What Is The Difference Between Clone Cars, Tributes & Fakes?

Greg Zyla
A Reader Writes: Hello Greg, I remember a story you’d written a few years ago in Auto Round-Up on John and Nickie Miller’s 1969 Pontiac GTO. After reading it, I’m a bit confused (which isn’t that unusual!) The owners claim that their car is a “tribute” GTO Judge, seemingly because it doesn’t have the original engine or is otherwise a non-numbers matching collector car.
Now, I’ve always thought that “tribute” in this hobby means fake. For example, someone takes a Mustang Fastback, paints it black with gold stripes, slaps on Shelby GT350 side stripes and emblems and everything makes it look like a real Shelby. But they call it a “tribute” or a “clone” car.
In the Miller’s GTO case, did they take an ordinary 1969 GTO and slap on the Judge decals and stripes, or is it a real Judge with a non-matching engine or other drivetrain parts? If it’s a real Judge, then it’s not a tribute even with the wrong engine. It’s the real deal.
Maybe you can do us car lovers a service by doing an article on what exactly is a tribute or clone car. I am sure many of us would appreciate it.
In ending, I tried to trade a 1966 Pontiac Lemans convertible for a real Carousel Red (orange/red) Judge with white interior many years ago, but the guy wouldn’t make the deal. It was in fair but restorable condition. I’m 67 years old now and have many memories of “back in the day.” I was there! James Fedrick, Spokane, WA.
The Author Responds: James, thanks for your hand written letter and your questions about tribute, fake, and clone collector cars. In the case of the Miller’s outstanding 1969 GTO Judge, it is not a real Judge according to the vehicle identification number (VIN), thus it is a tribute/clone built from a very nice condition 1969 GTO. However, with this said and even though it is not a numbers matching Judge, the car is as close to a real Judge that you can get.
Let’s start with tribute, clone and fake. All three of these terms have been used by car collectors, but clone is now not as popular in the collector dictionary and many times replaced by tribute. The word fake was always the most unpopular for a non-numbers matching car, and used mostly when an owner was trying to pass off his car as “original numbers matching” when most of the educated collectors knew better. Through the years, many unscrupulous sellers sold so-called “numbers matching” vehicles to unaware buyers, much to the dismay of the new owner. However, now that the hobby has evolved and everyone seems more educated, tributes, clones, fakes and numbers matching vehicles is not as big a problem as it used to be.
To explain what a tribute is, I have a 1972 Dodge Challenger R/T tribute, powered by a high performance 440 (plus .40) TNT engine that came out of a 1969 Chrysler. Considering the big block engine was not available in 1972, nor was an R/T model, most everyone I run into knows this is a tribute car. So, let’s just say a tribute can be any car that is not original by any means and does not have correct year parts.
In my opinion (which I stress), this is where a clone is different from a tribute, and in many cases, a more desirable car even though the word clone has been replaced by tribute in what I hear at the car shows I attend. In my dictionary, a clone is a car that is correctly representative of the year it was produced but does not have the correct engine and transmission, and or a few other ancillary parts. So, if someone has a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, and puts a 426 Hemi engine in it, adds GTX badges, hood scoops, rear valance, exhausts, etc. with a 4-speed and Dana rear or a Torqueflite with an 8-3/4 rear, then this would be a nice GTX clone because you could go into a dealer back in 1967 and order one just like it. So, I’m still a fan of the word clone because it represents a car that was available in whatever year and sits with the same mechanicals as a numbers matching GTX. To me, the Miller’s GTO is also a clone in just about every manner.
Now, I mention the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate because this is also important. When you see what looks like a bucket of bolts or a junk car being sold for $15,000 on eBay, it’s because the VIN designates it as a real, rare muscle car like the above mentioned 1967 GTX Hemi. Whoever buys it can put it back together in original form, with a numbers matching replacement Hemi engine from 1967 and a correct transmission that relates to 1967. When completely finished, the new owner can advertise the car as a 1967 GTX with 1967 parts, but usually explains to the new owner it is a correct engine but not the one that came in the car. So, can you call it numbers matching? Some say yes, others no, but the car is worth quite a bit more on the market regardless its nomenclature. (Popular now is the word “correct” in regards to engine/transmission.)
I know this is all a bit confusing, but the hobby pretty much identifies and polices cars that fall into these categories with proper money values attached to fake, tribute, clone, correct and numbers matching efforts. To assist, there are many professional appraisers who can tell you quickly for a fee exactly what you are looking at. To me, an original numbers matching car is the ultimate, but right now I’m happy I have a Challenger R/T tribute in my garage. Remember, too, that clone is also used by many pros as the same as tribute, but I disagree.
In ending, be it tribute, numbers matching, fake or clone, the hobby is so much fun nowadays regardless of proper names. It is stronger than ever and I expect it to be even stronger as the years go by.
Thanks for your letter. Maybe one day you’ll find your dream GTO Judge somewhere, be it tribute, clone or original. By the way, I’m 68 years old and I was there too!
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