The Late Model Scene: These ARE The Good Old Days

At the recent Mopar Nationals, we had a chance to look at some pretty interesting things. Of course, the classics are always there – the Hemis, the A-body drag cars, the fun drivers, the oddball cool stuff. In the evening, it was up to nearby Heath to watch the crowds trying to get the cruisers to do burnouts on the main drag. But change is in the air; whilethere are certainly people cocooning their Challengers as investments, they are out on the boulevard, they are getting customized, and they are proving that this is indeed a true renaissance time of factory muscle.

It won’t last. It can’t. There are too many whiners, too many pundits, too many busybody politicians who want to babysit us. The fact that these cars, and associated models from GM and Ford, have actually become part of the contemporary culture is frankly an amazing reality. With unattainable CAFÉ standards on the horizon, we should not be surprised to witness them exit stage left, with some fanfare perhaps but with little attention to get the feds looking even closer at Detroit. That’s OK; Barack and Michelle can stay out on the Vineyard and eat more lobster, being none the wiser to what we do here in the real world.

But in terms of cool-for-now living, it would very difficult to image a better scenario, except perhaps a pseudo-Super Bee/Road Runner model that is all muscle but easy on the pocketbook (again, something the CAFÉ standards make a virtual impossibility in the present economy). If you have the wherewithal to do so, it is possible to build a machine so far technically advanced that even Joe Oldham at Popular Mechanics would not have predicted it back in the fading days of the 426/Gen II Hemi era. Near stock, we’ve got drag times in the 12-second zone, power accessories, reasonable mileage, comfort, excellent appearance and reliability; throw in a few extra things like computer-controlled high-volume fuel injection, modern rubber, and new suspension changes, and frankly the real big draw left to the older models now is raw heritage and the simplicity of that time. This is not a slight; we are talking about a heads-up real-world-conditions comparison; unless rarity and nostalgia is your driving factor, it would be hard to see how the new could lose.

It is different, of course. The stump-pulling, thunderous growl of seven-liters of big metal pieces moving air has been replaced by a somewhat higher-RPM sound. The use of new engineering allows even a 426” version of the Gen III to rev-up quicker than its patriarch ever did. The heavy flywheels of yore have also given way to more modern versions, still capable of handling what’s coming off the crank. Then there is the issue of driver comfort; all but the most radical retain the well-appointed interior and seating, instead of swaying back and forth on a fiberglass sled like we did in the old days. At the end of the track, just turn on the AC and crank up the stereo. And go to the road course. And win.

The aftermarket has been very supportive of this business. Everything from small add-ons to retrofitting pieces to hardcore parts, even complete cars are now available. Not only is there the presence from the established players, but there are many new firms, companies spawned from the pure excitement of the new technology arriving, that are doing innovative development and fresh design releases. It’s all good, and most of all, the modern owners are just as interested in this as people were when putting on Cragars, Hookers, Race Brown cams, and chrome valve covers during the original era.

Events are also growing. Ohio’s LX and Beyond Nationals, the ShopHemi.com race at the NMCA event at Maple Grove, and others have created wonderful venues for owners and enthusiasts to gather, as do the big traditional events. Now, with a variety of models – Charger, Challenger. Magnum, 300C, trucks, and non-V8s like Viper and Neon – these are modern Mopar round-ups. It’s cool to see all unfold before our eyes in the present, real time.