We all know that muscle cars of the 60s and early 70s are getting scarcer all the time. It’s really hard to track down a lot of OEM parts, especially trim and interior bits, and of course you want to keep that muscle car original. The good news is that you don’t have to drive your 140 mph car on a set of 70 mph 60s-era bias-ply tires.
Keeping Your Muscle Car Period Correct (From the Ground Up)
Muscle cars are typically thought of as an American ride from about ‘62 to ‘73, with a V8 that puts out plenty of horsepower and some sporty styling, although certain full-size cars like Impalas, Catalinas, Satellites and Torinos fall into that category too.
When you’re restoring a muscle car for the show circuit, you’re striving for cleanest and most correct restoration you can manage, with a numbers-matching drivetrain, the right interior details, the right paint codes and everything else.
And of course we’re now in another golden age of muscle cars, with late-model Charger sedans, Challengers and Camaros putting out more horsepower and torque than their 60s-era cousins did, but that’s probably a discussion for some other time.
But you don’t want to forget the tires while you’re at it. Everyone knows that tires have a shelf life and a sell-by date. A set of tires that’s more than five years old is likely to have some cracking and the beginnings of dry rot, so a set of 50 year old OEM tires would never work. On top of that, older bias-ply tires were less flexible in terms of rubber compounds and construction. That stiffness meant excessive rolling resistance, heat buildup, a harsher ride and squirrely handling -- all of which are why bias-ply and bias-belted tires are obsolete and radials have become the superior design.
- Tires can make or break the overall look of your classic muscle car, and there are plenty of accurate options appearance-wise for your restoration.
- A lot of muscle cars were designed for 14” or 15” wheels. The good news is that 14s, 15s and even 13s are available as reproduction muscle car tires, for a perfect period-correct look.
- Remember the old designations for widths? “He’s got a set of 60s on that car!” You can even find white-letter tires that have those size designations on them, just like in the early 70s.
There’s nothing more jarring than an accurate restoration with a set of tires that look completely wrong. Whether you’re looking for a bare-bones look with steelie wheels, dogdish hubcaps and blackwalls or if you’re shooting for the classic white-letter look, there are historically-accurate reproductions of vintage tires. They even look just-right if you’re rolling on period-correct aftermarket wheels like Cragar S/S’s, slots or chrome reverses.
Remember Uniroyal Tiger Paw tires? How about Goodyear Silvertowns ⅜” redline (or gold or blue line) tires? Or the perennial favorite Firestone Wide Ovals, with the correct font on the sidewalls? They’ve all come back around and are available for your muscle car. And of course they’re all built with modern technology for traction, ride comfort, handling and safety.
Maybe the best part is that you can find the right sizes when you’re looking for muscle car tires. In the late 70s, Corvettes ran on 15” wheels; today, Corvette wheels are 19” diameter. Still, in the 60s pretty much everything had 15” wheels, from GTOs to station wagons (although ¾ ton trucks typically had 16s). It can be hard to find modern tires in those sizes that are a good fit for your muscle car appearance-wise, and you really don’t want to go to a larger wheel size without making some other modifications. Bigger wheels can throw off speedometer/odometer readings, change suspension geometry and even cause drivetrain problems, so why not just keep it original with 15s instead of completely re-engineering your suspension?
Then, There’s Restomods.
Restomods are great. You get to keep all the cool cachet of your 60s car, but with upgrades to the brakes, suspension and steering that make it a whole lot safer and more predictable to drive. You can do an engine swap for something that’s less maintenance-intensive, easier on fuel, easier to find parts for and maybe even more powerful.
With the right technology and the right wrench skills, you can put together something that’s really the best of both worlds when you’re doing a restomod project -- think a 50s-era Chrysler coupe with a 00s Dodge Viper V10 under the hood and a complete overhaul of suspension and brakes. Or maybe a late-60s Mustang that’s been refitted with a 2010s-era Ford V8, complete with electronic engine controls, 14” Brembo disc brakes and a fully-updated front suspension. That’s maybe the best part about restomods -- when you don’t have that commitment to everything being accurate and in line with factory specs and build sheets, you can come up with anything from a mild mod to something pretty radical.
Let’s say you’re driving a restomod that you got creative with, maybe welding an entire subframe and front end in for more up-to-date handling and road manners. Performance or ultra-high-performance tires use a softer, stickier rubber formulation that enhances traction and road feel for a much better driving experience. Of course if you’re going with these tires, you’ll need to make sure you’ve really done your homework on those front suspension and steering mods.
Modern Tires for Your Classic Muscle Car
Cars and trucks have changed a lot over the years, even in just the last decade. Tires have had to keep pace with that evolution in design. Michelin introduced the first radial back in the late 40s; by the 70s they were common and were a big step forward from bias-ply tires. Since then, though, there have been advances in rubber formulations, tread patterns and internal design that have enhanced handling, tread life and ride quality to a huge extent.
First off, we don’t recommend or advocate that anyone break traffic laws, but if you’ve ever been above 70 mph in a muscle car that’s riding on bias-ply tires, you know it can be a rather white-knuckle experience. Modern tires are designed for long spells at high speeds, with rubber formulations that help dissipate heat and tread patterns designed for stable on-center feel. Those same tread patterns also help evacuate water from the tire’s contact patch, moving it behind the tire for superior traction and safety on rainy pavement.
For an accurate look on a 30s- or 40s-era car (or a rat rod), you need a fat whitewall with pie-crust shoulder and sometimes an oddball size like 710R15. Here again, you can find this style of tire with modern radial internal construction for safety and handling (although some vintage wire wheels may require an inner tube). And for going ¼ mile at a time, there are great wrinkle-wall slicks and semi-slicks from Hoosier and Mickey Thompson that will hook you up and get you out of the hole and down the track. Racing tires have a stickier rubber compound that will definitely help dig in on hot pavement, eliminating wheelspin.
Nothing looks cooler than fat whitewalls on a late 50s Cadillac, white-letter tires on a ‘70 Olds 442 or redlines on a Plymouth RoadRunner. At one time, your choices were pretty limited if you were looking for the right kind of tires for your classic ride, but no more. The market is there and several tire manufacturers have stepped up to fill that niche. Best of all, you get the benefits of modern tires with the classic look that enhances your ride without getting you dinged on points at the car show.