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Story and photos by Jil McIntosh
Presenting the main event! In this corner, weighing in at an as-tested $80,030, the 2004 Chevrolet SSR factory hot rod. And in this corner, at an approximate $16,000, the genuine article, my rough-around-the-edges 1949 Studebaker. Of course I’m biased. But when an automaker sets out to wow the hot-rod world with brand-new twin, it’s got to face the vintage stuff.
I took the SSR to my friend’s annual corn roast, where several dozen old-car enthusiasts – many of them professional or backyard hot-rod builders – bring their rides. And the consensus was … nice try, Chevy, but you missed the mark.
(Generally, with the new “retro” cars, most hot rodders are indifferent toward the SSR and Thunderbird, tolerant of PT Cruiser and New Beetle, and in love with Mini.)
Although the SSR is ostensibly patterned after the 1948 Chevrolet pickup, my friends thought GM also relied on Studebaker’s radical new truck design, introduced for 1949. Opinions varied, but I don’t care for SSR’s squared-off fenders, at odds with the body’s rounded shape. And there are far too many body seams, giving it a disjointed, tacked-together look. High-dollar rods should be smooooth, baby!
SSR also sits way too high, although that’s easily fixed. More affluent rodders might install an adjustable air-bag suspension; we budget-minded ones simply cut or heat the coil springs until they compress. The ride’s lousy, but it’s the price of cool.
They both have a beautiful sound – SSR because the engineers worked tirelessly to tune the exhaust note, and Stude because my vintage “glasspack” mufflers have most of their innards burned out.
Both interiors came out of the parts bin – my truck has Ford Escort seats, Cadillac wheel, and GMC console – and both look chintzy. Forgivable at $16,000, but not at $80,000. The fit is so tight that you must open SSR’s door to access the seat controls. And both are noisy. The Stude rattles and shakes all over. SSR is fine top-down, but when it’s up, the roof squeaks and rattles on bumpy roads.
Ah, the roof! It’s an engineering marvel, coming out of its cocoon and sweeping into place at the touch of a button. Ford fans will tell you the ’57 Skyliner did pretty much the same thing, but they’re just jealous.
The SSR is slated for a Corvette engine, but its current 300 horsepower, 5.3-litre V8 moves out fine when you put your foot in it (the oft-heard “underpowered” is the result of journalists getting out of Ferraris into it, I swear). The Stude also goes like stink, thanks to a 1980 Chevrolet 350-cid (5.7-litre). Most hot rodders use the “350”, because it’s cheap, available and easy to repair or modify. With its Chevrolet Nova front suspension, the Stude can be manoeuvred with one finger; SSR steers like a tank, heavy and cumbersome.
SSR sells poorly because it’s a poser. You won’t buy one if you’re not into hot rods, and if you are, you’ll take the real thing. The tax on SSR will get you a clean, safe, unique hot rod you can take to car shows (SSR is barred from most because it’s too new); 80 grand will get you a jaw-dropping masterpiece. Or five 1949 Studebakers. Guess which one I kept.