Homage to the Tribute Car: Why we should love homemade replicas

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Getting its legs stretched on an open road is a 1965 Shelby GT350. Or is it? The sights and sounds are the same, the joy just as visceral, but the provenance is lacking in this tribute “Shelby” Mustang. Michael Darter

No one knows who built the first tribute car. The question recalls the old line about racing, how the first car race took place shortly after the world’s second car was built. The first tribute car was probably assembled five minutes after some enterprising mechanic noticed that the horseless carriage he wanted was both rare and expensive. When people want what they can’t have, they often fall back on the next best thing—building one instead.

As with much of car culture, there are no rules here, just an idea open to interpretation. Most people use the term “tribute” as a catchall for any vehicle modified to resemble a more desirable machine. For some folks, that act is as simple as buying enough catalog parts to turn a 1965 Mustang fastback into a hyperaccurate clone of a ’65 Shelby GT350R. For other people, the idea might mean rebodying a crashed $300,000 Ferrari 330 GT to resemble a 250 GTO worth $50 million. Maybe you love classic hot rods so much that you rebuilt your plain-Jane ’32 Ford into a pitch-perfect replica of the yellow Deuce in American Graffiti, or your old Model T into a copy of the Grabowski bucket from 77 Sunset Strip. Either way, you wanted a given car, and you didn’t have anything like it, and now you do.

Naturally, some people knock all this. They take issue with a tribute car’s accuracy or harp on some perceived vibe transgression. (“Everyone knows that the Tirepuncher 5000 didn’t have a pinstriped ashtray until ’78!” Or, “No Chevroford EXP-GT-C ever came with radial muffler bearings in period!”) Maybe, if they’re particularly ornery and don’t get out much, these people see tribute cars and wonder why someone bothered to begin with. After all, when you build a tribute, you no longer have a “real” 1965 fastback or 330 GT as Henry II or Enzo intended, just an object that is very much … you.

What point is there in making a car your own? Who likes fun, anyway? Couldn’t afford the real thing, could you, kid?

Shelby Fastback gas station fill up
Michael Darter

God forbid.

Originality can be compelling, and few people think you should modify a historically significant automobile simply because you wish it were something else. But tribute cars are almost always crafted from “regular” versions of common production machines, workaday to begin with. And in that light, anyone who takes issue with you building your dream should probably lighten up. More important, they’re just plain missing out.

It helps to remember where we came from. Automotive development has long hinged on salutes both intentional and not. From Grabowski to General Motors, when your favorite engineers or hot-rodders designed their masterpieces, they were almost certainly influenced by the work of another carmaker, race team, or rod shop. Hot-rodding in particular is a fun one, because its roots lie in expression and improv. Take the 1932 Ford, a centerpiece of hot-rod culture and one of the hobby’s most recognizable blank canvases. Like the rise of American hot-rodding itself, the Ford’s popularity owes much to Hot Rod. Ten issues into the life of that magazine, for the October 1948 cover, publisher Robert Petersen photographed the modified 1932 Ford roadster of California dry-lakes racer Bob McGee. McGee’s bodywork and chassis modifications—among them a one-piece deck, hidden door hinges, a smoothed radiator shell, and a three-piece hood—had been seen elsewhere, but as a package, his car woke an entire country to the Deuce’s potential. Countless imitations followed, everything from full-on clones to cars that treated McGee’s work as a general jumping-off point. On some level, every ’32 roadster built since is a tribute, and the hobby’s free-flowing idea exchange has long been much of what makes hot-rodding great.

Finally, consider the automobile’s intended use: Tribute cars let you drive and share historic moments that might be otherwise doomed to a quiet life of little more than display. By way of example, several years ago, my garage held a 1965 Ford Mustang fastback. From 20 feet, the car appeared to be a lightly modified GT350—rocker stripes, a small-block and a clutch pedal, rear-fender scoops, an R-model front valance and gauges. In reality, the car was born as a no-frills, regular-production coupe. Decades later, someone worked it over, making it drive like and visually resemble its more valuable sibling. I bought the Ford partly because I didn’t have the bank account for a real ’65 GT350, and partly because I adored how it worked. (Fast and snorty, with raw, predictable handling—what’s not to love?) My car didn’t quite feel like a real Shelby, but who’s counting? I drove it hard and often, on back roads and road trips, in the rain and sweltering heat, leaving stop signs sideways in clouds of tire smoke, often with my dog shedding all over the passenger seat. Several months into ownership, while pumping gas in some rural town in the middle of nowhere, it occurred to me that had I been fortunate enough to own a real ’65 GT350, I probably wouldn’t have driven it in the same carefree, glorious fashion.

Shelby Fastback open road action vertical rear three-quarter
The empty highway beckons to a car with swept lines, open windows, and a big motor. Does it really matter if the car is authentic or if it’s one that creates exactly the same sensations? Michael Darter

Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to. But funds tied up in an unmolested piece of history can tilt your head a little. Maybe you hesitate when grabbing the keys if the weather is less than perfect. With a tribute car, you’re free to simply enjoy the experience, as people did when the GT350 or the Deuce or any other legend was only a few years old—when it was just another used car, less a precious relic than a transportation device.

The experience transcends marque or model, and cars like that garner wider appreciation than you might expect. A decade ago, in California, I met a German-born racing driver who badly wanted a 993-chassis Porsche GT2. He could afford to purchase one of those rare beasts, but the model was then illegal for American import, so he used his factory connections to source a whole car’s worth of hyper-rare, new-old-stock GT2 parts. Those parts were then used to turn an ordinary, U.S.-market 993—valuable even then—into a microscopically accurate replica. A few years later, when that driver sold the car, it surprised a few marque experts by bringing much of a real GT2’s value. Partly because it was made of unobtainium parts. And partly because, unlike with the genuine article, mileage didn’t impact value. The new owner was free to drive the pants off it.

Classic cars are nothing if not shareable joy, and in that light, the tribute car is as egalitarian as it gets. There’s also a shared connection with ideas we cherish around here: Learn your history, and appreciate what came before. Carve out your piece of the rock, and don’t worry what others think. And most of all, when in doubt, fling open that garage door and just drive the thing.

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