Once again, I was on The Road: my 14-mile test route in the San Bernardino National Forest. I was shaking down a Volkswagen R32, ec's latest project car. It's super-quiet up there, except for the occasional screaming hawk or falling rock.
In the distance, I hear the faint drone of a motor. I wait for the Doppler Effect to give me an idea of its location. In way too short a time, the sound has grown deafening. I look down the canyon wall and there's an aircraft coming straight at me. I'm absolutely mesmerized, unable to even blink. Here's this plane doing 350 mph a mere 10 feet away-I could almost reach out and touch it. The pilot crests the hill and all manner of detritus follows: dirt, leaves, bugs, snakes. I do the proverbial 'freak out' and start screaming (gibberish, I'm told), jumping and dancing, wanting to tear my clothes off. The pilot gives me a wave, executes a high-g turn and performs a series of barrel rolls. Then he was gone.
I look at Vik, my co-driver. He's staring at the sun unable to fully comprehend what just happened. At the same time we both start cheering like 14-year-olds at a Fall Out Boy concert. We'd been privy to a private show, one we wouldn't soon forget. I was inspired, not only to get my pilot's license, but for speed in general. I looked at the R32 and started dreaming about turbochargers and all-wheel drifts, 170 mph and 11-second quarter-miles. This is one of the ways project cars begin. Here's another way.
Set the way-back machine to 1973. Gas is 40 cents a gallon, Richard Nixon is in the White House and a trio of directionless magazine guys are looking to spend some publisher money. Raiding the petty cash box, George Elliot, Paul Yokum and Butch Brickner plunked down 200 bucks on a '57 Chevy, a classic POS in dire need of euthanasia. With their industry contacts, the guys rebuilt the car from the ground up, including a supercharged small block, alloy wheels and sport exhaust. Word got out and folks wanted to see how the guys at Popular Hotrodding did it.
So began Project X, arguably the most famous of all project cars and something of a springboard for the then-small magazine. I personally worked on Project X for several years, helping install a gigantic Weiand blower and assorted suspension bits. I also photographed the car dozens of times, occasionally with stunning females that made it difficult to focus. I look back on those pictures sometimes. The girls are probably pushing 50 now, but Project X still looks fantastic. And it continues its development in the capable hands of John Hunkins and the PHR crew.
Not to be outdone, we at sister magazine VW & Porsche had Project Millionized Rabbit, a VW aimed to put European flair into the project car scene. Tech editor, James Sly, tirelessly tuned and tested hundreds of parts on that car, some great, a few not so. Since Millionized Rabbit we've had dozens of official project cars. Some great, a few not so.
There are two definitions of 'project car.' The first is a magazine-specific term, a vehicle assembled primarily for publicity purposes. These cars are built, shown and then typically vanish into the ether, parted out or squashed by the manufacturer. The other definition is more personal. In this sense, a project car can bring families together (or tear them apart, I suppose), provide relaxation and a strong sense of accomplishment. These cars are rarely finished, but rather continue thriving with a healthy dose of inspiration.
Right now, I've got more than enough of the stuff.