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14 relatively common traits of pre-owned 1960s muscle cars for sale in the 1980s

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Back in 1987, my search for a stock muscle car culminated in this 1967 GTO. Its paint was faded and the wrong color, there was front fender and bumper damage, a rusted trunk, and the quarter panels and driver’s door were full of body filler, but the Pontiac was complete, running, and drivable and cost me just $2,000. (I sold those non-stock 15×7 Third-Gen Trans Am wheels almost immediately). Photos by author.

Countless 1960s and early 1970s cars were falling victim to abuse, neglect, haphazard repairs, and rust by the mid-1980s. Yet muscle cars had since become collectible and were rising in value.

The road to my first purchase was lined with various prospects that came and went due to certain flaws or asking prices that made them cost prohibitive. Keep in mind that given my age and resources at the time, I was shopping in the low-end of the market with regard to price and overall condition. My first odyssey led to a $3,400 1967 Chevelle SS 396, which served as my daily driver. I’ve written about this car before.

1967 Pontiac GTO

The 335-hp 400, Hurst His and Hers shifted automatic trans, and 2.93 Safe-T-Track rear in my ’67 GTO were original but tired. The engine bay was happily free of speed parts and retained many of its factory components. Options included: A/C, tinted windows, AM radio, Rally clock, and power assists for the steering, brakes and windows.

Then about two years later, the entire scenario was repeated when searching for my 1967 GTO. The difference this time, however, was that I didn’t have to rely on the Pontiac for primary transportation, so it could be more of a project. My crusade also revealed interesting mutual traits that some muscle cars in the lower price range shared.

If any of the accounts that follow ring familiar, you were likely searching for an affordable 1960s to early 1970s muscle car in that same era.

1. Holleys for All

I discovered the ubiquitous aftermarket Holley #1850 600 CFM carburetor under more hoods than I can count. It didn’t matter what the make or model was or how large or small the V-8 engine was. If you recall, “Quadrajet” seemed to be a dirty word at the time. Occasionally, the Holley was even bolted to a stock spread-bore Q-jet intake via an adapter plate. A Moroso open-element air cleaner appeared to be required equipment with the transplanted carb. ACCEL yellow spark plug wires were also an under-hood mainstay.

2. Heading for Headaches

Rusty and leaking headers were quite common, as were completely cobbled-together exhaust systems comprised of disparate generic pipes and sometimes even flex pipe. Occasionally, a speed shop universal dual exhaust system followed the headers. In other instances, a muffler shop provided a more custom solution that could actually be of high quality.

3. “It does that because it’s a High Performance Engine”

Some owner’s with V-8s that idled like they were running on only six cylinders justified it by explaining that it had a “race cam.” The road test never seemed to bear that out, however. The blue smoke puffing out of the tailpipes was because the engine was “set up loose” to “race specs.”

4 .“Just needs a Tune-up”

Any car I looked at that had the above statement in its ad inevitably required considerably more than a tune-up upon further inspection.

5. The Chevy Substitute

Many GTOs, Firebirds, 4-4-2s, and Buick GSs had already been retrofitted with small-block or big-block Chevy engines, and they usually were advertised with that fact listed as a positive attribute, much to the dismay of purists.

6. GM Funk

It’s the delicate bouquet of aged vinyl upholstery mixed with the aroma of recurrent moisture seepage into the cabin past crispy weather stripping, which is then gently blended with scent of green (or red) tree air fresheners. Like counting the rings on a Sequoia to determine its age, adding up the number of little green trees dangling from the rearview mirror or radio knobs, or stuffed under the seats sometimes served as a rough indicator of how long the car sat and/or leaked.

7. Not so Sweet Tunes

Just about every car I considered had its stock radio replaced with an aftermarket AM/FM stereo cassette deck. The problem was the damage that was wrought when installing it. Sometimes the dash was cut to fit the stereo. Large round speakers were usually mounted in the door panels, thereby ruining them and possibly part of the inner door behind them, and Jensen 6 x 9 Coaxial (or insert brand here) speakers were cut into the package tray.  A few even had an equalizer and power booster mounted under the dash, adding more unwanted holes. Then there were the potential wiring issues that came with the installation. If you were lucky, things were done correctly, or better, the original radio was still there. If the system was decent, you could enjoy it or sell it to recoup some cash after you bought the car.

8. Wrapped up in Plastic

Cracked steering wheels came with the territory given the age of these cars. So too did aftermarket faux-leather covers. Remember the ones with the plastic line wrapped around it that had almost always given up its proper tension or simply broken, thus making the steering wheel cracks more palatable to look at than the half-falling-off cover.

9. Furry Friends

Synthetic fur or sheepskin seat covers appeared to be standard equipment if you didn’t know better, and they usually concealed stained or torn upholstery or other horrors underneath.

10. The Comfort of Your Livingroom

Household carpeting sometimes replaced automotive carpet and it was rarely black. Occasionally it was even shag.

11. Modern Art that “Just Needs Paint”

Many of these rolling sculptures were probably 20 pounds heavier than when they left the factory just from the copious amounts of body filler used improperly to fill rust holes and reshape the quarter panels, rockers, and the lower fenders and doors. Several once-rusted-out Bondo buggies in primer were advertised as “Just needs paint.”

12. Seal the Deal

Clear silicone applied around the outside of the rear window trim was a fast fix I’d seen a few times, and I even bought a car that had it once. The rear window design of mid-size GM vehicles of the era welcomed water retention at the base of the glass resulting in rust and leaks around the window and into the trunk. This is how a few owners chose to tackle the issue.

13. Cool Stance, but Bouncy on the Road

Sometimes a test drive revealed that the tail-in-the-air attitude of the latest prospect was not due to the installation of taller rear springs. Instead it was due to air shocks that were pumped all the way up. Air shocks have their place and can be effective, but installing them and setting them to full stiff to compensate for sagging rear springs makes for a terrible ride.

14. You don’t know Jack

You almost never saw a jack assembly in the trunk, and the spare tire was usually MIA as well.

Can you think of more typical points of interest you noted while seeking out cars from this era? Here’s a little help. I didn’t even discuss accessory gauges and how they could enhance the interior or simply destroy original parts depending upon how they were installed.