Carmudgeon -- OK, One More Muscle --

Muscle Memory on eBay

OK, so sue me. After squawking about the ridiculous prices for American muscle cars just two months ago…I went out and bought a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE two weeks ago.

Just to put this all in perspective, here's a quote from my January editorial column: "Regardless of the motivating factors, the bottom line remains — I will never buy another classic American muscle car."

Is it too late to rephrase that as, "I will only buy one more American muscle car?" Truthfully even that statement is potentially false, as I don't know what cars will cross my path in the future. As I have now learned, when it comes to classic automobiles you should never say "never."

But what drove this latest Dodge Challenger purchase? And for that matter, what drove my previous statement about never buying another old car built around the time I was born? As stated in my earlier column, the pricing for these vehicles has gone from crazy to stupid. I know all the factors playing a part in this, from wealthy baby boomers to Barrett-Jackson auctions, but I still find the prices ridiculous when compared to what that same money will get you in terms of a modern-day performance car — a car that will be far superior to any original muscle car in just about every measurable way.

But it's not just how good modern cars are, it's also how bad most of these older muscle cars drive. A perfect example comes in the form of a 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A I almost bought last August. The car was on eBay, and between the pictures and the description it sounded like a completely original, rare and "unmolested" car that was simply waiting for the right garage space to lounge in between cruise nights. I ended up being the high bidder at $39,700, but not meeting the reserve. I actually knew the reserve was $40,000, and I wouldn't have bid above it because I wanted to avoid any obligation to buy the car without first seeing it in person. I called the seller immediately after the auction ended and arranged an in-person inspection. The car was located in Southern California, about 100 miles away, making the in-person inspection relatively painless. But with the information I'd gotten off eBay, coupled with what the owner had told me, I was pretty sure I would buy it as I drove to the owner's house.

Then I saw the car in person and took it for a short test-drive. Rather than go into all the gory details I'll just say this — the car was a heap. It still looked OK in person, but not as good as the photos made it look, and not as good as the stated description (both from the eBay ad and directly from the owner's mouth during our phone conversations). For example, both rear quarters had been replaced, and the job wasn't done to original standards. Far worse than the cosmetic condition, however, was the mechanical condition. Everything from the steering to the drivetrain to the brakes was beyond screwed up! The owner sheepishly admitted that "the carb, camshaft and torque converter don't really match up well, so those should be gone through." Hmm, don't remember that tidbit of information in the eBay ad or our phone call.

I sat in the driver seat, trying to coax the thing back to the seller's house, while a dreadful thought kept echoing through my head:

"I almost bought this piece of #@%&!! No, I almost paid $40 grand for this piece of #@%&!!"

I think that one experience, even more than the stupid money people are paying for these cars, is what truly drove my intention to never buy another muscle car (though it's taken several months of perspective to realize this). Honestly, just the possibility that I would have dropped nearly $40K for such a vehicle scared the hell out of me.

But I used the word "most" above when referring to the driving characteristics of these old cars. Most of them drive terribly (like that '70 Challenger T/A), because most of them have been "effed" up by one or more of the previous owners. The term "survivor" is often seen in muscle car ads, and it essentially means a car that hasn't been changed at all from the day it rolled out of the dealership. This can be a double-edged sword, as the majority of these cars need serious maintenance (usually involving one or more parts replacements) after 30-plus years of muscle car ownership. However, if you can find a car that has never been modified and never been severely mistreated by a previous owner you can rightfully call it a "survivor." And said vehicle should drive approximately the way it was intended to drive when it left the showroom more than three decades ago.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE I just purchased is a survivor. It's had only one owner since new and the only changes to the car are replacement tires, replacement shocks and a new exhaust system. It doesn't even have electronic ignition, which is almost unheard of on any muscle car that isn't meant to win a car show where originality counts as much as paint quality. This car isn't meant to win shows, and it actually needs some rust repair. So how and why has it remained essentially original after all these years?

Turns out the owner wasn't a muscle car enthusiast. He needed a new car in the spring of 1971, and his local Dodge dealership had a 1970 Challenger R/T SE demo car with 9,200 miles on the odometer. The car was pretty loaded up with options, including air conditioning, AM/FM radio, rear defrost, hood pins, chrome exterior mirrors and the largest engine available, the 440 Magnum. It was also painted a striking shade of Plum Crazy Purple, one of the "special order, high-impact" colors offered that year. This guy didn't really care about the performance elements, but he liked the luxury options and he picked the nearly new car up for a song — $3,200, including tax and fees (MSRP on this Challenger, with all those options, was close to $5 grand). He was even considered the "first" owner in terms of Chrysler's warranty coverage for the 5 years/50,000 miles included on new car purchases (I have the documentation for all of this).

Like the fright-pig Challenger T/A I looked at last summer, I first saw this R/T SE on eBay. And like that other Challenger I didn't let any money change hands until I saw it in person. But with this car I had to fly to Denver and then drive to Lincoln, Nebraska, to do my in-person inspection. Before the auction ended I had grilled the owner on the phone regarding the level of rust in the car, and its overall condition. It sounded like a good deal, but, for obvious reasons, I didn't get my hopes up. Another key difference between this auction and the one from last summer: I was the high bidder and the reserve had been met, so if I didn't buy it the seller could rightfully leave negative feedback about me.

Again I'll avoid the gory details and simply say that the car met or exceeded my expectations in every area. I confirmed it had the numbers-matching drivetrain, the rust wasn't a serious issue, and it had all the rare options listed on the fender tag. As a bonus, because the seller wasn't particularly apt at taking pictures, this was one of those rare instances where the car actually looked better in person than in the ad. The interior was shockingly clean, with everything but the driver seat in essentially mint condition. The same could be said for the original vinyl top — it was in unbelievably clean condition.

However, the best surprise came on the 470-mile drive from Lincoln back to Denver. I had taken the Challenger on a short test-drive before paying the seller and it seemed fine, but after 50 miles on Interstate 80 I knew for certain the car's mechanicals were not only original, but also in excellent condition. In fact, it drove as nicely as any Mopar muscle car I'd ever experienced. Shortly after arriving in Denver I had the car aligned and the mechanic confirmed what I suspected. "Yup, the suspension pieces are all original, right down to the wear items like the ball joints and tie-rod ends. And they are still in fine shape."

So there you have it — an original Dodge Challenger R/T SE with all the right mechanical parts still in working order. What a difference from that earlier fright-pig Challenger T/A bullet I dodged. As opposed to various and sundry owners with various and sundry ideas about how a car should be "improved," this Challenger R/T has essentially been left alone. And, surprise-surprise, it drives superbly…almost as if some professional engineers meant for it to drive this way. No, it's not going to outgun a new Mustang on a twisty road, but it's plenty quick while being easy to drive. No annoying clunks. No need to constantly babysit the steering wheel just to keep it between the lines. Heck, even the window seals are good enough to keep the interior quiet at 70 mph.

Between these two Challenger experiences, along with the very satisfying eBay purchases I had when getting my Triumph Trident and Hurricane, I've learned the following lessons:

  1. You can get a nice vehicle off eBay, but buying one "sight unseen" is risky. Both Triumph motorcycles were paid for prior to seeing them in person, but luckily those worked out fine. The Challenger T/A I almost bought could have been a disaster. At this point I consider the motorcycle experiences flukes, and probably won't roll the dice on buying another vehicle without first inspecting it.
  2. Talk to the seller before bidding. I spoke to both Challenger owners, and the Hurricane owner, before any money changed hands. These conversations are as important for learning about the seller as they are for learning about the vehicle. The Hurricane and Challenger R/T owners seemed like solid citizens after talking to them. The fright-pig Challenger T/A owner sounded a little too much like a car salesman, which he turned out to be in terms of "creatively" presenting the vehicle.
  3. Don't try to get rich buying and selling vehicles. I still don't know if I got a good deal on the Triumph motorcycles or the Challenger R/T. Technically I won't know until I sell them (if I ever do…). But I do know that I was happy with what I got and what I paid. That's really the bottom line on vehicle purchases. Leave the rest for speculators who can afford to treat vehicles as pure investments — and absorb the financial consequences when they get it wrong.

Finally, I'm officially taking back what I said about old American muscle cars in my earlier editorial column. They don't all suck compared to new cars — just most of them. However, if you can unearth a model that hasn't been carved up and spat out by the teeming masses of automotive hacks out there, you may just be surprised at how well these cars drive, even by new-car standards.

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