Two brothers, three Cruise Muscle machines, and plenty of smiles per pound. Good recipe.
Words: Dave Smith, photography: Si Parish
We all love outrageous American cars; the high-dollar restorations, or those running motors so powerful that they could reverse the rotation of the earth. But owning such a car can be more of a test of strength than a barrel of laughs. Having to think twice about taking your car out in case it rains, or in case someone gets too close and marks the paint, or knowing that the motor is so highly stressed that it’s one throttle blip away from catastrophic failure and subsequent bankruptcy can spoil the whole experience. Do you ever wonder whether John Force ever thinks, “Being a champion is great, but one weekend I’d just like to do RWYB and have a few beers with my mates”?
Sometimes, the most fun can be had at the budget end of the scale. It seems there’s no such thing as a truly cheap Yank any more, but there are still sensibly priced machines that make you part of the scene without putting you in the poorhouse. Owning a car that means the world to you doesn’t mean that you’re frightened of supermarket car parks, and there’s a chance you can fill the fuel tank on payday and still have some money left on Monday.
Here are two Kentish brothers epitomising that spirit. From the long-term classic to the future classic to the tough, daily-drivable beater, Alan and Jonathan Saunders and their GM-tastic machines have got Cruise Muscle covered.
“Back in the early Eighties, we went to Lydden Hill where they had a few American cars and some drag racing on the main straight,” says Alan. “I’d been a bike guy in my teens, but there I saw a Firebird, in matt black, and it was affordable. That sowed the seeds, I’d never seen one close up before, and it changed my whole outlook. I went straight home and put my MkIII Cortina up for sale! I bought myself a ’74 Firebird Esprit, and put a 455 in, back when you could find them reasonably cheaply. I ended up keeping that car for 20 years, but then I found myself using it less and less until I eventually sold it back in 2001. I took a break from American cars for nearly 10 years, but I always missed it.
“Back in 2010, I wanted another. I had a couple of grand as a budget, and it had to have a V8. I found this Camaro which was up for £2,400; it was a little bit tatty and needed a bit of work but it ran fine, and you don’t get much for a couple of grand. It’s a 1988 RS with T-tops, a 305 V8 and five-speed manual, nothing fancy, but I had a big mortgage at the time and of all the cars I’d seen, this was the nicest.
“I’ve done about 10,000 miles in it since then, including to Le Mans and the Spa Classic and back, and you get up to 30mpg thanks to that fifth gear. The most money I’ve spent on it was having a true dual custom 2.5-inch stainless exhaust system built for it at Fast Road Conversions in Ashford. It has straight-through silencers, so I don’t drive too fast for too long as it gets noisy, but so far the law and the neighbours haven’t objected! The other money I spent was on a full set of IROC wheels and new tyres, and at the price I got them for I didn’t object to driving up to Scunthorpe for them! The car had been lowered by a previous owner and rides quite firm, so these 16-inch wheels with 32mm spacers on the back have transformed the appearance.
“The drivetrain and underneath is mostly stock. I disconnected the smog pump and plumbing when the exhausts were done, and it’s surprising how many underbonnet rattles that cured! I had to do the clutch a while ago, and when it started overheating I replaced the radiator with an aluminium one with an electric fan and a cooler-opening thermostat and that cured it. Other than that it’s just been servicing. It’s had a bit of welding in the rear arches, the battery tray, the usual spots, but the whole floorpan was just bare metal! I spent a couple of weekends underneath it with a wire brush in the grinder and a tin of Rust Bullet paint about five years ago, and there’s been no more rust since. It’s not a fun job, though, as it’s impossible to get it off if you make a mistake, and I had it in my hair for weeks!
“The Camaro was supposed to be an all-year car, but now it’s garaged and kept away from the salt; I think once a car gets to 25 years old it needs a bit more protection from the elements. I started thinking about something a bit more durable for our climate, something that could live outside, possibly a pick-up. I built up a picture of what I wanted in my head, then, in June 2014, I found this truck in eBay. It’s a 1984 C10, and it was in Florida. I had a to and fro with the guy, who sent me a load of photos. It had a good chassis, the body was solid, it had been stored under cover for the last 10 years and the old 305 had been replaced with a 350. It was an auto, with column shift and a bench seat so I could get the grandkids in – they love it! I liked the stepside, I liked the black paint, and it had patina which may get lacquered but it will never have shiny paint as it lives outside and goes everywhere.
“I hit ‘buy it now’ at £2,400, the same as I’d paid for the Camaro. I phoned Hill Shipping, who are quite close to me, and they arranged it all. I only needed to call them once or twice, and from buying it to it turning up on my drive only took about a month. It was smooth and painless.
“It was solid enough – it needed cab corners, but it was a 30-year-old truck – but it didn’t run well, and wouldn’t pass an emissions test because it was misfiring so badly. I spoke to a local guy, Tony Stamp, a well-known drag racer, who told me the engine was worn out. He took it away and told me that it was knackered, the camshaft was shot, the timing chain was stretched, and one of the heads was cracked. It was on its last legs; I’m glad I had it delivered from Southampton docks, it wouldn’t have made it on its own! Tony completely rebuilt it, fitting a pair of second-hand heads he had, a new Holley carburettor, a new alternator and Hedman headers. I had a custom exhaust built by Zero Exhausts, with an X-pipe, cut-outs, and the tailpipes ahead of the rear wheels. Tony reckons the engine should be about 300bhp, and hopefully I’ll get it on a rolling road one day. One of the hardest parts of owning an American car is finding good people to work on them, and I’m so glad I found Tony.
“I bought the wheels a while ago on a whim. They’re a set of old Centerline Indy Champ 500s, and I thought they’d suit the Camaro but they’re just too big. I thought they might suit a pick-up, so I had to buy a truck to suit! That’s one of the reasons I picked this truck. You see those trucks in the States with huge rims and low-profile tyres; I don’t like that, I prefer a nice big sidewall. Since the photos were taken, I’ve fitted some All-Terrain tyres, which help me get up to 18mpg on longer trips. Tony’s currently building me an axle with a locker after I got stuck off-road with the open diff. He said when he took the diff cover off it was full of mud and water, so it may have been used to tow a boat at some point. The original gears were 2.52:1, but Tony’s fitting 2.73:1. It’s definitely for cruising, not drag racing, though hopefully I won’t be getting stuck in the mud!
“The Camaro was bought and run on a tight budget, but by the time I bought the truck, the mortgage was paid hence there was more money free to buy a rebuilt engine and axle. I also fitted all new brakes and steering linkages, so I can go anywhere in it … if I’ve enough money left for fuel! Tony’s also clear-coating the bonnet and sealing and cavity-waxing the bulkhead, just protecting it, really. I’m going to have the seat recovered, some sound deadening, maybe even a stereo! It’s a very basic truck, but it’s now just how I want it.
“On reflection, maybe I should have viewed it in the States and had some of the work done over there, but I don’t think I’d have saved much and it may have cost more on the import duty. Now I’m back on the scene, and it’s a brilliant feeling. I used to go up to Santa Pod in the Eighties and Nineties; now we’re back, and the scene’s stronger than ever with some younger guys getting involved. I’m glad it’s not just us old boys!”
Alan’s brother, Jonathan, was with Alan on that day at Lydden Hill. It must have made an impression, as he’s had his Trans Am quite a while now! “I bought the Pontiac back in 1992 at Beaulieu Autojumble,” says Jonathan. It was a 1981, 4.9 turbo and was just parked in the car park with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window. It was being sold by a finance company, and nobody really knew who owned it! It was a very difficult purchase, but once we found the lady who owned it, I paid, got the receipt, and the log book came through a few weeks later. I could quite easily have given up during the process, but I’m glad I stuck with it.
“It was really solid, apart from a little rust on the front wing, and the engine was smoking because the seals in the turbo had gone. I replaced the turbo, and had the heads rebuilt by American Autoparts back when they were in Thornton Heath, but it never ran right, and the turbo lag was horrible. The 301 is a hateful engine, so I pulled it and stored it – it’s the numbers-matching engine – and went and bought a Pontiac 400, which had been rebuilt and warmed over, and a TH400 gearbox.
“I recently replaced the rear springs and shocks, but it only has around 65,000 miles on the clock. It had 49,000 when I bought it, so I’ve only put 16,000 miles on it. All I’ve done is kept it running and kept it used – I’ve never thought of changing it and probably never will. I’ll probably just look after it so I can pass it on to my daughters who are keen to keep it. It’s always a popular choice for picking them up from school or driving them to parties! There’s still no rust underneath, just a little starting to come through on the door frames in the usual places, and keeping it rust-free is the important thing. These cars were never built to last. I had a ’74 Camaro in 1984 when it was just 10 years old, and it was on its last legs then; they always rusted if you let them.
“The bodywork’s definitely the important part, as the mechanical side of them is very easy. When we had our extension built, I built the garage around the car – I got my priorities right! I just plan to enjoy it while petrol is relatively cheap and insurance is affordable. It’s gone up in value massively since I bought it, so it was a good investment, and if you can have fun out of something and still make money on it, you’re doing well!”