Thursday, July 23, 2009

A tale of two numbers

Pardon us while we toss another gearhead topic out there, but this one really drives us nuts.

There are these two 1970 Dodge Chargers for sale, and one of them is rotting in a back yard with a non-running 426 Hemi engine, a busted 4-speed transmission, a ton of rust, shredded bucket seats, a cracked and faded dashboard, and even a couple of missing windows. It appears to have been painted green at one time.

The other one is immaculate, not a speck of rust, no tears or fade spots on the interior, no sign of wear on the bucket seats, a screamingly powerful 426 Hemi engine with working 4-speed, and an utter joy to drive. This one, too, is painted green.

One of these classic Mopars sells for $47,000. The other sells for $12,800. Wanna take a guess about which one is which?

See, the immaculate lime-green Charger* R/T 426 was never a lime-green R/T 426. It came off the assembly line as a docile maroon grocery grabber with a six-cylinder engine, bench seat, and automatic transmission. Then it went into storage, was bought by a Charger fan, and became an R/T 426 through the magic of correctly and carefully placed body emblems, patiently procured and perfectly installed interior components, and a huge race engine delivered in a crate from Chrysler. It is a Charger R/T 426 to every smallest detail — there is nothing on this car that differs, in any way, from the factory specs in 1970. Even the decals on the battery, radiator, and tire jack are authentic. So is the owner's manual in the glove box.

But the car's VIN number — its factory-designated Vehicle Identification code — tells the story: regardless of what your eyes, ears, and body are telling you, this is, in fact, a six-cylinder maroon grocery grabber with a bench seat and automatic transmission. It doesn't matter that everything — EVERYTHING — else about the car is authentically restored and correctly placed. There's one number on a little metal plaque riveted to the dash, and reprinted on the car's title, that matters more.

The rotting car, as you've probably figured out by now, is a "numbers matching" prize; its engine and transmission, even though they're worthless hulls, are the ones that were on the car when it went onto the delivery truck in 1970. And the bucket seats, although in tatters, are the original equipment. And the VIN shows that this was, in fact, an original R/T 426.

Will the engine and transmission require massive overhaul, using all new parts during the rebuild? Yes. And the seats — any hope that anything other than the basic metal frames can be salvaged? Nope. Everything from the metal up will be restoration materials. Carpet? Paint? Windows? Fenders and doors, which the rust of decades has eaten away? Those will be replacements, too.

But the VIN will be correct: this was, in fact, an R/T 426. The other car, the one in perfect condition, was a six-cylinder maroon grocery grabber.

This whole scenario, to us, defies all basic logic. People are willing to fork over tens of thousands of dollars — and then many additional thousands for the restoration — over the price of another perfect classic car, only so that the VIN will say "true" about a rolling junk heap instead of "false" about a gleaming race machine?

The insanity only increases when car nuts act like pro baseball statisticians: "This was one of only seven R/T models to have a black shifter knob and chrome trim on the wheels." Ooooh, well, that's certainly worth ten or twenty grand. "Only 23 R/Ts had this color green with an AM/FM radio." Hot damn, that's worth a small fortune!

Of course, WB loves to see the power of ideology in action, and the classic car scene, as a case study, is as good as it gets. Meanwhile, if we ever have a chance to own a black Camaro SS 396, or a green Mustang Boss 302, we're going for it — especially because, since they won't be "real" SS or Boss models, we'll actually be able to afford them. A metal plate with a number embossed on it is just one more part on a car made up of many parts — and a damned insignificant one, at that.

* The immaculate lime green Charger in the photo is only an example of an immaculate lime green Charger! We do not mean to cast any doubt on its authentic numbers, if it has them.


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