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New Life for ‘80s & ‘90s Muscle: The Best Ways to Add Modern Performance to Emerging Classics

How can you not love ’80s and ‘90s American performance vehicles? Whether it’s an IROC Camaro, an SS454 pickup, a Fox Body Mustang, or a Buick GN — these cars continue to get more and more popular among mod-happy builders and collectors alike.

But as much as we enjoy these cars, those who have been spoiled by modern cars will probably find their performance lacking.

Pontiac Trans Am GTA Red Rear View

Thanks to the use of technology like fuel injection, the factory performance of these ‘80s cars was improved compared to the smog-choked performance cars of the ‘70s, but none will seem “fast” by 2020s standards.

Buick Grand National Black Front View

For example, today we are used to 5.0 Coyote-powered Mustangs that make anywhere from 400 to 500 horsepower out of the box.

The beloved Fox Body Mustang 5.0 of the late ‘80s? Though it was fast for its time, it made about half the power of the Coyote, with a 225 horsepower rating from the factory.

1993 Mustang GT Red

To Swap or Not to Swap

It’s the same story with the others too, and even as recently as the late ‘90s, it was a big deal for any of these cars to make more than 300 horsepower. 

Pontiac Trans Am and Firebird Third Gen

Fortunately, there are upgrade options galore out there, and it’s never been easier to bring the capability of one of these emerging classics into the modern era. The only real questions are how much you want to spend and what type of driving/ownership experience you are looking for.

ls swapped buick cutlass on nitto nt555 g2 13

One of the most popular ways to get a major power upgrade is an engine swap, most likely an LS engine for a GM product or a modular engine for a Ford.

Chevy SS 454 Pickup Front View

It’s hard to beat the added power of a modern engine, but you may want to hold back if your car is one of the rarer, more sought-after models.

For example, if you own or want a Fox Body Mustang Cobra or a turbo Buick Grand National, you’ll probably be better off sticking with the original powerplant, or a version of it.

Buick Grand National Side View

Wheels & Tires

Regardless of what’s under the hood, one of the most effective ways to upgrade handling, braking, and of course looks, is with a new set of wheels and tires.

C4 Corvette on Nitto NT555 G2

Not only will you be able to use modern performance tires, but you can take advantage of contemporary wheel options too.

A new wheel and tire combo can breathe new life into an ‘80s car — just make sure you pick sizes that won’t throw off the look too much.

Nitto NT555 G2 vs Old Muscle Car Tire

After all, we know that wheels and tires that are too small or too big can quickly make a beloved car look strange. As with any project, having a cohesive theme is key.

Is Restomod the Way?

With all of this in mind, our experiences suggest the restomod route is the one that usually works best.

You simply refresh and restore cosmetics where needed, and upgrade performance parts in keeping with your budget. You can do it all at once, or piece by piece. 

C4 Corvette on Nitto NT555 G2 Side View

Ideally, you’ll be keeping the vintage personality of the car while upgrading the mechanicals for the modern era.

Ford Mustang LX 5.0 Coupe Red

When done right, you should end up with an ‘80s or ‘90s classic that will hold its value well, and more importantly, be a better car to own and drive.

The one thing we don't recommend when building a Fox Body Mustang is doing an LS swap. Here's why.

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