Doane Yawger: Hot rods: Exercise in excess

12/04/2010 1:52 AM

01/18/2012 5:38 AM

I love old cars but have recently come to the conclusion that I'm not a hot rodder.

Going through car magazines is a great pleasure, and lately I've been reviewing some Hot Rod magazines from the past few years. In many cases, I love the cars I see but not what has been done with them.

I've always been intimidated by big power. When I mowed lawns during high school and college to earn a little extra spending money, I was nearly terrorized by the power lawn mower I had to use on one of the yards. Give me a push mower anytime.

At some rod runs or car shows I've attended, high-horsepower cars or trucks were rumbling through the crowd. Sure, the sound of those megapowered vehicles was exciting, but scary at the same time. The driver was barely in control of forces far more powerful than he.

Since my days about five decades ago in driver's education, I've been mindful of the phrase "speed kills," and I think it's still true. A driver can easily get way over his head even with a "gutless" four-cylinder engine, to say nothing of a V-8 producing 400 or more horsepower. It's needlessly tempting fate. I don't feel the need to push the envelope. I don't want to be wrapped around a telephone pole for overdoing it behind the wheel.

I'm fully aware it's a free country, and auto enthusiasts can explore the limits of horsepower and performance. If you'll pardon the pun, more power to them. It's just not for me.

One of the saddest things I saw in those Hot Rod magazines was photo coverage of the crash of a 1951 Studebaker Champion drag car called the "Chicken Hawk." The car's owner had been drag-racing the Studebaker since 1961, and it got away from him and crashed. The car rolled over many times and was demolished; the driver was hospitalized but fortunately survived.

What a waste of a neat vintage vehicle. Sacrificed to satisfy the urge to go fast. When I see amateurs drag racing their cars it only reminds me of mechanical torture and abuse.

Frequently there's breakage of parts not meant to handle those stresses. Old cars deserve better than to be thrashed on a drag strip. Leave the high-horsepower wars to the professional classes and cars designed only for racing.

Speed not only is dangerous, it's mighty expensive as well. A number of after-market engine builders offer motors producing more than 1,000 horsepower. Costs for these "crate" motors can range from several thousand dollars to five figures or more. How fast you go often is determined by how much you want to spend.

Many cars came from the factory with more than enough power to get out of their own way. I'm not advocating replacing these engines with anemic four-cylinders; that wouldn't be right. But over-the-top motor and suspension changes seem so senseless to me.

Roll cages, extra-fat rear tires and superchargers poking through the hood just remind me of ridiculous excesses. Thankfully, the "pro street" fad from the 1990s seems to have waned now, but the quest for extra power hasn't gone away by any means.

Muscle cars are one of the most popular areas of car collecting these days. These are vehicles manufactured roughly from 1964 to 1972, with a little overlap on both sides of this time frame. We're talking Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, Barracudas, Dodge Challengers and Road Runners.

The cars generally were compact to medium-sized, and they could be ordered with high-horsepower motors and some suspension and handling refinements. Oh, the temptation to push one of these pony cars to the limits. Watch out ...

Several times over the years I've gone on what could politely be called impromptu "thrill rides." One of the first, 45 years ago, was in a 1957 Corvette roadster with a souped-up motor. In my 15-minute ride through residential streets in our neighborhood I was repeatedly slammed against the seat when the driver quickly pressed the "loud pedal."

Then there was the time I got a ride in a new Viper sports car on a country road in Turlock. In no time at all, we were doing 110 mph, and I was hoping a farmer with a hay truck didn't pull out from a side road. It was mostly frightening.

I also rode on a speedboat with a big V-8 motor on Lake Yosemite, and the thrust of that engine pushed me into the hot exhaust pipes, singeing not only my jeans but my legs as well. I vowed if I made it back to shore alive I'd never do that again.

A couple of times I've had brief flirtations with bursts of speed, once in an old hot rod and more recently in an early muscle car. These were certainly "E ticket" rides, but I'm not sure I'm up to the thrill. There's a saying that we shouldn't drive faster than our guardian angels can fly. I can relate to that.

Call me a coward, sissy or whatever. Go ahead and put a high-performance carburetor on that small block. But I would just as soon enjoy old cars without worrying about getting over my head in an instant.

Doane Yawger is a retired Merced Sun-Star reporter and editor who can be reached at dsyawger@sbcglobal.net.

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