Random Ephemera

4 Things to Keep in Mind Before Buying a Classic Muscle Car

A lot of people have an appreciation for classic vehicles, and the muscle car era, spanning from around 1964 to 1973, is of special interest to many car enthusiasts. There were cars that might've fit the basic description of a "muscle car" manufactured before the '60s and after the early '70s, but those years are generally accepted as the peak for those types of cars. It certainly was a period when a design philosophy was unleashed that saw manufacturers putting overpowered engines into small- to medium-size cars, with an emphasis placed on raw horsepower. For many people, the cars from that golden age are among the most highly prized American production cars ever made, and a lot of those people would like to own one or more of them at some point during their lives. I can certainly relate, and have owned several classics myself, but there are a few things people should keep in mind before buying an older car.

4. What Should You Choose?

This may seem like a dumb question. After all, most people have a specific model of old car in mind before they go looking for one to buy, but there are a few considerations to keep in mind. Before you spend what to most people would be significant money on a classic car, it's a good idea to know what you're most likely going to do with it.

Sure, most people are planning on driving their new old car, right? Not necessarily. Or at least they're not all planning on driving them in the same ways. Some people want a meticulously restored vehicle that looks as good as or better than it did when it was new, or they desire a perfectly preserved "survivor" that's never seen the ravages of time. Either of those routes will be pricey — in some cases, well over $100,000, and the end results, while spectacular, will probably only ever be driven in an occasional parade or shuttled to various car shows in a fancy trailer.

A lot of other people are looking for a classic that they can take to car shows, local cruise nights and maybe on the occasional drive around town. Most classic car owners seem to fit that category, and for them, 100 percent originality might not be as important as the overall look and driving experience. Things like paint that's not original or parts upgrades won't necessarily be deal killers, as long as the car looks good and drives well.

Knowing what a person wants out of a car helps him find the best candidate for his purpose, and since specialty car work can rapidly get expensive, it's a good idea to know what the end goal is before buying a vehicle. That brings us to the next point...

3. Sometimes Spending More Money Up Front Is a Good Idea.

Over the years I've learned a few money-sucking lessons about older cars, and one of the hardest was about condition. Sometimes it's better in the long run to spend more money up front on a car in good condition than it is to buy a cheaper example that needs a lot of work. Classic car lore is filled with stories about someone finding a rare old car stored in a barn somewhere, and that happens from time to time. I've driven through parts of the country where it seems as if every other farmhouse has a beat-up old classic rusting out in the weeds behind it. It's hard for a car person not to get whiplash from excited neck craning when he spots a Pontiac GTO out in a field, but it's best to think things through before walking up to someone's house to make an offer on a car like that.

First of all, resurrecting an old car that's been rotting into the ground can be a nightmare, and is probably worth it only if it's an exceedingly rare model or has a lot of salvageable parts on it. The same applies to barely running cars that function...kinda...and are priced below the going rate. Unless an individual is prepared to spend a lot to have someone else professionally restore it, or has the tools, space and vast amount of know-how to fix it himself, cars like that tend to go from being the previous owner's rusting money pit to being someone else's.

To put it more simply, it's often a better option to spend $20,000 (or more) on a classic car that's already in pretty good shape and won't need any major work than it is to buy a beat-up example for $7,000 that will need $25,000 of work to make it nice. For those of us on very tight budgets, that $7,000 option can seem like our best choice, but it can quickly turn into a major headache.

2. Keeping a Classic Running Well Can Be a Challenge.

I won't lie. I enjoy driving old cars a lot more than working on them, and that can present its own special set of challenges, because they can require a lot of special maintenance to keep running well. Having some working knowledge about electrical system basics and carburetors will go a long way if you happen to drive a 45- or 50-year-old car regularly, and there are other concerns. For instance, a lot of those older vehicles look great but are prone to rusting faster than most modern cars, so having a good place to store that '68 Charger is an important consideration for anyone paranoid about seeing rust bubbles form after a year of exposure to the elements. Finding parts can also be difficult in some cases, and while a lot of reproduction parts are available for some popular classic models, certain things aren't. That leaves a person who needs such a part with no other choice but to try to track it down through salvage companies or other resources, and that can become difficult and expensive fast.

1. Classic Cars Drive Differently From the Way Modern Ones Do.

This also probably goes without saying, but car technology has changed a LOT over the past four or five decades, and the result is that modern cars handle better and are easier to drive than older ones. Back in the 1960s, muscle cars were marketed primarily to younger people, with an emphasis on speed and style. Some would say that it was irresponsible to market high-horsepower vehicles to young people in an era before the safety features we now take for granted were required. That "speed before all else" philosophy resulted in some beautiful vehicles that looked fast standing still, but big engines were often combined with insufficient brakes, a lack of power steering and other things that have been standard on most cars for decades.

The result is that driving a lot of old muscle cars can be an experience very different from driving any modern car. Some handle like farm tractors, or take off like a rocket when the accelerator is punched. Turning feels different, and there is a very real element of feeling more actively connected to the act of driving. It feels both dangerous and exhilarating, it feels amazing, and it feels completely unlike driving a modern car. And that more than any other reason might explain why so many people enjoy cruising around in older cars. It's an experience that is hard to replicate any other way.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.