What If You Can’t Afford the Muscle Car You Love?

Most car guys have detailed automotive dreams – it’s not just a 1970 Charger – it’s a 426 with a 4-speed in Plum Crazy, with the white interior and no vinyl roof. These dream cars are often the perfect storm of looks and performance, cruisability, and race heritage. But what if your saving/earning/income is not going to reach the necessary level that allows you to indulge – what if you aren’t ever going to be able to afford the muscle car you really want?

The answer is to look around at what’s nearly the same, but affordable. Before thinking about makes or models, think about what you want to do with the car after you have it. Be clear on which elements of the dream are the ones crucial to you:

1970 Dodge Charger 500 | Mecum Auctions Photo

It’s All About the Go!

This strategy gives you the drivetrain you want but in a different wrapper. In the Mopar world, the King-Kong 426 Hemi was available in many unexpected body styles, such as the Plymouth Savoy or Dodge Polara. Today, these may well be significantly more affordable than Chargers, Challengers, or ‘Cudas, even though the winningest Hemi-powered NASCAR was a Plymouth Belvedere, which Richard Petty used to win a record 17 of 30 events in 1966.

1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere II | Mecum Auctions Photo

Must it be a Hemi? Moving to another level of affordability, the Mopar big blocks of 383 and 440 cubic inches were available in almost every Mopar car and truck throughout the muscle era; with more streetable hydraulic lifters they are more reliable than the Hemi and less hassle to maintain, while offering nigh on similar performance. More than any other single thing, making this tweak to your dream might make it attainable. Specifically, the ’70 Hemi Charger mentioned above is a $200,000-plus car, which becomes $20-50k with a 383. Make another tweak – that same 383, but with a four door Coronet body, and you are into your dream for less than $10k.

1968 Chrysler Newport 2 Door Hardtop | Mecum Auctions Photo

Must it be a 4 speed? Even if you love to self-shift, no one enjoys sitting in traffic or driving from stop light to stop light in city traffic constantly working your left leg. Sure, it’s fun to row the transmission on the open road, but when was the last time you saw a road open enough to truly exercise a muscle car? Automatic transmission cars are less stressful to drive, more plentiful and better priced than four-speed examples. The performance sacrifice, which seemed such a big deal during the sixties, seems negligible almost fifty years later. The difference in affordability, by contrast, is not negligible: for example, a Dodge Polara with a four-speed is worth 20-percent more than one with a Torqueflite.

Must it have matching numbers? For the first twenty years of their lives, no one was too worried whether a muscle car had the engine it was born with. But with the rise of investment grade muscle, came the focus on matching numbers. If your goal is pure investment/speculation, or to compete at the highest level of club shows, having a matching-numbers example is important. Under any other circumstances it seems not to be worthwhile – just like Carroll Shelby, cars run just fine with a different heart from the one they were born with! Being able to make do with a non-matching numbers car significantly impacts affordability – to what extent depends upon the specific model, however for the sake of example, a matching-numbers Charger is worth perhaps double a similar, non-matching car.

Linked to this is the notion of “clone” cars – a car which looks like the Hemi of your dreams, but actually started out as something else, and has recently been built using aftermarket parts. Passed off as the real thing, it is fraud. Acknowledged as a tribute, and you have a car far more affordable than the real thing, and far more usable too, since a fender bender in this car is frustrating, whereas in an original Hemi Charger it would be damage to American History.

“Bee Green” Coupe | Neil Banich Photo

Those interested in racing would do well to look at A-bodies such as the Dart/Scamp/Demon. These offer a home for the same drive trains as in Chargers and Challengers, but with less weight. And less weight, as race car genius Smokey Yunick observed,was the easiest horsepower I ever made, something critical whether your sport is over a quarter mile, around the cones at an autocross, or at a full road course such as Laguna Seca. The F-bodies of the seventies, such as the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen are known for strong handling. Some came with a fetching coupe body, which was set up for drag and road racing duty in period. Many more F-bodies were equipped for use by law enforcement – good news today due to factory availability of heavy duty and high performance parts.

Many collectors have a very clear idea exactly how they plan to use their car – racing in a particular series, for example. Without this clarity, your use pattern is likely to be the odd Cars and Coffee/Sunday Cruise, or a show-n-shine at the local diner. Used this way, emulating the look of the dream can be more valuable than having the Godzilla powertrain.

It’s about Showing and Cruising

Dodge and Plymouth commercials from the late ‘60s often featured “White Hat Specials.” These were equipped with A06 and A08, the luxury and special equipment packs which would gussy up a base 6 cylinder, with a Torqueflite and sometimes a 318 V8. This kind of car is under-represented at car shows nowadays – certainly a well presented original car with a slant 6 and a great history is a more interesting addition to a car show than a big block car with little history and recent non-original color paint. Specifically a base ‘70 Charger, with a 318, in outstanding condition, is worth $30-40k, while a fair condition R/T born with a hi-po 383 is worth about the same.

1962 Chrysler Newport (Mecum Auctions); 1964 Dodge Polara (FCA)

The design elements which make the Chargers and Challengers stand out can be found on more affordable models, if you look properly. The protruding fender/nose and concave doors of the Chrysler Newport inspired renowned modern artist Robert Bechtle. Petty-era Belvederes, GTXs, Polaras, and Darts had asymmetric C-pillars, giving the impression of motion while not compromising rear head room. Diagonally stacked headlights, free-standing headlights, quartic steering wheels and of course push button transmissions – all these ideas, some good, some bad, and some plain weird – make for fascinating cars to own, take care of, and show today, as affordable alternatives to Chargers and Challengers. In contrast to the early ‘60s excess, by the end of the muscle era, the Fuselage-era Chrysler 300s had far more subtle, bulbous styling which is only just beginning to be appreciated by collectors.

It’s Got to be Perfect

1971 Hemi | Barrett-Jackson Photo

Most of us want perfect, 100 point, as-they-left-the-factory examples of our dream. One way to make the dream attainable is to compromise around 100 points. Settle for an original, perhaps a little tired example, a car much easier to enjoy since the occasional ding or stone chip is of limited concern. In full disclosure, your writer’s favorite cars are in this original, worn state. Day 2 Muscle cars have a few subtle period-correct modifications, such as perhaps intake, headers, traction bars, and some slot mags, the kind of thing it may have had on Day 2 after leaving the showroom. Cars with these kind of modifications are arguably as authentic as the factory fresh cars in terms of evoking a past era, yet are far more affordable than the original-to-the-last-nut-and-bolt 100 point car.

Buy What You Want. And Then Build It

This strategy allows you to have exactly what you want, but with some significant compromises. Buy a basket case, and spend your greenbacks or your blood, sweat, and tears to build – or have it built into – the car you always wanted. Once this was not possible to do, but today, in the era of reproduction body shells for the most loved muscle cars, it is possible to imagine a car, and build it from scratch. The financial advantage here is that the spend comes spread throughout the build process, rather than in one lump, although you will probably end up spending more to build the car than you would have done simply buying one already built. Completing such a time-consuming and complex project is a colossal challenge, but with the right skills and tenacity, with years spent and continual financial outlay without ever driving the car, it is possible to get the car you want.

Something Completely Different

The Ex-Cop Car – Since 2008 Chrysler offered police pursuit versions of the Charger. Equipped with the 5.7-liter Hemi, they would rip off 14 second quarters stock. In fact, your writer remembers the ripple which passed through the sportsbike community when they launched, since they could manage 150 mph, a good 25 or 30 mph more than the Crown Victorias in use hitherto. Sacrificing classic-era swagger gives you modern, tough design with an enormous aftermarket. More, remembering the Highway Patrol Camaros and Mustangs, there is a tradition of this kind of collector car.

European Oddballs – The Mopar big block and Torqueflite also powered a number of coachbuilt European grand-tourers: Formula 1 Champion Jensen Button was named after the British company which made the Interceptor, a big GT was available with either a 383 or a 440; more exotic was the Facel Vega, who’s flagship HK500 commands prices equal to the most prized Hemi Mopars.

1961 Facel Vega HK500 Coupé | RM Sotheby’s Photos

Perhaps craziest of all, is possibly to buy a Concept Car, a one off made with a particular motorshow in mind. Typically, these concepts did not have engines or drivetrains fitted, and were crushed following their show duty. However, a surprising number of Mopars survived, and owning one of these works of art which inspired the familiar shapes we love, represents a (potentially) more affordable alternative to chasing that elusive 100 point ’70 Charger with the four-speed and the Hemi, in Plum Crazy.

For the sake of easy comparison, the values used in this article are taken from Hagerty in February 2018.

Beg to differ? Need to school me on Mopar lore? Please send us a message.

About the author

Jon Summers

I’m an Englishman living in California working as an Automotive Historian and Freelance Consultant.
Read My Articles

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