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Matt and his 1967 Pontiac GTO. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Matt and his 1967 Pontiac GTO. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

A gearhead's quest to turn an old-school GTO into a modern machine Add to ...

If you have followed the U.S. space program and read Don Quixote, you may understand my friend Matt’s quest to turn a 45-year-old Pontiac into a new BMW.

The mission started a few months ago, when Matt started hunting for a 1967 Pontiac GTO, a car he lusted for as a teenager back in the Jimi Hendrix era. After looking at a few basket-cases, he found a GTO that corresponded to his long-lost dream – a black convertible with a four-speed Hurst shifter, Cragar wheels and a nearly rust-free body.

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Then came the reality check. Compared to a modern performance car (like the BMW M3 Matt bought a while ago), the GTO was a sloppy, worn-out dog. It wallowed on its suspension. The brakes barely slowed the car. A six-and-a-half second zero-to-60 time might have been impressive back in 1967, but not any more – today, there are family sedans that can outrun the GTO.

Driving the GTO was like meeting a sex-symbol actress when she’s 100 – the gap between the legend and current reality is considerable. Most drivers would have chosen one of two simple options: get rid of the GTO, or live with its limitations. Not Matt.

This is a man who enjoys technical challenge and long odds – he once designed and built his own airplane, and constructed a parabolic, two-story glider launch ramp that projects off the side of the mountain. How hard could it be to make a 45-year-old Detroit muscle car go and handle as well as his new BMW?

As challenges go, this might be compared to making a space ship by starting out with a used propane tank. The GTO has stone-age technology – lap belts, a carbureted, cast-iron V8 and a suspension designed around Polyglas tires that were state of the art at the time of the original Woodstock concert.

None of this deterred Matt. He envisioned an old car that worked like a new one. Many would call him a fool. But there’s a certain kind of foolishness that you have to admire – the kind that made us believe that man could walk on the moon, that the city of Paris could use a giant iron tower, and that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shouldn’t be done in white latex.

And so it began. Matt rolled the GTO in his workshop and got out his tools. Every few days, the Fedex truck arrived with a new load of parts – threaded suspension arms, billet-aluminum shock absorbers and a shining set of ventilated Baer disc brakes that would do justice to a NASCAR racer.

The theory was simple: replace the car’s underpinnings with modern replacements, drop in a new motor, and hit the road. Reality proved far more complicated.

The new motor demanded that Matt reengineer everything from the engine mounts to the wiring harness and the fuel supply. The GTO’s ball joints had to be replaced with a revised model to eliminate camber change. The Baer brakes didn’t work properly with the original master cylinder, and the discs were too big to fit inside the GTO’s wheels.

The FedEx truck soon arrived with a new master cylinder and bigger wheels, but that wasn’t the end of the problems. The bigger wheels and tires improved the GTO’s cornering power thanks to their larger contact patches, but they rubbed on the inside of the rear fenders – the Pontiac designers of 1967 never imagined that the automotive future would be based on wheels 50 per cent larger than the ones they specified.

As the work went on, Matt’s BMW M3 sat in the garage. Its handling was perfect. Its brakes were stunning. It was faster than the GTO, even though its engine was only half the size of the GTO’s. It got better fuel economy. Its top went up and down at the touch of a button. There was only problem – Matt hadn’t built it himself.

For a gearhead baby-boomer raised in the decades following the Second World War, building a unique car is not just a hobby, but a deep expression of self. Anyone with enough credit can buy a new high-performance car. Making a 45-year-old GTO handle is something else again.

It takes more than money. Matt has spent months reading books on suspension design and tracking down mechanical gurus who specialize in aging Detroit iron. There have been mechanical dead-ends, curses, and blood on the garage floor. But if it was easy, anyone could do it.

A few days ago, I put Matt’s GTO to the test on the roads of Lookout Mountain. It wasn’t so much a drive as a trip through time. I sat on a black vinyl bucket seat and gripped a four-speed Hurst shifter with a thick chrome stalk. I rolled up the window with a chromed manual crank, then fired up the V-8.

The GTO handled surprisingly well, tracking smoothly through the mountain corners with little roll – those new suspension parts had made a big difference. But was it as good as the BMW M3? Definitely not. And the GTO wasn’t that fast by modern standards, either (driving new BMWs and Porsches on a regular basis changes your expectations).

The GTO was built back in the days when Hugh Hefner was decorating the original Playboy mansion, and its performance reflected the standards of that era. So did its safety equipment – there were shoulder belts, no airbags and no side protection beams. (I kept that in mind as I blasted up through the gears.)

I’d spent that week at Matt’s house reading muscle car magazines, which embody a particular article of faith – that if you’re willing to work at it, old Detroit iron can keep up with modern cars. I love their passion, but I have my doubts.

Matt’s GTO was a lot better than the other old cars I’ve driven. It had definitely moved toward the BMW end of the scale. But turning it into an M3 struck me as mission impossible – it was like trying to convert a Second World War U-Boat into a current-generation nuclear attack sub.

And yet there was one area in which the GTO beat the BMW hands down – it had soul.

In a world of cookie-cutter machinery, Matt’s GTO was unique – as we drove the Georgia back roads, everyone stared at the GTO, and we got so many thumbs up I lost count.

Most amazing of all, our wives loved the car. I didn’t expect that, but I soon realized why – the GTO is V8-powered time machine. The seats were vast sofas that recalled our childhoods, and we rode in a cocoon of wind and exhaust roar, a basso-profundo soundtrack that transported us back to the lost majesty of golden-age Detroit.

I’ve driven the roads here in a lot of cars, including a Lotus Exige, a Porsche Boxster S and Matt’s BMW M3. Compared to them, the GTO felt like a stone axe. But there are times when a stone axe is better than a scalpel.

I remember reading about Neil Young’s preference for old-school vacuum-tube amplifiers over new digital ones. The new ones run cooler and give a crisper sound. But Neil’s looking for something special – a raw, human sound they don’t make any more. We aren’t perfect. And sometimes it’s nice to be with a car that isn’t either. Here’s to Matt’s GTO – vastly improved, yet deeply imperfect. Long may it run.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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