Our classic ’60s project

Our classic ’60s project

If you are a Twitter or Facebook fan of New Concept Auto Service, you know that I took a little 2,880-mile road trip in my 1966 El Camino a few weeks ago.

Here’s the story to go along with the photo album:

Last year, I built a small block Chevy 383 Stroker engine for a customer’s 1968 Chevelle. This customer, Rich, actually drove this Chevelle during his high school years. He re-acquired it and it was partially restored in his garage in Durham, N.C. The frame had been cleaned and repainted and most of the lower hard-to-get-to body work had been done, like the floor pan and trunk. Rich cut out the rust and welded in new metal, ground it smooth and primed and painted it all. The body main shell had been cleaned and primed. The doors, fenders and rear quarter panels were yet to be completed. Rich planned on taking the final body and paint work (the parts you see) to a professional as one of the last steps in the restoration.

I arrived late afternoon on a Wednesday. Kurt, who is Rich and my longtime friend, arrived from South Carolina shortly after. (Kurt owns his own 1970 Cuda 340, all restored and very sweet.)

A vintage photo of the Chevelle in its glory days.

The Chevelle’s suspension and disc brake system were all complete, the stock wheels and tires were mounted. The new, aftermarket transmission, a TREMEC five-speed manual, was still in the shipping box, as was the SS Pypes dual exhaust system. The interior was removed and there was no wiring in the car. A brand new American Autowire complete modern harness was coiled up and nearby. Our goal for the next two and half days was to drive the car around the block, with or without front fenders. Rich is very organized and we had everything we needed except for the driveshaft. Critical path would be to acquire the driveshaft length due to the longer transmission, and have it fabricated locally.

We first set the car about 12 inches off the ground with four jack stands, knowing we would be under the car many times in the days to come. We actually had the engine sitting in the car on motor mounts by nightfall. It’s a car guy thing, but as soon as you get a hot rod engine installed in the car, you just HAVE TO bolt the headers up and set the carburetor on the intake. The shiny new ceramic coated Hedman headers looked great.

Almost every set of headers I have installed in my lifetime I have had to tweak a little to get the right fit. The left front tube was just rubbing on the suspension A-arm. Rich cut a nice curved slot in a 2×4 to use as a cushion which the round header tube fit into nicely. With the 2×4 bolted in a bench vice, we carefully heated the tube with a torch and gently (yes, very gently) beat the tube in a little. Without doing this, the header would cause a nasty, noisy vibration at idle. When completed, you could not tell we did any modification. The angled plug World Products cylinder heads made it very easy to get the spark plugs in and out.

Thursday morning we installed the transmission (less the clutch and flywheel) in order to calculate the needed driveshaft length. When a car travels over bumps, the distance between the transmission and rear end changes slightly due to geometry. You have to accommodate for this change with a splined slip yoke which slips into the rear of the transmission and is connected to the driveshaft via a u-joint. The driveshaft consists of the front splined slip-yoke, a u-joint, then a long tube with a fixed yoke welded on either end, then the rear u-joint which bolts to the rear differential. The length of the tube is the critical measurement. The driveshaft requires a little free play to keep from bottoming out in the transmission yet maintain enough spline engagement to handle the HP of the engine.

We contacted Hurst Driveline in California to get the recommended minimum end play of 7/8-inch for the TREMEC, using a Ford C6 slip yoke. Yes, we used a Ford part on this Chevy, because they are beefier and this same transmission will fit in a Ford with a few adaptors. We set the car on the ground to get the minimum distance, installed the slip yoke and took our critical measurement. Kurt, being the great technical communicator he is, contacted Triangle Driveshaft and ran back and forth a few times to get the right yokes and make sure the driveshaft turned out right, which it did. Russell there did a great job fabricating, polishing and balanced driveshaft in a timely manner. It was a work of art.

Friday morning we installed the flywheel and clutch assembly, aligned and bolted up the transmission with help of a pilot tool, bolted down the repositioned cross member, and bolted in the new driveshaft. Everything fit like it was designed to. Kurt and Rich installed all the accessories on the front of the engine, including the alternator, the power steering pump and the a/c compressor.

Rich’s local friend and airline mechanic Mert stopped by to help. Mert is into 4×4 Jeeps; he has owned several with various suspension modifications. He, Kurt and I tackled the prebent exhaust system by basically hanging it in place and tack-welding each joint. I informed Rich to first drive it a few weeks to ensure the exhaust “find its natural position,” and does not rub. If any adjustment is needed, the spot welds can be ground off for repositioning. Once the clamps are tightened, the pipe bends a little and it’s not coming apart easy after that.

I contemplated how to wire up the car temporarily just to get it running. I ended up installing a simple on/off toggle switch and one momentary push button for the starter. Just flip the switch to power the ignition and the fuel pump, and then push the button to crank the engine. Flip the switch off and everything stops.

By end of the day Friday we were ready to start it up. Kurt and Mert had to head home to their respective families late Friday afternoon. Rich added two gallons of gas to the new SS fuel tank and we were ready to hook up the fuel system. The fuel system consists of an electric fuel pump to a pressure regulator, where part of the fuel returns to the tank and part to the carburetor to run the engine. The fuel pump won’t run unless the engine has oil pressure, which is a safety feature in case the engine should die (say in a wreck) then the fuel pump would quit as well. Also, the engine has to spin over enough times to build fuel pressure before the pump will start.

So initially, we primed the carburetor by jumping the oil pressure switch. The pump ran and filled the fuel bowl right up. Rich and I went over our checklist: air (check), fuel (check), spark (check), oil (check), coolant (check). Rich flipped the switch and pressed the temporary push button, gave the throttle two quick pumps and within a few seconds, the engine roared to life. As I always do, I carefully watched and listened to the engine for a few minutes.

All looked good. The pulleys and belts spun true and the exhaust sounded just great! Rich could not wait to rev the throttle a few times to hear the echo in the garage. The camshaft profile created a rather smooth acting, rompety-romp sound from the pipes. Rich shot a quick video with his cell phone to send to his friends. He just could not stop grinning. He said, “This is exactly what I have been waiting for.”

We did not drive the car around the block simply because we ran out of time. All we had left to do was bleed the brake system. Unfortunately, I had to leave for early the next morning and the sun was down already. Since the brake system was brand new and untested, if we started on it, we may have been up all night working out any kinks and adjustments. (In my younger days I would have easily done it without a second thought). Rich dug the original bench seat out from storage and bolted it down, just so he could sit in place, work the pedals, and screw on the GREAT looking floor shifter knob. He ran it though first and second gears. The car rocked a little on the jack stands and he hit the accelerator and spun the tires up to speed in the air. Boy oh boy, you could just feel the torque.

I have built and installed a few engines in my life. When it’s time to install one like this you have to have right people by your side to really make it work and make it enjoyable. It was a real pleasure to work with Rich, Kurt and Mert getting this engine in and running. Everything and everyone clicked and just knew what to do next. I was pleasantly amazed.

I guess you just have to be a car guy, but there really is nothing like spending some intense time on a mission to bring a project together like this. You run it down to the last day, last hour, fire up the new engine and let her run. The distinctive smell of the new paint being “cooked in” after startup and the sound of all eight cylinders hitting on the exhaust just triggers some signal of satisfaction in my head. Knowing another muscle car will soon be on the streets in North Carolina turning heads really just makes my day.

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