Student mixes love of history with passion for muscle cars

Evan Suntres is astute enough to see the irony in the research path he’s chosen.

A master’s student in history, he is studying a phenomenon which he suggests saw conservative males turn to muscle cars as a way of expressing their masculinity in reaction to such social upheavals of the 1960s as the anti-war and women’s liberation movements.

A self-described political moderate, he’s also in the process of restoring his own 1973 Ford Mustang fastback.

“My hobby and my academic work are really tied together,” said Suntres, who acquired his car seven years ago and has been steadily rebuilding it in his parents’ east-end garage, as time and resources permit.

During the 1960s, people took to the streets in droves to speak out against the war in Vietnam, to advocate for civil rights, and to demand equality for women. Suntres believes many men had to adapt to the new environment and find alternative ways to maintain and express their masculinity. An obvious way of doing that was purchasing one of the many muscle cars being cranked out by Detroit automakers.

“There were thousands of protestors demanding new ways of thinking, and you just can’t ignore it,” he said. “For conservative men, the car became a conduit for them to express themselves.”

Under the direction of professor Peter Way, Suntres is writing a thesis based on his analysis of muscle car production numbers, the marketing campaigns used to sell them, and how they were placed in popular films and other media.

“I’ve always been a fan of muscle cars and started looking at ads,” he replies when asked how he became interested in his subject. “You look at the cultural products of the time and they tell you a story.”

Many of those ads, he says, depict well-dressed, well-built men leaning up against their cars with provocatively dressed women nearby – rarely actually touching the vehicle. The accompanying text often contained messaging that reinforced the image through gendered language that would have appealed to many conservative males.

These subjects are matters Suntres would ponder while toiling away on his own car, which ironically enough, wasn’t considered a muscle car when it rolled off the assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan.

“The term muscle car really wasn’t used then,” he said. “They called them super cars. The ones I’m looking at are the top-of-the-line cars, like the Mustang Mach 1s with the Super Cobra Jet engines. They were obscenely powerful and extremely fast. Mine would have just been a regular car, but the definition of muscle car has changed since then.”

Muscle cars have made a comeback, and Suntres sees a lot of parallels between the 1960s and more recent times. Unpopular wars in the Middle East and the gay rights movement may have left many conservative males once again looking for ways to express their masculinity, he said.

“People say that history is cyclical and we are seeing a lot of the same things,” he said.

He hopes to have the car road-ready by the time he finishes his degree, but in the meantime, Suntres is just enjoying the fact that he’s been able to combine his passion with his academic work.

“I never thought I would be able to pursue something like this in the historical discipline,” he said. “I’ve loved doing the research and the paper I’m working on has been a joy to write.”

Suntres will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.