American Metal: Detroit Dinosaurs

Cars People

TV's Jonny Smith on the enduring appeal of American Metal....

All classic machinery immediately offers two things; a glimpse into yesteryear and the chance to submerge yourself into escapism.

As a non-American, the allure of American metal stems from growing up watching US hit TV shows and movies. It didn’t even have to be the cliché stuff like Dukes, Smokey, A-Team, Bullitt and American Graffiti. I used to marvel at the street scenes in Columbo and Quincy M.E, crammed full of ‘70s land yachts with hilarious overhangs and soggy suspension.

The attraction of Detroit’s dinosaurs is the cavernous contrast between restrained Brit, dainty Euro and Japanese cars. An obsolete yank tank in the British Isles couldn’t be a sillier choice really. For example, I live in a narrow-streeted ancient town whose buildings haven’t changed since the 1600s. Why, then, do I drive a big block manual ‘68 Dodge Charger with no power steering and non-servo drum brakes? Because it is weekend wheeled roleplay.

1968. An epicly twisted year.

Think Mr Benn (Google it if you’re too young to remember this cartoon). Ignore the kinky adult connotations and try to think clean thoughts about a grown man wanting to dress up in his lunch hour. He’s a sensible businessman who simply wants to shake off the norm for a sliver of his working week. A slab of American iron does this sizeably, without the need to wear a ten-gallon hat. Or chaps.

I’m not for a second saying American cars are the most ergonomic, beautiful or driver-focused vehicles. No. But celebrate them as outlandish mobile time capsules of their era. The late fifties Cadillacs and Chevrolets for their rocket-ship fins and afterburner emulating exhausts.

Role play and romance: indulgence or idiocy?

The sixties brought Coke-bottle hips, dog-dish hubcaps and marketing campaigns more psychedelic than any Cali beach party. Pontiac’s GTO kindled the mid ‘60s muscle car revolution which, quite literally, brought power to the people. You could become a traffic light heart throb with a small deposit, right up until the muscle car era was killed off by soaring insurance and strangling smog regs at the start of the ‘70s.

Pithy buzz words and numbers on small chrome badges translated to kudos in the parking lots and on the street: Tri-Power, Boss, Ram-Charger, Road Runner, Super Bee, Z28, SS427, Hemi, Cyclone, The Judge, 440 Six-Pack, 4-4-2, Super Duty, Dart Demon, Cobra Jet, Shaker Hood. Muscle cars may not be fast on paper compared to today’s modern machines, but that would be missing the point.

The experience remains raw. Physical. Enjoyably flawed. A smell of vinyl upholstery and fuel gargling carb throats teleports you back to a time you probably weren’t alive in. A classic car should cause impromptu grinning and chuckling. It should be as interesting parked up as it is to drive. Muscle cars especially were mass produced working class hero makers, never intended to last 40+ years. That many have lasted this long is a miracle.

A hunk of poo-brown power.

Owners be prepared for the FAQs of mpg and biblical bodyroll, but actually most American bloaters are neither as heavy nor thirsty as today’s full-fat SUVs. Many of these icons were an admirable exercise in costume dressing. American cars are simply scaled down truck chassis that were clad in new clothes every 12 months. As a consequence a lot of the engines, gearboxes and running gear is generic.

I love the simpleton nature of old American iron. They are durable yet crudely engineered lumps beneath the skin, which play host to the most flamboyant styles, cultures, colours and aspirations of their times. You have to laugh at the excesses they represented.

It shouldn’t matter whether you are attracted to ancient American metal because of films, racing pedigree, certain shapes or horsepower folklore. Embrace it. Like fancy dress, these things are best enjoyed with a tongue in a cheek. You can home in on the rarest, fastest, lime-light stealing yank tanks (Shelby Mustang GT500 anyone?) or you can be clever and sift through the hundreds of lesser known models that have come and gone.

A big-block powerhouse. And a slice of mid-century madness

On our little island a dog-slow, faded brown original ‘70s sedan would make as much of a rewarding weekend plaything as a numbers-matching, big-block, four-speed Charger. Trust me, I’ve had both. And loads in between.

Classic American excess is my automotive treat. During the week I drive a 70mpg hybrid. But come the weekends my carbon offsetting reward is a 6.3-litre V8 street racing relic.

Mpg? Oh shut up…

Jonny Smith has been a motoring journalist since 1998. He presents the TV show Fifth Gear and Mud, Sweat & Gears and spends his earnings on old cars. Jonny has owned over 140 old cars, some of which include an 8.1-litre 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood, a brown Oldsmobile Cutlass, AMC Pacer and right hand drive 1966 Pontiac Parisienne convertible. As mentioned, Jonny is currently driving a ’68 Charger and has been restoring a 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS for the last 10 years.