Altered Wheelbase Cars, Hot Rods, Muscle Cars, Classic Cars, Model Cars

MAGS-01dThough my full name is Stephen Preisach Magnante, the complexity of my middle and last names has been a conversation starter for my entire life. Here’s the scoop. The last name Magnante (correctly pronounced Mon-Yawn-Tee, like lasagna, the G is silent) denotes the Italian heritage of my father’s-father’s side of the family. The first Magnante’s left Sicily around 1904 and eagerly arrived at Ellis Island in New York City for processing as U.S. citizens. It is said that my great grandfather paid the immigration man a few extra coins to avoid having his last name “rounded off” or Anglicized into something easier to pronounce.

My father’s mother, part of the Preisach family (pronounced Pry-Sack), was born in Hungary in 1909 and also passed through Ellis Island with her parents and siblings around 1914 in search of a better life in the new world. Grandma and Grandpa met in New York City in the early 1930’s, got married and by 1939 my father Peter was born. On the other side of the family, my mother Jean (born in 1936) was a descendant of the earliest British settlers to the colonies in the 17th century. She grew up in the Boston, MA area and met my dad while he was attending MIT around 1960. By 1963 they were happily married and my older brother David was born – he’s a prominent eye surgeon in the Indianapolis area. I followed in July of 1964.

Though we are all the product of our parents, neither of mine was even remotely interested in cars. Dad was an optical physicist, mom a graphic designer. They had no idea where my interest in cars came from. But I sure did! As a child of 5 or 6 I remember being completely infatuated by Matchbox cars. This led to even more exciting Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning cars – with their eye catching red line tires and chromed mag wheels. By age 10 it was 1974 and I discovered 1/25 scale plastic model car kits. My first model car kit was the 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo by AMT (kit number X856 100). Though part of the simplified Motor City Stocker Series (no engine) the crisp detailing of the Rallye wheels and depiction of its dual exhaust system really lit my imagination. It delivered a level of detail no palm-sized 1/64 scale toy car could ever match.

By junior high school (1977) I had discovered real cars. At the time, surplus muscle cars from the Sixties were commonly seen in high school parking lots and being used as daily drivers year round. Their time as high priced collectors items had yet to come and I remember watching many clean examples get pounded – and rusted – into junk by careless and abusive owners. Unfortunately, as a teen ager myself I had no money to buy any of these cars and still reel at my father’s rejection of the chance to buy a Superbird for $3,500 in 1980. The car was a 440-4 with a pistol-grip 4-speed and Dana 60 rear axle. Though a little rusty, it was solid and complete. No matter what I said, dad was not interested. He just didn’t “get it”.

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Instead, mom and dad drove around in a series of new – but boring – economy cars. Mom had a new ’67 Volvo 122S wagon, then a new ’74 Dodge Colt and finally an ’81 Renault LeCar 4-door which I inherited in 1986. Dad drove a series of VW Beetles before switching to Datsun / Nissan. Needless to say, I was not one of the cool dudes though the fold-down front seats in the LeCar were useful on date nights. By 1986 I had graduated from Clark University in Worcester, MA with a BA degree. That same year my grandmother Margaret Preisach Magnante passed away (the same one who walked through Ellis Island as a little girl) and kindly left me a $10,000 inheritance. Though I am a bit ashamed to admit this, I lied to my dad and told him I put the money into a savings account at the local bank – where interest rates were in the dumper at 1 or 2 percent.

The truth is I used the money to buy a semi-restored 1968 Hemi Charger R/T (VIN XS29J8B119772). The year was 1987 and muscle cars were just beginning their first real exposure as collectors’ items and investments. I used every bit of grandma’s 10-K to buy that Hemi car, which was one of 463 made with the 727 Torqueflite. With its stock 426 Street Hemi, automatic transmission and 3.23 geared 8-3/4 rear axle, it was capable of 140 mph on Connecticut Route 84 and ran the quarter mile in 13.2 at 101 mph on slicks. It was my first experience with a V8 powered car of any type. What a way to get started! It was glorious! I remember the first night I cruised it around town. I felt like a hero and burned rubber at every opportunity. Once I’d parked it and tried to get some sleep, I couldn’t get the sound of its solid lifters clattering away in my head as I tried to close my eyes.

Previously, the hottest car I’d driven was my dad’s 1977 Datsun 810 4-door sedan. If you don’t remember, the 810 was Datsun’s top model and came standard with the same 2.8 liter inline six cylinder engine used in the 280-Z sports car. Luckily, dad opted for the 4-speed stick and I learned how to power shift in that car. It was a quick car for its time (the 810 eventually became the Nissan Maxima) and would probably run a 17.5 second quarter and 0-60 in under 9-seconds. But compared to the burly Street Hemi, it was a total joke. That said, I quickly learned to be very respectful of the Hemi’s power. Before I stood on the gas pedal, I always made sure the front tires were pointed straight ahead!

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Somehow I managed to enjoy the Hemi Charger for three full years without harming it, myself or my clean driving record. Make no mistake, I did plenty of street racing with it and ran it at Lebanon Valley Dragway in New York, but I became proficient at “doing dangerous things…safely”. But the more time I spent with the Hemi Charger, the more I realized it was too rare and valuable to risk. The numbers matching block and 727 Torqueflite transmission case were still with the car and I became aware that harming either would be a disaster. Frankly, enjoying the car as it was meant to be enjoyed (sideways, the tires spinning and the engine turning 6500 rpm) was too risky for a mere mortal like me.

So on July 27, 1989 I sold the car to a guy named A.J. San Clemente who had plans for a full restoration. Here’s the rub, I got $16,000 for the car without any hesitation from A.J. I made $6,000 on the deal but couldn’t tell my dad. It was frustrating since he was still under the impression I had the original cash in a bank account. I used the funds to pay off my college loans and build yet another hot rod. This time I didn’t want any part of an actual numbers-matching relic. Rather, I assembled a ’64 Dodge Polara into a Max Wedge clone. That car taught me the value of building a replica muscle machine. You can race them and take chances you’d never have the nerve to attempt in a numbers-matching unit. Other cars that have come and gone include: a 1968 Dart GTS 340 convertible, 1970 Coronet 500 convertible with 383 Four Barrel and 4-speed stick, 1970 Barracuda 383 with add-on shaker hood assembly, a1973 ‘Cuda 340, a ’67 Dart sedan with a 520-cube Stage V Hemi Conversion engine that ran high 10’s on slicks and many, many others.

Of course one has to work in order to play. My career path has been fairly straight and focused on cars. Aside from a brief dead end management trainee stint at a national retail pharmacy chain in 1989, I’ve been involved with cars for most of my post-college life. Jobs included: gas pump jockey and mechanic at a local Sunoco station where I learned how to bend exhaust systems and perform front end alignments, restoration tech at Sports Classics Ltd. which specialized in vintage British vehicles including Rolls Royce and Jaguar, Chevrolet salesman, and junior partner at Munchkin Motors, a mail order automotive toy store in rural Connecticut.

In 1991 I realized I was treading water in Massachusetts so I packed my things and drove to Los Angeles, California in search of greener pastures. The journey was made in a rare – but rusty – 1976 Plymouth Volare station wagon. What made it rare was its factory installed K-code 360 2-bbl V8 engine. Most Volares were powered by the 225 Slant Six or 318 V8. But this light green sleeper was quicker than it looked. Loaded with my earthly possessions – including a 1967 B-body Dana 60 rear axle – it took me 4 days to travel from Massachusetts to California.

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I arrived in California on Sunday, January 12, 1992. The first destination was Veteran’s Stadium in Long Beach, CA where I sold 87 vintage car magazines from my collection for a total cash take of $286.00. These swap meets would prove to be very helpful in keeping me afloat out there in the Wild West over the next 5 years. In the end, I did nearly 180 of these weekly shows at venues like Bakersfield, Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona and the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Beyond the weekly swap meets, my first “professional” job in California was associate editor for Chrysler Power magazine, which led to more freelance writing for magazine titles like Mopar Action, Drag Racing Monthly, Popular Mechanics New Car Buyers Guide, Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords, and Scale Auto Enthusiast. These writing gigs were exciting and really got me thinking about becoming a full time staff member on a big title like Hot Rod or Car Craft. I also worked as a machinist at Eric Hansen’s Stage V Engineering in Walnut, CA. If you don’t know, Stage V Engineering produces a wide range of products for the 426 Hemi engine family. Ranging from complete cast aluminum Hemi cylinder heads to ultra-duty roller rocker arms to freshly-designed intake manifolds, it was a great experience to be part of the Stage V family for three years.

During my off hours, I attended a series of acting workshops in Studio City and Hollywood. There I rubbed shoulders with folks like Forest Whitaker, Brittany Murphy, Tobey Maguire, Alyson Hannigan, plus a bunch of fairly anonymous folks like myself. The acting classes were fun and helped me break down some inhibitions I’d held since childhood. In particular, I enrolled in improvisation workshops at The Groundlings Theatre and truly can say it was like hot rodding your mind. Improv training is like adding a deeper rear axle ratio to your car. It helps your mind to react faster and with new perspectives.

In the late summer of 1997 I got a phone call that would literally change my life. It was Ro McGonegal, then the editor of Hot Rod magazine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him as Technical Editor. He’d seen some of my published writings and wanted me to join the staff. I must say, trying to remain calm and collected during the interview process was a real test of my acting skills! In the end, I spent the next 7 years aboard the fantastic, glorious ship that is Hot Rod magazine.

During the next 7 years, I had the honor of working in the hallowed Petersen Publishing building at 6420 Wilshire Blvd. with guys like Ro McGonegal, Gray Baskerville, Jeff Koch, Terry McGean, John Dianna, Drew Hardin, David Freiburger, Matt King, Doug Glad, Jeff Smith, Matt Stone, Henry De Los Santos, Steve Campbell, Steve Temple, Rob Kinnan and many other professional writers – many of whom I’d been reading since youth. On the other side of the pages, I formed ties within GM, Ford and Chrysler and was granted access to their inner sanctums as part of numerous magazine articles devoted to Detroit high performance engineering. I was also thrilled to have worked with racing and customizing icons like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Ronnie Sox, Jake King, Buddy Martin, Dick Landy, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Richard Petty, George Barris, Linda Vaughn, Richard Schroeder, Art Carr, Don Nicholson, Troy Trepanier and many others.

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Another thing that happened during my time at Hot Rod was the opportunity to appear on Hot Rod Magazine TV, which was then produced by WATV and (as it does today) aired on SPEED TV. This is where I got my first exposure to regular TV work and was able to put some of my training to work. Though there was no extra pay for my efforts (as Tech Editor at Hot Rod I was a salaried employee), the experience was awesome. Quickly we discovered that viewers loved it

any time we took the camera into one of the many self-serve automotive boneyards in Southern California. Before long, I hosted over a dozen of these so-called “Junkyard Crawls” and ratings spiked whenever one was included in an episode.

By 2005 I had been on staff at Hot Rod for 7 years, that’s longer than most Tech Editors – the constant pressure of meeting monthly deadlines has a way of chewing you up. Also, my interests were moving toward doing more TV work and less magazine writing. So I resigned and quickly got a number of jobs hosting automotive TV programming. Maybe you saw me on Classic Car Restoration on the DIY Network, Off Road Adventures on the Outdoor Channel, Rides Reunited on the History Channel as well as some commercials and promotional bits on SPEED TV.

Speaking of SPEED TV, perhaps the biggest break of them all came in early 2005. That’s when I was asked to try my hand at providing live commentary at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction being broadcast from West Palm Beach, Florida. It seems Brock Yates had hurt his back and the producers needed a replacement in a pinch. So I was teamed with the existing broadcast team – which at the time consisted of Bob Varsha, Keith Martin, Rick DeBruhl and British ace Alain DeCadenay. I had seen the broadcast before and made it a point to not be a guy who guessed or otherwise offered incorrect information about the cars on the block. To ensure this, I studied the auction docket list a week in advance and made brief notes about every single car that’d be on the show. The audience responded well and I’ve been part of every Barrett-Jackson collector car event since – complete with my hand written notes prepared in advance – so I never have to guess. The cars simply deserve more than a guess. And so do the viewers.

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All of this brings us to the present moment. When I am not doing one of the four Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions, I’m still busy as an automotive journalist plus I have an arrangement with Dodge to provide occasional videos for the Redline Dodge.com website. I also do a monthly blog on Redlinedodge.com.

 

My spare time is spent in the garage, working on one of my cars. To see a list of what’s in my garage, check out the Steve’s Cars section of this website. Okay, that’s me in a nutshell. Thanks for visiting SteveMags.com and please come back often since I update the site on a regular basis. –Steve Magnante