It’s the dream for countless gearheads out there: You come across a neglected piece of vintage Detroit iron rotting in some field somewhere, so you drop a couple hundred bucks, pull the thing out of the weeds, and get it back to your garage. Then you spend the next year or two stripping the thing down to the frame, going over every nut and bolt, and making the thing even better than it was when it rolled out of the factory 50 years ago.
But that’s the romanticized version. In reality, you and your buddies will spend that first afternoon struggling to pry this hulk out of the mud that’s been creeping up over the wheels and rockers since Carter was in office. Then it’ll likely sit in the garage as a shelf while you try to figure out how much to set aside from every paycheck and hope that the whole damn process doesn’t run into five-figures. And if you bought it from anywhere east of Houston or north of Kansas City, you’d better be pretty good with a plasma cutter or have a cheap body shop, because there’s going to be rust. Probably a lot of it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – browse through any issue of Hemmings, and you’ll find success stories. Of course, there are differing degrees of restorations, from refreshing a tired runner to pulling that rotten heap out of the woods and giving it the deluxe stripped-down rotisserie treatment. What’s more, the popularity of the car your rescuing also has a lot to do with how much heartache you’re going to suffer. If you’re hoping to find all that lost trim for your tired ’69 Olds Rallye 350 (one year production run, 3,500 built), you might be searching for years. But if you’ve got a ’65 Mustang that hasn’t run since ’68, chances are you’ll probably be done with it a lot sooner.
Over the last few years, more companies have started offering and impressive number official factory-licensed parts for a number of the more iconic muscle cars – from the engine decals and correct taillight screws to entire bodies. So instead of spending years in pick-and-pull lots and swap meets, as long as you’ve got a solid frame and engine nowadays, chances are you’ll be able to get your relic back on the road as quick as you want, budget permitted. So if you’re thinking about bringing a piece of automotive history back to life but don’t know where to start, take a look at these five legends.
1. 1965-70 Ford Mustang
Let’s get the reigning champ out of the way first. The Mustang single-handedly kicked off the ponycar segment in the ’60s and accelerated the muscle car arms race in a way that no other model can. In its first five years on sale, Ford sold over 2.5 million of them, which means there are plenty of surviving cars – and parts – out there. But if you’ve got Dad’s car that you can’t bear to get rid of even though it’s more rust than car, you’re in luck:Dynacorn Classic Bodies sells exact replicas of the classic Mustang’s sheet metal, and companies like CJ Pony Parts will sell you brand new factory-spec interiors, complete with hardware. Amazingly, virtually every part available on these half-century old cars can still be found at reasonable prices. With that kind of parts support, plus a bookshelf’s worth of how-to books and countless Internet forums about how to rebuild them, a classic Mustang project is a great way to get into restoration.
2. 1967-’69 Chevrolet Camaro
The Mustang is an undisputed icon; but remember, there’s that whole Chevy versus Ford thing that isn’t going to end anytime soon. So for those guys that don’t drive anything without a Bowtie badge on the grille, the first-generation Camaro is the ponycar for you. Like the ‘Stang, Dynacorn offers full bodies for the first three model years, and Camaro Central sells full interiors complete in ’60s-tastic colors like turquoise, orange, and gold. With millions of small-block Chevy V8s available on every local Craigslist in the country, the Camaro is one of the easiest classic muscle cars to build any way you want it.
3. 1957 Fuel Injected Chevy
It may not be a member of the ’60s muscle car canon, but the ’57 Chevy “Fuelie” was one of the hottest performance cars of the Eisenhower Era. What’s more, the ’57 made headlines last decade when companies began selling “brand new” Chevys – exact replicas of ’57s, but built from brand new replica parts. So if you see a rotten 59-year-old Chevy selling for next to nothing on Craigslist, with some elbow grease, deep pockets, and some knowledge of the Rochester mechanical fuel injection system, you can transform your V8-powered hulk into a 270 horsepower straight-line rocket.
4. 1964-’70 Pontiac GTO
For some gearheads, the Mustang may have been the first ponycar, but the GTO was the first proper muscle car. Pontiac may be long-dead, but its iconic performance car isn’t; the bigger, bolder, and more power GTO ruled the drag strips in the ’60s, and today companies like Original Parts Group Inc. are as well-stocked with parts as a Pontiac dealership circa 1969. But beware: The GTO was more expensive and scarcer than the Mustang and Camaro, so expect to pay more of a premium for your car. And please, whatever you do, stop transforming theTempest and Le Mans into GTO clones…
5. 1970-’72 Chevrolet Chevelle
And speaking of clones, between 1968 and 1972, Chevy sold over one million A-bodied Chevelles. Nearly 100,000 of them go-fast SS models. Of those, about one quarter came with the big block 454 V8. Today however, it seems like every Chevelle at your local car show is not only is an SS, but is an SS 454, complete with iconic “Cowl Induction” bulged hood. The muscular look of the A-Body has made it a customizer’s dream for decades, and as a result, parts for these cars and projects have never been hard to find. Call us crazy, but we’d rather see an imaginative build, or an unusually-spec’d restored car than yet another red over black, racing striped, big-block clone. It’s your restoration project, go wild.