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All That Goes With a Freshly Built Muscle Car

Firing Up: Nothing blew up, so it's all good

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For those who have built or been involved with building a vintage car from the ground up know what it’s like to hear your project’s engine fire up for the first time. It’s exhilarating, to say the least—especially when all eight cylinders are working in perfect harmony. It’s impossible to explain the mental effect it has on us to anyone not into this addicting muscle car hobby. There’s just nothing like it. So, you let it idle for a while, get it up to temp then give a couple yanks on the throttle because you need to hear what it sounds like throughout the whole rpm range. And if you are like me—the angrier, the better. Once you shut the engine down it’s time to enjoy the overwhelming smell of newness that just burned off every heat-generating part. Afterward, you check for leaks, give it a mental “thumbs up,” then realize the workload that lies ahead. Not the physical labor of heavy lifting, but the time investment necessary to learn the car and its many idiosyncrasies. The suspension isn’t going to tune itself and the brake pads need to be bed into the rotors properly to ensure that expensive disc brake system stops the car like it’s supposed to.

But before all that goes down, the car needs to get out on the road for its maiden voyage. After one more final bolt-check, it’s time to strap in, turn the key, and hope for the best. With the engine roaring and ready, you gingerly let out the clutch, begin to feel it grip, then, bam! You stall it. Your buddy in the passenger seat laughs … nervously, you do, too. Finally on your way, you cautiously shift the car into Second gear well below 2,000 rpm; you finally muster up enough speed to get into Third gear because you can’t remember if you tightened every lug nut. You did, and nothing falls off or blows up. It’s all good. Might as well stick one of those “Baby on Board” or “Flammable” placards in the rear window because you are driving like an old lady hauling a trunk full of dynamite. Wait! Did you close the trunk all the way? Yes, you did. In your hyper awareness of pretty much everything, you hear a strange sound coming from the rear passenger side of the car. Are the rear brakes dragging? Maybe the tire is rubbing somewhere inside the inner fender. Before you can assess exactly where the noise is coming from, it goes away. Hmm. Must have “clearanced” itself. Then anxiety sets in when you realize that you’ll need to hit the brakes to stop and you’re not sure if the car is going to comply. You address the pedal with a slow, steady push. It didn’t go to the floor, the car stopped in a straight line, and once again nothing blew up. Sweet!

So, everything went fine on the car’s first outing—it accelerated, shifted, turned, and stopped like you had hoped. One more visual scan under the car showed no signs of fluid on the floor, so it looks like all the fittings were tightened properly.

Now the car is all done and you are ready to kill it at the next track day at the dragstrip or autocross, right? Wrong.

This is when the work begins. Depending on your driving style and feedback from the car, it’s going to take tons of track time to get those killer double-adjustable shocks dialed in. Same goes for the brake system’s proportioning valve. Suspension tuning is pretty much a never-ending task that will continually change with track conditions and the tires being used. Not to worry, all that stuff will get easier as you become more familiar with the car.

So, how do I know all this? Let’s just chalk it up to experience. Not a lifetime of it, but more like from a few months ago when we got our 1971 Camaro, Project Orange Krate, on the road for the first time and drove it over 120 miles from the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky, to Mike Norris Motorsports in Plainfield, Indiana.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about hitting the road for the first time, but after getting a little seat time and getting used to the car, it drove well the whole way.

Next stop, the 2016 Holley LS Fest for some track time.

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