Category: David Conwill

Five pieces of modern technology that improve old-car ownership – David Conwill @Hemmings

Five pieces of modern technology that improve old-car ownership – David Conwill @Hemmings


Hemmings Graphic Designer Josh Skibbee recently gave me a 1945-built Delta-Milwaukee drill press. It’s a whopping big cast-iron thing (despite being intended mostly for woodworking) with a a remarkably good parts supply and a deep following among vintage-machine aficionados. It’s a device perfectly on-theme for my workshop: old-time quality with modern support.

I like old stuff vintage material culture a lot. That’s probably an understatement. If my friends think of me as someone who enjoys history, they equally know that it was gazing on the stylish and over-built remnants of the 20th century Machine Age that piqued my interest in the topic. I wouldn’t want to live in the past, but I sure appreciate its artifacts.

I also recognize that my ability to make practical use of things made long before I was born is facilitated in no small part by living in the current era of high technology (and no, I don’t mean the 4.1L V-8 in my wife’s Cadillac). This drill press, with its ideal combination of vintage quality and practicable ownership demonstrates the perfect crossover of the modern and the old. It led me to reflect on the top five things I’m grateful for in present–and future–tech:

Old technical manuals are the best, but without the internet how would you learn about the tips and tricks (and corrections!) that enhance the vintage manual? In fact, it would be considerably harder to acquire the manual at all, without the internet.

The Internet

As time and technology march on, the know-how that built earlier ages is gradually lost. Paper goods are called “ephemera” for a reason—they don’t last forever without careful handling. Archives are small and spread out, but the greatest thing about the Information Age is that we can endlessly share digital files with that same information. A blueprint that might have been lost in a collector’s filing cabinet in Saginaw, Michigan, or an archive in San Diego, California, can be shared worldwide in an instant. Dedicated craftsmen who believe in the value of keeping earlier machines alive can build parts (sometimes using CNC technology they could only have dreamed at in 1945!) to eke out decades more use from simple and robust machines: cars, drill presses, audio equipment, whatever.

Back in the ’60s, AM radio was often the only way to listen to rock and roll. These days, it’s seemingly all talk radio. Digital music means that with some subtle changes, you can listen to whatever you want through your original radio.

Digital Music

I grew up in the cassette era, when the roadsides fluttered with the shattered remains of people’s favorite tunes. I watched FM radio die a slow death of strangulation by focus group. I am super grateful that thanks to digitization, it’s possible to carry the music of your choice on your person and, with some clever wiring, even pipe it directly into the amplifier of a vintage radio.

Apple’s successful extermination of the 3.5-mm jack standard has put a new wrinkle in this since I last arranged it, but adding an aux input to a vintage radio is not an insurmountable task. You’re rewarded with that “warm, rich” tube sound from your monoaural dash speaker. Perhaps not a treat for the full audiophile, but, like gear whine and the smell of warm vinyl, a proper sensory experience for a vintage car. It’s a part of the appeal.

Space-age materials like Viton O-rings and silicone gaskets were still just dreams in 1962, but today they are the easiest way to seal up a drippy ’62 Corvair.

Aerospace-grade Materials and Processes

While I’m grateful that vintage machines have room for my decidedly analog/mechanical level of wrenching, I’m also utterly chuffed to live in an era where modern materials and precision machine work can be applied to produce unheard of levels of power, smoothness, and longevity from long-obsolete designs. Much like a woodworker is thrilled by the opportunity to work with dense-grained, old-growth lumber, the extra-sturdy, basic building blocks of antique cars and other machinery can be refined beyond the wildest dreams of their designers.

I just bought a set of silicone gaskets to re-seal the rocker covers and oil pan on my ’62 Corvair (I need one for the Powerglide pan too, but they are out of stock). When the Corvair was new, paper and cork gaskets were the standard. Silicone, which was discovered in 1901, didn’t really take off as an industrial material until the ’80s. Nowadays, the existence of silicone gaskets, which are heat- and chemically resistant, permits a car owner to remove and replace parts with intermediate gaskets indefinitely, without having to use a new gasket each time.

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Knowing when to walk away: Why I decided not to build my 1921 Ford Model T and what I’ll do instead – David Conwill @Hemmings

Tilly came home on a trailer, but as of this writing is already a running and driving car. She just needs some help to be ready for the roads of her second century.

Last night, I decided I can’t continue with my Model T project. It’s a tough decision. I’ve wanted a Model T touring car since I was about eight years old (that’s 30 summers now) and I’ve now owned two different touring car bodies and a complete car. I’ve tried really, really hard to make a Model T happen, but it never seems to work out.

If you’ve been following my columns, you know that I’ve been planning to rebuild my ’21 into an early-1930s style hot rod, called a gow job. I’ve wanted a gow since I first learned that hot rodding predated World War II—those cars look awesome and because they’ve got improved power, handling, and braking, they’re a lot more usable than a purely stock 1920s car.

Nevertheless, I’m an adult and not independently wealthy. It’s tough enough to have three kids, a house, and two cars for transportation. A purely “fun” car is great but it would be an irresponsible avenue to continue pursuing–I’ll live off ramen to fund a project, but I won’t ask my family to do that. We have more practical needs to look after first. In fact, I’ll be putting my Model T and parts up for sale soon and putting that money into the home-improvement fund

Our ’08 Charger police car. It has 350 horsepower when it isn’t shutting down cylinders at random. That’s my old ’62 Falcon behind it.

This doesn’t mean I’m done with old cars, though. Far from it. It just means that I’ve got to rethink my driver situation. Our current fleet consists of a 2008 Dodge Charger police car and a 1983 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. The Charger we’ve had for five years, and while it’s fun to drive, it has an increasing number of electrical maladies and has been spending a lot of time in the shop. Once it’s fixed, it can find a new home with someone who enjoys working on late-model Mopars.

The Cadillac we got just last week. It is very cool but I can’t see us keeping it—it’s too nice. That sounds weird, but the biggest problem with the Cadillac is that it was purchased new by my wife’s grandfather the same year she was born. A car with that level of sentimental value is something of a white elephant in and of itself. It only has 23,000 miles on it and it’s a perfectly preserved cream puff. Putting wear and tear on it would be heartbreaking, and fixing all the luxury features as they age would be an utter nightmare. Instead, I intend to polish it up (I’ve been spending a lot of time researching paint care), tune it up, and try to find it a good home before the end of the summer.

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This 1962 Buick Special eight-passenger station wagon would make the perfect street-legal gasser. Here’s how I’d build it. – David Conwill @Hemmings


“These rules are solely for the purpose of obtaining certain stylistic qualities associated with drag racing in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s,” is a great premise for a race series as far as I’m concerned. Those certain stylistic qualities mandated by the Southeast Gassers Association (“SEGA”) result in period-correct gassers, circa 1967.

I just spent a bunch of time documenting folks having fun at the Pure Stock Muscle Car Drag Races. It got my creative juices flowing and reminded me of a previous encounter with the folks at SEGA (just via e-mail, sadly). They’ve got a similar philosophy to their counterparts at PSMCDR, but instead of being aimed at the old NHRA Stock classes, it’s oriented around the gassers.

Gassers, if you aren’t familiar, are those drag racers that ran in the NHRA Gas classes from 1955 to 1971 and the similar classes of other sanctioning bodies. As distilled down by SEGA, the hallmarks of a ’67-style gasser are a solid front axle (straight or dropped) suspended from leaf springs, an elevated stance (12 inches at the rocker behind the front wheels, 11 inches at the rocker ahead of the rear wheels), a vintage (i.e. a design that existed in 1967) V-8 engine, and a manual transmission

.The SEGA rules also make it clear that every car has to be invited and that day-of-race entries aren’t permitted—you should check with the organizers before assuming anything is within the spirit of the rules. Still, the general guidance on selecting a vehicle for racing is “Closed full body styled production cars 1967 or earlier. No open or altered body styles. All cars must have a top/roof” with further prohibitions on 1967 Mustangs, all Camaros (we’re guessing Firebirds too), V-8 Corvairs, Opels, and Cougars.

Sonny Clayton’s 1956 Chevrolet is a SEGA participant. Tri-Five Chevys are relatively common gassers, as are 1933-’42 Willys and Chevy II’s.

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For sporting style, power, and capacity, it’s hard to beat this 1968 Buick Riviera – David Conwill @Hemmings


It has a 7.0-liter V-8, hideaway headlamps, and exclusive, swoopy styling. If we’re talking late-1960s General Motors products, that sounds a lot like a third-generation Corvette. Not everyone can daily drive a two-seater, and if you were going to drop $4,600 on personal transportation back in 1968, there was another option. It came not from Chevrolet, however, but from GM’s founding division: Buick.

“The automobile you drive must be more than a machine that takes you from one place to another,” Buick said in Riviera promotional materials. “It must be as exciting to drive as it is to look at and as exciting to look at as is reliable to drive. Obviously, Riviera is your automobile

.”That may have been obvious five decades ago, but the second-generation Riviera is often overlooked these days. That’s a mistake. You see, if you wanted a big-block, A/C-equipped vintage ’Vette with an automatic transmission now, you’d best be prepared to spend around $60,000. A similarly optioned Riv, meanwhile, can be had in like condition for about a quarter of that

We drove this example not long ago and can tell you: Unless you want to attend track days on the regular, you’ll have just as much fun in the Buick. Maybe more if you have some friends you’d like to bring along, or just prefer some extra room to stretch out.

The Ivy Gold Mist example on these pages belongs to John Scheib (no relation to Earl, in case you were wondering) of West Hartford, Connecticut. Just to look at his car, you immediately realize a Riviera of this era was more than mere transportation. Take that curvaceous styling, for instance. It’s a clear departure from the sharper, more vertically oriented, Ferrari-meets-Rolls Royce looks of the 1963-’65 first-generation Riviera. At first glance, you could be forgiven if you mistook the Buick for an Oldsmobile Toronado, but look closer and it’s a more conservatively styled car.

That conservatism extends to the chassis. While the Toronado and the Riviera, along with the Cadillac Eldorado, shared GM’s E-body platform, only the Riviera adheres to the traditional American approach of a front engine and rear-wheel drive. The decision to retain what was tried and proven good not only means it’s a more straightforward car for the modern owner to service and find parts for, but its driving manners are familiar and predictable.

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The Nut Behind the Wheel: David Conwill can’t stay away from Corvairs – David Conwill @Hemmings


[Editor’s note: The author behind The Nut Behind the Wheel talking about himself? Yes, well, here at Hemmings we’re all a little nuts. Here’s why David Conwill can’t stay away from Corvairs.]“

My parents warned me off from Corvairs when I was still in elementary school. At my bus stop, in kindergarten, there was this fascinating old car. I showed my parents and they said ‘Oh, that’s a Corvair. The heater will asphyxiate you.’ The name Ralph Nader never came up—I don’t think they took him very seriously. They were car people, but Corvairs were just too ‘out there’ for them. It looked so cool to me, though, with that flat roof and wrap-around rear window. I never forgot it. Even once I got into conventional cars, with the engine up front and a radiator, the interesting shape of an early Corvair stuck with me.

“Almost 20 years later, when I was visiting my fiancée, we saw a Corvair convertible coming the other way during a scenic drive we were on. She loved it too and she wound up buying me a couple of old ads that I framed on my wall. One calls Corvair ‘the happiest-driving compact car’ and I think that might be true. It’s not just a shrunken conventional car. That’s one thing that kept me away from them for a long time, but ultimately, that’s a big part of their appeal.

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Rowing your own: Five things to know about manual transmissions – David Conwill @Hemmings


Manual transmissions are an icon of the automobile hobby. The ability to operate a car with three pedals sets an individual apart from the mass of drivers who just see cars as point-a-to-point-b transportation. “Driving a stick” lends a certain air of mystery and adventure to a car owner.

Still, how many devotees of the clutch pedal can tell fact from fiction when it comes to the innards of their beloved gearbox? Most of us don’t know a lot more than the number of forward speeds and how many of them are synchronized. It doesn’t need to be that way. The selection, installation, and maintenance of what was once called the standard-shift transmission can be quite straightforward.

From a three-on-the-tree to the seven-speed in a C7 Corvette, all manual transmissions have certain points of commonality. The muscle-car four-speeds of the ’60s and ’70s are likely the most familiar to Hemmings readers, but five-speeds like the Borg-Warner T-5 have been with us nearly 40 years. Even the beloved T-56 six-speed came on the scene in 1992, with the Dodge Viper. That’s a lot of accumulated knowledge. To get the latest information for gearjammers, we consulted with TREMEC dealer Silver Sport Transmissions. Below are five things to consider when contemplating a manual transmission in your ride.

1. Overdrive in Moderation

Historically, a transmission’s top gear transmitted power from the engine in a 1:1 ratio (“direct drive”) where one turn of the engine causes one turn of the driveshaft. Starting in the Seventies and Eighties, however, manual transmissions adopted overdriven top gears, meaning the engine can be turning slower than the driveshaft. When selecting an overdrive ratio, keep in mind that the lower the number, the more overdrive. On a TXK five-speed trans (shown above), the buyer has a choice of 0.81:1, 0.72:1, and 0.68:1, which offer 19-, 28-, and 32-percent overdrive, respectively. Beware of falling into the “more is better” trap, however. As with camshafts and carburetors, too much overdrive will work to your disadvantage. Unless you have an engine built for it, matched to the proper rear-end ratio, you may find yourself lugging the engine in overdrive

2. Keep things in Sync

Steel and brass synchronizers work fine, but for the ultimate in durability or longevity, consider upgrading to carbon

Synchronizer rings and cones smooth the transition from one gear to another, so that you only have to press in the clutch once per shift. They may date back to the 1930s, but they’re not limited to the technology of that era. While traditional brass construction still persists for most applications, Silver Sport’s experts note that they wear faster than some options now available. Worn synchros lose their grip and exhibit crunching where crisp shifts used to be the norm. “If you plan on high-rpm shifts or if you’d like to extend the life of your transmission before it needs a rebuild, carbon-lined synchronizers are the way to go,” said Silver Sport’s Misty McComas. Carbon linings come in both partial and full varieties. With partial (shown above), only the blocker ring or cone is lined, but with full, the whole synchronizer is lined. The latter is recommended for situations where more grip is desired. Even if you’re not power shifting, a harder-wearing consumable means more fun time versus maintenance.

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A 1978 Cadillac Seville could make a good basis for a phantom Seventies V-series. Here’s how I’d build it – David Conwill @Hemmings


The Cadillac V-series, like Mercedes-Benz’s AMG models, M-badged BMWs, Audi’s RS models, and Lexus F models, is a high-performance riff on a luxury car. While the Vs are relatively new, arriving only in 2003, the idea goes way back to before this 1978 Cadillac Seville was a new car. AMG began modifying Mercedes products back in 1967, BMW embraced the concept in 1972, Audi joined in for 1990, and Lexus is the newcomer, starting only in 2006.

Even back in the dark days of the late 1970s, it’s easy to imagine a proposal at Cadillac to meet Mercedes and BMW on their own turf. After all, that’s where the Seville concept came from to begin with—it just didn’t go all the way into the high-performance realm. Still, because the Seville’s K platform was essentially a stretched X platform (basis of the Chevrolet Nova, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega, and Buick Skylark and related to the F platform of Camaro and Firebird fame), it wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge to build a hot version of the Seville

Despite being a Cadillac, the Seville came with an Oldsmobile engine – either the gasoline-fed V-8 or the notorious diesel. A 455 could take its place and almost nobody would notice…until they drove it

When the STS-V (derived from “Seville Touring Sedan”) came out in the mid-2000s, it didn’t use the Corvette-spec LS-series V-8 like its CTS-V predecessor. Instead, it used a 440-hp version of Cadillac’s own Northstar engine.

Would it be fair, then, to replace the 180-hp Oldsmobile-designed V-8 in this Seville with its big brother? By 1978, the 455 was no longer in production for cars, but it still could be had for motorhome, industrial, and marine applications. Because it shares architecture with the 350, a 455 would be a more straightforward swap than the contemporary 195-hp, Cadillac V-8. The Holley EFI (replacing the factory’s Bendix setup) should transfer right over.

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1970-1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Buyer’s Guide – David Conwill @Hemmings


The right balance of luxury and performance, plus decent support today, make the first-generation Monte Carlo a good buy

Because it was derived from the Chevelle, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo remains an easy car to own today. Mechanical parts, in particular, are readily attainable, and the cars themselves are affordable. Popular pricing guides suggest that a small-block powered ’71 in top condition can be obtained for right around $30,000. Those who don’t mind a fixer-upper can find bargains down in four-digit territory

The complete interiors of the Chevelle and Monte Carlo will interchange, and their problems are shared as well.

.Fixing one up isn’t too bad, either. We spoke with Rob Peters, president, newsletter editor, and storekeeper for the First Generation Monte Carlo Club, and Sam Michaels, the club’s treasurer, to get some insight on what to look for when evaluating a potential purchase.

“I’d say that probably 70 percent of the parts are shared with the Chevelle,” Sam says. That’s a two-way street, however, as back in the 1980s, when investor interest in Chevelles was really taking off, the less-valuable Monte Carlos were sometimes stripped of parts to improve Chevelles.

Disc brakes, for example, were standard equipment on the Monte Carlo, and the spindles interchange with the Chevelle. Likewise, the Monte Carlo dash is the same as in a Chevelle SS, with the addition of woodgrain veneers, so not a few of those were gobbled up to produce clones

“The clocks rarely work,” Sam says, and Rob adds that many cars have been hacked to install a later radio. Additionally, dash pads crack, as does the original piping on the seats and the trim on the quarter panel, where passengers tend to brush against when getting in the back. Rob also points out that the special gauge package on Super Sport models was an option, so don’t discount an SS just because it doesn’t have one. Conversely, since that gauge package is reproduced, you can now add one to a vehicle not originally equipped

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Even the malaise-era Chevy Corvette is still fun to drive, and value-priced – David Conwill @Hemmings


What’s the cheapest Corvette? It’s definitely not 1953 or ’54. The low book value on those doesn’t fall much under $45,000. How about 1958, with its exuberant use of trim? It has an average retail value of nearly $51,000, so probably not. Perhaps a 1965 roadster with a carbureted small-block and an automatic? That’s still $51,500.

Prices for the early third-generation cars (“C3” to most enthusiasts) continue to trail their older siblings. A ’68 Stingray roadster has a book value of $41,800, and the coupe is only $6,700 less. Fast forward a decade, however, and some of the sting had gone out of the Stingray: Big-block engines went away after 1974, the roadster was dropped after 1975, and the Stingray name itself was last seen on a Corvette in 1976 (at least until the C7 model debuted in 2014).

The 1978 Corvette was a heavily restyled car, thanks especially to its large rear greenhouse—somewhat recalling the 1963-’67 coupes. Nevertheless, it’s still recognizably the body that arrived 10 years earlier. The similarities notwithstanding, these days the average ’78 doesn’t quite garner $14,500.

Now, in fairness, 1978 isn’t actually the cheapest third-generation Corvette. For some reason, 1976 holds that distinction—your basic Bicentennial Corvette has an average value of only $12,800. Also, the equipment and condition make all the difference: The aluminum wheels and air conditioning on our feature car, owned by Mike Richards of Peoria, Arizona, bump the average retail up by another $2,000, but it’s still an affordable car by any standard.

It’s also a capable car—despite being from the heart of the much-maligned 1973-’83 “malaise era,” when manufacturers were still struggling to catch up with emissions and safety mandates. At the time, people (mostly automotive journalists) looked down their noses at GM for keeping the basic Corvette chassis in production from 1963. The suspension architecture actually lasted right through the 1982 model year, giving General Motors plenty of time to refine it for whatever purpose it was used. Also, this is a classic car magazine, so when have vintage components ever scared us?

The third-generation Corvette’s 1960s heritage means it can be (and frequently was) turned into a capable mount for competitive road racing. The platform’s use during the brougham period of the 1970s means that it’s also capable of a more luxurious, grand-tourer type of ride. Funny folks called these disco-era ’Vettes “two-seat Buicks,” but ask yourself how much flat-out road racing you do in your muscle car, versus the amount of highway driving.

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Lightning makers: Five things to know about spark plugs – David Conwill @Hemmings


What we call a gasoline engine is a species within the internal-combustion engine genus that doesn’t actually have to use gasoline (see: propane, alcohol, nitromethane, etc.). What really sets it apart is its ignition system, using electrical spark gaps to light off the fuel-air mixture. Various parts of the spark-ignition engine have changed over time, but one constant, since before the American Civil War, is the spark plug.

That’s not to say spark plugs haven’t changed since 1860. Like most things automotive, they reached their most familiar form in the 1930s and have been continually refined in detail ever since. Because of their long history, there’s a lot of information floating around out there about spark plugs that may or may not be relevant to your classic car.

Talking about spark plugs must, of necessity, be done in generalities. There are a lot of ignition products on the market and many of them are excellent. Nomenclature especially varies from brand to brand. Thus, one maker’s heat ranges may run from hot to cold with the numbers going down as a plug gets colder, while another may do the opposite.

Plug selection should be tailored to the conditions under which your engine will be run. A car that putters through the occasional parade will demand a much different plug than a similar car called on to haul a load of passengers to a scenic overlook. Our hope with this piece is to arm you with the knowledge so you can do your own research when choosing your next set of spark plugs.

1. Parts of a plug

Viewed externally, the spark plug is a pretty simple device, made of metal and porcelainized ceramic. The ceramic part, called the insulator, is formed from sintered aluminum oxide. The insulator keeps the ignition spark from shorting against the cylinder head. At the upstream end of the insulator, nearest the coil, is the terminal. This is where the spark-plug wire terminates. Various attachment configurations exist. Most modern cars use snap-on wires with rubber boots, but earlier cars used a nut to hold a bare eyelet onto the terminal. The terminal connects through the center of the insulator to the central electrode. Once at the central electrode, current from the coil jumps to the side (aka lateral) electrode. The side electrode is attached to the jacket (aka the case or shell), which is the metal part that screws into the cylinder head.

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