If you’ve ever ventured down the rabbit hole that is bringatrailer.com, you’d think every person and their dog owns some kind of classic, exotic, unusual or just, well, interesting car. From an ultralow-mileage Porsche 911 GT3 through all kinds of American muscle cars, Italian microcars and classic British roadsters to a one-owner 1985 Mercedes 300TD diesel wagon, the online auction site caters to every car buff’s taste and fetish. I could spend hours.
My dog, however, has other ideas. Too bad that our frequent long walks through the ’hood reveal a very different automotive landscape. In every driveway, boring SUVs and minivans, compact sedans and pickup trucks. Dull, dull, dull.
But wait, what’s that? As we pass a small, ordinary mid-century bungalow, the garage door is closing – but not before I get a glimpse inside. That’s not just the distinctive grille badge of a late-1960s Camaro SS – there’s also a massive chromed supercharger protruding about a foot through the hood. So. Not. Dull.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to the owner, but the sighting set me on a mission to discover what else the gearheads in my ’hood have hidden in their garages getting extra TLC during the Big Stay Home, or just waiting to be exercised on a warm sunny day.
Some of them I already know. I have a severe case of garage envy with young Mike Pucyk down the street. His garage contains a full four-post lift. On top, he parks his 1972 Chevelle Malibu; below, a Subaru BRZ track car he campaigns in the Time Attack series. Except this summer, Mike, a software developer, is feeding the need for speed by racing online instead.
There are also plans for the Chevelle, an ex-Arizona car that he bought a few years ago with a perfect body and tired mechanicals. He’s already treated it to a four-wheel disc-brake conversion (can you believe the Americans were still building V-8 muscle cars in the early seventies with drum brakes?), and he rebuilt the 350-CID V-8 himself with classic high-performance upgrades – hot camshaft, aluminum cylinder heads, four-barrel carburetor and tubular headers. It turned out the camshaft was a tad too wild – the engine won’t idle nicely – so on top of his to-do list this spring is to switch in a milder cam.
At the house kitty-corner behind me, Steve Ruffell is into old British roadsters (cue the Joseph-Lucas-Prince-of-Darkness jokes). One is an utterly gorgeous 1956 MGA roadster that he bought 13 years ago from a young woman in London, Ont. This particular A is rendered even more exquisite by its cut-down racing windscreen (think: Porsche Speedster).
The car was originally from Arkansas, so the body and paint are still good, but Steve has overhauled and improved the mechanicals. The original 1.5-litre engine was replaced by the 1.8 from an MGB, and the five-speed gearbox is a transplant from a Nissan 280ZX. With the ZX box’s overdrive fifth gear supplemented by an MGB rear axle, a 70 mph cruise now needs less than 3,000 rpm.
The first time Steve tried to slow from 70 mph, he was shocked how bad the brakes were, so the next summer’s project was to install the front disc brakes from an MGB. “All of this was done to make it a little more driveable,” Steve says. “Resto-mod, I think they call it,” referring to the process of restoring a car with modern components.
The A now resides at Steve’s winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., so back in Mississauga, his 1976 Triumph TR6 is getting his undivided attention. He bought the TR6 “because the MG isn’t terribly watertight, and I was uncomfortable driving it if there was a risk of rain.” Unlike the MG, the Triumph has proper wind-up windows and a top. (On the A, the racing windscreen means no top.)
The TR6 hasn’t been left well-enough alone either – it has an aftermarket supercharger. “I decided to put it on because this last version of the TR6 was pathetic, power-wise, to meet U.S. emission standards. All the emissions stuff had been stripped off, but it still has a very low compression ratio, which makes it well-suited for a supercharger. There’s all sorts of low-end torque.”
There’s another Steve in the neighbourhood who also owns a TR6 – but that’s not what grabs your eye when his garage door is open. That would be his open-wheel, single-seat Formula Ford race car.
Since 1967, Formula Ford cars have been widely used by racing schools and in the seminal entry-level “spec” racing series that put many stars on the path to Formula One. Its (relative) affordability also attracts hobby racers like Steve Bodrug.
The 1993 Van Diemen is actually one of six race cars Steve has owned since he first saw a vintage race meet at Shannonville, Ont., in the eighties. “When I saw my first Formula Junior race, I was just smitten. A friend and I bought one, and over a couple of years, we restored it. But when it was done, my friend, a big guy, couldn’t fit in the car, so I bought him out.”
That first racer, a Gemini, was a rarity, and about 20 years ago, “a wheelbarrow of pound notes” persuaded Steve to sell it. With the proceeds, he bought a 1965 P&G sports-racer that is still a work in progress, plus the Van Diemen.
The latter still runs the stock 1960s-era Ford Cortina 1.6-litre that was the Formula’s original spec engine. The car’s old enough to qualify for vintage racing, but Steve prefers the contemporary Toyo Tires F1600 Championship. “Vintage racing is very gentlemanly. You give everybody a lot of room and respect the vehicles and their value. I prefer the hard wheel-to-wheel racing of F1600.”
On another dog-walking route, I spot an open garage door with a Porsche Turbo whale-tail spoiler poking out. When I get nosy, I learn the car it’s on is actually a 1983 911 SC Targa. Tom Boyce bought it six years ago when its first owner, Tom’s neighbour, was finding the heavy clutch a bit much.
Tom used to do his own wrench-work on his 1978 Civic and 1981 Corolla, but then cars got more complicated, so he’s thankful for the 911’s reliability. “I like having it, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it.
“What I like about the old 911s is the look of the whale tail,” he adds. The spoiler is more commonly associated with the Turbo, but this SC comes by it honestly. When the car started to need some serious engine work, the previous owner decided it would be easier to drop in a replacement engine … from a 1989 911 Turbo. With 57 per cent more power and 65 per cent more torque in a small, light car, “it drives really nice,” Tom says.
So that’s four guys and their cars, and I’m only scratching the surface. I’m told there’s a Fiat X1/9 hiding in someone’s garage down near the Petro-Canada station. A few blocks away, a Porsche 944 hides in plain sight in a driveway. And just down the road from that, there’s a supercharged 1968-ish Camaro SS still in need of exhaustive investigation.
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