A former World Champion AHRA Super Street and NHRA Super Gas drag racer with time on his hands and wanderlust led to the most unlikely outcome of road tripping through Europe in a 1973 Plymouth Roadrunner. Three different times. Al Young didn’t start out thinking he’d joy ride in Europe and former Soviet Bloc countries with a muscle car when he started his quest for a simple project.
The now-retired school teacher from Seattle never liked idle time, especially those three months during the summer students and teachers typically enjoy, which led him to campaign a 1970 Challenger running AHRA and NHRA Northwest division Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street. The Challenger started as a drive-to-the-track car, ending up as an 8-second full tube chassis racer over almost 30 years, progressively running faster classes, ending his driving career with an AHRA Super Street World Championship in 1981, and three NHRA Pro ET Division Championships.
With retirement came more idle time, but a plan. He loved his old 1973 Plymouth Sebring Plus daily driver even more than his Challenger. He always wanted to build his own car, a car he knew inside and out, where everything is modified and improved to perform better. Also, he and his wife Vicki wanted to see the USA. As he says, “Driving to national events you never see anything.” When a beat 1973 Satellite became available he put his plan together.
The Original Plan
Vicki and Al wanted to see the USA in a muscle car. Al specifically wanted to take a long road trip following Route 66. His retirement funds were limited, but his imagination wasn’t. The car needed to be bulletproof, with backup for the electronic ignition, fuel delivery; both clutch and electric fans, and the electrical had to be easily accessed, which meant it couldn’t be hiding under the dash. Redundant components and electrical systems would keep repair times to a minimum on the road. Vicki had a couple of requirements of her own. Air conditioning and not a typical hard bench seat were her conditions. Since this wasn’t going to be an all out performance car, Al wanted to stay away from big block, long stroke engines which typically create more heat. Says Al, “It couldn’t be so exotic that I couldn’t find a part in Tulsa.”
The 1973 Sebring Plus he found in 2007 fit his budget. “It originally cost $500, and I overpaid,” says Al. “It was hammered—a drunk must have liked to hit guardrails with it.” But he could fix the roached parts easier than he could step up for a more expensive alternative. “On a teacher’s salary I didn’t have a lot of money so between parts I had and my own skills I felt I could make it nice,” he says. Al also wanted it to be a Roadrunner clone, and so he started collecting what he needed to begin the three-year process. “Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to build my own car, and this was perfect because it was a heap,” he adds. “I could rebuild it the way I wanted.”
Al is quick to say this is not your typical engine buildup. He’s been fast and had quick cars. His Roadrunner would need to be something else. Says Al, “It had to be bullet proof, and my bracket racing really helped. The biggest thing was a solid engine and trans.” He stared with a standard bore 318ci engine he’d pulled out of a Duster 30 years before. “It’s odd to build a motor so that you can’t hurt it, but that will also perform,” he says. The 318 has thicker walls than a 340, making for a sturdy foundation. But he did use 340 iron heads, ported and polished with 2.02 intake and 1.60 exhaust Manley stainless valves by DG Performance. Compression is 9.2:1. He’s running a Comp Cams hydraulic 252H cam with .425 lift and 252 duration. “If I put Harland Sharp rockers in it, what’s going to happen if I break one,” he asks? “A stamped rocker is much easier to fix and I can find a stick welder anywhere.” Intake is an Edelbrock Streetmaster topped with a 600cfm Holley 4160 carb. Says Al, ”Headers were out. You’re going to bottom out somewhere.” So 360 Police Pursuit exhaust manifolds ceramic coated by Performance Coatings handle exiting exhaust, with 2 ½-inch dual exhaust tucked tight and Flowmaster mufflers.
Drivetrain and Suspension
The automatic transmission was custom made by friend Pat Blais of Blais Torqueflites, “The best in biz,” says Al. “We used a 904 instead of 727 because it has less rotating mass with a 2.76 first gear set to it. It’s made into a ‘999’ with Kolene steel plates and Raybestos Hi Energy friction discs.” It’s finished off with a Mopar factory hi-stall converter and a B&M Mega Shifter. With 2 5/8-inch U-joints and an 8¾ Suregrip rear with 323 gears, the rearend is stout. For insurance Al carries extra bearings. All the steering is by Firm Feel out of Vancouver, Washington. Heavy-duty torsion bars, sway bars, and Bilstein shocks take care of the suspension. Says Al, “We actually wore out a set of Bilsteins going thru Albania.” Brakes are factory 11.75-inch drilled discs with factory 11-inch drum brakes in back.
As the Roadrunner came together Al found some Chrysler Crossfire 6-way heated bucket seats, and purchased a Nostalgia Air AC system because it mounts under the dash for easy access. While he banged out or replaced some of the sheetmetal, Skeeters Auto body in Seattle did the final finish and paint. 17- and 18-inch Ion 625 wheels with Hankook V12 Evo tires round out the rolling package. A Champion aluminum radiator and InduraPower lithium ion battery found space under the hood. The redundant systems incorporated into the Plymouth are a switch-controlled ignition and backup ignition, with two MSDs, two coils and two wiring harnesses; electric and mechanical fuel pumps; electrical and mechanical fans; and stock through-the-dash electrical and bypass electrical systems to avoid working upside down under the dash in 100-degree heat.
Rubber Meets the Road
After the Roadrunner was finished, Al hammered it to beat on weak components and fix the bugs. “I raced the car for a year before taking a trip,” says Al. “I blew 200-pounds of nitrous through this motor trying to blow it up.” He admits he was having second thoughts about the 318 block, thinking he might build a 340, so the little 318 was expendable to him. But guess what? This engine is bulletproof. “I was determined to blow the motor up so I continued putting nitrous thru it,” Al says. In the end it has been a reliable engine that Al feels really woke up from the modifications.
Seeing the USA
In 2011 the Young’s and their Roadrunner were ready for a long road trip. “That was my big dream to build something for Route 66,” says Al. “We went down to New Orleans, across the Dakotas, and cut down following the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, eventually tying into Route 66.” Total miles travelled: 8000. Problems were reduced to percolating gas in hot weather, and a melted shift cable nestled too close to the exhaust.
The next year Vicki and Al travelled to a nephew’s wedding in New York from the southern route through Nashville, Montgomery, Atlanta, up to Niagara Falls, before heading home to Seattle. Total miles travelled: 8000.
The third trip in 2013 was 7000 miles down the coast from Seattle and back through Glacier National Park in Montana and British Columbia. “Then we ran out of places to go,” says Al.
Europe or Bust
What would have seemed far-fetched a few years earlier was now being seriously investigated. “Europe sounded great, we had become accomplished road people,” says Al. What seemed like an exciting extension of Al’s original intent to travel Route 66 quickly iced over when he discovered the tab to ship the Roadrunner to Europe. “It costs $11,000, and I just can’t afford that,” says Al. He adds if it weren’t for the cost of shipping, travelling Europe by car is the absolute cheapest way to go. “We ended up going to 34 different countries and I tried to figure how much it would have cost us to fly to 34 countries and it would have been astronomical any other way but driving your own car,” says Al. “Travelling by train you have to live out of a suitcase, but with a 1973 Plymouth trunk big enough to hold five people we never worried and just threw stuff into the trunk.”
The New Plan
When Al was drag racing his sponsor for 30 years was Bardahl. Remember Bardahl? They’re an additive company like STP or Justice Brothers. Still based in Seattle, a determined owner and fights with the Feds over distributorships led to Bardahl reducing US sales to become one of the leading lubricants in over 90 different countries. Many new cars built outside of the US contain Bardahl products. Bardahl founder Ole Bardahl (1902-1989) was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2014.
Al contacted Bardahl, ran the idea of driving the Roadrunner throughout Europe stopping at distributorships here and there as a sort-of promotional tour, and guess what? They loved the idea. So Vicki and Al pulled out a map and Bardahl’s list of distributors and put together a proposal for touring Europe in a 1973 Roadrunner muscle car. “We wanted to go to all of these countries and it ended up being 8000 miles,” says Al. “We didn’t even plan on it taking 45 days, either. It just turned out this way to hit all of those countries. Plus my wife didn’t want to spend every day in the car; she wanted to see the Vatican, the Prado Museum in Spain, and places like that.”
Al’s wife is part Scandinavian, and she also wanted to visit where her ancestors were from. It so happens that Sweden is the home of the Power Big Meet, the largest American car show in the world. Like 20,000 cars large! Located in Vasteras, it seemed the perfect blend of cars, culture, and clan. The plan was to fly to Amsterdam, then take the train to where the Roadrunner would be waiting in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the largest port in Europe. At the port they’d load up the Roadrunner, fire it up, and drive off. Shipping would take 45 days, stopping at many US ports from Seattle before going through the Panama Canal, headed for Rotterdam. “I planned it so that in every country there was a distributorship I could stop into or drive by,” says Al.
How Is It Travelling in Europe With a Muscle Car?
“The car was the ticket,” says Al. “When we came into a town it was like the circus was in town. Every hotel wanted us to park in the front, in front of the Lamborghinis; and at every restaurant there was no parking but they made space for us, it was crazy.” Vicki and Al’s safety net was the distributorships in every new country they entered. “I had hosts,” says Al. “Unless you have a reason they won’t let you go to all of these different countries because they suspect you’re going to sell the car and they won’t get their tax. We had to get a Carnet, which is a passport for the car stating the reason why you’re travelling around with this unusual car. Bardahl provided us with the reason for having the car go through all of these countries.
“Most all of the gas in Europe is 100-102 octane so my motor loved it. I’m only running 9.2 compression so the fuel was good, and it usually ran from $7-$9 a gallon. Gas stations were everywhere and very clean, but you do pay a Euro or two to use their restrooms. Rest areas are very clean but not as frequent as in the US. Burger Kings are everywhere, though we always ate local food and it was so good. American companies are everywhere. Everyone was very nice and they always wanted to sit in the car, and were always polite to ask if they can take a picture. It made a lot of peoples’ day and really made our day. In the 21st century it’s the universal language to have a hot rod.
“The small villages are small villages, and the big towns are pretty cosmopolitan. Once you’re past the border, police are always curious about the car. Most of the time they just want to stop you to look at it. In the eastern part of Europe — Bulgaria, Serbia, Poland, the Carnet came in handy because the border guards are still Soviet bloc. With an American muscle car all eyes are diverted to the car and there was never a problem. I’m Asian, so if you look at me to try and figure me out you’d probably be 80-percent wrong, but if you look at my car and try to figure who I am you’d probably be 80-percent right because when you see my car you see my soul. If my car stereotypes me you almost would hit who I am perfectly.”
Our map shows the routes Vicki and Al took, and that’s the other curious thing about this caper, there was more than just a single European trip. The first, in 2014, went so well that Bardahl asked Al if he’d do it again in 2015. “Bardahl asked us again to go — it’s very hard to turn this down,” says Al.
The 2015 Trip
So a second trip was launched for 2015. This one would take Vicki and Al into former Soviet bloc countries which today, just two years later, would be a bit dicier to do. “I didn’t bring a gun, and didn’t bring nitrous with me because they would think it was a bomb,” says Al. “If they saw two 10-pound bottles they’d be running. In all it was really safe driving these three years. Day or night there would always be a crowd around the Roadrunner, so I never worried about theft because it was just too high profile, plus I disarmed the MSDs. Freeways are good, the Autobahn is overcrowded.
There was always the potential for a little drama crossing through former Soviet bloc countries, but luckily “situations” were rare. “As a favor to one of the distributors as we were leaving Serbia I stopped by one of his friend’s residence,” says Al. “There was a car club there, with a Shelby Mustang and some really cool American cars. We made good friends, and as I was leaving one of the guys says we’re about 30 miles from the Hungarian/Serbian border, and if I have any problems just give them his name, Igor Javanovich. I thought it was kind of weird because normally you don’t worry about leaving a country, it’s getting in that might be a problem. So we get to the border and this Soviet bloc guard sternly asks for my papers. He starts asking lots of questions and demands we get out of the car. He wants my insurance card, passport, drivers license, everything. He makes us wait in this office where there’s a woman behind a desk that is just as severe. She kept asking what I wanted, and I told her I was just trying to cross the border. So finally I tell here I know Igor Javanovich, that I was a guest at his house. With that said, she walks out to the border station and there’s some sort of altercation with the other guard. Then she comes back with all of my papers, puts them in my hands, and says, “Go!” I was rescued by hot rodders!”
One More Time
With the success of the second European trip, Bardahl was interested in another in 2016. So were Vicki and Al. Says Al, “We went to the American Speed Fest in Brands Hatch, England; Scandinavian countries, France, and it was just great. We drove a little less at 6800 miles total. In Norway we went to fjords half way up into the country, and it was so beautiful.
“One time we exhibited the car near Paris and it sat right next to a Lamborghini. The crowds are all around the Plymouth and no one is by the Lambo. The locals explained that they like the Plymouth much better because they could work all of their life and never get that Lambo, but work a couple of summers and you could buy a Roadrunner as a teen and blow the doors off of the Lambo. We are so lucky as young people in America to be able to build a car that’s fast. In Belgium it’s a few hundred dollars to race a car, but here for $30 I can take it to Bremerton or Seattle to the racetrack and go as fast as I can go in the quarter-mile all day long. We’re so lucky.”
So are the Young’s. They plan on taking life easy this year, but Al is already talking about more road trips to come. “I love to drive, and Vicki has shown me the world through her knowledge of the great places to visit—she’s the tour guide and I’m just the driver.”
What was the most frequently asked question? Do you know Vin Diesel?