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Where the muscle car meets the American West: a road-trip story

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Photos by the author, except where noted.

It could be argued that the muscle car era drew much of its inspiration and style from the American West. Try this on for size: The cowboy hat exudes the same freedom and power and, well, American-ness that a “Z/28” badge on a Camaro does. Feel that? And to take that theory a step further, think of some of the classic names exclusive to the Muscle Car Era: Mustang, Ranchero, El Camino, Camaro, Maverick, Road Runner, Cougar…they just paint a picture of the western states in ways only imaginable deep inside Detroit’s design studios in the Sixties and Seventies – and that couldn’t have been just a coincidence.

So, when we got together with the folks at Stetson Hats and started talking about cowboy hats and muscle cars, it all just made so much natural sense. Stetson was planning to produce its Fall 2015 catalog and we asked, “Muscle cars and cowboy hats go together like Smokey and The Bandit – wouldn’t it be the perfect chance to get a few great cars together and roadtrip across California and shoot your catalog?” Done. We plotted a course from the San Francisco Bay Area east to the Sierra Foothills and a western ghost town resurrected by Jen Lee and renamed Bandit Town.

The plans were made: we tapped a few friends with some great muscle cars and found a neat early-Malaise pickup truck to round out 1) the late-60s/early-70s look Stetson was going for, 2) an accurate portrayal of the types of cars that are actually attainable right now and 3) a self-sustaining caravan that could handle a real road trip.

To say Steve Pardini is a Camaro guy is akin to saying Ted Nugent likes to hunt: The guy lives and breathes Chevy’s most popular muscle car and can recite weird part numbers and block I.D. stuff. And, as owner of Steve’s Camaros, we knew he owned the quintessential road trip muscle car – a Hugger Orange ’69 Camaro Z/28 running a hot 327 and a set of MiniLite-style wheels, as seen above. His Z is pretty much completely original, except for those wheels and a set of headers. It’s the kind of car that, he admits, if he ever sold, he’d have a hard time replacing. And when we saw that original paint and the bone-stock black vinyl interior, we simultaneously wanted to ride with him and didn’t want to get close to that black vinyl in 100-degree-plus Central Valley heat. But the MiniLites made the car look like it was daring anyone to drive it cross-country, so we were more than sold. Steve thought the whole thing sounded like a hoot and would there be dinner when we got there? Check.


Matt Sumpter is not only a young photographer and prop designer, but his daily driver is a lowered Polar White 1969 Buick Gran Sport, packing the Buick 400 with a pair of headers and a Holley 650 double-pumper. Matt drives this GS every. single. day. And with those hoodpins and the amber secondary lamps, it’s the kind of mild custom that just screams “I work on this thing myself and I’ve got a three-drawer toolbox in the trunk to prove it.” He’s got well over 100,000 miles on that 46-year-old tank and it’s got just the right stance for roadtripping. Lowered with a killer set of American Racing Daisies and a roll bar framing another stock black vinyl GM interior, we knew Matt and his daily were up for an epic road trip and could he bring his camera along? Absolutely.


Nothing says Outlaw Country like a dent-side Ford pickup truck – and one in faded Gold Glow Poly single-stage with a wicked stance? How ‘bout a ’74 Ford F350 Super Camper Special with a giant FE 460 that gets 4 MPG parked overnight? This thing is a San Francisco Bay Area native – built in the old San Jose Ford plant and most recently purchased from the original owner who used it as God and Henry Ford intended: with a giant slide-in camper in the back that made 40 years of family memories. As these things tend to go, the tailgate was removed and lost to the mists of time decades ago, so the only non-original part on this one-ton is the aftermarket tailgate. That and half-a-dozen driver-side mirror replacements. Still running its 16.5-inch wheels, it features a unique bed-side spare tire mount and an extended 140-inch wheelbase under the otherwise standard-length bed to accommodate the extra payload and 4.3 children assumed to be romping from side-to-side as Dad drove the clan to a campsite in Yosemite. These sixth-generation F-Series trucks are great because they’re 1) cool, 2) plentiful, 3) still affordable as collectibles and 4) hard to spend more than $100 for any single replacement part. We put air in the tires, filled the twin tanks and topped the radiator off. See you in the morning.


Photo by Andrew Saavedra.

It can also be said that nothing embodies real freedom like the custom boogie van craze of the mid-Seventies. So of course we called Dirty Donny – member of the Vandoleros van club and owner of “Vandalf:” a 1973 Dodge B100 shorty panel van with a set of period-correct Vector wheels, fully-customized interior, stock 318 mill and a mural scheme that he designed and painted. Donny rounded up Vandalf’s brethren: “Stabbin’ Cabin,” “Honky Tonk,” “California Dreamin” and the rest of the crew to meet us at Bandit Town. These guys are a living, breathing, rolling museum of authentic boogie van culture and their heavily customized Dodge, Chevy and Ford chariots never disappoint. Each member’s van is an exercise in reclaimed diamond-tuck vinyl, stained wood, stained glass, hell, just stains, black lights, secret compartments and analog stereo. It’s all wookie fur and chocolate fountains with the Vandoleros and they left Los Angeles for Bandit Town the night before we did so that the shag carpet glue wouldn’t melt in the desert heat of the day.

Grab your favorite Stetson, a cold beverage, pull up to the campfire and we’ll tell you the story of The Road To Bandit Town.