Jonny Smith on Defining a Classic Car
Meet Jonny Smith: motoring journalist, and TV presenter of the Discovery Channel’s Fifth Gear, BBC Motorheads on BBC Worldwide, and Mud, Sweat and Gears on BBC America. He’s also a self-proclaimed “CarPervert”, which is the name of his 115,000-follower strong YouTube channel.
Undoubtedly a car lover in every sense of the word, Jonny stands out as a rare bird. In a recent episode of the Smith and Sniff podcast, which he co-hosts with The Grand Tour scriptwriter, Richard Porter, he admitted he’d happily take his 1968 Dodge Charger over an Aston Martin DB5 - a car considered to be one of the definitive classic cars of all time.
Yet here’s the thing. There is no fixed definition of a ‘classic’ car. A modern classic or a ‘youngtimer’ is a car that’s usually defined as being 20 years old or more, but a ‘classic’? That definition is widely considered to be up to the individual.
When asked by Dyler.com about what constitutes a classic car, Jonny - as he was throughout the hour we spent talking to him - was thoughtful and genuinely funny in his answers. Given his love for interesting but not necessarily good cars, his definition of a classic was far from surprising.
“I think cars that are rough diamonds are always a bit more characterful,” he replies. “Our family car is the new Suzuki Jimny and it’s a charming little thing, really. It reminds me of the Land Rover Defender we had before that - sure, they're a bit rubbish at going around corners, they're a bit wobbly, and they're a bit basic, but people like them for that and that's the kind of bit that's nice and fun.
“When you go back through the passages of time, there are some really fantastic classic cars in terms of the way they were built or designed, but they might not actually be as exciting as the flawed ones. For example, I had an Alfa Romeo Alfa Sud once and I think it was one of those cars whose collection of parts and fundamental design was good. It was so poorly built and wanted to rust all the time, but I still liked it though - some cars are like that, aren’t they?”
An Introduction to the 1968 Dodge Charger 383/4 He Imported from San Diego
A case in point is Jonny’s 1968 Dodge Charger 383/4. This rare muscle car - one of only 259 made - is powered by Mopar’s 6.3-litre, 325bhp V8 engine which is mated to a four-speed manual gearbox as opposed to the more common automatic transmission preferred by Charger buyers at the time. This model’s rarity is boosted by the absence of power steering, non-servo brakes, and no interior centre console. He purchased the car from a buyer in San Diego for $11,000 USD and upon its arrival to the United Kingdom, he then spent a further $10,000 on under-the-skin restorations with a little help from Roadhouse Retro.
Jonny describes this OG muscle car as “not built very well, and generally a little bit silly,” but his Charger is aligned with his view that a classic car should be more about its zeitgeist - the mood or spirit of a certain period of time - as opposed to exclusivity, price or any of the other mainstream terms with which the term “classic car” is associated.
“I think the classic world is at its best when it’s a broad church, rather than being cliquey and all about one make,” he explained. “That's a mistake I made when I got into classic cars. I went down the road of just air-cooled Volkswagens for several years and that’s all I cared about, really. It was either an air-cooled VW or I didn’t give a shit.
The Novelty of Classic American Cars Explained Through British Eyes
It’s these criteria of cars and their zeitgeist that has seen Jonny embark on a love affair with American muscle cars over the last two decades. He bought his first American car when he was 20 years old - a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood 500ci - from a small film studio in London who had painted it in magnolia housepaint with a roller. If you’re interested, the Fleetwood featured in a straight-to-DVD film starring Jack Davenport, David Soul and Dexter Fletcher.
Jonny’s history of four-wheeled Americana is packed with interesting cars including a Canadian-made right-hand-drive 1966 Pontiac Parisienne and a 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS which he has been restoring since 2000. “Pending bankruptcy,” he laughs, “the Impala is now on the home straight of completion.”
What, then, was the catalyst for Jonny’s appreciation of old American classic cars? He’s quick to point out that even now in 2020, American cars - both modern and classic - are still somewhat of a novelty to see on UK roads.
“I remember seeing those sorts of cars as a young lad and it would leave that indelible mark in my memory,” Jonny recalls. “You’d say bloody hell, do you remember when we saw that ‘blah blah bright orange whatever it was?” “You’d talk about it to your friends and I really hope that when young kids see a car like the Dodge Charger, it’ll influence them to have an appreciation of them later in life. Even now when you see one as an adult, it’s a bit of an event!
“Aside from that, I've always enjoyed the ridiculousness and escapism of muscle cars and honestly, if you combine this with the idea of bringing them to England, the whole idea is a bit stupid.
"It's pure novelty and as long as you keep your tongue in your cheek and remember you’re buying a muscle car because it’s escapism, then it will bring you a LOT of joy,” he emphasises. “If I go out in my Charger, I just pretend I’m living in the 1960s and I am not afraid to admit that! I don’t have a radio, so I often find myself thinking “what would I be listening to now if this were 1968 - would I be listening to Cream or would I be listening to a bit of The Beach Boys? What would be going on right now?” I just sort of disappear into these thoughts and I love it.
“Truly, there’s something about that car. I don’t know what it is, but whenever I open the garage door, I still get a real pang of excitement from it...”
Muscle Car Wars: The Dodge Charger vs the Ford Mustang
Whilst the muscle car was and still is a novelty for UK car enthusiasts, the story in their country of origin - the United States - is quite different.
In 1964, Ford pioneered the ‘pony car’ segment with the introduction of its Mustang. In an attempt to woo new buyers from the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation (anyone born from 1946 to 1964) who were fast-approaching legal driving age, Ford ditched the fins and excessive chrome of its 1950s models for an affordable, compact, highly-styled coupe with a sporty or performance-oriented image.
The Mustang also shared mass-produced parts with other cars in the Ford line up. From a production perspective, this made it more cost-effective and quicker to build than previous models. For the owner, this meant that the Mustang was easier and more cost-effective to repair.
During the first year of its life, Ford sold 618,812 Mustangs alone by the end of 1965. Understanding that in order to keep its financially-troubled Dodge brand afloat, the Chrysler Group introduced the Charger in 1966 to compete with the Mustang in the pony car market.
However, the first generation of Charger wasn’t exactly a roaring success. It was introduced two years after the Mustang, and despite its sleek, fastback design, it appeared slab-sided in comparison to the Ford and General Motors’ Pontiac GTO.
Fast-forward to 1968, and the muscle car - a V8-powered, road-racing version of the pony car - had become a well-established part of American motoring life, and the battle for street supremacy between Chrysler, Ford and General Motors was in full swing across the United States.
In the same year, the second-generation Dodge Charger arrived and kicked the muscle car war into a higher gear. Designed by Richard Sias, the second-generation Charger dropped the fastback design for a ‘flying buttress’ similar to that of the Pontiac GTO.
To build on the Charger’s new, aggressive aesthetic, Sias retained the first-generation car’s hidden front lights under its full-length grille to keep the Charger’s menacing face, which according to Car Life magazine, were one of the six requirements of a muscle car. However, the original car’s electric headlight covers had been replaced by a vacuum-operated mechanism.
Most importantly, the second-generation Charger featured the ‘coke bottle’ design used to great effect by Ford and General Motors. More than 50 years later, this aesthetic is why it is still considered “one of the most stunning cars of the classic muscle car era.”
The Dodge Charger as the Real Hero of the Muscle Car World
The aesthetic and public perception of the Dodge as the villain or ‘underdog’ to the Mustang’s hero is a notion reinforced by the iconic car chase between the two cars in the 1969 Steve McQueen classic - Bullitt. The Charger’s bad guy status is what prompted Jonny to buy a 1968 Charger over a Mustang GT fastback.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think the Mustang is a fine, fine car,” he says. “The Steve McQueen effect still resonates, and people always want the hero car, don’t they?
“But for me, the real hero car of Bullitt was always the Charger because the thing is, is that Mustangs are pretty boy cars. They’re not sinister enough for me, and I think muscle cars should be sinister and nasty. I love the Charger’s concealed headlights and its jet-engine tail lights - that’s why I’d always have one over a Mustang, because it’s sort of like the rude, obnoxious friend.
“The funny thing about Bullitt though, is that people who know cars, know that the R/T Charger in the film was heaps quicker than the similar spec Mustang driven by Steve McQueen - there was absolutely no contest! Okay, the Mustang can go around corners a bit better but they're both a bit crap in terms of cornering.
“I think the Charger's coke bottle shape of 1968 was 'Peak Muscle Car' - it doesn't matter what angle you look at it from. The best angle to look at a '68 Charger is one that you very seldom see, it's the bird's eye view and looking down at it from an upstairs window in your house. It's got the front wings that bulge out ever so slightly, so they go well with the back haunches that go out. There are a few very delicate creases there too.”
Forget Jingle-Jangle Mods, It’s the Patina Effect that Brings out a Muscle Car’s True Working Class Hero Credentials
Looking around Jonny’s ‘68 Charger, it’s a far cry on the surface from the pristinely-restored muscle cars that so often do the rounds on the classic car show circuit. The Charger’s bodywork is covered by a thin-yet-characterful, greenish-brown patina.
Factory fresh, the car was light green, but during the late 1970s, it was repainted a brownish-bronze. Due to a lack of correct prepping during the re-paint and the car’s exposure to the elements in San Diego, the resulting effect on the Charger’s bodywork is a mixture of the original green showing through with some surface rust blistering.
The front-grille is missing a slat, and there are bullet holes in the rear left panel. To give it “full bastard of a car” credentials, one of the car’s front licence plate holders resemble a gold tooth.
This, in Jonny’s opinion, ties in with the Charger’s credentials as a “mass-produced, cheap and honest car, which was marketed really well as the working man’s sports car.”
“I think the honesty of a patinated car is what we, as car enthusiasts like, really,” he concludes. “Seeing one is like seeing a war veteran - it’s got a few battle scars here and there, and most importantly, it reflects a time in history.
“When you see an overly-restored classic car, you then question what’s the point of buying one because it loses the essence of what it was and what it stood for. Muscle cars typified an era. They’re like hippies in that they were a bright light that burnt out pretty quickly. The whole muscle car era - real muscle cars, anyway - was only five years long at most and then it had to end.
“These cars have done pretty well to survive as long as they have,” he concludes. “The Dodge is over 50 now and look at the way it’s made - it isn’t brilliantly put together and that’s because it was a mass-produced cheap car, which was marketed really well as the working man’s sports car - it would make you look good and potentially get girls. It was never ever supposed to live this long. None of them were…”
Join us soon for part two of our interview with Jonny where he advises engaged couples on classics to consider - and avoid - as wedding cars, reveals the pleasures and perils of drunk-buying on eBay, and explains what it’s like to be the total opposite of the “hi, guys!” YouTuber.
We at Dyler.com would like to say a big thank you to Jonny for providing us with his insight into the world of classic American muscle cars. To ensure you don’t miss any of his car-based adventures - and believe us, you don’t want to miss out - click these words to subscribe to his CarPervert YouTube channel.