Dream Drive: The Joy Of Muscle Car

When this month’s celebration of Americana was in the planning stages, the idea of a Dream Drive story came up. Something that would speak of what it’s like to be behind the wheel of an iconic American automobile. A vintage muscle car would be perfect for the task, but where to find one? That’s easy. I pulled out the phone, dialed my parents’ house and asked the age-old question – “Dad, can I borrow the car?”.

The car in question is a 1969 Oldsmobile Hurst 442, more simply known as the “Hurst/Olds”. It’s striped, scooped, spoilered, and has a 455 cubic inch V8 under the hood – the textbook image of the American muscle car.

The story of the Hurst/Olds is a fairly interesting one. In the 1960s General Motors had a corporate rule that none of its midsize cars could have engines larger than 400 cubic inches in displacement.

The Hurst/Olds was Oldsmobile’s way around this, teaming up George Hurst and the famous shifter company to produce a limited number of 442s powered by the 455 from the full-size Olds lineup. In both ’68 and ’69 the 455s were “mysteriously” installed at the factory before the cars were shipped off to a third party to officially become the Hurst/Olds.

While the ’68 cars were pretty subtle on the outside, the ’69s were equipped with gold stripes, English racing mirrors, a rear spoiler, and a giant hood scoop. The idea was to shed the conservative image the Oldsmobile division had and to build a car that could compete with Detroit’s best. The formula worked.

As I’m sure is the case with many of you, my love of cars can be directly attributed to my dad. He’s been playing around with cars his whole life, and like me he’s also gone through a long list of vehicles. GTOs, Mopars, VWs, Corvettes, Datsuns, and just about everything else. The Hurst/Olds though, is a keeper.

In fact, he considers the ’69 H/O to be his favorite car of all time…

Including the current one, he’s actually owned three different examples of the car over the years. A pretty amazing fact considering there were only about 900 of these things produced in 1969. Of course back in the ’70s and early ’80s they weren’t quite the sought-after collector cars they are today.

To show just how little value these (and other rare muscle cars) had at one point – he actually traded one away for a V8-swapped Ford Pinto. “The stupidest (expletive) thing I’ve ever done” is how he describes the deal.

Years later, in the summer of 2003 he was finally able to get another one. The car was for sale on Ebay out of Louisiana, and for the first time in his life he purchased a car sight unseen and had it shipped to California. I can still remember watching the auction close and the feeling of nervous excitement.

By 2003, the cars had of course skyrocketed in value, but this one was still priced rather low. The original drivetrain was gone and replaced by a built 455 and an aggressive rearend, but the car was a genuine ’69 H/O in reasonably good shape.

In the last 10 years, my dad’s done quite a bit of work to car. The powerful but temperamental race motor was pulled out and replaced with a more drivable factory-spec Olds 455 and the short rear end gear was replaced with something more highway friendly. Naturally my brother and I questioned the decision to purposely make the car slower, but it certainly drives much smoother than it did before. Chalk it up to age difference.

Over the years, he’s also had the car repainted and done other minor restoration work here and there. Even so, this will never be one of those frame-off resto’d, numbers matching machines that bring six figures at auction. That’s not the point though.

While my dad loves muscle cars, he’s never been one of those guys who needs to have all the correct chalk marks are in the right place or anything like that. This particular Hurst/Olds is a driver through and through.

So then, what’s it like to drive? Well, when you think “Dream Drive” you probably imagine beautiful winding roads, exotic views, tight corners, and a machine built to handle them. That’s not really what this car is about. To me, the traditional muscle car vibe is about straight country roads, cruising through town, and burnouts in parking lots.

Handling impressions? Well, even when it was new the H/O was marketed as an “executive muscle car” – a smoother, more luxurious alternative to the stripped-down machines other companies were offering. In physical terms it’s a heavy car with a giant engine over the front wheels, soft 1960s era suspension, and stock brakes. To put it simply, enter corners at your own risk.

How about acceleration then? Well, to be honest it’s not even that fast. When the ’69 Hurst/Olds was brand new, magazines were able clock best quarter mile times in the low 14 second range. A very quick car for the era, but like a lot of the legendary muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s, it would probably be outrun by the average V6-powered family sedan of today. I have no doubt my stock Volkswagen GTI could give this thing a run for its money in the acceleration department.

But who cares? Driving a vintage muscle car in the year 2013 is not about having the fastest car on the road. There are other cars for that. Hell, this thing could be as slow as a Prius and the feeling would pretty much be the same.

This is about turning the key and feeling that 455 rumble to life. It’s about hearing that lopey idle through cranked down windows and staring out over that big hood scoop as your cruise the neighborhood.

It’s about traveling back to a period when high performance cars felt like this right off the showroom floor. Something that can be hard to believe, given how smooth and drama-free cars have gotten in recent decades.

Even today’s most hardcore performance machines do a fine job of sitting back and relaxing until you really ask them for it. They idle smoothly, entertain with LCD screens – then only when you want do they unleash their incredible power and handling. Cars like the Hurst/Olds are the opposite.

While their performance might disappoint those who have grown used to modern machines, these cars tug at your heart through other means. They rumble and shake, and they excite even when doing the most mundane things like idling through a parking lot a 10 miles per hour.

Then there’s the way people respond to seeing such a car on the street. It’s literally hard to go for more than a couple blocks without getting a reaction from someone. Sometimes it’s a simple thumbs-up, sometimes it’s a “cool car!”, sometimes it’s “what year is that?” or “what you got under the hood?”.

Often, these parking lot encounters will turn into story sessions where people tell you about how they used to have a car like that, or knew someone that did. Usually these stories are highly exaggerated and clouded by nostalgia – “I had one of those that would pop wheelies in third gear” – but that’s all part of the fun.

So while I love twisty roads and exotic vistas as much as anyone else, the great thing about the Hurst/Olds is that you don’t need any of that stuff to enjoy it. A Ferrari might be in its element at the Laguna Seca Cork Screw, and an Evo might be in its element on a tight switchback somewhere, but this car’s in its element just heading out to grab a burger.

Yep, it’s a car with so much personality that a routine trip through the local drive thru becomes a memorable occasion. You just have to love that.

To me the most important attribute of a car is how it makes you feel when you drive it – and being behind the wheel of a vintage muscle car is an emotional experience like no other.

Drop the windows, put some rock ‘n roll on the radio, and let freedom ring.