Seventies TV detectives Starsky and Hutch, who chased bad guys through the streets of Bay City in an emissions-strangled, 158-hp, red-and-white-vector-painted, 1975 Ford Gran Torino, dubbed the Striped Tomato, would have caught up much sooner if they’d been driving David Kirwan’s 655-hp, Roush-engined replica.
In fact, they’d have more than handily reeled-in fleeing fugitives if they’d been at the wheel of his other toy, a first-generation, and originally 50-hp, Honda Civic. These days, it only acts civilly if its gas pedal is treated like a hummingbird egg when feeding fuel to its 400-hp turbo-motor.
The TV cops – dark and big-haired David Starsky and surfer-blond Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson – would undoubtedly appreciate the 1976 Gran Torino’s upgrades, after having to drive their anemic 400-cubic-inch V-8-equipped version, also known by its call-sign Zebra Three, through 93 episodes of the popular Wednesday-night show from 1975-79.
What they’d have thought about the jaw-dropping performance of the 1979 Civic, which only hints that it is any different from stock, is anybody’s guess.
The two-door Gran Torino was cast for its car-star role in the action-packed series by show producers seeking something that looked “special.” Two were created from Ford TV loaners, painted tomato red with “wild white stripes,” fitted with 70s-era must-haves that included “mag” wheels shod with super-wide rear tires, and air shocks to give them a racy rake. A pair of 1976 models was also built.
The show’s success didn’t go unnoticed at Ford, which in 1976 produced 1,000 lookalikes. A stuffy sounding marketing exec was quoted as saying the Starsky & Hutch model would be “a colorful addition to our dealers’ showrooms, and a lot of youths are going to have a lot of fun owning and driving it.”
Apparently those “youths” weren’t too careful with them, and only about 125 survive, but some 125 recognized replicas have also been built.
Kirwan’s Gran Torino and Civic are a study in contrasts, tinged with nostalgia. Both are later-in-life replacements for family hand-me-downs, a 1974 Gran Torino and 1978 Civic he drove while dating his future wife Karen.
They’re also often obscured by billows of tire smoke. Kirwan doesn’t chase ne’er-do-wells in his much-modified-rides, but uses them to hunt down ever-briefer elapsed times at the drag strip.
But thanks to the wonders of modern automotive science, as applied by Legendary Motorcar Company of Halton Hills, in the Gran Torino’s case, and Sean Devine’s Maxwell Auto in Mississauga in the Civic’s, both are still street-able and driven on sunny days to the grocery store, or weekend shows.
Kirwan, president of telecom management company TSB Solutions in Toronto, says he always had fond memories of the brown, four-door, Gran Torino driven by his parents that was passed on to him after use by his two brothers. And for his 40th birthday, his wife Karen ordered one for him from replica builder Zebra3 Coach Builders in San Diego.
What arrived – powered by a mildly tweaked 351-cubic-inch V-8, and equipped with cop-equipment that included a red bubble-gum light, strobes, wig-wag headlights, a PA system and, of course, a siren – didn’t disappoint. But Kirwan felt it lacked a little something in the performance department.
It was soon dropped it off at Legendary Motorcars, where a 588-cubic-inch (9.6-litre) crate motor newly developed by Roush Performance, and making 655 hp and 703 lb-ft of torque was installed, along with some other mods.
This certainly resolved the performance shortfall. “It drives like a normal, modern car, but it becomes an animal when you push the loud pedal down hard,” says Kirwan. “As long as you keep your foot down, she’ll keep laying rubber.”
On the drag strip, it will hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, turns the quarter-mile in 11.49 seconds, and is officially acknowledged, by all the other guys in the world who own one, as the fastest Striped Tomato on the planet.
Kirwan says the hand-me-down Civic also served him well, and was driven until it rusted out. After acquiring the Gran Torino, he thought there would be a certain symmetry in acquiring a replacement for it, too.
This was found on eBay in Tennessee, where it had been laid up by its careful original woman owner, and purchased based on “photos and trust” six years ago. After undertaking some restoration work, it was driven for a couple of years before Kirwan decided it, too, needed to have its performance enhanced.
Devine was charged with changing its 50-hp purr to a serious snarl, which he did by squeezing in a mid-90s Honda motor, which evolved into the “fully built” terror it is today – turbocharged with 30 pounds of boost at 10,000 rpm – that now makes “400 hp at the crank.”
“We could get 500 hp, with more aggressive tuning,” says Kirwan. But 400 is enough for now. Despite a custom suspension, it overwhelms the 185/60R14 tires, which replace the 155/80R12 originals – the only really noticeable difference from stock. “The big problem is traction. We can never use all the power.”
Some years ago, he took the then-stock Civic and the Gran Torino to Hot Rod Magazine’s Drag Week – four drag strips linked by 1,000 miles of street driving. The Gran Torino was plagued by mechanical ills, but Kirwan and his crew persevered to finish the week. The Civic trundled through the traps in 20 seconds, the slowest time in the event’s history.
Kirwan is heading for his sixth Drag Week this September, where he’ll drive the Gran Torino, and see if he can shave a fraction or two off his “World’s Fastest Striped Tomato” quarter-mile time.
Devine will be handling the Civic, and with that additional 350 hp, Kirwan anticipates it being “competitive in its class” turning high 11-second times, at almost 120 mph, or about twice as fast as when it made its drag racing debut.
His next project just might be building a classic racer that would be the first electric-powered dragster to compete in Drag Week.
Back in 1976
- Two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, c0-found Apple Computer.
- The Summer Olympics are held in Montreal, and the CN Tower in Toronto is completed.
- Britain’s famous clock Big Ben grinds to a halt, and China’s Cultural Revolution does too after the arrest of the Gang of Four.
- Punk rockers The Ramones release their first album; the Sex Pistols are chastised for swearing on TV, Irish band U2 is formed, and Peter Frampton’s album Frampton Comes Alive tops the Billboard charts for 10 weeks.