Top Muscle: “Light Painting” the Muscle-Car Masterpieces

I made an interesting discovery recently when I got my hands on a tome called “Top Muscle: The Rarest Cars from America’s Fastest Decade.” The team at Motorbooks had sent it to me for review and—unsurprisingly—I was expecting to learn a thing or two about rare muscle-cars when it arrived. Now, that did happen, but before I even opened it, I was first struck by the uncanny glow of the Daytona Yellow 1969 Douglass-Yenko Super Camaro on the front. The car had a nearly three-dimensional presence that brought its streamlined shape to life in a way you rarely see on the printed page.

And then there was the red, white and blue 1970 AMC Javelin Trans Am that lay luminous across both pages of the inside front cover. Taking full advantage of the book’s 10- x 11.25-inch dimensions, the Javelin looks like it might have been carved from one solid chunk of awesome.

Finally, a few pages in, the dazzling pictures had so distracted me from the text that I flipped to the “Photographer’s Notes” at the end of the book to see what was going on. It turns out that said photographer, Randy Leffingwell, used a new, rather distinctive approach to the images. Crediting fellow photog Dave Wendt with introducing him to the technique, Leffingwell “light painted” the cars by, essentially, setting them up in a darkened studio space, in front of stabilized cameras set to take long-ish (8- to 15-second) exposures, then spending much time manually passing various lights over the vehicle’s surfaces.

(There’s also some amount of digital manipulation going on here. As Leffingwell reports in his notes, the pics have been “assembled” out of the different exposures using Photoshop for “accumulating the passes of light to shape and color the car.”)

1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird coupe

Regardless, at his best, the veteran automotive photographer is able to give the vehicles a sort of inner radiance that invites readers to treat the images as works of art. Yeah, I know that sounds a little pretentious, but remember, these are classic muscle cars that wear some of the most expressive and extreme designs ever seen on the road—like the 1970 Plymouth Superbird shown here—and Leffingwell’s approach to lighting brings out every dramatic curve and angle. Further, the 25 specific models shown in the book are, as promised, exceedingly rare examples of the breed, which means many readers may not have seen them anywhere else. Or heard of them anywhere else, for that matter.

Any gearhead worth that tag should be aware of the Superbird, of course, and the “Yenko” name should be well known to anyone with middling knowledge of the original muscle-car scene, but “Top Muscle” also includes plenty of low-volume entries that were sort of pushed through production at odd times, with odd ordering configurations, by both auto execs and customers with a passion for performance.

mach 1Take cars like the 1969 Ford Mustang 390 Mach 1, also pictured here. An archetypical muscle car that privileged power over handling, this Mach 1 relies, obviously, on a 390-cubic-inch V8 that “Top Muscle” pegs at 320 hp and 427 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s not a crazy amount of power for today’s modern-day muscle-cars, but it does compare quite nicely to the projected output of the 2015 Mustang GT. The latter car will deliver “at least” 420 hp and 390 lb.-ft. of torque from its 5.0-liter V8, but will probably weigh more, too: The 1969 Mach 1 is listed at just under 3,400 lbs., and although the exact weight of the 2015 Mustang GT is still the matter of much debate, the 2014 version tipped the scales at 3,618 lbs. with a manual transmission.

But more importantly for the “Top Muscle” book, this Mach 1 also is exceedingly rare and incredibly photogenic. In terms of rarity, this is one of just two 1969 Ford Mustang 390 Mach 1 models to come with a sunroof, with this particular open-air edition boasting a unique story of its own. According to Holmstrom, the original owner of this car was Carroll Shelby’s mother’s physician, and Mr. Cobra himself arranged for the sunroof to be installed as a favor to the good doctor.

As for the car’s looks, well, like many a high-performer, the Mach 1 wears a full appearance package, from its front hood scoop to rear spoiler (and louvers!), as well as some surprisingly restrained stripe-and-badge work. In the “light-painted” image by Leffingwell, however, it’s the underlying shape of the car that’s emphasized, especially the side sculpting that flows forward from the black hole of a rear air inlet, and the pistol-like treatment of the exterior door handle. And trust me, it’s much more impressive on the printed page.

Finally, while the big deal here is no doubt the photography, Holmstrom’s copy is very engaging, and while his enthusiasm for the cars is obvious, he doesn’t gush over them. He also does a good job at providing background and context for the original muscle-car era, right down to the inclusion of vintage print ads.

Definitely worthy of the ol’ thumbs up from me, “Top Muscle” is available now via with an MSRP of $50.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. Thank you for the terrific review. I agree–Randy’s photography is breathtaking.

  2. That’s good writing. Will check out the book.

  3. The photos makes the car look even better then in real live!

  4. You definitely did the book justice. Ill pass this on to my nephew, he’ll love it.

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