Cars That Go Baby, Go

Come on! Jump into your hemi-powered, blower-equipped, twin-carbed 424 double-barrelled nitro!

Hold on tight, because we're talking major muscle here. Serious iron. Cars.

Not those sissy European jobs whose engines are measured in liters like an overpriced bottle of wine. No way. Cubic inches and lots of 'em. Engine blocks big enough to fill parking lots. Gas mileage measured in single digits. Speed limits and design rules made to be broken.

Some have declared these cars dead, insisting they died in 1973 when OPEC shut the oil off just five years after muscle cars screamed across movie screens in the 1968 film "Bullitt." But these cars live on throughout North County, promoted by clubs and visible at any number of car events, including the Main Street Rod Run in downtown Vista this Sunday.

The crowds grow at local cruise nights because the romance surrounding the cars is increasing as today's engines become smaller.

"Some so-called muscle cars now are even using six cylinder engines," moaned Marcus Collins, president of The Little Guys, a San Marcos car club.

These new engines have even crossed the line into liters. The Mustang 5.0 liter is roughly equal to a 305 cubic inch engine. The new Corvette has a 5.7-liter engine equal to about 350 cubic inches and the Camaro Z28 and Firebird have optional 350 engines.

Compare that to a 1964 GTO with its 428 cubic inch engine.

But even OPEC could not keep good cars down, especially in California, king of car culture.

Muscle cars, 1960s cars with huge engine blocks and street rods, modified cars from the 1930s though 1950s, are on the rise again. At last year's street rod nationals in Columbus, Ohio, nearly 15,000 cars showed up. Tuesday nights at Escondido's T-Bird Diner draw 40 to 50 cars.

And why not? How many Toyotas have had songs sung about them like GTOs or Mercurys or hot rod Lincolns? Collecting Mercedes-Benzes may be nice, but really, how colorful a name is the Mercedes-Benz Collectors of America, a moniker that elicits white shirts, lime green pants and Pimms Cups on the town green at a concours show?

The folks who love 1965 Mustangs and 1943 Ford pickups gather in parking lots and call themselves The Sleepers, The Ignitors, The Rod Knockers. They wear T-shirts. They paint flames on the hoods of their cars. A license plate on a 1934 Ford roadster decked out in chrome and polished steel says it all: "Wild Iron."

"In street rods there are no guidelines," Bonsall's Bob Hubble said. "It spans a big economic spectrum. It's not like the concours guys. Here there are guys with lots of money and guys with a little money. They all blend in together." Hubble was speaking from the parking lot of Escondido's T-Bird Diner while he munched a pizza.

The key word, of course, is "guys." There are women who love cars--a few have built their own street rods. And car events now offer something for the whole family. But, 30 years after the heyday of these cars, 90% of street rod owners are men.

Typically, North County residents who own street rods and muscle cars are in their 40s and 50s. They were in high school during the height of the hot rod era. They may have owned a street rod and never left the hobby, or they wanted one but could not afford to spiff up an old car. They've grown up and acquired some cash. Now they can relive a chrome-plated high school dream, albeit at a slower speed.

"We're not about midnight drag races anymore," Tony Tocco said. Tocco stood in front of his 1933 Ford with a 350 V-8 and explained how his children often go to car shows and polish their pedal cars as Tocco polishes his car. Nowadays the family may be important, but wives and girlfriends can still bring a budding car hobby to a screeching halt or throw it into high gear. An exchange between two men at a weeknight cruise tells part of the story.

"I want one, but you-know-who will say you-know-what," one said.

"Look," the other said, "Tell her, 'I need a new windshield to be legal.' "

"He just likes cars," Max Trevithuithick said of her husband, Larry, as they both stood in front of his 1969 Pontiac Le Mans. Larry buys cars, refurbishes them and sells them again. "As long as I've been married to him, he's loved cars. I never know what I'm driving. He drives me nuts. I have a white Cadillac now, and, if he sells it, he's dead."

On the other hand, Hubble and his girlfriend, Pat Downing, met at a car show. She thinks the street rod roadsters are "cute." When asked who Bob loves more, Pat or the cars, she didn't hesitate a second.

"Oh the cars," she replied. "They're his whole life."

Others compromise. Escondido's Mike McDowell was selling a 1929 Ford Model A with a Chevy V-8. Seems he bought a 1947 Chevy recently.

"My wife said, 'One car at a time,' so I'm selling this one," McDowell said.

The biggest hang-up is cost. Street rods, and muscle cars are a much less expensive hobby than buying antique or classic cars, but it is an expensive hobby. A man looking at a Mustang Mach 1 at the T-Bird Diner stared enviously at a massive souped-up engine so clean and chromed your mother could use it for dinnerware.

"This is a really clean job, man. Somebody put some ducats in that thing," he said.

A lot of ducats. A good paint job will cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. A street rod, constructed from the ground up can cost $25,000. Muscle cars are a little cheaper. Trevithuithick was selling his 1969 Le Mans for $5,700. According to Collins, a completed muscle car put into good show-off condition will cost about $10,000.

Billy Hebdon, co-owner of Willard's Street Rods in Oceanside, knows exactly what everything costs. He helped start the Sleepers Car Club in 1957 while attending Oceanside-Carlsbad High School. Now he builds cars from the floor up.

Want a 30-year-old muscle car redone? Hebdon says the range is $3,000 to $25,000. Street rods are more. He'll find a real steel Model A or Model T roadster frame made from original stamps for $8,500. Add a Corvette suspension, a V-8 engine with assorted enhancements, polished stainless steel, chrome, tires, custom leather and you're up to $25,000.

That does not stop car lovers. In one corner of Hebdon's shop sits a 1960s Plymouth Barracuda ('Cuda to car vets) with a 340 engine. In another is a 1932 Model A roadster. On a rack is a 1950s Bel Air Nomad that will eventually be equipped with a 442 cubic inch, blower-equipped engine that will boost horsepower to an orbit-escaping 830.

Hebdon builds three or four of these cars every year and says his business has been steady.

Insurance is not as costly as one might think. Most cars have limited-mileage riders that greatly reduce premiums. But, if the car is meant to be used regularly, and if it is to be insured at full replacement value, the premiums skyrocket.

In California's increasingly regulated environment, state Department of Motor Vehicles officials are looking at tightening rules. What, they ask, does one call a 1934 Ford body with a rebuilt V-8 engine and 1990s suspension? Some at the DMV want catalytic converters installed on these cars, some want the registration fees increased to new-car levels. Predictably, street rodders decry a possible clampdown as bureaucracy reining in the last vestiges of the state's romantic free-wheeling past.

Why do car fanatics pay the price? Some say nostalgia. Some say men like cars because women like men in cars.

"Women really go on this stuff," Hebdon said as he sat under a calendar featuring a bikini-clad model.

But muscle car and street rod owners aren't in high school any more. They are married with college-age children. The hormone rush is over. According to McDowell, the explanation is easy.

"If you're into cars, and it gets into your head, and you reach a point you can afford it, you just buy one."

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