Jay Leno, A Firm Believer in Restomodding - Article
January 18, 2011 12:00 AM
If I'd been in a modern Audi S4 or a Mustang 5.0, I could have been going 30 mph faster and not even hinted at spinning. While the old Dodge has more power than either, the rest of it is pure 1966—leaf-spring rear suspension, skinny bias-ply tires and no power steering or brakes. My Coronet is just like the rest of the '60s-era muscle cars in that it has tons of power but doesn't stop or go around corners very well. We all loved the flaws, but the fact is, these cars aren't very safe. That's why I'm a firm believer in upgrading old steeds with modern components.
It's called restomodding. You take an old car and modernize it with an updated engine, suspension, brakes, tires and electronics. And if you restomod the right way, you can revert back to stock at any time. I've been subtly updating my cars for years. Take my two 1925 Doble steam cars. They weigh 6000 pounds and move pretty well but only have rear brakes. That's insane. I put brake drums on the front, with Corvette disc brakes hidden inside them. Now I can comfortably drive my Dobles, because they reliably stop.
I went much further with my just-restored Ford Galaxie. While it looks completely original, it's an all-new car underneath. The suspension now moves with improved trailing arms, a Panhard rod to limit rear-axle sway, oversize antiroll bars, beefed-up mounting brackets and stiffer, polyurethane bushings, all from a suspension company called Hotchkis. The sloppy recirculating-ball steering was replaced with a precise rack-and-pinion setup. Wilwood cross-drilled and vented disc brakes grace all four corners. In the engine room, there's a fuel-injected 511-cubic-inch Jack Roush V8 backed by a Tremec six-speed gearbox. We wrapped the old pieces in paper and put them on a shelf in case we ever want to return the car to its original condition.
Thanks to the new hardware and upgraded tires, this old Ford gets far better fuel economy, and it really handles. By contrast, when I used to drive my dad's '66 Galaxie 7 Litre, which I wrote about in this column (Oct. 2009), if an exit ramp sign read "45 mph" and I was doing 46, I'd never make it. Now I've got plenty of breathing room.
Restomods are more popular than ever, so there are bolt-on parts for a wide range of vintage cars. GM recently began offering a 430-hp crate engine with emissions-compliant fuel and exhaust systems. You can drop it into your hot rod and pass California's stringent emissions inspections.
These improvements aren't limited to the mechanicals. Vintage Air makes air-conditioning systems that can be adapted to almost any car. Most older cars have acres of room under their hoods, and a new compressor isn't much bigger than an alternator. Over time, a/c will ensure your interior doesn't get damaged, because you're no longer driving with your windows down. I also like to use Dynamat insulation, which sticks to the floor pan underneath the carpet. It's amazing the difference this lightweight material can make. The clatter, the vibration and the heat that used to fill the cabin—that's all gone.
If you install a 12-volt alternator in your old car—a common upgrade—you can keep the stock wiring and the radio, but you'll have to change all your bulbs. It's perfectly fine to stick with the 6-volt system, but many like the brighter lights and increased starting power from the higher voltage. I think that upgrading to 12 volts is better than simply installing an 8-volt battery and leaving the 6-volt stuff in place because, eventually, you will burn out your bulbs.
The funny thing is that restomodding is not new, it's just that now there's a catchy name for the technique. I own a 1914 Premier—a big, brass-era car built in Indianapolis, with a huge T-head six-cylinder dual-plug engine. This car was upgraded in the late '40s, long before the term restomodding was ever uttered. The previous owner removed the coil and the magneto—it had redundant ignition systems—and installed a 12-cylinder ignition from a Pierce-Arrow. That's a really early example of restomodding. I get into this Premier, turn the key, and it fires; I don't have to start on the battery, then switch over to the magneto.
The brakes are a key safety issue and so are seatbelts. I install them in all my old cars, even if that feature wasn't originally available.
But no matter how much you upgrade an antique car, it is never going to be as safe as a modern vehicle. I hear dads say, "My kid wants a 1965 Mustang, which sounds like a perfect teenager car to me." That's not smart. Today, thanks to stiffer bodies that are designed to crush on impact and absorb energy, good seatbelts and airbags, drivers and passengers walk away from accidents that would have been lethal back when we were kids. That kid will be a lot safer in a later model Mustang or even a Ford Fiesta.
Some purists object to changing or modifying these old cars. I look at it this way: If it makes the car better, safer, more reliable and faster—and you can change it back to stock whenever you want—why not do it?
By Jay Leno
Published in the December 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics.