Power by itself is wicked fun, but it can bite, too.
By Jay Leno
Consider this: one day I’m driving my 1966 Hemi-powered Dodge Coronet up a winding road in Coldwater Canyon, near my home in Los Angeles. A car pulls up behind me. I decide I’m gonna have a little fun with this guy. With 317 kW, my old Dodge – one of just 339 made with the Hemi V8 – has more than enough poke to make this guy disappear from my rear-view mirror. So when I come around a corner, I give it a little extra gas. Little do I realise the road is damp. The Coronet goes errrupp and spins a full 180 degrees. Now I’m looking at my pursuer head-on. He hits the brakes and the horn and stops with our two grilles about 2 metres apart. I wave and sheepishly say, “Sorry!”
If I’d been in a modern Audi S4 or a Mustang 5.0, I could have been going 50 km/h faster and not even hinted at spinning. Although the old Dodge has more power than either, the rest of it is pure 1966 – leaf-spring rear suspension, skinny bias-ply tyres and no power steering or brakes. My Coronet is just like the rest of the ’60s-era muscle cars in that it has tons of power but doesn’t stop or go around corners very well. We all loved the flaws, but the fact is, these cars aren’t very safe. That’s why I’m a firm believer in upgrading old steeds with modern components.
It’s called restomodding. You take an old car and modernise it with an updated engine, suspension, brakes, tyres and electronics. And if you restomod the right way, you can revert back to stock at any time. I’ve been subtly updating my cars for years. Take my two 1925 Doble steam cars. They weigh 2 700 kilograms and move pretty well, but have only rear brakes. That’s insane. I put brake drums on the front, with Corvette disc brakes hidden inside them. Now I can comfortably drive my Dobles, because they reliably stop.
I went much further with my just-restored Ford Galaxie. It looks completely original, but underneath it’s an all-new car. The suspension now moves with improved trailing arms, a Panhard rod to limit rear-axle sway, oversize antiroll bars, beefed-up mounting brackets and stiffer, polyurethane bushings, all from a suspension company called Hotchkis. The sloppy recirculating-ball steering was replaced with a precise rack-and-pinion setup. Wilwood cross-drilled and vented disc brakes grace all four corners. In the engine room, there’s a fuel-injected 8,4- litre Jack Roush V8 backed by a Tremec six-speed gearbox. We wrapped the old pieces in paper and put them on a shelf in case we ever want to return the car to its original condition.
Thanks to the new hardware and upgraded tyres, this old Ford gets far better fuel economy, and it really handles. By contrast, when I used to drive my dad’s ’66 Galaxie 7-litre, which I’ve written about previously in this column, if an exit ramp sign read “45 mph” (about 70 km/h) and I was doing 46, I’d never make it. Now I’ve got plenty of breathing room.
Restomods are more popular than ever, so there are bolt-on parts for a wide range of vintage cars. GM recently began offering a 320-kW crate engine with emissions-compliant fuel and exhaust systems. You can drop it into your hot rod and pass California’s stringent emissions inspections.
These improvements aren’t limited to the mechanicals. Vintage Air makes airconditioning systems that can be adapted to almost any car. Most older cars have acres of room under their hoods, and a new compressor isn’t much bigger than an alternator. Over time, a/c will ensure your interior doesn’t get damaged, because you’re no longer driving with your windows down. I also like to use Dynamat insulation, which sticks to the floor pan underneath the carpet. It’s amazing the difference this lightweight material can make. The clatter, the vibration and the heat that used to fill the cabin – that’s all gone.
If you install a 12-volt alternator in your old car – a common upgrade – you can keep the stock wiring and the radio, but you’ll have to change all your bulbs. It’s perfectly fine to stick with the 6-volt system, but many like the brighter lights and increased starting power from the higher voltage. I think that upgrading to 12 volts is better than simply installing an 8-volt battery and leaving the 6-volt stuff in place because, eventually, you will burn out your bulbs.
The funny thing is that restomodding is not new, it’s just that now there’s a catchy name for the technique. I own a 1914 Premier – a big, brass-era car built in Indianapolis, with a huge T-head sixcylinder dual-plug engine. This car was upgraded in the late ’40s, long before the term restomodding was ever uttered. The previous owner removed the coil and magneto – it had redundant ignition systems – and installed a 12-cylinder ignition from a Pierce-Arrow. That’s a really early example of restomodding. I get into this Premier, turn the key, and it fires; I don’t have to start on the battery, then switch over to the magneto.
The brakes are a key safety issue and so are seatbelts. I install them in all my old cars, even if that feature wasn’t originally available.
But no matter how much you upgrade an antique car, it is never going to be as safe as a modern vehicle. I hear dads say, “My kid wants a 1965 Mustang, which sounds like a perfect teenager car to me.” That’s not smart. Today, thanks to stiffer bodies that are designed to crush on impact and absorb energy, good seatbelts and airbags, drivers and passengers walk away from accidents that would have been lethal back when we were kids. That kid will be a lot safer in a later model Mustang – or even a Ford Fiesta.
Some purists object to changing or modifying these old cars. I look at it this way: if it makes the car better, safer, more reliable and faster – and you can change it back to stock whenever you want – why not do it?
Video: To watch a video showing how John Hotchkis prototyped a suspension update for Jay's 1966 Galaxie, with the goal of making it handle like a modern vehicle. [click here]