USA ALTERNATIVES

WITH THE PRICES OF AUSSIE MUSCLE CARS AT PEAK LEVELS DAVE MORLEY LOOKS AT THE VALUE THEIR AMERICAN SIBLINGS REPRESENT

WORDS DAVE MORLEY PHOTOS UNIQUE CARS ARCHIVES

There was a time when American performance iron was proportionally more expensive than an Aussie muscle car.

But that, as they say, was then. This is now. These days, you can get your backside into the US equivalent of some local heroes for something like half – or even less – the money of the roughly equivalent Aussie chrome-bumper toughie. Yet you still get a booming V8, fantastically outrageous looks the kerbside cred you can handle. And hey, you’re driving a Stateside original – a genuine example of the car culture that our home-grown muscle cars bow down to in the first place.

But how has this happened? Well, there are a few things going on. For one, the strength of the Aussie dollar a few years back saw thousands of desirable cars imported from the US. Just a small handful of years ago (as the A$ peaked) the big problem was not sourcing good American tin, but actually finding an empty shipping container to strap it into for the voyage across the Pacific. As with any influx of product, the laws of supply and demand soon swing into action.

Another factor is the fact that prices of Aussie originals are still seriously on the up. That infamous price spike a few years back – when a good Phase 3 would set you back a million clams – has been and gone, but that same weight-for-age Phase 3 is still a half-million-buck proposition and rising. And that has pulled the values of every other local performance car with it. Not to mention the value of even the second and third-tier stuff. Trust us, even though the madness has faded, if that spike had never happened, we wouldn’t be seeing the price-tags we now see attached to Aussie cars. It’s precisely why something like a Holden Sandman ute with a 253 V8 is now worth real money while back in the day, it was laughed off as a decal pack. And a REAL slice of Aussie muscle-dom? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

So why wouldn’t the smart fella move his or her search to an American muscle car? Well, one reason is that the bargain stuff around now is not necesarily the headline-act stuff. That means that instead of the raciest trim package available at the time, you might be buying something with a split-bench in the front and a column-shift auto. And when it comes to, say, something like a Mopar, you’ll be buying a 318 or maybe even a 360 small-block, and not the 426 Hemi or 440 Magnum variant. That said, in a lot of cases the comparison between the Aussie car and the US one will be like for like, because all our derivatives were small-blocks in the first place.

The real bargains are also still left-hand-drive, too, which can take a big chunk off the asking price. Precisely why this would be is anybody’s guess, but it’s true that left-hook scares off a lot of Aussie buyers. Frankly, we like it; you soon get used to it and it gives the car an even more exotic flavour for our money.

So, provided you can live with left-hand-drive and you don’t mind driving something that wasn’t the absolute alpha-male of its tribe, we reckon there’s some serious money to be saved by switching your wish-list from Aussie to US muscle. And here are our top picks from the Big Three.

FORD: TORINO

THE BEST TORINOS are the ones that look remarkably like our own XA/XB Falcon hardtops (or should that be the other way around?). These are seriously cool coupes, none more so than the dark green example that starred in the Clint Eastwood flick, unashamedly titled ‘Gran Torino’. Earlier cars borrowed heavily from the US-market Fairlane of the day and while they had coupe bodies, they’re a bit tail-heavy and kind of miss the styling boat a little. That said, some people love ‘em and we have to admit, they look like old-school Nascars.

By 1970, however, the Torino coupe was a fabulous looking thing and it’s easy to see where the XA hardtop designers took their cues. Ford’s 302 and 351 small-blocks are the most common engines out there but if you’re lucky, you might stumble across a 429 big-block equipped car, although you’ll pay a fair bit extra for the privilege of owning it. Stick with a 351 and use the change for petrol, would be our advice. Trannies were mostly three-speed autos, but you do see the occasional four-speed manual.

Like many of the cars we’re talking about here, bench front seats are common and so are column-shifters. But don’t be put off; you can always add a set of sports seats and a floor-shifter if that’s your thing because you won’t be altering a super-collectible variant. Or you could simply cruise around on the big split-bench perfecting your gutter-grip.

By 1973, ever-tougher US crash laws had crashed the party and the Torino was descending into middle-aged flab. The final insult was the 1974 Torino copping that big, goofy white stripe and becoming the transport for the camp-as-a-folding-chair cop ‘drama’ Starsky and Hutch.

But a 70, 71 or 72 Torino? Wow, what a great looking thing. Don’t forget the Mercury Montego or Comet which were more or less badge-engineered Torinos and are a bit harder to find here but can actually be even better value (they were never as cool looking from the front, though).

WHAT’S IT REPLACE?

This is an easy question and the answer is the big local Falcon hardtops from the early 1970s. The XA and XB were big, tough looking cars, but the Torino was pretty much their visual equal. Strangely, though, the Yankee is not the financial equal of the Aussies and while pretty much any half-decent XA or XB coupe is worth upwards of $80,000 and a GT is closer to $130,000 or even $150,000, the humble Torino is much more wallet friendly at closer to $45,000 in good nick. Shop around for something that might need a quick tidy up and you could be spending closer to $30,000.

GM: PONTIAC FIREBIRD

FIREBIRDS RUN THE full gamut of desirability. Early ones are enormously collectible and command big prices at home, while the much later models were bits of tatt and are still culturally linked to people whose houses feature wheels and a draw-bar. But the Firebirds from the 1970s are all about cool.

Remember a US TV cop drama called The Rockford Files? Yep, so do we, and the highlight was Jim Rockford screaming around LA in that light metallic brown Firebird. Okay, so the colour sucked (although it matched Jim’s suits) and even though it wasn’t even a Trans Am version, that Firebird had real charisma.

The second-generation cars are the best buying now and they ran from 1970 to 1981. Generally speaking, the earlier the better and the single headlight cars up to 1976 are the lookers. By the time the last of them rolled out the door in 81, the nose had become a real beak of a thing, complete with a rubber, impact bumper that just didn’t look so right. And, frankly, we like the earlier Trans Am model with the styled steel wheels (very similar to the GTS rims on a HQ) and fairly subtle bodykit, while the later T/As with the full catastrophe plastic add-ons (not to mention the screamin’ chicken decal on the bonnet) were a bit over the top. Let’s face it, if Burt Reynolds with Sally Fields in the jump-seat couldn’t make them cool (in Smokey and the Bandit) then nothing could.

Most Firebirds over here now are autos, which is fine, but be careful which engine you wind up with. In the days before badge engineering really caught on, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac all had their own V8s each with slightly different capacities. Parts for some of the more obscure powerplants might be hard to get these days, and our plum buy would be a Firebird that’s had the popular 350 Chev small-block transplant. Which, in turn, opens up all sorts of LS1 crate-motor and 4L60 four-speed auto alternatives when that time comes.

WHAT’S IT REPLACE?

The Firebird we’re talking about is, we reckon, pretty much a direct alternative for a HQ GTS two-door. For a start, you’re getting a similar driveline and a similarly sized package. And is it just us, or is the rear window styling job on the Pontiac the way the HQ coupe should always have looked? Reckon so.

Meanwhile, any genuine HQ GTS coupe is now about to touch $100,000, with good ones well into six figures. And that’s for a 308, not the 350 big-hitter. Compare that with a second-gen Firebird at closer to $50K for a mint Trans Am and closer to $40K for a very nice non-T/A. And good running cars that need a tizzy up are around for less than $30,000. Which doesn’t even buy a six-cylinder HQ coupe in cardboard boxes these days.

PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA

LATER MODEL CUDAS from the early 1970s are worth big cash now, purely because they’re among the horniest looking things ever to drip oil on a driveway. So the real value is in earlier cars, and we’d go for something form the second generation built between 1967 and 1969. Earlier than that and the Barracuda looked too much like an Aussie Valiant AP6 with a different tail on it, but the second-gen cars are much cooler.

“THERE ARE, OF COURSE, PLENTY OF ALTERNATIVES APART FROM THESE ONES”

There were convertibles and notchback body styles in the second generation, but we reckon the Fastback is the absolute pick of them. Engine options ran from the good old slant-six to 273-cube V8s in 67 models and a switch to the 318 for 1968. There were bigger engine options (including the 340) but you’ll pay a lot more for those. One of the fifty Hurstassembled 426 cubic-inch monsters? Name your price.

Like our local Valiants, these Barracudas were pretty simple but tough things with leaf-spring rear ends and torsion-bars at the front. So they’re dead easy to work on and there can’t be too many mysteries surrounding a 273 or 318-inch V8 these days.

And the 727 or 904 Torqueflite autos? Bomb-proof. Totally.

But really, it’s that fastback styling that gives the Barracuda its charm. Which, of course, also means that an earlier, gen-one, Barracuda fastback comes back into the reckoning, because it has the same sense of style. Actually, the massive rear window in the early fastback was so big, PPG had to be commissioned to make it specially and it was, at the time, the largest single piece of autoglass on a production car.

Oh yeah, one more thing. While most people think the Ford Mustang invented the pony-car thing in 1964, the original Barracuda actually beat the ’Stang to market by just two weeks.

WHAT’S IT REPLACE?

We’re never going to try to convince you that a Barracuda – even a fastback – is a tougher look than our own, home-brewed Valiant Charger. But have you looked at Charger prices recently?

Man, you’d reckon the world was down to its last handful the way the asking price of them has shot up. (Actually, it kind of is I suppose.)

And we’re not talking exclusively E38s or E49s or even R/Ts; even an XL or base-model taxi-pack with a 215 and a column-shifted manual is worth upwards of $40,000 if it’s in reasonable nick with not too much rust falling out of it (and they do rust, oh yes). Meanwhile anything with good paint and a fresh interior is closer to $60,000.

And that’s before we even get to R/Ts. And don’t kid yourself, you want an E38 or E49, you’re gonna need a six-figure sum starting with a ‘2’. But a Barracuda? Closer to $30,000 or $35,000 gets you into a very nice car with a V8 and lots of cruising left in it.

Even less if it’s left-hook.

Don’t ignore the mid-70s Road Runner, either. These were a bit bulkier looking but they’re even better value.

Think of them more as a Chrysler by Chrysler alternative… again, at about half the price or even less.

AND ALSO…

There are, of course, plenty of alternatives apart from these Big-Three examples and who knows what genre of four-wheeled muscle might come into fashion in the coming years? Look at the market and figure out what it is you like about a certain car, because chances are there’ll be an alternative you mightn’t have thought of yet. And, hey, isn’t lateral thinking and standing out from the pack partly what this game is all about in the first place?

And seriously, we’re not trying to tell you not to buy that Aussie classic you’ve always lusted after. But, if the Stateside alternative appeals at all, give it a look, because the money you could save will insure, register and run the thing for years. You probably won’t see the same capital gain as you will with a gilt-edged Aussie muscle car, but you will have just as much fun in a car that has street cred written all over it.