by Hib Halverson
The first magazine project vehicle was Popular Hot Rodding's "Project X, a '57 Chevy begun in the mid-'60s. PHR's current Editor, Cameron Evans, still covers that project, after almost 35 years. Initially, Project X was a drag racer. However, the last 15 years or so, its been a streeter–blatant, perhaps, with a blower and dual quads–but still capable of cross country travel.
Not all project cars are like that. Some are hanger queens, either unreliable, never finished, or impractical on the street. A magazine, doing modifications to street cars better make damn sure they are durable and sensible enough to actually run on the street, otherwise it has little credibility with our readers.
Vette Magazine has tried to do this with our own project, the Big Block from Hell. We don't advocate BBfH can be anyone's daily driver. It has maintenance and drivability compromises that aren't everyone's cup of tea. Nevertheless, it can function acceptably in a normal, street environment. Witness a series of trips to Corvette events on which we are starting to take the car. Though it was short, the first was clear illustration of the Big Block from Hell's utility.
My Corvette Club, the Pomona Valley Corvette Association is one many Corvette owner's clubs in the southwestern U.S. We're typical in that we get together for a club social event or "run" each month. PVCA's weekend run for April 1993 was a Sunday road trip to Calico Ghost Town, a tourist attraction 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. What better way to test recent modifications in a manner typical of what many Corvette enthusiasts would do with their cars.
At 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning I was at Vette's storage facility getting the car ready: wash the windshield, check the oil and set our Goodyear ZR-S tires at cruising pressure, 26 psi cold. It may be a radical big-block, but I damn well want easy starts so it's got an automatic choke. Pump the gas twice, crank the McLeod starter and the motor fires right up. With the choke and synthetic oil, there's no waiting for the engine to warm. Just drive, but no flooring it until oil temperature sees 150°F.
Down to the Texaco to fill up with plain old, 92-octane pump gas. Then, a stop at Mickey D's for coffee and a sausage/egg biscuit to go. Yep, you can drive the BBfH one-handed an not spill your cup-a-joe!
PVCA usually starts their runs in a parking lot near the Ontario International Airport. I rolled in at 8:30. Big-Block from Hell draws a crowd anytime their are gearheads around. Seems folks still like a hot rod. Open the hood and they respectfully eye two Edelbrock 600 cfm four-barrels sitting under an air box. Then they see the big, 2 1/8-in. Thorley headers and listen to the Crane roller mechanical lifter camshaft and Flowmaster exhaust–they smile.
Oh, occasionally there are restorationists who get in my face about how we, "...cut up an original big-block car." Hey, it's a free country. This is just another way people enjoy cars. Besides, we have all the stock stuff in storage. When we're ready to sell; you can buy the whole shootin' match then convert it back to stock thereby spending several years of your life looking for the correct hardware.
Then, there are newcomers to the marque. Ah...we're always glad to offer them a brief ride to enrich their understanding of how the concepts of torque and horsepower relate to Corvettes.
My favorite technique, convincing yet not too attention getting to the cops, is to start easy in first, then short-shift to second. When I see about 2500 rpm; I whack the gas right to the floor. The two Edelbrocks pop WFO, and that big 454's 500 lb/ft. of torque speeds the earth's rotation. At 4500 rpm (peak torque, 530 lb/ft.) their eyebrows are raised; at 6000 rpm (max. power, 532 hp) their eyes are bulging and their teeth are gritted; by the time I tag the rev limiter (6750 rpm), their faces are white...a bit brutal, perhaps, but an apt demonstration of the thrill in the Corvette Mystique.
As it can reveal its Dr. Jekyll side, BBfH also can be Mr. Hyde. A Corvette club ride, is usually an easy cruising caravan. No problem. BBfH is right at home. Though the Crane roller gives the engine a lopey, 750 rpm idle; the engine cleans up by 1500 and is quite happy in the highway cruise mode. To make driving on surface streets nicer, the Big-Block from Hell has power steering and power brakes along with a McLeod Street Twin dual-disc clutch that has the low pedal effort of a stocker, but the high torque capacity of a racing clutch. A Griffin aluminum radiator, ZR1 electric fans and Red Line cooling system additive keep the engine cool in congested traffic.
The drive to Calico was uneventful, mostly 60-70 mph cruising on the Interstate. It was a classic, springtime day in the California high-desert; ie, warm temperature, blue sky and 100 mile visibility. Days like this are what Corvettes are made for.
Calico Ghost Town thrived in the 1880-1910 period and served the silver and, later, borax mining operations in the area. At one time, its population was in the tens of thousands and millions of dollars worth of silver were dug out of the surrounding mountains. By World War I, Calico was abandoned because of falling silver prices. In the 1950s, Walter Knott (originator of the Boysenberry and founder of the Knott's Berry Farm theme park in Anaheim, California) restored part of the town to its original condition. In the mid-60s, Knott deeded Calico to the County of San Bernardino and it is now operated as a county park.
Calico offers an insight to lifestyle in a western mining town at the turn of the century. The Maggie Mine, within the bounds of the town, has a small part still open for tours. Additionally, some of the Maggie's buildings serve as a small museum of mining history. It amazes me how miners back then could do what they did without all the technology we know today. There is an operating narrow gauge train, typical of the short line rail services run by mining operations back then. There are buildings dating to the 1880s that are open to the public. Most unusual is a house with exterior surfaces covered with bottle glass...probably from the cheap whiskey those old prospectors drank.
There are many shops. Most of what is sold has a distinctly western flavor. Admittedly, a lot of it was not unique to Calico and some is just plain junk. However, there are a couple of places worth browsing that sell crafts, rocks, gems and books on local historical topics.
We saw a bunch of people whose job is to act like they lived in the 1880s, dress up in period clothes, talk like old prospectors and walk around town toting Peacemaker Colts or a Winchester '73s. To me, they were expected fixtures of a place like Calico. To the groups of Asian and West European tourists present by the bus load; they were objects of intense, scrutiny. The fascination the old West holds for foreigners amazes me. It is said they also have the same for the Chevrolet Corvette. Perhaps, in the interest of international goodwill, we should have hung out at Calico's front gate selling our "demo rides".
So, what'd we learn about our project car on our Calico cruise? Well, virtually all of the major modification we've done work well except for one. The Edelbrock Ignition Computer developed a software glitch that degrades part-throttle drivability. Temporarily disconnecting the vacuum advance cured the problem. Although Edelbrock has discontinued the product, for now, we are going keep using the system and are working to solve the problem.
We have trouble spots in areas we have not yet addressed with the project series. Brakes–the car needs a brake job and we will do that in the next two parts of the series. Interior–the power windows need repair. The MSD ignition makes the AM band on the radio unusable, but there may be no solution there. The body structure transmits a lot of exhaust noise to the interior. Lastly, the car needs a suspension thrash.
A thermometer above the service bay read 117°. As I pumped fuel into Vette's project car, heat-induced boredom had me listening as the attendant collected money from tourists at the next pump. "Yea, buddy, it's always this hot in August–seasonal temperature, okay. Here, in Blythe, heh, heh–all the thermometers go to 135°F. It's so hot that Dave Lennox tests his stuff here. It's so hot that..."
Indeed, it was damn hot.
A couple months before, the Corvette Club of Arizona called with an invite to its August, 1993 event, a Sunday afternoon barbecue. CCA member, Scott Leon, works at GM's Desert Proving Ground east of Phoenix, Arizona and for 16 years, he's hosted this late-summer, soiree. Typically, it's the night before the annual Corvette cooling system test trip that runs out of DPG in August, so CCA invites any of the engineers in town for that.
The result is an interesting mix of Corvette enthusiasts. The cuisine? Americana: hot dogs, chips, chili, other interesting pot luck items along with cold soft drinks and beer. The name for this decade-and-a-half tradition? "Dog Day Afternoon."
"Oh yea," Scott continued, "bring the Big-Block from Hell."
"Well, ah, it doesn't have air and (blah, blah, excuse, excuse)." Then, I remembered comments I wrote in Vette's old "Techside" column one time that the true test of a project vehicle is how it works in the real world.
"Ah sure, Scott, what a great idea. We'll test the car's cooling system."
What did folks around Vette's office say? "So, you're driving nearly a thousand miles, across hell's half acre in a car with no air for, ah let me get this straight–hot dogs and beer!? Dude, whadaya nuts?! You could, like–go to the beach for that. It'd be much cooler and there'd be lotsa babes to watch, too."
Now, at this gas stop in Blythe, California, a town that often reports the hottest August temperatures of any city in the United States; I was regretting my decision. What I wouldn't give for a nice, new FX3 coupe with a CD player and the a/c turned-up full!
Two days before, I bolted on BBfH's luggage rack and strapped to it two overnight bags and an ice chest filled with water and a bottle of sports drink. My significant other, the Fairest Sandra The Red, dropped her Nikon bag behind the seats and we were ready to roll.
We left L.A. headed for Phoenix late Saturday afternoon, figuring to do the trip over in "cooler" evening temperatures as a preliminary exercise. If there was a problem, with all day in Phoenix on Sunday; I could make repairs or modifications. If the car passed the "easy" test; Monday's return trip, during the hottest part of the day, would be the "hard" test.
Fortunately, the trip to Arizona was uneventful. The next day, Ms. Red suggested a side-trip to "Biosphere 2" near the town of Oracle north of Tucson. Biosphere 2 is the privately-funded research project that had eight scientists living for two years in a sealed environment. The experiment began in September, 1991 after a storm of media controversy about the business practices of its owners and questions about the soundness of method and benefits, if any, of the project.
At first, always the skeptic, I blew-off Biosphere 2 as a tourist-trap of questionable science propagated by tree-huggers. A half-day visit changed my mind. While I'm not ready to give up hot rods and sign up as a "Biospherian"; it was interesting to learn how these researchers were studying the interface between environment and technology. If you're in the Phoenix-Tucson area, and you're interested in science; put Biosphere 2 on your list.
Southern Arizona locals say August is "monsoon season" and, sure enough, we drove through one on the way back to Phoenix. It was hot as blazes, yet as we headed north, the clouds darkened; we saw lightning and finally it began to rain. Then, it poured buckets.
Neither wiper blades nor "Rain-X" were on the pre-mission check list, so the wipers wiped little and streaked a lot. Perhaps vision wasn't ideal for 70-75 mph in the wet, but on a Sunday afternoon, U.S. 89 was sparsely traveled and BBfH's new, Goodyear Eagle ZR-S tires had that Gatorback tread, giving us lots of hydroplane protection, so we just put the windows part-way up and kept the hammer down.
A few miles later, we drove out of the storm, the windshield cleared and our reward was one of nature's treats: the clean, fresh smell of the desert after a rainstorm.
On Sunday afternoon about four, we arrived at Scott Leon's ranch-style home to find a variety of Corvettes, street rods and a late-model Chevy pickup parked in the driveway. Dog Day Afternoon was in full swing and our first order of business was a couple of ice cold beers. After a hiking around Biosphere all afternoon, a chilled Coors really hit the spot.
One of the Corvettes was a fully instrumented, Admiral Blue, '94 ZR-1 prototype. Driven by Jim Fox, a cooling system development engineer, this car was to leave the Desert Proving Ground the next morning on the cooling trip that would go to Death Valley. Can you imagine? Visiting one of the hottest places in the world–in the summer?
Fox told us that most car companies do their cooling system testing in the desert southwest. On many days during the summer, you'll probably find engineering test trips running in Death Valley. Another popular test venue is "Baker Grade" on Interstate 15 between Baker and Barstow, California. Fox told us that it's one of the most severe, on-highway, cooling system tests in the country as it's a 3.3% grade, they do it at 55 mph and the weather is very, very hot.
"How could driving at 55 fully test cooling?," I asked.
Fox replied, "At that speed, you have marginal airflow through the radiator and a heavy load on the engine caused by the grade. Most people refuse to believe this, but if you are running hot; speed up if you can. At, say, 70, the increased airflow will have the engine running cooler than at 55."
"I'll remember that going home tomorrow, Jim."
Next we looked at the '93 Chevy, half-ton, short-bed that was parked next to Fox's ZR-1. This was no ordinary truck, for under the hood was a Corvette LT-1. This prototype was built at DPG as a truck magazine project exercise and makes a lot more sense than the 454SS of the '89-'92 era because it's quicker, faster and gets better mileage.
Next we drooled over Scott Leon's two street rods. The first one was a, '41 Chevy coupe named "Fat Rat." It's painted bright orange and is fitted with a one-off, port-injected 454. Parked next to that was his latest creation: a beautiful '41 Chevy, El Camino-style pickup named "Moon Dog." Never heard of such a thing? The truck is what street rodders call a "phantom" and is an interpretation of what a '41 passenger car-pickup should have looked like if they'd been made. The result is a very cool street rod. The extraordinary thing about these two cars is they were hand-built. Indeed, Mr. Leon is a true craftsman. We also took a look at his current project, a '57 f.i. car. If this Corvette turns out like his street rods; I'll be back some day to shoot this car for a feature article.
After a while, the smell of hot dogs sizzling over charcoal had us heading for the barbecue. With Scott Leon at the controls, the grille was running full tilt, cooking up some of the best hot dogs I'd eaten in a long time. asked, "So, ah Scott," I asked, " what's the secret here? These are, like–really good hot dogs!"
Brandishing his BBQ fork, Scott replied, "That's easy, man. It's ‘Bar-S' hot dogs and mesquite charcoal."
Bar-S, apparently Arizona's gourmet all-beef frank, gets my endorsement. I ate three of those little, ah, puppies and they were mighty tasty, as were CCA's pot luck side dishes. There was chili and beans, potato salad, lots of chips-n-dips and some killer deserts. Needless to say, the Corvette Club of Arizona made sure that Vette Magazine didn't go away hungry.
After the feeding frenzy, some people wanted a walk-around tour of BBfH. Understandably most of the time was spent with the hood up discussing the 454 built by Edelbrock for the project. Once people learned I was going to take the car back across the desert at mid-day, their collective answer was, "In a big-block? No way. They overheat." We discussed recent modifications to the car's cooling system, the use of Red Line Water Wetter and my confidence of the car's survival.
As 10 pm. rolled around, the crowd thinned out. Dog Day die hards set up lawn chairs in front of Scott's shop and spent the next hour or so talking about our clubs and our Corvettes–usual stuff you hear when enthusiasts of America's Sports Car get together. It was a nice way to close out a delightful evening: feet up, a cup of coffee, friendly conversation and the desert night's fresh air.
On Monday, about 9 a.m. we headed for central Phoenix on a two-fold mission: first, to try out BBfH in heavy traffic typical of city driving and do it on a real hot day. In Phoenix that morning, a little before ten, we saw a temperature sign on a bank that said 100°.
The second purpose for our downtown visit was historical. Thirty something years ago, the Fairest Ms. Red was born in Phoenix's Good Samaritan Hospital. Shortly afterwards, her family left Arizona and she had never been back. Meanwhile, Phoenix became a big city and its 1950s-small hospital was now a sprawling medial center.
Her Mom had given her a faded snapshot of the old hospital, so we nosed the Big Block from Hell through parking lots, down alleys, past medical building entrances and around several blocks looking for this red brick building. The original hospital was not to be found making our quest for the birthplace of Sandra the Red unsuccessful. We shot the customary posterity photo (she is an avid collector of keepsake photos, you see) in front of the current facility's maternity building.
Minutes later, rolling west on I-10, we left urban Phoenix behind. The objective was to stress the cooling system in the heat of the day which was easy because, with a four-speed transmission, highway speeds had us running 2500-3500 rpm for a long time.
The tough part was from Quartzite, Arizona to about 20 miles past Blythe. Ambient temperature was never under 105°, but the highest coolant temperature we saw was 210°F and the highest oil temperature, 235°F. Actually, the biggest problem was the BBfH's crew who drank the water, all the thirst quencher along with several bottles of Lipton ice tea bought along the way. Thankfully, once we hit Banning Pass (the L. A. basin's eastern "gateway") the mercury dropped to a downright chilly 85°. By dinnertime, Vette's project car was in the shop with the cover on–another test trip completed.
1) Big Block from Hell takes the hot with no problem. Installation of a Griffin aluminum radiator, ZR-1 electric fans and a Dunham-Bush oil cooler were, obviously, sound moves. Those products get our strongest endorsements.
2) Reliability of other systems, except the brakes, was excellent, also. In fact, the only times the hood was up were to show off at Dog Day, oil checks half-way through each day's drive and to check the oil after the trip. It took a quart, certainly acceptable for a highly-modified 454.
3) BBfH sorely needs an overdrive gear. Gas mileage could improve as much as 15-20% thereby increasing range. The Richmond five-speed gearbox and a 2.73 axle ratio are under consideration.
4) Interior noise, mainly exhaust, is substantial at freeway speeds. We need the performance advantages of our Flowmaster mufflers, but for long periods at 2500-3500 rpm, the noise is downright fatiguing. A new exhaust system and additional acoustic insulation is something we'll have to look at, if the car is to do more of these road trips.
5) Driving across the desert in a no-air car is a bitch. but Bar-S hot dogs made it all worth while!
Vette would like to thank the Corvette Club of Arizona and Scott Leon for their excellent hospitality.