COAL: Shopping for Budget V8 Muscle

In the mid-1990s, I started to get the itch for another V8 American car. My daily driver ’85 Honda Civic was reliable, thrifty, and actually pretty nice to drive, but just not that exciting. I lived about 2 miles from work and usually took the subway or rode my motorcycle or bicycle to work, so I didn’t need anything for commuting. The Civic was an eminently practical car, but I began to be drawn toward something less practical.

SF is not an easy city to own a car in, but after owning a few cars here, I realized it was far from impossible. I had at that point met a number of people in SF who owned older American cars, some of whom were fairly competent mechanics, and it dawned on me that owning and driving an old car in the Fog City wasn’t out of the question. I started to long for something in the mold of the Falcon or Barracuda I’d owned in the past – maybe even further along the hot rod/musclecar end of the spectrum. Something with a strong small-block V8, or perhaps even a big block.

At the time it was still possible to find 60s V8 cars and even the occasional clapped-out musclecar at used-car prices, though they were definitely getting thinner on the ground compared with, say, a decade ago, and I started scanning the classifieds and going to look at a few likely candidates. My budget was around 2 grand, though I did consider one more expensive vehicle. I’ve shared my recollection of some of the more memorable cars I test-drove. I don’t have photos of any of these cars other than the one I eventually bought, so I’ve pulled photos from the web of similar cars – trying, where possible, to find examples of cars that look in a similar state of dilapidation to the cars I drove. Keep in mind that all of this is based on decades-old recollection, so if I get any details about these cars wrong, please be kind in the comments.

The first car I saw was a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu SS:

The owner had put a lot of work into the car and had a stack of receipts – he’d had the front end rebuilt and the rear leaf springs replaced, and had installed a rebuilt small block Chevy, albeit from Automotive Engineering, a now-defunct firm that specialized in low-cost remanufactured engines. Some may remember the jingle from their TV ads in decades past:

Although he’d put a lot of mechanical work into the car, he hadn’t addressed the bodywork, and there was serious rust throughout, including rust-through holes in the c-pillar, roof, lower quarter panels, and all around the rear window. The interior was also in very rough shape. My impression was that the seller had started it as a project and had stalled out when he realized the amount of time and money the body and interior work would cost, especially given that he seemed to be having all the work done professionally. I took the Malibu for a test drive and didn’t find it all that impressive to drive.  The car had a Powerglide – a 2-speed automatic transmission that I’ve never been a fan of.

Whether it was the Powerglide, the budget engine rebuild, or some combination of the two, the Malibu just seemed sluggish off the line and gutless – perhaps less exciting to drive than my Civic. The lack of performance and the vast amount of bodywork it required put me off, and I thanked the seller for his time and moved on to the next candidate.

The next car I saw was a 1968 Camaro RS/SS – or, at least, a Camaro that had been built up to resemble one. There was some kind of built small-block Chevy under the hood – I was told it was a 350, though I didn’t have the knowledge to confirm what it actually was. The interior was black vinyl with mismatched white buckets. It had a 4-gauge console, though none of the gauges had been hooked up, and a stubby Hurst 4-speed shifter. There was no shifter boot, and looking into the console I could see that the shifter was poking up through a hole raggedly cut in the floorpan.

The Camaro I went to see didn’t look anywhere near as nice as this one.

The car was faded maroon, with a black hood and fenders that had been installed with little consideration to panel gaps. The RS hidden headlights did, however, work. The overall impression was a car pieced together from random parts and the owner explained that it had been stolen, stripped, and recovered, and he had spent the last few years putting it back together and had lost interest in the project.

The Camaro was rough and crude, but the test drive was exhilarating. It had very short rear axle gears, leapt away from stoplights, and easily chirped the tires on upshifts. Flowmaster mufflers boomed from underneath the carpetless floorpan. At a stoplight I caught a whiff of burning clutch coming up through the shifter hole, although that may have been due to my unfamiliarity with the car – the Camaro’s clutch and shifter took decidedly more effort than my Honda Civic.

I recall the asking price was around $4000, which would have been a stretch for me – I had been curious about the car and wondered if opting for a more expensive car might get me something substantially better, but the Camaro seemed pretty rough, and the amateurish reassembly put me off. It also seemed like the “stolen, stripped, recovered” story was a common one for early Camaros — I had only street parking at the time, so this didn’t bode well for me.

The next candidate was a 1967 Chevelle. I came close to buying this one. It was in grey primer with Centerline rims.Quite possibly there was some rust or bondo work lurking under the primer, but the body looked solid as far as I could see other than a large crease in one of the quarter panels. The seller claimed it had a Corvette motor – it definitely had some kind of small block Chevy with Corvette valve covers, freshly painted in Chevy orange – though I noticed some overspray that likely indicated the engine had been painted in the engine compartment.It had a set of long-tube headers, though the collectors fed into a Y-pipe to a single exhaust pipe and muffler exiting under the car. The window regulator on the driver’s door was broken, and the window would slide into the door on its own when driving the car. The Chevelle, though, was fun to drive with a lot of pickup – whatever smallblock was under the hood seemed pretty healthy, and I thought it could be an interesting project – a fairly solid car with a lot of little things that needed fixing. Some of the car’s appeal to me may have been due it bringing to mind a model kit of a very similar ’66 Chevelle Malibu SS I had built as a boy:

I think the asking price was $1200.00, and I put down $100.00 to hold the car with an agreement to return the following day with the balance.  A friend gave me a lift over the next evening, though when we arrived the car wasn’t there and the seller related a convoluted story about how he’d punctured the radiator that morning and it was being repaired which meant he’d have to cancel the sale. I was still interested in the car, even if I had to put some money on top for a new radiator, and I suggested that I could either cover the cost of repair or just take care of the radiator myself (I’d swapped a radiator before and knew it was pretty simple) but it became evident that he just wanted to unwind the sale and refund my deposit. I assumed that what had actually gone on was that the seller had received a better offer after I’d left my deposit and sold the Chevelle to someone else. He didn’t seem in any hurry to have my friend and I leave, though, and we spent the next hour or so hanging out with the seller, drinking beer and talking about cars.

While I’d owned a Plymouth Barracuda in the past, I was, at the time, more familiar with Fords and Chevrolets, and initially, I’d focused my search on something with a small block Chevy. I’d met a few people in SF who owned late-60s B-Body Mopars (the midsize Dodge/Plymouth platform) and had started to see their appeal. Many of these cars had big blocks, even if just 383s, and even fairly pedestrian cars had the tough 727 automatic transmission and the sturdy 8 ¾” rear axle which allowed easy ratio swaps. And at the time, prices for such cars were still somewhat reasonable compared to comparable cars from the other two of the big three, so I expanded my search to mid-size Mopars.

A 1966 Dodge Charger was the first B-Body I drove. It was primered grey, and drove well, but the body was a mess. I could see numerous rust perforations, the trunk lid was so rusted it was separating, and it seemed likely that there were a host of other problems lurking under the primer. It was an advanced case of the typical rust progression of a California car parked outside for many years – the floorpans looked good, but the car was rusting from the top down.

I also recall pointing out to the seller that one of the fuel lines was cracked and was leaking gasoline onto the pavement, though he didn’t seem all that bothered by it. The interior, on the other hand, looked fairly good, and it had the fold-down seats and trunk divider much like in my Barracuda fastback some years earlier. The stylish, jet-age interior with four bucket seats and a long console running between both the front and back seat was momentarily tempting.

In writing this article, I couldn’t remember if I had driven a 66 or 67 Charger until I recalled the console that extended between the back seats, which was a 66-0nly feature. 67s had a gap in the console in front of the rear seat, allowing easier exit from the back.

The seller pointed out numerous hard-to-find parts on the car that were in good shape. This generation of Charger had an unusual luminescent dash that was working well on the car I drove, and the seller made a point of showing me that the taillight assembly was intact and told me it was worth a substantial portion of what he was asking for the car. I don’t recall his exact asking price for the car but it was right around 2 grand – maybe $2100?.

I did find the 66 Charger appealing but the amount of bodywork it would require put me off and I again passed. Experiences with my Falcon had taught me the limits of my bodywork skills, and I didn’t want to be like the owner of the Malibu SS I’d seen earlier — sinking money into mechanical work on a rustbucket.

The San Francisco Chronicle used to have a “Classic Cars” section at the end of the auto classifieds, and in it, I saw an ad for a 1969 Charger with a 383 V8. The asking price in the ad was $1969.00. I was definitely intrigued.

I phoned the seller and he told me he owned too many old cars and was trying to thin the herd. He was storing the Charger in a parking lot on the Peninsula south of San Francisco, and he offered to pick me up and drive me down to look at the car. He picked me up in a 60s Datsun roadster (either a 1600 or a 2000 – I don’t recall), and he mentioned several other project cars he owned as we headed south from San Francisco.

When we arrived, the Charger looked surprisingly good. Many of the cars I had been looking at were painted in patchworks of blotchy primer, and the Charger presented well – it had a decent-looking respray in the original Y2 yellow, although the vinyl top had been peeled off and the roof had been sprayed in satin black primer. The tail panel had also for some reason been sprayed black. Overall, though, it looked quite appealing. Maybe it wasn’t a “20 footer” (a car that looks good at 20 feet) but it could charitably be called a 40-footer. The carpet had been removed in front but other than that, the tan interior was in fairly good shape. The lack of carpet also let me quickly confirm that the floorpans were solid. Under the repaint, I could see a few bubbles at the bottom of the doors,  either rust bubbles or swelling body filler, which was not great, but the doors could, I thought, eventually be replaced if it came to that, and there didn’t seem to be any rust in the quarter panels which seemed a common spot for these cars. The trunk floor, however, was rusty, with several rust perforations and showed clear evidence of water intrusion. Again, not great, but I was starting to realize that if it weren’t for the body issues, the car would be way out of my price range, and I convinced myself that none of them were severe enough to be dealbreakers. Other than the body problems, the only negative I saw was a set of cheap, off-brand tires that were nearing the end of their life and would need to be replaced relatively soon.

The test drive hooked me. For whatever reason, I had long carried the impression that B-body Mopars didn’t handle that well. Perhaps my expectations were low, but for a large American car, the Charger was surprisingly balanced and had better road manners than I expected. Despite having manual drum brakes, it seemed to stop well, and the suspension and brakes seemed more able to handle the output of the motor than the ’68 Barracuda I’d owned some years earlier. The 383 V8 motor, though, was the main attraction. It had some kind of aftermarket Holley 4-barrel on it but seemed otherwise stock, and though it was the less-loved smaller sibling of the Mopar 440, driving it produced an invigorating feel of ample torque from idle on up.

The car had a bench seat with a split back and fold-down armrest that sort of simulated bucket seats, and a column shifter. It wasn’t a top-of-the-line Charger in either powertrain or equipment, but it moved quite nicely and seemed like a lot of car for just under two grand.

And, there was the simple fact that it was a 1969 Dodge Charger – one of the most iconic musclecars ever. It was beautiful and looked fast standing still. And there were all kinds of sensory delights to driving it — the car had the faint Old Mopar smell that took me back to my Barracuda, and which I’ve since smelled in other Chrysler Corporation cars of similar vintage. The note through the dual exhausts at speed or when rolling on the throttle was stirring. Even pressing the headlight switch produced a satisfying clunk as the headlight doors swung open – thankfully the vacuum-operated headlights were still in good shape.

I agreed to the asking price if the seller would smog it. At the time, cars 1966 and later had to be smogged in California, and I was a little apprehensive about the aftermarket Holley it was running. We drove to a quick smog stop on El Camino Real and it passed the sniffer test. Having been aced out of the Chevelle earlier, I had cash at the ready, offered the owner his asking price, (I think I actually paid $1960 as the owner didn’t have change), and drove away the proud owner of a 1969 Dodge Charger.

The yellow car in the photo above is the actual car I bought that day, and in my next COAL, I’ll share the joys and headaches of actually owning a 1969 Charger and using it as a regular driver.