Reader Question: Can We Build The Perfect Car?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Mark asks: I want to build a car from a good set of bones. I want an American muscle car that does everything a modern car should do, but, nothing it shouldn’t – and it doesn’t have to be from the early 70s. I am thinking a real four seater sedan, plenty of room for a V8 – at least a 5.0; probably mid-eighties when there were still rear wheel drive cars being sold.

The approach would be to demo out the car (just like flipping a house) than rebuild with new everything. Engine, tranny, exhaust, new front seats – rear seats reupholstered to match, carpet, and analog gauges. Replace all rubber in the suspension and weather stripping. New paint job, stereo (no internet, but, with Bluetooth). New tires and wheels. Upgrade suspension and brakes if needed/wanted. Something like an ’85 cutlass. Original title would provide for less restrictive smog and registration requirements and low insurance rates. My best estimate so far is that I could build a great car for about $25K. It would be an everyday driver, powerful, reliable, and undetectable on the Ethernet! Until we turn the tide on the crazies that are controlling our drives, this is one great way to get back to a real driving car. Maybe we could start a business and get a show on HGTV – Flip this Car?

really appreciate your blog and your sensibilities. We are in a similar plane.

My reply: I think this is – as Gomez used to say – a capital idea! I also really like the large four-seater coupes of the ’80s; nothing like them is available today … to the proletariat. The ’80s-era Cutlass, Monte Carlo, Pontiac GP and Buick Regal (same G body platform, all of them) were wonderful cars and could be made much more so today. All of them are RWD and offered V8s and can accommodate non-Chevy V8s, if that is your kink (it’s mine!) For example, the Cutlass was factory available with the Oldsmobile V8 (307) and so a 350 or 403 or 455 Olds will bolt right up!

Yessssssssss!

These cars were also – by modern standards – startlingly light. So a mild build (say 300 or so horsepower) would result in a car probably as quick as a modern car with 400-plus horsepower  . . . that used less gas.

I can tell you from personal experience that even a carbureted big-cube V8 paired with an overdrive automatic  (and 3.90 gears) can match the mileage of a new Mustang GT.

Handling-wise: The G bodies of the ’80s actually handled quite well; they can easily be updated to handle much better. Without major structurally mods. But the real joy of these cars is their ride – which is comparable to a current full-size luxury car’s ride because the layout is similar.

I’d start with a sound body/chassis (no major metal work needed) and put either a crate engine or rebuild in it backed by a GM 2004R automatic (OD but no got-damned computer) and 3.23 gears out back. Add suspension upgrades from the Monte SS, 442, Regal GS – as appropriate. I’d restore the interior to factory – as those plush seats are so much nicer than the stiff buckets in use today. Paint as you like.

I think if you started with a structurally solid car that didn’t need a lot of bodywork – which you should be able to buy for $3,000 or even less – that you could do all of the above  and spend less than $25k to complete the project.

And that would be for an “as new” car, cosmetically as well as functionally. One could do a functional resto of a solid car for a lot less than $25k.

Assuming you start with a good (rebuildable) core – a 350 ideally for the Monte in lieu of the stock 305; a 455 in the Olds, and so on   – you could rebuild it for about $2k, if you skip EFI – which I would. It costs less than $100 to rebuild a QJet. Worst case, about $400 for a brand-new one that you’ll be able to rebuild for the next 30-50 years.

The least expensive TBI systems run over $1,000 and entail all the crap we want to avoid.

It doesn’t cost much more to go with a performance cam vs. the stock type cam! Higher CR pistons; maybe some head work. Easy to get 300-350 hp out of a 350 Chevy or a 455 Olds or Pontiac without a too-lumpy idle.

The another $2k or so for a “built” 2004R. I’d go with OE type replacement suspension parts – from the performance versions of these cars, of course.

Probably the biggest mechanical expense would be rehabbing the AC. The rest is simple wrench and gut work and could all be done in the garage, with hand tools – for about $15k or even less.

When do we start?

. . .

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

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Eric,
    Thanks for the great reply and the other readers also.
    Sorry for my delayed response as I am on business travel.
    I need a car and am going to proceed with this.
    I will keep you informed of my progress and will continue to request advice from you and your readers.
    The first problem encountered is finding the G-body platform car.
    Cash for clunkers probably killed a large part of the potential inventory!
    I am sure there are thousands out there somewhere.
    One advantage I have is that I am in the SouthWest.
    G-body Cali, AZ, NV cars would be sweet as they will tend to have un-rusted body and structure.

  2. I wouldn’t be to hasty to avoid electronically controlled transmissions. Standalone simple controllers like the micro squirt make them pretty easy to swap. And the newer designs are both more efficient and stronger than older designs. Ford 4r70w is way better than AOD.
    I personally also prefer home brew EFI because of the evil ethanol destroying all my seldom used toys. Performance is a wash, tunability is better and it is accessible to any gear head willing to learn. No question of it being more expensive and complex though.
    My 2 cents worth.

  3. I’ve been thinking the same thing, bit I’m not sure of the economics just yet. I think Eric is underestimating the cost of the car by a couple thou, and we are probably overstating the market for these cats. People still want new stuff. On the other hand, I could be wrong.

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