I was watching the latest episode of Jay Leno’s Garage where hes talking about his 1966 Ford Galaxie restoration; after seeing this, you can really appreciate how far cars have come in terms of handling and braking.
The oldest car I have ever driven is the 1985 sky blue Dodge Aries I had back in high school. But from a 1966 Ford Galaxie point of view, the brakes and suspension on my ’85 Aries might have looked like they came off a race car. Jay’s ’66 Galaxie had drum brakes all around and even though it has upper and lower control arms for the front suspension, there was very little in terms of proper geometry.
One of the first things you notice with the Galaxie is its body-on-frame design. The chassis of the car is constructed from heavy square tubing that was shaped roughly like the bottom of the car. The body of the car was simply bolted to this frame. Since this simple latter frame provides virtually no torsional rigidity, all of the torsional stiffness had to come from the body of the car. I would bet the amount of squeaks and rattles inside the car must have reached ridiculous proportions as the car aged. Though, with the suspension on this car and the tires of the day, I don’t think this car ever saw much in the way of high cornering force; but I bet rough roads beat these things to death.
Jay had the front control arms replaced and redesigned. This was done by Hotchkis performance, and John Hotchkis himself was saying the the original geometry didn’t have any caster or camber correction. Caster contributes greatly to the self-centering force of the steering wheel and stability of the car; so when you go around a corner, you can just let go of the wheel and have it come back to center by itself. Without it, you would have to steer into and out of a corner. Also, this steering was going through a steering box. For some reason, Chevy kept steering boxes like these in their F-bodies until the 4th generation cars (1993). I have had the pleasure of driving a 3rd gen F-body equipped with one of these diabolical steering devices, and there was about 10 degrees of play in the wheel before anything happened. A car like this 1966 Gaxaxie with its non-centering steering and old steering box would have required constant steering corrections. I can only imagine how much of a handful this car was at high speeds, it must have felt like you were doing 150mph when you were only going 60mph… And this was driving in a straight line!
Then there’s the brakes. Jay has had the old drum system removed and upgraded with a modern Wilwood system. I have been in a ’65 mustang with its original brakes; I wasn’t driving but the feedback I was getting from the driver, who happens to be an avid racer himself, gave me the impression that there was little in the way of braking at all.
If you combine the terrible suspensions those cars had with their equally bad braking systems, put all of that on tires from that era then power it with a 7-liter V8, it seems truly amazing that any of those car survived to be around today. Even Jay crashed his dad’s when he was a kid!
The interesting thing is that even in those days, modern vehicle dynamics where understood very well. Ford even pioneered the use of computers to plot its suspension for the GT-40 race car. So why does it seem like they weren’t even trying with these old muscle car suspensions? Well, the obvious answer is to keep costs down. I’m sure the parts of the car where also shared with other platforms and they didn’t want to redesign things. There also wasn’t much better out there for the price so its not like the consumers had a choice.
So, a lot of people really lust after these old muscle cars since they fell in love with them when they where kids. I think when people finally get these cars, they have a “Never meet your hero” moment. But luckily, the aftermarket out there can really modernize these cars and not make your Prius feel like a Formula One car by comparison. But its really got to make you respect how far cars have come.