Mike Charbonneau’s car collection is a tribute to the muscle era
For the acolytes of raw automotive muscle, the 1970s marked the end of an era.
Mike Charbonneau’s Caledon home is a veritable museum of a time when the Big Three were extolling the virtues of raw power.
Among the gems in his collection are a 1970 Buick GS 455 convertible, a ’69 Camaro Z-28 and 1970 R Z-28.
Having worked as a mechanic for the past 25 years, Charbonneau will attest to the fact that current automobiles are models of efficiency, with the ability to skimp on fuel and still pick up speed.
Nevertheless, he’s attracted to “the sheer power” of the earlier vehicles.
“Computers make the cars more efficient, these days,” figures Charbonneau, “but the romance of the muscle car is gone. The way cars are marketed today, it’s about safety and fuel efficiency.”
There are obvious reasons for the automakers to follow the current trends. For one thing, gas was about 40 cents a gallon back in 1970, as opposed to $1.20/litre today. With more cars on the road, safety features are paramount.
Still, there’s no denying the auto sector is at a point where science and technology have supplanted spirit and, in the case of Charbonneau’s cars, sheer machismo.
As well, there’s a substantial school of thought that claims that 1970 was the best year in Z-28 history; some have even gone so far to call it the best muscle car ever built.
It’s 350 V-8 might not have been as awesome in size as the Mustang Boss 429, but it would smoke the Ford off the line in a drag race.
The E-body Plymouth Barracuda blasted on to the scene with its 426 Hemi and 440 Super Commando Six-pak options in 1970. Yet, despite its suspension upgrades and structural reinforcements, the consensus was that it still lacked the handling capabilities of the Z-28.
Thus, it’s understandable when Charbonneau says “I’m a GM guy ‘til the end.”
In fact, his collection also includes a 1978 Z-28 he bought brand new at the age of 18, as well as a prize-winning 1987 IROC.
He also points to innovations brought to the fore by Camaros that didn’t involve power and speed. “Camaros were the first cars where they tried dipping the car in coating to make them last,” points out Charbonneau.
The Buick GS 455, meanwhile, has been in the center of a controversy since the 1980s when its Stage 1 model was listed ahead of all Chrysler Hemi cars in a “50 fastest muscle cars list.”
Despite numerous head-to-head competitions, the issue remains unresolved.
In 2004, an experiment was carried out by Muscle Car Enthusiast magazine, where a 455 Stage 1 was stripped of factory engine fan, cleaner assembly and mufflers and bored to 464 cubic inches.
The engine produced a peak of 382 horsepower.
Despite documented problems with its engine block, the GS 455 achieved powerful results with its uniquely designed, large-valve cylinder heads, specially tuned four-barrel carburetor, fast ignition timing and higher numerical final drive.
You will often hear car restoration enthusiasts jokingly comment that theirs is not a hobby. It’s a sickness, they say, and Charbonneau tends to agree.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a sickness,” he says. “You can find yourself working two to three days on some little thing, just to make it perfect.”
If enthusiasm can be equated with sickness in this case, Charbonneau has passed the germ on to his son and two daughters. “They’re all into cars,” he says.
“You can’t keep them out of the garage.”
Written by Dan Pelton