 305 Chevy.

        • Chrysler had a big change in the early 70s…1973 B and 74 C bodies changed significantly.

          Though A bodies changed little 1967-76.

  2. That is one sweet ride Eric! My first car was 77 TA with the proper 400/4spd brown on buckskin with the shaker opened up, what a car.

    I’d say no to modernizing the TA as well, nothing like that howl from the open shaker. The only thing close in this modern age is the e46 M3 CSL at full throttle, it’s glorious as well. Thanks for the article!

      • Stepmom had a dark green 1971. First car I remember having air conditioning. Air conditioning that left frost on the vents!

        • Anon, you shouldn’t say such. It’s derogatory for the GM haters.

          I recall growing up with a/c almost my entire life starting with the 54 Chevy. The 52 was non a/c.

          Body by Fisher, the words still ring wonderfully in my ears. We had a 57 Chevy station wagon and even though it was a cheap car, it not only had a/c but tinted windows(with no distortion on the windshield or back window(lots of people don’t remember this).

          My uncle had a 59 Ford with horrible distortion and no tint, a 500 no less.

          I could go on and on about people I know driving various brands and GM’s were always a step or two above. Just to make my point, I give you the Ford Slushomatic transmission…..need I say more. Oh, I will, and let’s not forget it took Ford till the 90’s to use a hydraulic lifter that worked for longer than a year. I have the very first Chebby with lifter problems and it’s probably because of lack of maintenance for the first 200K it had when I bought it but then again, LS engines are not the most reliable. Oh yeah, they are hp monsters, make well over 1,000 HP on a 5.3(aftermarket parts). But variable everything limits them in longevity. I am about to buy a 98 3/4T. Not my fav for sure since I was looking for a 93, but one helluva lot better than the later models. It has replaceable bearings in the hubs and metal door handles and other handles and such the later ones don’t have.

  3. Well said, brother!

    After falling through the 55 year old wood bed, I’m currently giving the ’64 C10 a little refresh. The only concessions to modernity it is getting are radial tires and LED bulbs in the taillights (with glass blue dots, natch). Everything else will be pretty much as it was when it left Pontiac West, from the mighty 230 to the nitrocellulose lacquer paint. Regardless of what advertisers would have us believe, our grandfathers did a hell of a lot with these little half tons sporting straight sixes, three speed boxes, and no frills. I see no reason that I can’t do the same. Old cars have a soul and a purpose that can’t be duplicated by electronics, air bags and pointless technology.

    • Hell, Gwap, when I was a kid in the mid 70’s, I went along for the ride with a quasi-relative who was a brick layer, in his 60-somethiong Ford 1/2-ton fleetside, to the local masonary yard….where he proceded to pull under one of the chutes where they load the big trucks- and had them fill his bed with gravel!

      The trip home was uneventful, and not even excruciatingly slow. There had to be several tons of gravel in there! (Even if it wasn’t filled all the way up)…..truck was squatting a little. Thems were trucks! (And in those days, the Chevys were probably even better!)

      • Nunz,

        “when I was a kid in the mid 70’s, I went along for the ride with a quasi-relative who was a brick layer, in his 60-somethiong Ford 1/2-ton fleetside, to the local masonary yard….where”

        So you DID get rid of Hoffa’s body.

        • Yeah, I got rid of Jimmy’s body; the brick layer, who was half Injun, got rid of his soul. Now, every time someone does a rain dance when I’m around, everything gets covered with gravel dust!

  4. Well said amigo. I’ve taken to building rat rods titled as 40’s and 50’s stuff. It makes the pork crazy that none of it has seat belts and they can’t do a damned thing about it. And their heads spin when I ask them if they would like to be strapped in a real roadster with no roll bar if I somehow rolled it?

    There’s something special about a jeepster or jeep. Everything is open, you climb in and enjoy the air coming through and the smells and feels of the world going by. It won’t smoke the tires like a SD TA, but it is pure fun. And I deliberately didn’t put any media in it- if I want music I sing ballads in the wind.
    Keep the faith- keep up the good work.

    • Oh, man! Ernie, you say it well (Like Eric) too!

      I especially dig the ‘no media’ thing. I do have mp3 CD players in my vehicles…but I leave the antennas disconnected, as I never use the rad-E-o’s- obly listen to what I want, or just enjoy the quiet, or do as you do.

      One thing I might add: Gots to distinguish- for the young’uns who don’t know any better- when you say “Jeep” I’m sure you mean a real Jeep- not some plastic-laden rebadged Fiat, such as are passed-off for Jeeps now-a-days.

  5. Eric, you NAILED it! What you describe is exactly what I miss about REAL cars- The sounds; the feel; the rituals; the simplicity (No electronic wizardry- just good old mechanical or electro-mechanical components whose operation a child could easily grasp); the fact that you had to drive them.

    Although my current vehicles are c.20 years old, and I like them well enough, in most respects, they are missing the above-described aspects; they are somewhere in between the real cars of yore, and the new junk. Still functional, and somewhat real; very practical, alright; and not yet nanny-ized or spy device-laden……but still, as B.B. King was want to say: “The thrill is gone”. The aesthetics which made the old cars so memorable, had already departed.(That happened in the 80’s).

    Yeah, the Hellcats and other modern engines could blow away that 455- but that 455 excites me because of sounds and feel- the ambience, if you will. The modern engines? Meh…they don’t do anything for me, ’cause it’s not about all-out speed or acceleration, yada, yada- it’s the aesthetics of the experience- and a damn Tesla that could blow the doors off most anything (While the charge lasted…) is utterly boring, because it does not offer that aesthetic, nor the directness of the T/A’s simplicity; nor the link to the past.(And it doesn’t even have to be a muscle car we’re talking about- could just as well be a 6 cyl. Ford Fairlan sedan- it still had those aesthetics, and it’s sewing-machine-like engine happily clattering is still more satisfying that any modern putt-putt!)

    • Morning, Nunz!

      Thanks for the kind words – I needed them!

      Seriously; it’s been a rough week. I’ve been unusually tired due to ennui probably caused by chronic shoulder pain and lack of sleep, plus the grinding, screeching idiocy of the national discourse. It is sometimes Too Much. So I detailed the Trans-Am. Wiped down each panel (I never wash her – and never let her get wet) and tried to recover my equipoise.

      That article suggested itself; I am glad it was well-received.

      Sometimes, I wish I had banked a few gallons of my own plasma when I was in my 20s… so I could rejuvenate myself now!

      • Hey Ya Eric!

        Awwww, Eric, I think being in a funk is just the normal way of being these days in the USofA. We ‘know too much’, and we know that it ain’t gonna get better. (Have I cheered you up yet? 😉 )- Even scrupulously avoiding the MSM and lately even most alt. media, I still get too much of the gist of the narrative that is being played out (I know the routine- It’s as if we’ve already seen the script- If A, B and C happens or is emphasized, then X Y and Z will be said and proposed…)- this is one of the major reasons I avoid the media. It’s bad enough knowing what they’re up[ to in a general long-term sense…but to see it played out in grueling detail, is both boring and extremely demotivational.

        What a relief though to have a physical link to better times, like that T/A! (Imagine if classic cars were prescribed to loons instead of drugs? We’d probably see most of ’em cured…except of course for the worst cases- like the psychos in DC).

        For me, it’s the hope of getting out of here that keeps me from despair and hopelessness- and I know that it’s doable, and achieves great results,m ’cause I’ve already done it on a smaller scale, by leaving NY.

        It’s sad- the country in which we were born is no longer a hospitable place for us, as it seeks to be the most hospitable place on earth for every troglodytic uncivilized covetous cretin on earth. (Which ion a way I guess is good, as other countries cleanse themselves by getting rid of their filth, making them more suitable places for us!)

  6. Taking my ’84 Hurstolds for a spin is my prescription for stress reduction therapy. Mash the throttle, the tranny downshifts and the car squats and lunges forward. Makes me feel like I’m in my early 20’s again. A time of fun and care free living. I miss that!

    • Hi Allen!

      Ok, you just made me jealous… as well as nostalgic. Here’s a story you’ll like:

      Back in ’84, when I was in high school, I had a summer job at Farrish Oldsmobile in Fairfax, Va. I got to prep/detail new cars for customer delivery. This meant removing the plastic protection the factory put over the seats and door panels, general clean-up; sometimes installing trim pieces that the factory put in the trunk for transport. But the best part was putting a full tank of gas in the car . . . and if the car was of interest, a furtive drive around the block. And a brand-new Hurst Olds with Lightning Rods was very much of interest to my 17-year-old self!

      What a gorgeous car. I spent as much time as I could get away with going over the one I was told to get ready for delivery. I can remember the thrill of sitting behind the wheel and looking at the gauges – including a tach! Very few new cars had tachs in those days – and this was a new Oldsmobile! And Lightning Rods… in a Cutlass! I can remember firing up the 307 and listening to the sound of the defiant rumble it made, even strangled with emissions controls.

      The half hour I spent putting gas in the tank prior to rolling it in front of the store for the handover to the customer was among the best 30 minutes of my young life!

      • I was 15 at that time chomping at the bit to finally being able to get my drivers license and the freedom it represented. I purchased my H/O in January of ’88 and had it ever since. I still have the window sticker it came with and it had a MSRP of over $16,000. It may not sound like much today, but in the early 80’s, that was a BIG chunk of change. And also, my insurance cost for the first year was a $1008.00. That sucked!

      • eric, I recall when the 302 Camaro Z 28 came out in 67 but I never really saw any till 68. They had tube headers in the trunk and turbo mufflers. The dealership would install the headers and tune it a bit.

        They had a good lopey idle and would rev like crazy. They were fun to race with the old Malibu and it’s Zora Insane Arkus Duntov engine. With high rear gears and a close ratio Muncie I had to run it 70 mph to keep it from loping and even at that, it wasn’t really “on” the cam.

        Rolling through a parking lot made everybody’s head turn. Most turned with a big grin and some with a big frown(always those type of people no matter where you are). No shaker on the hood but that big open air cleaner over the Holley GM numbered carb left no doubt about there being a lot of air moved.

        I never got enough of that and still don’t. It had a small area on the hood where the vanes on GM alernators would give up. I carried an extra alternator fan. There were a few things you learned to carry and that was a new coil and points for the dual point distributor. Nobody made hot coils back then aftermarket. They would very soon and were hard to find even when available. I’d choose Corvette coils and then try them out. They weren’t all equal so I’d take the best performer I could find for a back-up.

        Something not done a lot later on were cut-outs that seemed to be replete in the 60’s. It was entertaining to see “lights” from under the car bouncing around on the side of the road. DPS had to be stopped for their radar to work. That was the reason I didn’t get tickets on the open road. For one thing, they wouldn’t run nearly as fast and when they tried, I was way long gone before they could even get up to “their” top speed.

        Well, it was fun while it lasted. I have no regrets. Actually, it was the old 455 HD’s in T/A’s that gave me a real run for my money. The Mopar guys would almost cry with their huge engines. Lop a half ton off them and they would have been awesome.

  7. Right on Eric.

    I’ve been driving the ’71 Custom/10 Deluxe a lot this summer and love the sound of the Quadrajet secondaries when they open up. Old school 350 V8 pushing around 300hp, slightly lopey at idle and still running the original points ignition.

    Takes me back to the good old days.

  8. Sounds like a great car. i briefly owned a 1963 pontiac catalina convertible. Wasnt super fast but the sound of those tri 2 barrel caburetors opening up on a warm summer atlanta bight was magical. I hope the guy i sold it to took care of it. Special car. like all old cars it got tons of attention. Which isnt something you always want. Man did it look sexy though.

  9. If that were to be a daily driver, I’d probably make ” a few” well chosen upgrades.

    But your Firebird spends much of its time in the garage. When you take it out, it is a “special occasion” right? In your case, I too would preserve it just the way it came from the dealer. It is really great to jump into an authentic Time Machine.

    And I gotta say, that Screaming Thunder Chicken is the best decal ever applied to a car.

    • Thanks, Mike!

      I love the Great Bird, too. Interesting bit of trivia: It was actually optional; the Trans-Am did not come standard with it. But almost all Trans-Ams have the Bird; it is as necessary to the ensemble as whipped cream on a sundae!

  10. If you’re trying to keep the sound and feel of your car, but want it to perform better in corners (or braking!), why not better wheels and tires? For example, if your Trans Am was a few years older, back when bias ply tires were what rolled out of the factory, would you use them instead of radials tires?

    Or for that matter, why not use the factory transmission instead of the overdrive transmission you installed? Wouldn’t that give you the original sound of the engine spinning high revs at highway speeds?

  11. The thing with tuning up older cars is that you can pick and choose what you modernize. You can, if you want, have glossy carbon fiber accents outside, coilover suspension underneath, and an old-time carbed engine under the hood, whereas usually the first two come with the throttle-by-wire demon and a lot of surplus heft.

    You have to be careful not wanting to modernize anything at all, for that way lies the Hemmings Classic Car crowd still dawdling around with drum brakes and bias-ply tires ranting about all the “speeders” who have the gall to drive at disc-and-radial speeds.

  12. Ah, brings back memories of my first fast car a 1968 Olds 442. Primitive by today’s standards but it was fun to drive. Enjoy your Trans Am while you can.

  13. Eric, Nissan entering limp mode. No longer producing or selling the Titan XD with a cummins. Planning to reveal a revamped Titan gas later this year.

  14. Eric,

    I’m right there with you. Nothing like the sound of a big V8 with a Q Jet firing up and settling down to Idle.

    Regarding rarity, I have an 85 and a 95 T/A. Way newer than yours but becoming rarer and rarer.

    I brought my 95 convertible in for an inspection and the mechanic said to me “Not many of these mother#%^*ers around anymore”.

    I had to laugh, I graduated in 90, 95 seems like future tech or something.

    • JM, 95 T/A were righteous cars. I’d love to have one. It had power and handling. Stick an LS in one……and fuck it up. I know LS is all the rage and produce gobs of power but they have some drawbacks too. All that variable stuff(cam phasing, lifters, oil pump)are ripe to fail. LT’s with aluminum heads are my cup of tea.


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