Muscle Cars @ San Diego Auto Museum

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Story and photos by Michael Harris

The San Diego Automotive Museum held its 25th Anniversary Gala Saturday evening, 18 January, and a good time was had by all. The event was a success and helped add to the museum’s bank balance. The auto museum had a lot to celebrate. In 25 years, it has grown from a small collection of cars and motorcycles in a barely rehabilitated space in what was the San Diego Parks and Recreation space for clog dancers, ping pong players, and other recreational activities, to become one of the most dynamic museums in Balboa Park. The City of San Diego recently extended the museum’s lease for an additional 25 years. The museum is also in the process of buying a collection storage and restoration space in a large industrial facility in close by (to the park) National City. Refinancing was just accomplished that lowered the monthly mortgage payment substantially and allows the museum to increase its equity in the building and grounds. A number of interesting vehicles are undergoing restoration there including a 1952 Triumph Mayflower coupe (it looks like a miniature Rolls Royce/Park Ward custom coach square top), an early 1950s Fiat Topolino, a 1936 Ford stake side truck, and others. Really a great group of volunteers there also. You could be a part of the team. The museum is on sound financial footing with many interesting cars on exhibit and quarterly changes in featured displays. The paid staff is small by park museum standards, being five full-time staff members and three part-time employees, but all are dedicated to the museum and hard working. The staff has been stable and loyal to the Executive Director, Paula Brandes, who has led this revolutionary improvement in quality of the exhibits and stability amongst the staff. All of this could not be done without the scores of volunteers both at the shop and at the museum.

In addition to the cars, motorcycles and exhibits, the museum houses one of the largest automotive literature collections in the area. And the exhibits do not remain static. Three of the displays are interactive, that is they tell a story about the display. The Plank Road Exhibit explains how a road was built east of San Diego with railroad ties to connect to Imperial County at a time when blowing sand made the dirt “road” almost impassable until the rail road ties were laid down. Another interactive exhibit is the Louis Mattar Cross Country Car and Trailer, designed and built to go cross country without ever stopping. Fuel and tire changes could occur while the vehicle was in motion. Local resident Louie Mattar was a nice husband who gave his wife a new white Cadillac sedan in 1947, and shortly thereafter transformed her car into a historical vehicle. She was so angry with his modifications to her car she apparently refused to speak to him for an extended period of time. The video stories of Louis’ adventures and travels with the car that were recorded over the years are very, very funny. The “Barn Find” Studebaker coupe story also fascinates visitors. Something for everyone.

So what was the draw to the Gala in addition to the fine food and wine? A live auction, of course. The big draw was a nicely maintained 1967 Morgan +4 two place Tourer in red, with options including wire wheels, new radial tyres (British spelling), a full width rear bumper and air cleaner. Museum volunteers cleaned up the Morgan and detailed it until it sparkled. British car expert Randy Zoller at Heritage Motorsports rebuilt the brakes, replaced the tires, and readied the car for auction. Another live auction item was a Montgomery Ward 350cc Italian made motorcycle with 300 miles from new. Amazing. Gala visitors could also see the 16 beautiful Corvettes on display, including the new C-7 model 2014 Corvette. Every automotive publication has raved about the 2014 Corvette, saying for the first time ever, the Corvette competes head to head with European and Japanese super cars, including Porsche’s 911. And the base price of the car is in the low $52,000 range. One of the most popular display Corvettes was an absolutely pristine, fully restored, NCRS-judged, 1963 Daytona Blue Stingray split window coupe with a 327cid V-8 hooked up to a manual 4-speed. The design was the brain child of Bill Mitchell at GM, who insisted on retaining his design feature of the vertical split bar separating the two rear windows on the coupe. The design was beautiful and unique but made it difficult to see out the back window, so the design was dropped for 1964, making this a one year rarity. Two of the interesting later model Corvettes were a 2004 C-5 customized model with beautiful airbrushed exterior and twin turbochargers added to increase the stock 350hp V-8 to 500hp. The second car was a 2008 Indy Pace Car Edition Replica. The graphics on the car were identical to the Indy Pace Car. The car also featured upgraded performance with the addition of an LS3 6.2 liter 376cid V-8 producing 436hp at 5,900 rpm with 10.7-1 compression, mated to a 6-speed paddle shifting automatic transaxle. Recent vintage Corvettes have really offered lots of horsepower for the buck. The 2008 Indy Pace Car was Chevrolet’s 10th appearance as the Indy 500 pace car and featured two-time Indy 500 winner and Formula 1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi behind the wheel.

Gala attendees were also treated to part of an episode of Route 66 from 1960. The standard adventure featured actors Martin Milner as Tod and George Maharis as Buz driving Tod’s current model Corvette soft top with sleeping bags and duffel bag secured to the rear luggage rack. They drive through different areas of the country (the series was always shot on location) and find adventure. They encounter problems such as becoming lost and/or damaging their car so that they have to stop for repairs. While waiting for a part or repair, they meet a damsel in distress. Being the gentlemen they are, they have to rescue/save/etc. said damsel. Problem fixed, car repaired, they are on their way to the next adventure. The show often addressed current social issues as well. The series ran until 1964 and introduced many up and coming stars, including Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Martin Sheen, Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, and others. The car always looked neat, but once you discovered that the actual TV car was always a 2-speed Powerglide, with the small horsepower V-8 with small four barrel and hydraulic cam, it never seemed the same afterward.

There were many model Corvettes on display, together with a Chevy small block V-8 in about 1/8th scale that actually ran. The craftsman who built this small engine noted that the engine was equipped with the standard Corvette racing cam crafted from the real full size cam. He also noted that the electronic ignition and rocker arms were very difficult to build. Not only does the engine actually run, it has been run up to 18,000 rpm. The carburetor also looked difficult to replicate, even if it only had two throats instead of four. The model is on loan from the Engineering Craftsmanship Museum of Carlsbad.

Now that the Gala is over and the Corvettes are gone, the new display features Muscle Cars. At this time not all of the cars have been selected yet, so we are unable to give you a complete list. However, the museum’s curator for the event, Kenn Colclasure, has a 428cid V-8 powered Cobra Jet with a 4-speed manual transmission. Another Ford is an R-code 1967 Fairlane with a 427cid racing motor, and a 427cid V-8 1964 Ford. Mopars include a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T. Several Road Runners are also in the show. One of the most rare performance cars is a 1970 Buick GS Stage 1. The Buick sported a large 455cid V-8 that produced an advertised 360hp, but over 510 lb. ft. torque at only 2,800rpm. At the drags, “Motor Trend” magazine managed a quarter mile at 13.38 seconds and 105.5mph. Buick sales were much lower for the GS Stage 1 than other muscle cars of the era because of the greater amenities and higher cost. Plus the Buick was heavier at 3,800 pounds than the competition. In racing, weight is a big burden. In addition, the 455 V-8s only had two main bearings and the high output and hard usage did not help longevity. Be sure to check out this car. Another GM product, the Oldsmobile Hurst 4-4-2 in silver and black, is another rarity. Local Pontiac marketing mavin Jim Wangers has promised several GTOs from his private collection. The granddaddy of them all, and the car often labeled as the first muscle car, is a 1964 Pontiac GTO, based on the smaller and lighter Tempest/LeMans two door body style. The Tempest/LeMans was powered by a 326cid Pontiac V-8, but Pontiac’s head at the time, John Z. DeLorean, realized the larger and more powerful 389cid V-8 would fit nicely under the hood and history was made. With a four speed manual transmission and standard rear end, the car would chirp its tires in every gear at normal throttle. But hey, who wanted to drive at normal throttle? As an aside, the museum also has a DeLorean on display with cutouts of the J. Michael Fox character and the mad scientist from the Back to the Future movies. Despite the mediocre performance of the car, the movies and neat appearance of the unpainted stainless have made the car very popular with visitors. Wangers may also bring a later model GTO or two and a 1970 orange “Judge” as well. Space is limited to twelve cars for the display, as they are large cars by museum standards.

It can be argued that the 1964 Pontiac GTO was not the first muscle car. In 1949 Oldsmobile introduced their first “modern” OHV engine, the Rocket V-8 high compression engine that displaced 303cid and produced 135hp with a two-barrel carburetor. They put this engine in the larger luxury Olds, the Model 98, and also in the lighter and smaller 88 series. The 88 used a smaller body size similar to the Chevrolet. The 1949-1951 Olds 88 was the first “King of Nascar.” The Olds 88 was also used by the California Highway Patrol in 1950-1951 in two-door sedan mode. If you ever bought a used ’50-’51 Olds 88 two-door sedan with a manual three speed transmission, chances were pretty good it was an ex-CHP car. Please come out and see these unusual and interesting performance cars yourself.