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Resto-Mods: Coming of Age?

I had a long conversation with a classic car dealer recently about his inventory and customer demand. This dealer works almost exclusively in muscle cars, with occasional classics form the 50’s on his floor once in a while. We were talking about what moves and what sits in his inventory when he made an observation; resto-mods have been hot.

If I’m writing about it, it’s probably not a new trend, but that dealer has a point. The classic car market is changing and car enthusiast’s desires are evolving. Automakers undoubtedly recognized this trend, (I’m looking at you, Big 3), and gave us throwback styling that honors the lines and character of the first Camaros, Challengers and Mustangs of a bygone era. Give the people what they want.

For some, it’s not quite enough. Some want the real thing, but there’s a rub. People of the younger generations didn’t grow up rebuilding carburetors, setting points, suffering through archaic suspension design and drum brakes. The cars they’ve grown up with have been quiet, refined, fast and, compared to cars of the past, virtually maintenance free. So it stands to reason that sometimes when a Gen Y’er with a little money who has spent his adult life admiring older muscle cars decides to buy one, he walks away strangely unfulfilled from the test drive. After a lifetime of driving around the parents Odyssey, and getting themselves a Camry after college, they are confused by all the squeaks, noise, loose steering, low gearing and overall lack of refinement. This is a generation raised on air conditioning with cabin filtration, vibration isolating engine and body mounts, smooth multi-link independent suspension, tall gearing for relaxed highway travel and silent exhaust.

The resto-mod is a perfect alternative for these buyers. Perfect when you must have a car the looks the part, but you want a little refinement too. I’ve inspected a number of resto-mods for clients, and I do see the appeal to the non-purist who cares very little for originality and provenance. The folks running around at car shows like Encyclopedia Brown telling every car owner what color their car was when it left the factory are a dying breed. There will, of course, always be a need for purists who care about the whole matching numbers game, and certain cars at certain price points demand such research. As an automotive specialist, I love the process of authenticating a vehicle because I find the work very interesting, but the younger generation appears much less concerned with these things.

As a case in point, I recently inspected a ’71 Dodge Challenger for a client in Germany. This car was missing its fender tag but started life with a 225 six cylinder. This car had been beautifully restored, refinished in Hemi Orange with R/T graphics, and upgraded with a 440 and a 5 speed Tremec, with Vintage Air, electronic cruise control, and a modern stereo with Bluetooth. Although it was running on a stock suspension, it had been completely rebuilt, and the interior had been completely Dynamated. This car was an excellent cruiser, lumbering quietly down the road at 70 miles an hour with about 1900 RPM showing on the tach. Another car I inspected earlier this summer was a very nicely restored ‘67 Nova, which had been made into an SS tribute car. It was running a mildly tuned 350 with a smooth shifting 700R4. A Heidts front suspension with multi-link rear suspension with coil-over’s and 4 wheel disc brakes made the drive very comfortable, and the addition of cruise and a great stereo made this resto-mod into a fantastic head-turner and highway cruiser as well.

Of course, the sky is the limit when building cars like these. Upgrades to brakes, suspension, computer controlled engines, seat heaters, power windows and locks are all things that can be added, whatever you want, you can get. Many of these cars can be made to handle and stop almost as well as modern sports cars, all while invoking all the nostalgia of the muscle car era. For many, resto-mods offer the best of both worlds, and can often be bought for much less than it costs to build them.

My personal tastes swing both ways on this subject. I love cars which have been completely restored to original specifications, and as mentioned earlier, I love digging into what makes a car “correct” or “incorrect”, and I learn something new every day. There is something visceral about driving an old car that drives exactly the way it did when it was new. It’s not something you get to do all the time, and it harkens back to another era, an era that I fear may be all too soon forgotten if autonomous cars really are to become a part of our future. I drove a Concours quality ’53 Bel- Air convertible for a client that had been specialist restored to factory standards. This car was nearly flawless, and was amazing to drive, even on bias-ply tires. That said; I could see giving a resto-mod serious consideration if I were planning on really driving my classic. Lots of Power Tour guys understand this, as well as anyone who’s ever had to travel down the interstate in a 4 speed muscle car with 4.10 gearing. With the right resto-mod, you’ll get the same admiring looks from strangers, but some will derive much more satisfaction per mile from their classic. The good news is there is no wrong answer here; just find the car that makes sense for you and enjoy the drive.

Happy Motoring.

John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio..

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