Pro Touring

Story by Liz Miles
Photos as credited

Most people imagine vintage pony cars doing one of three things: participating in a vintage race, preparing for a trip down the quarter mile, or gleaming on the show field.

Over the last two decades, a huge movement has been changing those conceptions: Enthusiasts are creating roadworthy vintage pony cars that can accelerate, turn and brake better than their modern counterparts. The formula is called pro touring, and it uses today’s technology to infuse vintage machines with modern performance.

Sure, many of us fantasize about buying that 100-point 1969 Camaro offered on the auction block, but are we ready to live with drum brakes, a three-speed transmission and a complete lack of modern air conditioning? The sad truth is that a new Honda Accord not only offers more comfort, but better performance, too.

The right aftermarket package, however, can turn yesterday’s performance cars into today’s world-beaters. That’s where the pro touring mentality comes in.

A Misguided History

Upgraded pony cars are nothing new, and each generation of enthusiasts has offered its own take on these machines. Most, however, haven’t looked at the total package.

From the ’70s and well into the ’90s, many radical pony cars fell into the pro street category. They wore those iconic narrow front tires teamed with big meats out back. Their chassis sat at a mean rake. Something big and shiny usually stuck out of the hood.

For the most part, though, these cars were all show. Even though their looks came straight from the drag strip, the formula made them barely streetworthy. They had next to zero front contact patch, which meant they needed plenty of lead time to stop and turn. They were also rather uncomfortable to drive.

Despite the shortcomings, these beasts became synonymous with the American performance car. They were worshiped by many, though others resented them because of their gaudy looks and noisy nature.

Today, enthusiasts are following a new approach: Use modern technology to deliver solid, usable performance upgrades. While there is some controversy regarding the exact parameters of this movement—are foreign cars welcome, for example?—those involved agree that real performance gains are a must. What’s left up to debate are the secondary treatments: fancy paint jobs, custom upholstery, oversized wheels and air conditioning. The bottom line, though, is that these cars are built to drive—and drive hard.

Low, Lean and Fast

It’s impossible to sum up pro touring in a single sentence—or even a paragraph—because the definition is always changing. The early days of Trans-Am racing are a clear influence, but unlike the old pro street days, this scene isn’t overly concerned with shiny objects.

Rather than horsepower figures or a laundry list of chromed parts, the most important part of a pro touring car is the suspension. The goal is to make a vintage vehicle that can brake and turn like a modern-day sports car. That’s no easy task, since today’s machines are so advanced.

The solution often lies in a recalibrated suspension. We’re talking more than just upgraded shock absorbers and anti-roll bars—even though those components are definitely part of the recipe. Reworked front control arms are popular modifications, and the main advantage is improved geometry at a lower ride height.

While the solid rear axle is usually retained, it’s often surrounded by new components. RideTech offers four-link suspension setups that replace the factory leaves with airbags. Two big advantages: better ride and better handling. Jake’s Rod Shop produces another solution for older pony cars: a torque arm setup similar to that used on later Camaros and Firebirds.

Bolt-on chassis braces and modern steering boxes tie everything together and turn that wet noodle into a firm foundation. The result of this chassis magic: supercar-beating handling combined with a fairly comfortable ride. Turning well is only part of the pro touring formula—brakes deserve their share of attention. After all, no one appreciates the kind of adrenaline rush associated with performing a panic stop in an all-steel pony car still equipped with four-wheel drum brakes. In short, if a car has drum brakes on it, then it’s not pro touring.

The aftermarket is rife with disc brake solutions ranging from tame to completely worthy of hanging off a race car. Big players in this game include familiar names like Wilwood, StopTech, Brembo and Baer.

Those big brakes require some similarly big wheels. The trend has moved to forged, three-piece wheels from manufacturers usually associated with professional endurance racing: Forgeline, HRE, Complete Custom Wheel and the like. Those contemporary wheels allow for modern rubber.

Now we’ve come to the third and final part of the pro touring formula: adding some real power under the hood. The initial trend was to adapt fuel injection to the original engine—or at least to a block that could be described as period-correct.

In just the past few years, Detroit has released some modern V8s that have been embraced by both the aftermarket and the pro touring crowd. From the big three we now have an all-new Chrysler Hemi, Ford’s overhead-cam mod motor, and the revolutionary GM LS-series engine. The aftermarket has come up with the components needed to swap one of these into an early chassis, and there’s a raft of high-performance speed parts available. Modern gearboxes, most sporting five or six speeds, have also become pro-touring staples.

Defining a Scene

Jack Olsen photo

Jack Olsen photo

While the root of pro touring is uprated performance, improved comfort and clean looks are also essential. These aren’t barely street-legal, rough-and-tumble pony cars. In fact, some would argue that a perfect paint job and a bit of plushness are part of the pro touring standard.

Others, however, see the added comforts as cop-outs. They define pro touring as a scene for Trans-Am cars with a few modern touches. Enduring a bit of unpleasantness is required for a car to have some character, they say. Why float along in overstuffed leather seats with the air conditioning blasting?

The counter-argument: Making these cars more comfortable brings them even closer to the machines sold today. After all, if you could make your favorite car from 1972 drive as nicely as a brand-new vehicle, wouldn’t you?

Track Time

Liz Miles photo

Liz Miles photo

Okay, so some well-chosen parts can build a pro touring car that pulls hard, stops on a dime, and out-corners its modern counterpart. Now what? Well, the pro touring scene has generated its own events, too.

The days of parking your butt in a folding chair next to a cooler all day are fading. The Goodguys Rod & Custom Association has added the Street Challenge Autocross to many of their events, allowing any show entrants over the age of 18 to twirl their steering wheels through the cone-lined course.

The car-show crowd isn’t traditionally familiar with slaloms, 60-to-zero runs, or skidpad results, so there’s nothing like a live demonstration. Manufacturers with close ties to the pro touring world have responded by building cars specifically for these events.

Both timed and untimed track events catered specifically to the pro touring scene have also popped up. The goal is to provide a safe, friendly and fun environment where legs can be stretched and cars can be enjoyed. Most are relatively inexpensive, too, with entry fees ranging from about $100 to $300 per day.

Whether the venue is a parking lot or a road course, the result is similar: Enthusiasts get to enjoy vintage machines featuring a nice dose of modern technology.

Liz Miles, former technical editor of Popular Hot Rodding, owns a very fast 1968 Camaro and is currently building a 1966 Mustang.

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View comments on the CMS forums
Bobzilla UltimaDork
5/26/16 2:15 p.m.

Last weekend I got to see this first hand as about 80 pro-touring cars came out to Terre HAute to auto-x. Amazing day.

bentwrench Dork
5/26/16 2:55 p.m.

I have one for sale.

53 Studebaker Commander project Morrison frame and lots more.

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