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Boyz Under the Hood : There’s Plenty of Vintage Horsepower Rumbling Down the Streets of O.C., Where Young MenAre Having the Ride of Their Lives

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When it comes to the Twilight Zone of fiction-meets-reality, I’ve always been haunted by “Christine,” the film based on Stephen King’s novel. In it, the star and namesake, a ’58 Plymouth with all the muscle of a bodybuilder jacked up on steroids, flexes demonic powers on whomever comes between her and her teen driver.

It’s not as if I’m living in fear of the day when automobiles wake from the dead to rebel against those who don’t lube or wax. No, it’s the psycho teen protagonist and his obsession over a car that freaks me out. I do, after all, know firsthand that these guys exist.

My best friend, Mark, who used to drive me and my girlfriends to rockabilly gigs while we were in high school, had a peculiar relationship with his 1961 Chrysler New Yorker.

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We were allowed to ride in it only so we could experience the car’s power: the 413-cubic-inch, ram-inducted engine could catapult us 140 m.p.h. down the freeway at 3 a.m.

But get within a foot of its polished Tahitian turquoise exterior and Mark was there ensuring we wouldn’t so much as breathe, let alone lean, on it. Yeah, and eventually the engine was clean enough to dine off of.

Now when I see guys rumbling out of high school parking lots in their super-souped up vintage rides, copping me an attitude as I let them pass my wanna-be sporty Toyota Paseo, I just can’t return the vibe.

“It’s intimidating hearing the engine rev,” assures Serra High senior Rob Taylor of Laguna Niguel. Though he adds he’s got nothing to prove, Rob, 18, enjoys tapping the gas pedal of his 1967 Camaro SuperSport with the 450 horsepower.

He gets five to eight miles a gallon and drives about 250 miles a week--most of the time with no particular destination. “Sometimes I drive around just for the hell of it,” Rob says. “It’s better than sitting at home watching TV. I might drive around aimlessly--but in style.”

Such style costs him $7 of high octane every day . “It’s a daily ritual,” Rob says. Why not save himself the hassle and just fill ‘er up? “I’ll just use it up that same day cruising around,” he says.

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Like Rob, Silverado High senior Gordon Smeed of Mission Viejo spends much of his time and money behind the wheel of his mighty machine. It’s a 1965 Pontiac Le Mans with a 326 cubic inch engine, all original parts, all the numbers (of the parts) match and even all the original receipts, he says in one deep breath. (The more original a classic, combined with all its original paperwork, the greater the financial value.)

Gordon eases down the main streets of town or along beach-bound strips on any given night of the week, always with the windows rolled down, better to hear the accolades from passersby. The frosty Meridian blue ride glows from the interior lights he replaced with blue bulbs, turning it into “the blue light special.”

His buddies cruise with him, but in their own muscle cars. Apparently, he can only carry one passenger in the car or the oversized back tires will scrape up the inner wheel wells. The idea is to try to tuck in as much tire as possible for greater traction.

His queen, Silverado junior Dena Pinnell, usually gets the esteemed passenger seat. For weekend jaunts, Gordon soups up the engine, like adjusting the carburetor. “Little things to make it stronger,” he says. The result is lower mileage, but, boy, hear that motor roar.

“It’s kind of a macho thing,” confides Dena, 16. “They like the power of it.”

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Raw power is, indeed, among the reasons Gordon, Rob and other guys in high school are lured to muscle cars. Back in the pre-1972 muscle car era, the consensus was bigger is better. Performance was everything. The larger the engine, the more horsepower, the quicker it will go faster. As Gordon puts it: “There’s no substitute for cubic inches.”

Looking at the highly polished shine of these motor marvels sounding off a baritone vvvroooooom, I can appreciate the craftsmanship of these automobiles. Ironically, I haven’t a clue about my engine’s size.

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“Some people figure that (young guys) are into muscle cars to compensate for something else that’s missing,” Rob says. “We’re not playing with swords and dueling. This is just something else guys do nowadays.”

A self-described “Camaro fiend,” Rob got his SS in March with the $5,000 he got from the insurance company after his newer ’87 Camaro burned up. “I’ve been looking for one of these for five years. It’s my dream car.” He first locked onto it when he spotted it in the 1985 cult film “Better Off Dead.” He says, “That did it.”

The SS was in pieces in a Westminster garage when he found it. It took an additional $800 to put it together. Rob, who plans a career in architecture, expects to learn more about cars this summer while working as a mechanic. The job will also pay his insurance, which, because the ’67 SS is considered a high-risk theft car, is pricey. But he always keeps it within sight. “After five years looking around, I’m not about to lose it. I plan to keep it forever,” he says.

“It’s such a head-turner. People give me the thumbs up. So I usually rev up the engine just to kid around and see them smile. It’s usually older people who remember the car from their youth, but a lot of guys my age check it out too. It’s like a common bond I have with them.”

He shares that bond with his uncle, who has 20 classic cars. One of his most fond memories of being a kid, Rob says, is sitting at age 7 in his uncle’s 1967 Corvette. “I have it in my blood I guess. I don’t like new cars. There’s just nothing desirable about them.”

Gordon calls new cars “spaceships.” He, too, has his fave kid memory: “I had this T-shirt that said ‘Corvettes are Keen’ that I wore until I grew out of it.”

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The ‘Vette was his dad’s custom ’69 with a cherry 350 engine; Dad sold it in 1982 for $80,000. Gordon and his brother grew up going to car shows and drag races with their father, so it’s natural that he attend events with his Le Mans, like the weekly showcase at Fuddruckers on Tuesdays or Weinerschnitzel on Thursdays, both in Mission Viejo. The two attract as many teens as they do “older” guys (we’re talking upward of 30).

“Hot rodding is about guys standing around telling fish stories,” Gordon says. The fish certainly fly at these parking lot congregations.

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It’s also about dedication. Gordon puts in time daily cleaning and adjusting the Le Mans, which he inherited on his 16th birthday from his brother. Even then he knew it inside out, having worked on it since the family acquired the car from the original owner eight years ago.

“In elementary school I could describe the mechanics of an engine,” says Gordon, who sports several auto-inspired tattoos, including the Pontiac logo on his left ankle, a cartoon-like distributor on his left shoulder blade and whimsical works of Robert Williams, the comic king of crazy car culture, on his arms and back.

Gordon is slightly car crazy. Besides pouring every dime from his detailing business into the Le Mans, he plans to attend a technical school to learn everything about cars and eventually open a restoration shop. And the only reason, he says, he keeps up a 3.0 grade point average is to maintain his car insurance discount.

This semester he started up American Muscle, a car club of hot rods from 1955 to 1972, that includes mostly teens, some as young as 13. Each member is checked out to ensure that they’re not troublemakers who would give the club a bad name.

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Drinking and driving is out--because it can damage the car.

Rob agrees. “I won’t drink and drive. I don’t do drugs. I mean, all my money goes into my car anyway. I just have better things to do. This is something productive.” He also doesn’t allow anyone to smoke or eat in the Camaro.

“Any time people get too near,” Gordon says, “I say, ‘Step back.’ It’s cool with the guys with muscle cars because they respect all the work involved. When people notice your car and go (‘wow’), you feel on top of the world. There’s a feeling of superiority to it, like, ‘who’s going to beat me?’ ”

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The Scene is a weekly look at the trends and lifestyles of Orange County high schoolers.

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