Muscle cars revving up for Philly exhibit

We don’t even know what some of these cars can do.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the big three American automobile manufacturers (Ford, GM, Chrysler) all wanted to win the NASCAR trophy. To do that, they had to abide by NASCAR rules that stipulated any car on the track had to be a mass-produced model, commercially available.

Ford complied by forcing a 429 cubic inch engine under the hood of a 1969 Mustang.

“The engine was so large that they couldn’t fit it into a regular production Mustang,” said Joe Spinelli, who owns one. “They sent them to a subsidiary of Ford, Car Craft, who reconfigured the shock towers, the front suspension, and widened the engine bay just so the engine would fit in the car.”

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It was officially rated at 375 horsepower, but in reality the alterations probably bumped it past 400. Ford won NASCAR that year.

This is one of 20 rare muscle cars on display through September at the Simeone Automotive Foundation Museum in Southwest Philadelphia. Culled from East Coast car collectors, they hail from an era when young men wanted fast cars with no regard for gas mileage.

Car manufacturers found they could appeal to that youth market by altering their parents’ otherwise sensible two-door sedans. It was a relatively cheap way to sell to both ends of the market.

Many gearheads souped up their own jalopies, but the savvy aficionado was able to request customizations from the factory. To get around restrictions imposed by government agencies, insurance companies, and even its own parent company, GM, Chevrolet offered the COPO (central office production order) that could dramatically increase power and speed of a stock model.

“It looks very plain on the outside, a regular Camaro,” said museum spokesman Harry Hurst, pointing to a 1969 Double COPO Camaro. “But underneath it has a 427 engine, a four-speed, probably a posi-traction rear end, high-output alternator battery. You could specify all these individual components be put into the car.”

Insurance companies were loath to see a teenager drive something with that much power. The COPO was a way for manufacturers to sell fast kicks to kids, while assuaging the worries of parents and insurers by basically lying to them.

“General Motors came out with the COPO 427 Camaro, with 425 horsepower, but when you put it on a ‘dyno,’ you’re over 470 horsepower,” said Rob Leipzig, the owner of the Camaro in question as well as eight other cars in the exhibition.

Songwriter Charlie Ryan immortalized the sentiment, a generation earlier:

Poppa said, Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’,

If you don’t stop driving that hot rod Lincoln.

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