Past Blast: Muscle Car Muster!

By: John Bowe with Mark Higgins , Unique Cars magazine

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Muscle Car Muster Muscle Car Muster
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Have you ever had a day when too much horsepower is never enough? Well JB has, and he seems to have coped manfully

Craig Dean, owner of Crossover Car Conversions and Mustang Motorsport on the blower:

"What has 12 wheels, 24 cylinders, 18 gears, six doors, and as near as dammit to 1900 horsepower"?

"No idea," I answered.

"A trio of America’s iconic muscle cars I have in the showroom; a Dodge Hellcat, Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and a Saleen Black Label Ford Mustang. Want to take them for a spin for a day?"

How could you resist?

So, under a grey sky and wet roads we headed to Dean’s showroom in Ferntree Gully.

While waiting for the sky to clear, Dean and I talked about his business of importing and right-hand drive converting American muscle cars for the past 30 years.

After poking my nose into numerous cars in different states of work, it’s obvious the skills of Dean’s team are matched by their experience and passion for muscle cars.

The quality of the conversion work, fit and finish, is as though they’ve been done on the assembly line back in the US of A.

Dean explained the work is done in-house and local specialists supply components like dash panels, instrument binnacles and the like.

Safety features and electronic driver aids retain their factory integrity.

All cars are meticulously engineered and come with full certification and low-volume manufacturer ADR compliance, registered and, most importantly, come with a comprehensive warranty.

With blue sky peering through the grey clouds and rapidly drying roads, it was time to head into the Dandenong ranges south-east of Melbourne and do my best to tame this powerful posse.

Let’s begin with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The most powerful and meanest of the range that’s based on the same platform as the VF Commodore but with a four-inch wider track.

From the driver’s seat the bonnet and window line are both high giving the Camaro its tough look, but the shortage of all-round visibility takes a bit of getting used to.

Hitting the start button the 6.2-litre supercharged V8 with 426kW and 766 Nm rumbles into life and hints at the powerhouse waiting for your right foot.

I select first gear and ease out of Dean’s workshop gently tickling the throttle. My god, has it got some grunt!

It’s unbelievable! Just the slightest squirt lights up the traction control.

The engine that is also used in the Corvette, is incredibly flexible and doesn’t really need six gears.

It has an almost overwhelming amount of grunt and of the three, the ZL1 feels the most brutal with instantaneous power delivery.

And that is strange, as on paper, the Camaro is the least powerful of the trio.

With gentle throttle applications the Camaro is docile, but the temptation to nail it is always there.

The electric power steering is very good. Nicely weighted and with a quick ratio, it feels very direct and its change of direction is excellent.

As expected the ride is firm, with its 20x10 inch front and 20x11 inch rear alloys and low-profile grippy Michelin tyres ensuring I feel the road, but it is never uncomfortable or unsettled thanks to the Magnetic ride system.

As it was damp I didn’t have a big go, but could tell there is little in the way of body roll and it feels very planted in corners.

The ZL1’s braking power is equally impressive. Brembo callipers and big floating disc rotors that are bigger than those on my Touring Car Masters Torana.

The Camaro, like the Hellcat and Saleen Mustang is an attention grabber and in black it’s a real gangster rap machine.

I like the body-hugging sports seats, clear instrumentation, head-up display and the information screen that can record your lap times.

It shows the Camaro’s track focus, which is the only place you can really stretch its sizeable legs.

If you look at the American auction sites ZL1s are worth a fortune, as the badge means it is the best of Camaro’s best. To drive one this good for under $100k is great value.

Time to see the bank manager and have a chat?

Next cab off the rank is the Dodge Hellcat. With 520 kilowatts and a staggering 881 newton metres from its supercharged 6.2-litre hemi-headed V8 engine, it’s the most-powerful production car going.

I’ve gotta say the Americans have done a good job of recreating and modernising the iconic 60s muscle cars and I love the look of the Hellcat.

Inside you wouldn’t pick it as a left-drive conversion. To be honest it feels a bit odd sitting in the Hellcat.

On the outside it looks big and aggressive with blacked out grille, small windows, low ride height, a high waist line, huge 20-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile rubber hiding 380mm front disc brakes and red six-pot Brembo calipers.

Inside it’s very luxurious with a nice ambience, stitched leather draped over the dash and console and I like the carbon inserts.

The big comfy seats are like sitting in a lazy boy – very American.

It is the only one of the trio that can comfortably carry four and it has a decent size boot, so it has a practical side to it.

It also has tyre pressure monitor gauges on the dash, which I like.

The steering is also quite light and not quite as sharp as the Camaro, but it is a matter of personal taste.

If you are in any doubt about the thunderous power under your right foot, the whine of the supercharger is a constant reminder.

Its six-speed manual gearbox has a slick changing action and a light clutch makes it easy in traffic.

Find a stretch of quiet road, open the taps and it will hurl you into the next postcode in no time – its acceleration is ferocious.

While it is the most powerful of the trio it’s also the heaviest.

That doesn’t blunt its performance to any great extent but you can feel its extra weight when cornering and braking.

That said, its sits on the road beautifully – its independent suspension and adjustable magnetic ride control deliver.

The ride is also smoother than the Camaro or Mustang.

With 707 horsepower I can’t help jabbing the throttle and charging off like a rat up a drainpipe as the supercharger ups its tempo.

The engine noise resonates through the cabin and puts a big smile on my face, as I flick up through the six gears.

While I enjoy my time in the Hellcat, I don’t find it is as engaging behind the wheel as the others, but it’s very impressive nonetheless.

You’d frighten the daylights out of everyone at the traffic light grand prix that’s for sure.

The Dodge Hellcat is the most expensive of the trio at $180,000 but you get big power and fun factor with a capital F.

Last is the 2013 Saleen S302 Black Label Mustang - the only one in the country. It has been signed by Steve Saleen and is build number 13.

Before I drove it, the odometer read zero. Now that I have run it in, I can tell you this, is one very special Mustang.

Saleen is to Mustangs what HSV is to Holdens. Steve, a former racer, has been fettling Mustangs since 1982 and the Black Label signifies it’s the top shelf model with the most modifications.

Under the bonnet is Ford’s signature 5-litre Coyote V8 that produces 461kW and 760Nm. Coupled to it is a six-speed manual gearbox.

The first thing I notice is the Saleen is a total package. It has its own design front and rear treatment, its own interior styling and appointments like the alcantara-wrapped steering wheel and the heavily-bolstered cloth and leather seats.

The aero is more obvious than the other two, with a large rear wing, deep front spoiler, side skirts and even aero cheating bonnet vents.

I really like the look of it and the body kit but I could take or leave the wheels.

This is also the ‘featherweight’ of the trio and that translates in the way it drives. It feels very lively.

The live rear axle easily lights up the rear tyres and it’s a lot of fun.

It is quite raw and involving behind the wheel and the supercharged Coyote engine delivers very good throttle progression and serious mumbo.

Everything about the Saleen feels very integrated.

I particularly like the steering which has a nice feel with good levels of feedback and a quick ratio for pinpoint accuracy when cornering.

The suspension delivers sure-footed handling and decent ride quality and it doesn’t get unsettled on lumpy roads.

Its exhaust note is wonderful but it is not intrusive and the whole package feels complete.

While other tuning houses develop certain components for the Mustang, Saleen does the lot.

To me, the Saleen Mustang is the most muscle-bound of the three cars.

After driving all three, what is apparent is the outstanding conversion work that is absolutely spot-on.

It’s a tough choice between the three – what’s your preferred ‘flavour’?

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