There are spiritual homes for all sorts of things and movements. Country music has Nashville. Chocolate has Hershey, Pennsylvania. And muscle cars have the Motor City.
When it comes to honoring that legacy, the faithful undertake a pilgrimage to Detroit’s Cobo Hall every February, shaking off the slush and snow to pay homage at the Autorama. It’s like the Sistine Chapel with show cars, the aroma of cinnamon-roasted almonds, and Tom Wopat signing autographs.
The Detroit Autorama just marked its 65th running and continues to shine as one of the premiere hot rod and vintage-car events in North America, with the latest custom creations vying for the coveted Ridler Award. The event got off to a flying start in 1953 through the efforts of the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA). It was looking to fund Michigan’s first sanctioned dragstrip. Ticket sales for the first few years helped make it happen, and the track that would be known as Motor City Dragway opened for racing in 1959. (Suburban sprawl pushed it out of business in 1978.)
While the Detroit Autorama and other indoor shows like it have traditionally been the domain of hot rods and customs, there is an inherently strong contingent of muscle cars on display. Muscle was born here, after all, and many owners have familial and professional ties to the manufacturers that pushed them into production or clandestinely tested them on Woodward.
We have assembled a collection of our favorite 20 or so muscle cars from this year’s event. Each has a link to the city and people of the Detroit area, which makes it all the more fitting that the front doors of Cobo Hall are literally about a quarter-mile away from the starting point of Woodward Avenue.
Anthony McNeil’s 1969 Judge is striking with its Carousel Red exterior complemented by a Parchment interior and white vinyl top. It is a numbers-matching car, including the WS-code Ram Air III 400, Turbo 400 transmission, and 3.55-geared Safe-T-Track rear axle. A Novi, Michigan, shop called Wrenchers handled the restoration.
Ford produced just a tick less than 300,000 Mustangs of all iterations for 1969, including more than 72,000 Mach I models, like Darrin Joseph’s 351-powered example. But anecdotally it seems there are more 1970 models floating around out there, including Mach I models, even though Mustang production shrank by 100,000 units and Mach I production retreated by almost half.
Mopar expert Roman Sobilo restored John Wingle’s rare A12 1969 1/2 Road Runner, which introduced the 440 six-barrel engine, rated at 390 hp, and also included a lightweight, liftoff fiberglass hood, 15×6 black steel wheels, and a 4.10-geared Dana axle. There were 1,412 of these Road Runners built, including 388 four-speed coupes like Wingle’s.
Remember the Lembrecht dealership auction [Lambrecht Chevrolet Auction] from a few years ago? This 1963 Impala was one of the jewels pulled out of the rough. Now residing in Ohio, it has fewer than 20 miles on the clock and was titled for the first time in 2013. No bodywork or paint touchups were performed. It was simply cleaned and waxed. The engine runs great, too, after the original carburetor and fuel pump were rebuilt.
Dodge’s R/T trim was launched on the 1967 Coronet and included a unique grille, simulated hoodscoops, and R/T badges. Bucket seats and a console were standard, too. The 375hp 440 Magnum was standard, and another $457 got the customer a 426 Hemi. John Skuza and his son restored this Bright Blue Metallic 440 Magnum example, which drives through a TorqueFlite and on to the bulletproof 8 3/4-inch rear axle.
Inline Tube cofounder John Kryta’s Limelight Green 1969 GTO is one of 93 non-Judge models built with a Ram Air IV/automatic powertrain combo. Kryta has owned the car for 20 years and runs it in Pure Stock drag races. Looks great with the “day two” Cragar wheels.
Scott McGhee is only the second owner of this largely original 1968 Camaro Z/28 RS. In fact, it has lived its entire life around McGhee’s hometown of Bridgman, Michigan. After purchasing the numbers-matching car in 2012, his father, Roger, took care of the necessary bodywork, while US 12 Speed & Custom sprayed the original Matador Red exterior color.
Brenda Dezsi’s 1968 Barracuda S convertible is a surprisingly rare fish. Let’s start with the fact that out of 46,018 Barracudas built for 1968, only 2,840 were drop-tops. The number of S-trim convertibles with the 383 engine like this one is a mere 64. Looks good in white-on-white, too.
Owned by John Moauro and restored by Ric’s Restoration, this 1970 GTO Judge is reportedly one of Pontiac’s mysterious “memo” cars that was assembled with special performance equipment. This one was sent to dealer/Tin Indian race team owner Bill Knafel, apparently with a Ram Air V engine under the hood. It was also built without sound deadener and even without the seam-sealing caulking used in regular production cars.
The only Trans Am Special Edition offered in 1979 was the Y84-code Bandit model. Around 11,500 were built, but only 1,107 were W72 cars with the Pontiac 400/four-speed combo. The vast majority featured the Olds 403/automatic powertrain, while 573 received the Pontiac 301 engine. Paul Semian’s car is one of those rare 400 cars and was rotisserie-restored using virtually all N.O.S. or reconditioned original parts.
Jerry Helfman’s 1966 Fairlane 500 evokes the style and performance of Ford’s original stock-class contender. It is powered by a rare, 1-of-56 427 dual-quad Super Stock engine that’s backed by a Richmond five-speed. The Wimbledon White paint, steelies, and bare-bones black vinyl interior complete the track-ready aesthetic.
Just more than 72,000 Chevelle SS396 models were produced in 1966, but only about 5,400 were convertibles such as Mike Yates’ car. The 396 came in three flavors for the Chevelle that year: the L35-code 325hp version; the L34 360hp version; and the Holley carb-equipped, solid-cammed L78 375hp variant. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch up with Yates to ask which Rat powered his A-Body.
There’s hardly a better-looking Ford from the 1960s than a 1963 Galaxie 500 hardtop, and Jim Anteau’s was even hotter with a teardrop hood covering a triple-carb 406, which Ford rated at 405 hp. No sissy power brakes or power steering to slow things up, either, for this street/strip machine.
Chuck Finch’s red A-Body was the second 1966 Chevelle SS396 convertible in attendance. It has the L34-code 360hp version of the big-block, along with a Muncie four-speed, a 3.31-geared Posi rear axle, power steering, power brakes, and a heavy-duty radiator. Looks good in Regal Red, too.
The heart of the first-gen Camaro Z/28 was the DZ-code 302 small-block, an over-square design that used 4.00-inch bores with a 3.00-inch stroke. The block had four-bolt mains, while the crank and pistons were forged. Good-breathing heads with 2.02/1.60-inch valves helped the engine rev to 7,000 rpm and more. The example was shown by Brad Kendall.
Dodge built only 528 1968 Coronet R/T convertibles: 519 with the 440 Magnum, including 431 automatics and 88 four-speeds, and 9 with the Hemi (1 four-speed and 8 autos). Kevin Persons’ car is one of the 431 fitted with the 440/TorqueFlite combo.
The SS396 was one of three trim levels offered on the 1969 El Camino, which featured front-end styling updates that matched the Chevelle line, along with specific changes like moving the backup lamps from the rear bumper to the tailgate. Ron York showed this gorgeous Monaco Orange example in Detroit.
The debate over whether 1966-1967 Chargers are better looking than 1968-1970 models is as unwinnable as the cats-versus-dogs argument. There’s no loser, though Dave Smith’s 1967 model, a 440 Magnum-powered car with a TorqueFlite, makes a strong case for the first gen. Its 440 was rated at 375 hp and a stout 480 lb-ft of torque. Fewer than 16,000 Chargers were produced for 1967, less than half of 1966’s total.
Vicki Cheesin’s 1969 Hemi Road Runner was found in a condemned building in 1999, where it had sat since 1970. It was then stored for the next 14 years before the black paint job was resprayed and a new interior put in. A couple years later, Hemieddie Restorations cleaned up the engine compartment and chassis. It shows only 11,500 original miles.
Originally a California car, Bob and Cheryl Pasike’s B5 Bright Blue Metallic 1970 Challenger R/T now resides in Michigan. Its 440 Magnum engine is matched with a Hemi four-speed that sends torque to a Dana axle with 3.54 gears.
Louise Walz showed some Gen-X muscle with her 1987 Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe. Chevrolet produced 200 of them for 1986 and 6,052 for 1987 as a NASCAR challenge to the aerodynamic advantage enjoyed by the Ford Thunderbird. All of the 1980s Monte SSs were 305-powered.
Canadian drag racer Barrie Poole made a name for himself on both sides of the border in the 1960s, backed by Sandy Elliott, Canada’s largest Ford/Lincoln-Mercury franchise holder. While still campaigning a Cobra Jet Mustang in Super Stock in 1971, Poole built this Comet Pro Stocker, stuffed a 429 Cobra Jet between the shock towers, and blasted a 10.17 on his first pass. It was an eyebrow-raiser, but rules changes for 1972 essentially obsoleted the car after one year.