A while ago, there was a video on YouTube that brought up a bit of a debate amongst gearheads. The video title said something about a Mustang being a sleeper, and of course we were a bit skeptical and we wanted to check it out.
This 1965 Belvedere was a bit of a sleeper.
Most people wouldn’t consider a Mustang to be a candidate for a true sleeper, primarily because the name itself implies that the car is anything but a slowpoke. Most pony cars offer up certain expectations, and they’ve been used for racing applications since they first came off the assembly line, whether it was street or track use.
Be that as it may, there have been Mustangs that looked rather mundane and yet packed some serious power under the hood. We can definitely see where a sleeper Mustang would be possible if it still wore steel wheels and hubcaps, sat at the factory ride height, and didn’t look like it was anything special.
The car in the video, however, was a 2001 Mustang GT with the 4.6L modular motor. The outside appearance didn’t look like a sleeper, regardless of what was under the hood. It had factory alloy wheels, a factory hood scoop, and a factory rear spoiler. Right off the bat the assumption is that the Mustang was anything but a sleeper because of its outward appearance.
Probably not the best example, but still a bit of a sleeper. The 340 horsepower dual quad provides the pep.
The owner of this particular Mustang called it a sleeper because he installed a ProCharger and intercooler. While we can see why he thinks his car is a sleeper (because you can’t see the blower), the rest of the car kind of gives all of that away because you wouldn’t expect a Mustang GT to be a slow car (even though it was only rated at about 260 horsepower).
The bottom line is that a Mustang is not a grandma car, it’s an enthusiast’s sports car – a car most people buy so they can drive it fast. If your grandmother drove a 2001 Mustang GT, she was probably the coolest grandma on the block.
When it comes to whether a car is a sleeper or not, it really boils down to interpretation and crowd reaction. In the Mustang video we mentioned, there are twice as many dislikes as there are likes on the video. Could it be that more people disagree with the Mustang GT being a sleeper?
One of our favorite almost-sleepers is Bob Gough’s Barracuda. Granted, it’s a sports car from the late 1960s, but you wouldn’t know that under the striped hood is the heart of a beast.
What Is A Sleeper?
So what makes a car a sleeper? Would you consider a car like the Mustang GT a sleeper just because you can’t see what’s under the hood? Or is a sleeper a car that looks slow and doesn’t have flashy performance add-ons like a spoiler, hood scoop, or custom wheels? In other words, should it look like your average grocery getter? We have some examples below of what we would call the ultimate sleeper.
To us, the real sleepers are cars like Dru Diesner’s 1972 Nova that we featured in 2012. Just looking at the car you might think that it’s nothing special: it has faded paint, steelies with bland white-stripe rubber, genuine patina, and even the stance on the car is basically stock.
It’s a nice car – don’t let the looks fool you!
Everything about it screams potential because it is a Nova, but it just doesn’t look like a fast musclecar from the outside. There’s just a hint that something is up when you look at the rear tires, but it simply looks like a run of the mill 1972 Nova.
But when you see it do a mile-long burnout and hear the engine come to life, you’ll know something is different. The car is fast and powerful, and so sick it’s not even funny. Under that mild-mannered, stock hood resides a pumped up LS2 with twin Rotrex superchargers helping put down 1,160 horsepower and 825 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels. Most people wouldn’t look twice at this car, until it blows past them on the road.
Those twin superchargers will wake anyone up, including the built LS2!
This prompted us to get in touch with a few of our friends and see what they have to say on the subject. We wanted to get expert opinions and reached out to five car guys that you might have seen on weekend television shows; we asked them a couple of simple questions, but the primary question was “What is a sleeper?”
We got some great responses, and for the most part they all agreed on one thing: a sleeper is a car that you wouldn’t expect to be fast; it’s a car that looks like your grandmother would have driven to church or the grocery store. But rather than us try to convince you what we think is a sleeper, we’ll have our friends explain what they would call a sleeper.
Dan Woods – Chop Cut Rebuild
Dan Woods is that guy you see at SEMA and various Southern California car shows signing autographs and talking it up with enthusiasts. He’s been on the former Speed channel with his show, Chop Cut Rebuild, which can now be seen on MAV TV. You can also catch Dan on the internet with his YouTube channel where he features segments of Dan’s Garage, shot at his own home in Southern California.
Dan was at our shop recently as a guest for a video we produced, and got to sit behind a Hellcat Challenger with the red key and take it for a ride. Whether it’s a modern musclecar or a restored classic, Dan’s interests lie in anything automotive.
How would it feel to roll up to a stoplight in this mild looking Comet, and then romp down on the go stick and unleash a few hundred horsepower from a built Windsor?
On the show he gets to dabble in anything from teardown to welding to installations, and it’s all in a day’s work for him. We shared our story about the Mustang GT and wanted to know what he thought about the story, and this is what he told us:
“As for the definition of a sleeper, I’m with you. A Mustang GT is anything but a sleeper. It’s a musclecar. Here’s what I think qualifies: Any vehicle which catches most people by surprise with its power is a sleeper.
The Mercury Monarch and Impala SS are examples of more modern sleepers. They look like a family sedan but kick butt with the power-trains that were installed by the factory. If there was a Ford Racing 351W under the hood of a 63 Comet convertible – THAT would be a classic sleeper.”
Dennis Pittsenbarger – Highway To Sell
Dennis Pittsenbarger is another friend who has helped us with car show coverage and videos from SEMA. He’s a self-admitted “car dork” and has been called “a walking encyclopedia of automotive history and fuel-powered folklore.”
He’s been around cars most all of his life either getting dirty or smoothing out body lines and laying down the paint. He’s been a radio, television, and event host; and brings his talents to a new television series on the Discovery Network, Highway To Sell.
In the series, Dennis and “Slick” make deals with car owners to buy the owner’s car with their own money and restore it. After the work is done, the pair take their chances at auction where the original owner gets a piece of the profits, or they can sell the car back to the owner for it’s current value. Talk about getting down and dirty, the two have everything to lose and little to gain if the auction doesn’t go well.
Rich Kinsley’s 1964 Polara is definitely a sleeper. Sporting full hub caps and an extra set of doors, it’s hard to imagine what’s under the hood.
Being around cars and having seen the best and the worst of them, we asked Dennis what his thoughts were and what he would call a sleeper:
“It’s about as hard a question to answer as ‘what is a hot rod'; well the term sleeper is a little easier to explain, but harder to define.
Explanation of what a sleeper is might be first what I decide to toss into this conversational debate. A sleeper is just that: a rope-a-dope of sorts in the automotive performance ring. You think you see one thing and before you know it your face is planted on the canvas – or asphalt in this case. Normally a bit crude, a little dirty and always sporting the back seat decorations consisting of old soda cans and fast food bags, the sleeper never lets you know what’s coming, only until that moment you see their taillights drive into the distance.
See, your automobile cannot be a sleeper in wolfs clothing. Mustangs, Camaros, let alone Corvettes or a Challenger, will never be defined a sleeper by this writer’s definition. Because even if you roll up in what seems to be an ’84 Mustang LX with four lug wheels and a load of laundry under the rear hatch I already know what your car is capable of and so should anyone else who has half a brain.”
“But that is what the game is about – at least the game of being devious enough to camouflage that notchback LX or RS Camaro into convincing a would-be victim into a drag race that relieves him or her from their rent money. There is however the true sleeper and that is where it gets interesting.
Being lucky enough to know Farmtruck and Azn from Street Outlaws only starts to explain the perfect blueprint for a real sleeper. Now it is not only their truck that has used this combination, but several others on both Drag Week and in my local drag circles here in Portland. Deception is the key; but it’s getting tougher everyday. You have got to think outside the box and not try to replicate an already successful combination.”
Kinsley's Polara shows the tail lights to quite a few people who think that this grandpa is just cruising to the local grocery store.
“For myself I’ve looked at mid-90’s Town Cars, Fleetwood Cadillacs, or maybe even a late Dodge Monaco as a perfect home for a big-inch big-block motor sprayed to the point of implosion to see if I could hook some unsuspecting chump in his B16 powered Civic to hand over his lunch money.”
Sam Memmolo – Shadetree Mechanic
Sam Memmolo is well known to gearheads as part of many teams that have been on television and radio, including Shadetree Mechanic, Crank and Chrome, Two Guys Garage with his friend Dave Bowman, and Sam’s Garage Radio Show. A 45-year veteran in the automotive world, he’s seen everything from fully restored classics to modern musclecars and has obtained ASE Master Auto Technician certification in his many years of hands-on experience.
Appealing to the DIYers and professional mechanics on his weekly shows, he’s been a regular on television sets for decades. Having owned and operated two successful automotive service centers and sharing his chops with industry enthusiast publications, his reputation as a knowledgeable enthusiast with a desire to succeed precedes him.
In its day, you wouldn’t expect much from this Galaxie. But today, most people would think twice before they mess with it. The car is awesome and very clean – maybe too clean for a sleeper because it just looks sinister.
When we gave Sam a call and told him what we were up to, he was more than willing to share his expertise and shed a little light on the subject. He likes the factory sleepers, it seems, and mentioned a couple of cars that are among our favorites. Here’s what Sam had to say:
“Here is my opinion and I am sticking to it! A sleeper is a vehicle with an appearance very close to what it looked like when it rolled off the showroom floor.
A sleeper usually has drivetrain modifications, i.e. a modified and more powerful engine, better transmission and final drive, brakes and suspension upgrades that allow handling / stopping chores to accommodate more power. The idea of a sleeper is to have people think that the vehicle is box stock and surprise them with an exhibition of speed and power.
Many factory sleepers have been produced over the years. One of my favorites was a Chevelle two-door sedan post car with coke-bottle hubcaps, no power accessories, vinyl seat covers and minimal trim. It sported a 327 ci small block with 365 horsepower and a 4-speed gearbox, as well as limited-slip rearend. It looked like something Grandma would drive to town, but was faster than most street legal contemporaries.”
A couple of bookend factory sleepers. These Pontiacs sported the much sought after tri-power setup producing 348 horsepower from 389 cubes.
“I don’t think today’s musclecars can be good sleepers. Things like the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger are just that – musclecars. Today’s sleeper would be like a Hemi-powered Jeep Cherokee with a supercharger. These look like an average luxury SUV, but have great performance.
Most of your front wheel drive cars have power limits due to CV axle configuration; there could be a sleeper in a Chrysler 300, for example. A 6.4L Hemi with a blower and suspension / brake mods makes an awesome sleeper, just like the Mercury Marauder did from the Mercury Marquis.”
Steve Magnante – Barrett-Jackson Host
Steve Magnante has been called an encyclopedia of car facts, and even authored a book called just that: Steve Magnante’s 1001 Muscle Car Facts. Since he got his first Hot Wheel as a five year old, he was hooked on cars. He moved on to plastic model kits, and then discovered real cars by the time he was 17, and still dabbles in both scale and full size cars as a hobby.
You could safely say that Steve is a Mopar nut, from the first car he purchased – a numbers-matching 1968 Dodge Charger R/T – to a plethora of other Mopars that are too numerous to list here. He has spent his entire life dedicated to cars and car facts, working at service stations and restoration shops, and writing freelance for several automotive publications over the years.
Many gearheads have seen Steve on TV, more recently providing live commentary and details on cars like that rather sleeper-looking Mopar with Barrett-Jackson.
His writing and automotive skills landed him a regular editor position at Hot Rod, which parlayed into television with Hot Rod TV on the Speed TV Network. Before long, Steve was a regular on television airing commercials, hosting shows, and doing promotional bits.
In 2005 he was offered the opportunity to provide live commentary at the Barrett-Jackson auctions and he has been covering them ever since. Steve has also graciously helped us out a time or two in front of the camera at SEMA.
Since Steve previously owned one of his own sleepers, a rusty 1976 Plymouth Volare station wagon with a factory installed 360, we wanted to hear what he had to say about sleepers:
“As a life-long fan of sleepers, a sleeper is a car that rolls down the road without calling attention to itself – but is capable of outrunning the obvious hot rods as well as anything else on the road. Stealth is a key ingredient to a true sleeper.
I have come to realize there are several pass / fail tests for a successful sleeper. These tests fall into three categories: performance, visual presentation, and noise and vibration. The performance test speaks for itself. The sleeper needs to be able to run as hard as – or harder than – a flag-flying musclecar.”
One of Steve's early rides was a 1976 Volare Wagon similar to these plain Janes. The one on the left might not give you any idea of what's under the hood. The car on the right tells you something is up, but it's still a four-door wagon - perfect sleeper potential, according to Steve.
“The visual presentation component is the most complex. First off, there should be no stripes, graphics, stickers or other visual show-off elements to attract attention. A plain, single-color paint job works best. Body style is also a place where sleeper-points can be gained.
From sleeper to wide-freaking-awake, Steve is also a drag racer with some pretty impressive skills and machinery.
Station wagons and four door sedans / hardtops are the best candidates for sleeper construction since these body types are usually associated with work or family duty. Hood scoops are forbidden since they defeat the entire premise of stealth.”
“Successful sleeper builders shun shiny mag wheels and ultra wide rear tires for being too obvious. Instead, basic stamped steel rims – with partial or full wheel covers – are most easily associated with no-performance people movers.
Stance is also a key factor. Cars sitting either too high or too low will alert opponents that something is out of the ordinary. Sleepers should maintain a stock ride height so as to blend into the crowd.
Another of Steve’s drag cars: hood scoop, wheels, slicks, obnoxious headers, ridiculous stance? Yeah, not even close to a sleeper.
The main problem with any sleeper powered by a classic high compression V8 is noise. I’m a big fan of power adders when noise and vibration is the enemy. My least favorite method is nitrous oxide. By contrast, exhaust driven turbochargers and belt-driven superchargers never go empty and deliver just as much – or more – extra urge as nitrous.
Can a late model Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger ever be a sleeper? This is a good question. Again, it’s all relative. Out on the street, among the bread and butter stock of daily commuter cars, no late model Mustang, Camaro or Challenger is ever going to blend into the scenery. These cars are recognized as performance models by everyone. So no, these pony machines cannot be considered sleepers in the general sense.”
Stacey David – GEARZ
Well known as the guy who tore it up in Ted Nugent’s Bronco, and then jammed with him afterwards, Stacey David is another one of those guys that we made plans for on weekends. His car projects usually got into the insane category with huge lifts on a former military truck to crazy builds that had Fender guitars modeled after them.
You’re probably familiar with his nonchalant way of tearing a vehicle apart with a sawsall, and then tossing the discarded parts at the cameraman and laughing about it. Most people who have met him in person say he’s a genuine good guy with lots of skill; he was known as the local hot rodder because he drove his 1930 five-window coupe to school everyday – and it was loud and fast.
One of the latest projects from Stacey David’s GEARZ: building the ultimate sleeper from this 1973 Satellite.
He worked on his first car when he was just 12 years old, and spent much of his youth turning wrenches and working on go-karts and snowmobiles. He loves driving the vehicles he puts together and admires all the great drivers like Richard Petty, Carroll Shelby, Don Garlits, along with the best of the builders like George Barris, John Buttera, and Darryl Starbird. Before his stint on TRUCKS, he was running his own shop called The Rattletrap in Nashville.
We wanted to know what Stacey thought would make a good sleeper, and the timing was just right because that just happens to be his current project on MAV TV’s GEARZ – a 1973 Plymouth Satellite that is getting the best of the best but remaining subtle in appearance. This is what Stacey had to say:
“The whole point of a sleeper car came from the world of street racing for money where guys would go to different neighborhoods to take on the local hero. The more ‘unfast’ they could make their car look, the more bets they could get and ultimately the more money they could make.”
While these cars might all be very close to showroom condition, there's just something about each one of them that makes you think performance. As Stacey David said, it's about misdirection - and these cars are all about attention.
“There are a lot of ways to make something look ‘unfast’, such as make it ugly, make it look like a show car, make it look neglected, make it sound bad, etc. In my opinion, the idea of a true sleeper vehicle can be summed up in one word – MISDIRECTION. You have to build the car to look like something OTHER than what it really is.
Misdirection: This 340 ‘Cuda is all about attention, and instead of thinking nothing of it, you have certain expectations for the car to perform.
A fast car is made to look slow, a road course car is made to look like a drag racer, etc. This is why a car like a Mustang or Camaro doesn’t really make a good sleeper, because their whole history is based on them being a sporty performance car. People expect a Mustang or Camaro to be fast, so there’s no big surprise there. They may not expect it to be as fast as it is, but that makes it a Hot Rod, or Musclecar, not a sleeper.
A sleeper doesn’t necessarily need to be ugly, they just need to be a vehicle that is not recognized as a performance car. One big mistake some people make is thinking the sleeper idea is based on a certain look, or style of car, so they try and build something that has the right look, and end up with a car that’s neither a sleeper or fast. Remember: the sleeper is an idea and/or a tactic designed to separate a fool from his money, and there are a lot of ways to do that.”
Does This Define The Sleeper?
It’s the same car from above, but you can see how stance and wheels change the perception of the car.
There you have it, we asked five of television’s well-known car guys what they think about the term “sleeper”, and although we got five completely different answers, they all pretty much said the same thing. Everyone’s opinion varies slightly from one guy to the next, but what it all boils down to is whether people expect the car to be fast – or if they’re surprised by just how fast it really is.
Do these explanations define what a sleeper is, and what it isn’t? For some people, probably not. But we feel that Stacey David really summed it up with that one word: misdirection, because if the car doesn’t make you turn your head and stare at it then you’ve accomplished the goal you’ve set out to achieve.
Take, for example, our 1965 Plymouth. When we had 15-inch steel wheels and hub caps it hardly got any attention in the neighborhood. The picture at the top of this article is how it used to look, to the right, above, is how it looks now. Performance-wise nothing has changed, but as soon as we added 18-inch wheels and low-profile tires we started to get more attention driving through the neighborhood. Just adding wheels got more attention, and the sleeper concept disappeared.
Marc Viau's 1964 Belvedere is a definite sleeper. From the looks of it, the car is stock, but that big block under the hood is potent.
So what’s your opinion of a sleeper? Do you agree with any of the TV experts above, or do you have your own opinions? We know this debate will likely go on forever, but tell us what you think in the comments section below.