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 Like an Iowa-class battlewagon, it is obsolete in every objective way.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
. . .
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