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Vintage muscle car has proud owner who appreciates racing, classic autos

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TORONTO (CP) _ John Carlson is crazy about cars, and his vintage 1968 Camaro muscle car ranks among his favourites.

People who own muscle cars _ high-performance automobiles made from the mid-'60s to mid-'70s, usually with big V8 engines _ love the nostalgia, says Carlson, president of the National Association of Antique Automobile Clubs of Canada Corp.

``You think about the '50s and '60s, these were great times in North America,'' says Carlson, who lives in Belcarra just outside Vancouver.

While Carlson has about a dozen classic cars in his collection, including vehicles from the early 1900s right through to the mid-1970s, the Chevrolet Camaro is considered special. It has more horsepower than the norm and specific handling characteristics.

It's a big block General Motors built car, 375 horsepower _ blue in colour with a white strip on its nose.

``It's referred to as a L78 L89 car ... It holds the quarter-mile record in 1968,'' said Carlson. L78 refers to the 396 cubic-inch V8 engine and L89 to the aluminum heads.

Has he raced it?

``Many, many, many times,'' says the retired technology education teacher.

``I took it to Seattle to race in vintage car events during the summer months,'' he says. ``It would go 124 miles an hour in the quarter-mile event in 11.6 seconds _ very respectable.''

Carlson, who restores all his own cars, says this one represents ``all the things that were the epitome of the muscle car world during that time.''

Showing off the car _ now worth between $125,000 and $150,000 _ and his other classic vehicles at weekend rallies is his passion, and it's always been a family affair.

``I took my oldest boy (now 25) to his very first swap meet in a crib,'' says Carlson.

Now both his sons are building their own collections, he says.

Terry Lobzun, director of public relations for RM Auctions in Blenheim, near Chatham in southwestern Ontario, says the muscle car era began with John De Lorean's GTO built in 1964.

It ended in the mid-1970s when governments introduced regulations to control greenhouse-gas emissions, said Lobzun, whose company holds classic car auctions in North America and Europe.

When it comes to famous muscle cars, in 1967 and 1969, the Camaro was chosen as the pace car for the Indy 500 car race, according to the website www.camaros.org.

GM production records show that 220,906 Camaros were built in 1967, 235,147 in 1968 and 243,085 in 1969, the last year the first generation of Camaros were made. About 75 per cent were built in Norwood, Ohio.

Muscle-type cars, including a Chrysler 1969 Dodge Charger with a 383 four-barrel engine, were featured on the ``Dukes of Hazzard'' television show.

And the song ``GTO,'' by Ronny and the Daytonas, helped fuel the GTO craze, says the website www.musclecarclub.com.

Lobzun says the prices for getting started as a collector vary widely. For a first-timer, he recommends buying a car that's been fixed up. It'll cost $30,000 to $40,000 for a decent car.

``You can take it to car shows and cruise nights right away.''

Occasionally, a muscle car sports a high pricetag.

``We hold the record for the most valuable muscle car ever sold at auction _ $2.4 million for a '71 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible,'' says Lobzun.

Car collectors, including those caught up in the muscle-car craze, visit swap meets to search for parts or other paraphernalia for their ``toys.''

Such meets, along with ``show and shine'' affairs or garage tours, allow people to kick some tires, trade stories and see what the other guy's got.

Carlson, who judges cars at some of the biggest vintage shows in North America such as Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in California, advises muscle collectors to stick to original cars as opposed to ``clones.''

Clones are collections of parts that have been assembled, he says. ``They're dropping like rocks in value.''

``(Judges) are looking for numbers matching, which means that the engine number, the chassis number and the body number all coincide,'' he says.

``That adds a significant amount of value to the vehicle.''

Furthermore, says Lubzun, authentic cars ``are going to hold their value,'' as opposed to the clones.

Harold Swift, president of the B.C. Hot Rod Association which is marking its 50th anniversary, says car collecting is ``a big sport.''

The association has about 3,000 members from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and Britain, and his chapter in the Vancouver area has about 300 members.

While most of them tend to be in their 60s and older, ``we've got a few of the younger generation coming along,'' says Swift, who lives in Langley, a Vancouver suburb.

``Usually, they're sons or daughters or grandkids of members ... in their 20 and 30s,'' says Swift.

They are coming out with what they call rat rods ... ``old '50s or '40s cars kind of done up in a ratty way,'' says Swift. ``The kids dress to match their cars, like black T-shirts.''

The cars may have black primer on them and the old style steel wheels and white walls, old flat-head motors ... ``stuff that was popular way back.''

It costs about $20,000 to find a car like that and get it on the road, says Swift, who owns a 1956 Chevy Bel Air two-door post, which he converted from a drag racer to a customized car.

Club members own street rods from 1926 to 1940, '50s vehicles and muscle cars such as the '67 Chevrolet Chevelle 396 four speed or big block Fords.

While owning a vintage car is an investment from a monetary point of view, it's also a way to have fun, says Swift.

In the second week of September every year, during the Langley Good Times Cruise-In, ``we'll put 1,600 to 2,000 cars around the city and get 100,000 people on a nice day,'' he said.

``People come from as far away as California and Toronto.''

Members also like to cruise on weekends.

``Twenty to 30 cars get out on a Friday night, meet somewhere at a restaurant, go for a drive up the valley, go for an ice-cream,'' he says.

Swift, about to turn 66, doesn't plan to hang up his keys any time soon.

``It gets in your blood,'' he says. ``I'll keep going as long as they'll let me have a driver's licence and I can afford a gallon of gas.''

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Vintage muscle car has proud owner who appreciates racing, classic autos
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