The Truth About Cars » chevy small block The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 29 Jul 2014 13:31:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » chevy small block Chevy 350-Powered Lotus Elite Fails To Dominate Race, Nobody Shocked Tue, 13 Dec 2011 22:00:10 +0000 On paper, a super-lightweight Lotus with a genuine ’68 Corvette 350 and Muncie 4-speed ought to eat up a road course; just go onto any online forum full of self-proclaimed car experts and they’ll tell you exactly that. Reality, on the other hand… well, reality doesn’t always live up to the expectations of internet car experts.
24 Hours of LeMons aficionados have seen this played out many times (e.g., the terrible LeMons C4 Corvette and the even more terrible LeMons Subaru SVX), and so we all took a deep breath when we saw the B-Team’s engine-swapped Lotus Elite at the Arse Freeze-a-Palooza BS Inspection.
The B-Team goes pretty far back in LeMons history. They showed up for their first race in early 2009 with the type of car that bores LeMons organizers the most (BMW E30) and the 11th version of a way-overdone TV-show-based theme.
However, they executed their theme— unoriginal as it was— quite well, and they were reasonably clean drivers. We became accustomed to the B-Team as veteran, usually hassle-free regulars in the West Coast LeMons Region.
Then, early in 2010, they showed up to a race with a top-notch new theme: the Pussy Wagën from Kill Bill, complete with costumes. Since my street name is Phil— dating back to my days as “Warlord” for the East Side Alameda Locos— they called their team “Kill Phil.”
I liked the B-Team’s new look so much that I hung their portrait in my office, right next to the extra-unsavory LBJ campaign poster and behind the illuminated Opel Manta Leuchtbild. But still, much as I like this team, they were racing a Bavarian Boredomwagen.
Until weekend before last, that is. Sometime between the end of the Skankaway Anti-Toe-Fungal 500 at Infineon and the Arse Freeze-a-Palooza, the B-Team acquired an Elite into which some mid-70s mechanical genius had stuffed an allegedly Corvette-sourced 350 small-block and Muncie 4-speed. They managed to get a LeMons-legal cage into the thing (which is no small feat, given that the Elite has about as much substance as a gingerbread house), but they didn’t have time to get it, you know, running prior to the race.
Engines that sit for decades often don’t work so well when revived, and the small-block Chevy turns out to be particularly ill-suited to all-weekend-long road-race abuse. By the morning before the race, the B-Team had managed to get the “Chotus’s” engine fired up, sort of. All that oil smoke wasn’t a good sign, but they persevered.
They tried to take it out onto the track for some Friday prerace practice, but the car crapped out after a few hundred yards. No problem, though— that’s what all-night wrenching sessions are for!
Saturday morning came, and the green flag waved. Where’s the Chotus? Finally, the car clattered onto the track around noon. Hmmm… is it supposed to smoke that bad?
No, it’s not.
So, back to the pits for some more work.
To their credit, nobody on the B-Team was heard mentioning comparisons between the Chotus and their E30, in spite of the fact that the Pussy Wagën had been a consistent top-ten contender.
The engine was burning oil out of one bank while under load, which many paddock bystanders (myself included) told the B-Teamers was fairly strong evidence for bad oil rings on at least one piston on that side of the engine. However, the B-Team decided that the problem must be a bad intake-manifold gasket.
You know what? They were right! Once they fixed the gasket (and the distributor, and the carburetor, and the fuel pump, and probably several dozen other things), they managed to get the car onto the track on Sunday, knocking out a not-so-bad 68 total laps.
That was good enough for 117th overall (out of 131 entries), and the invented-for-the-occasion Least From The Most trophy (not to mention slam-dunk Legends of LeMons status, whenever I get around to doing the 2011 awards). You can read the B-Team’s story in their own words here. Good work, B-Team!

ChotusHell-23 ChotusHell-01 ChotusHell-02 ChotusHell-03 ChotusHell-04 ChotusHell-05 ChotusHell-06 ChotusHell-07 ChotusHell-08 ChotusHell-09 ChotusHell-10 ChotusHell-11 ChotusHell-12 ChotusHell-13 ChotusHell-14 ChotusHell-15 ChotusHell-16 ChotusHell-17 ChotusHell-18 ChotusHell-19 ChotusHell-20 ChotusHell-21 ChotusHell-22 ChotusHell-25 ChotusHell-24 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 34
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 16: Another Heart Transplant Mon, 17 Oct 2011 18:30:31 +0000 After painstakingly building a medium-hot 406-cubic-inch small-block engine to replace the Impala’s very tired 350 (motivated by the car’s lackluster quarter-mile performance), 1998 became 1999. Finally the New Engine was ready for swapping.
The old 350, which I’d bought as a long-block from a cheap rebuild shop in L.A., had served me well, but its power output probably wasn’t much over 150 horses and it was starting to smoke under heavy throttle.
While the car was getting a power upgrade, I had some other plans for it. The Pontiac Rally wheels, which I’d had in place since my 1991 Generation X couch-surfing expeditions, would be replaced by something more in line with my original artistic vision for the car.
There was no way the worn-out Turbo-Hydramatic 350 transmission I’d installed in 1990 would survive more than a couple of pedal-to-metal beatings behind the new engine (it was slipping pretty badly on the second-third shift), so out it came.
I know how to swap transmissions, but there be monsters inside them— I don’t have the faintest idea how to go about messing with the deep innards of an automatic transmission, and I wasn’t about to start learning at this point. I thought about buying a TH350 rebuilt with drag racing in mind, but the price tag on such a transmission was sort of a budget-nuker. Instead, I went to Pick Your Part on Half Price Day and bought several maybe-recently-rebuilt-looking TH350s from six-cylinder Novas for $40 apiece. That way, I figured, I could just keep blowing up transmissions and swapping in “new” ones as needed. Hey, a transmission swap in a 60s GM B Body takes about 20 minutes, even at my slow wrenching pace.
I picked up a B&M Shift Improver Kit and installed it in the first of my junkyard transmissions, choosing the “Stage 2″ U-joint-bustin’ options.
I had a patriotic Lydia Lunch portrait watching over this process. If you’re going to have a pinup, do it right!
I’d installed an Addco sway bar in the front a couple years earlier, thanks to my Year One employee discount. I’d bought a rear bar at the same time, but installation required drilling honkin’ big holes in the rear control arms and I didn’t get around to doing that job until it was time for the new engine to be installed. I figured the rear bar would help limit wheel-lifting tire spin when launching at the drag strip, plus make it easier to spin out when getting on the throttle in turns.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph the process of mounting a rear sway bar on my Impala, so you’ll just have to imagine the sight of a 1/2″ drill bit chewing through big-ass control arms.
I removed the carburetor, disconnected the headers, tied the power-steering pump out of the way, and all the other little jobs you do when pulling an engine. Hook up the chain, start lifting!
More than eight years of service from this engine, but it was time to go.
As was not the case with the rear swaybar installation, I felt the need to document the hell out of this moment. I shot the 350 extraction from many angles.
Including the view from behind the wheel.
Out! And my long-suffering parents (whose back yard I’d commandeered for this project when my own driveway on the other side of The Island That Rust Forgot proved too small) experienced a flashback to my high-school years, when all manner of horrible, parts-shedding hoopties and associated components lowered their property values. Yes, the 350 sat there for a few months prior to me finding a buyer, I’m not very proud to say.
I painted the 406 flat black, after an old racer told me that it helped with engine cooling. Actually, I did it because it looked cool.
By the late 1990s, my income had risen to the point where I was no longer forced by poverty to swill terrible piss-yellow beer while working on cars… but here’s a can of Pabst on the fender. I must have been raiding my dad’s beer stash that day; his Minnesota-ized tastes die hard.
Installed! The whole swap took just a couple of hours, an experience that Those Kids These Days with their finger-bustingly-tight Civic engine compartments will never know.
I pored over the J.C. Whitney hood scoop selection, thinking I’d rig up a seriously redneck-looking cold-air-induction system, but finally settled on the much more functional grille-mounted-ducting solution. I grabbed another air cleaner at the junkyard, grafted its snout onto the existing air cleaner, and ran dryer ducting to home-heating vents on either side of the radiator. Unfortunately, the left-side duct interfered with one of the Fiat X1/9 scoops I’d installed in ’93, so I had to remove the scoop.
I figured that this setup should be good for force-feeding a good supply of cold outside air into the Quadrajet (which I’d pulled from a ’70 Eldorado with a 500, on the assumption that the jetting for a 500 ought to be about right for a cammed-up 406). I’d also modified the HEI distributor with high-performance advance weights.
For cooling, I added a fan clutch to the factory engine-driven fan and retained the BMW 7 Series fan I’d been using for auxiliary cooling since the early 1990s.
The BMW E23′s electric radiator fan is by far the best pusher-style unit you can find in the junkyard. It forces a typhoon of air through the radiator (caveat: it also draws ridiculous power— 15 amps, if I recall correctly— so you can’t run it with the headlights at the same time if you’ve got a small alternator). I used a pair of these fans a decade later, when attempting to rig up a rear-radiator setup in a V8-ized Volvo 240 race car).
My long-term plan was to see if the car could stay cool on junkyard electric fans alone (dispensing with the horsepower-sucking engine-driven fan) so I also purchased a W114 Mercedes-Benz fan.
Yes, it ran. Oh, did it run! Next episode: Glorious return to the drag strip!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15 • Part 16 • Part 17

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 15: No Replacement For Displacement! Thu, 06 Oct 2011 15:00:12 +0000 Before packing up the Impala and leaving Georgia in the fall of 1996, I took the car to Atlanta Dragway and ran some semi-disappointing low-17-second quarter-mile passes. Back in California, I resolved to make some improvements to the car’s running gear. After 15 years as a cheapskate, junkyard-centric gearhead, I was finally willing to spend substantial cash for new aftermarket performance parts. The main question was: what kind of engine would I build?
My plan upon returning to California was to find a place to live in San Francisco, but the first stirrings of the dot-com boom had sent rents in non-crackhouse neighborhoods to worse-than-Manhattan levels. So, I went to the other side of the Bay and rented a Victorian in my old hometown, the Island That Rust Forgot. Though I had left Atlanta, I remained a part-time employee of Year One, going to California car shows and photographing “correct” GM and Chrysler cars, then sending the film back to Year One HQ. That meant that I still enjoyed YO’s generous employee discount, which enabled me to keep my T-shirt collection 100% Rat Fink. This was a photo I shot for a passport application, by the way.
I’d also taken full advantage of S-K’s vendor status at YO to replace my crappy Taiwanese tools with the real stuff. When I decided on what I’d be building for the Impala’s new engine, I’d be using the same discount to score parts for the project.
I toyed with the idea of building a Cadillac 500, an engine that doesn’t weigh much more than the small-block Chevy yet grunts out battleship-grade torque, but the connecting rods can be weak in performance applications, plus aftermarket parts were way too pricey for me. After endless calls to my friends at Year One HQ in Georgia (thanks to their toll-free work number) and debating the pros and cons with them, I decided to stick with the small-block Chevrolet engine family for my project.
The decision to go with an improved small-block Chevy still left me with an absurd number of options. Build a small-displacement engine with good-flowing heads and spin the hell out of it? Get a stroker crank and build a 383? In the end, I decided to go for torque. I found a dirt-track racer near Sacramento with a fully-machined, 0.030″ over, four-bolt-main 400 block and crankshaft, and that served as the starting point for my project. I decided I’d try to keep the whole thing under $2,000 total expenditure, which meant I’d be using factory cylinder heads and stock connecting rods. I wanted it to run on pump gas, so I needed to keep the compression ratio below 10:1. The heads would determine what pistons I’d get, so I started hitting the swap meets (though Craigslist was in full effect by 1996, car guys hadn’t really discovered it yet; to buy used car parts, you had to seek them out the old-fashioned way).
In early 1997, I got a job as a technical writer for transit-bus manufacturer Gillig Corporation, in Hayward. Gillig has been building excellent buses since about the time the New Testament was written, and the assembly line was manned by legions of tough old wrenches who’d been putting together Phantoms and their predecessors for decades. My job was to write all the shop manuals and driver’s handbooks for each custom-ordered series of buses. They were just getting geared up to start producing the Low Floor when I showed up, so things were quite hectic in the office.
Even though I spent a lot of time climbing around half-finished buses in the factory, the job of actually producing the manuals took place in a veal-fattening pen in the Parts Department building. I’d gotten into pinhole photography at the time, and I think this image captures the fluorescent-lit/smell-of-burned-microwave-popcorn essence of cubicle life.
In spite of a certain amount of Cubicle Ennui (exacerbated by the fact that I was forced to do my job on an elderly System 7-equipped Centris 650 running PageMangler), I enjoyed my new writing gig. Moving up from copywriter to tech writer was a positive step, and the infinitely customizable Phantoms and Low Floors meant that every customer— whether it was Seattle ordering 2,000 units or Tyler, Texas ordering four— got a set of manuals custom-written for their bus order. I geeked out on creating a modular system to speed up the process of manual creation… but thoughts of the Impala’s Big Engine sometimes preoccupied me on the job.
My coworkers were very nice, but most of them were on the normal side and I’m sure they thought I was a little odd, what with my tirades about Enver Hoxha and my hideous hooptie of a daily driver out in the parking lot. Fortunately, the guy in charge of the Gillig parts-sales team was a fellow car freak. Not just any normal car freak, mind you; this guy has several orders of magnitude more car knowledge and fabrication skill than I’ll ever possess. Yes, LeMons fans, this is where I met future Black Metal/Death Cab V8olvo and Model T GT mastermind Dave Schaible.
Dave was the only guy whose commuter vehicle gave my car a run for its money in the property-value-lowering department, and his sense of humor helped relieve some of our workplace’s Cubicle Ennui. His Cadillac 331-powered ’27 Model T was a rat rod before anyone had heard the term (sadly, this car— including the ’49 Cad engine— got destroyed in a wreck a few months back). With Dave giving me engine-build advice, I set my sights on a certain type of swap-meet cylinder head.
And, soon enough, I found them! A pair of the “Camel Hump” aka “461″ aka “fuelie” heads from high-performance Chevrolet 327s built during the 1964-66 period. Corvettes got them, Nova 327 SSs got them, they were seriously cool, but their value had dropped a lot by the late 1990s, thanks to all the superior aftermarket small-block heads that had become available. These were the less desirable heads with the small (1.94″ versus 2.02″) intake valves, but Dave assured me that they’d work just fine on a low-revving 406. $150 and they were mine. Dave recommended nearby Al Hubbard Machine Shop as the correct old-school shop to rebuild and drill my heads for the required 400-block steam holes (Al Hubbard was Vic‘s brother, for you Bay Area racing-history buffs), and I paid $465.04 to get the job done. That included new valves, springs, hardened exhaust valve seats, and a three-angle valve job.
About this time, I picked up an ’85 Honda CRX to use as a gas-saving daily driver while reworking the Impala into its next incarnation. It was cheap because the engine was bad, but that’s no big deal.
Not when Pick Your Part Hayward is having Half Price Day on New Year’s Day 1998 and you have a big Detroit car with vast trunk space. Complete D15A2 engine, air cleaner to oil pan, for about 100 bucks.
Of course, that engine had a bad head gasket, but an afternoon’s work fixed that. Now I could yank parts off the Impala and not worry about being able to get to work the next day; it was sad to end its 8-year-reign as my semi-daily-driver (I owned many other cars for brief periods during this time, but the Impala got 95% of the miles). Doubling the horsepower would make me feel better, though.
The CRX proved to be a pretty good parts hauler itself, as I found when I couldn’t resist grabbing this 200R4 transmission on another Half Price Day sale at the junkyard (it didn’t take me long to figure out that The Big Engine would vaporize a stock 200R4 in seconds, and I ended up selling it to some guy with a Camaro).
I had the block, crankshaft, and heads, which meant I could go ahead and order an employee-discount $325.91 Engine Master Kit (including L2352F forged TRW pistons and Speed-Pro moly rings, giving me 9.9:1 compression) from my friends at Year One, for whom I was still shooting car shows on weekends. I also ordered a Competition Cams 280H Magnum from Summit for $82.95. Other parts followed those (I’ll provide a complete parts breakdown with pricing later in this episode). But I still needed to get connecting rods, flexplate, harmonic balancer, and a bunch of nickel/dime small parts. The easiest way to do that? Back to Pick Your Part for a Half Price Day 400 long block! Back in 1998, you could still find a few 400s in every California self-service wrecking yard (those days are long gone), and so I had a choice between a couple of GMC pickups and this 1975 Caprice wagon. They were all two-bolt-main engines, so I went for the vehicle with the lowest mileage on the odometer.
My friend and future brother-in-law Jim, who’d accompanied me on my scouting-out-Atlanta mission a couple years before, volunteered to don his “Steal Your Face” SF Giants shirt and help with the project.
Pulling an engine from an old-time GM wagon is pretty simple, but it’s still a sweaty, filthy task.
I got under the car and disconnected the torque converter bolts, admiring the Olds sedan next door as I did so. Chevrolet small-blocks tended to leak oil like crazy, and this Caprice was no exception; the wagon’s underside had a thick coat of road-dirt-fortified oil crust all over everything.
This sort of thing goes a lot quicker nowadays, with the advent of battery-powered impact wrenches, but having four hands makes the job take less than an hour. Since I only wanted to pay for a short block, I had to remove the intake and cylinder heads before bringing the engine to the cashier’s counter. More bolts to turn!
Voila! One V8 short block, $60 out the door.
It should go without saying that a 400 short-block fits just fine in a ’65 Impala’s trunk.
We’re outta here! Note the classy red satin sunvisor covering.
The easiest way to get at the rods turned out to be disassembly with the whole mess still in the trunk. I had no problem finding a buyer willing to pay a C-note for the crankshaft and 2-bolt block, which enabled me to turn a profit on the short-block-purchase transaction. From there, the rods went to Al Hubbard for rebuilding, which set me back $79. The newly rebuilt rods and my nice new forged pistons went off to EMOS Machine Shop in Alameda, a few blocks from my house, to get the rods pressed onto the pistons. Price tag for that: 40 bucks.
The car was getting closer to getting its new powerplant, so I drove it the two miles to the home of my long-suffering parents. My rented house across town didn’t have a garage, so I managed to talk the long-suffering parents (or LSPs for short) into allowing me to build my engine in the two-story former 1870s stable in their back yard (this in spite of the LSPs having endured every manner of wretched, hooptie-ass, property-value-obliterating heap on their property during my teenage years).
The stable made for a great engine-building facility, except for the indifferently-repaired-with-cheap-plywood-in-1960 creaky 120-year-old floor, which threatened to collapse under the weight of heavy engine parts.
The last thing you want with the short connecting rods and funky balancer on a 400 (actually, a 406 in this case, due to the .030″ over bore job) is for the rotating assembly to get out of balance at speed, so I brought the crankshaft, rods, pistons, flexplate, and harmonic balancer to Ashland Grinding & Balancing in Hayward and gave them $100 to do a top-notch balancing job on the works.
I was still experimenting with my pinhole camera around this time, so the gallery for this episode is full of artsy pinhole shots. Here’s a shot of the rods in a box.
And the old valves and springs in another box.
I degreed the camshaft, hand-filed the piston rings for the obsessively correct ring gap, checked all the bearing clearances with Plastigage, and did all the geeky stuff that supposedly makes the engine fail to blow up when you beat the hell out of it at the dragstrip. The rods went in with a set of ARP bolts. The classic guide, How To Rebuild Your Small Block Chevy, became my Bible during this period.
The car was still drivable at this point, but I was getting closer to pulling the cheap rebuilt 350 I’d installed in 1990; with close to 100,000 miles since that swap, the 350 was getting very tired. Check out the Ford Escort buckets, plywood “center console,” and beige household shag carpeting in that luxurious interior!
I used Summit hydraulic lifters and a set of Crane roller-tip rocker arms ($32.95 and $109.50, respectively). Since I planned to use a Quadrajet carburetor (plucked from a 500-equipped ’70 Eldorado), I got the Quadrajet-compatible Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold for $149.69 at Summit (I think the intake in this photo may be an SP2P I had lying around; the Performer RPM went on during final assembly).
During the engine build, I listened to just two cassettes— which happened to be in the Impala’s glovebox when I dropped off the first batch of parts at the LSPs’ stable— on the garage boombox, over and over. One was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and the other was the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Not really my favorite albums at the time (or now), but they became the strangely appropriate theme music for 406 Building Hell.
For those of you who want to see a real-world parts-price breakdown for a project that took place 13 years ago (according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $100 in 1998 is worth $135.98 now, though many of the parts in my build are cheaper today), here ya go; click on the gallery image (below) for an easier-to-read version. Total cost was $2,105.81, minus what I made from selling off duplicated parts and the old 350 (we’ll get to that in a later episode).
Eventually, the 406 was assembled and ready to swap. I immobilized the Impala by preparing for the swap. Next up: Engine swap!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14 • Part 15 • Part 16

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Curbside Classic: The Best Big Car Of Its Time: 1970 Chevrolet Impala Fri, 29 Jan 2010 20:39:54 +0000

I wasn’t going to do this car today. But venting my spleen on yesterday’s 1971 Ford Galaxie 500 and all the discussion it prompted forces the issue: what was the best of the big popular-priced big cars of the era? Having handily eliminated the Ford from the running leaves a tough choice: The Plymouth Fury/Dodge Polara, or the Chevy Impala. Now I have a pretty major soft spot for the big Mopars of the era, and I wrote quite the paean to a ’69 Fury here. But that memorable ride was colored by the circumstances of the day. Truth be told, both the big GM and Mopars had it all over the Fords, but there were a few crucial differences between the two; one in particular.

I had three driving experiences with 1970 Chevys, each quite different, yet they were all in four-door sedans. Well, those were the driving ones. There was another, as a worshiper and passenger, and we might as well get that out of the way first. In the fall of 1969 at Towson Senior High, a brand new dark green ’70 Impala convertible with a white top and interior, sporting Rally wheels and the numbers 454 on the front fender appeared on the parking lot, daily. Who the hell would buy their kid that; I thought to myself as I walked to school each morning. Life is truly cruel.

Even more so, when I saw who the driver was: an Italian-American…well, I can’t quite summon up the word “girl” to describe her, because she looked/seemed at least twice as old as my pathetic late-blooming self. Very much a Linda Vaughn “Miss Hurst” type, but her bee-hive was (still) black. Not my cup of tea, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to get within ten feet of her. Daddy bought the Impala for her; he was probably in the sanitation business.

But one day a couple of us juniors were hooking classes at mid-day and walking out the parking lot, and there she comes, off to her afternoon job (she was in some marketing program that let her do that). We stuck out our thumbs, and against all hope and odds she stopped. Of course we goaded her to floor it, and sure enough, she obliged us with a fairly short but highly memorable blast. She might as well have been opening her most intimate orifices to us as the giant secondary venturies on the Quadrajet  carb kicked in and sucked the fresh spring air. It was probably the lo-po 365 hp version, but who cared? I should never have told this impressionable preamble, because now you’re convinced I’m lacking any impartiality (or taste).

In that summer of 1970, I finally became a legal driver after almost three years of illicit preparation. I made up some BS story to the driver’s ed teacher that I had lived in Iowa and had legally driven there. So he skipped the parking lot preliminaries with me, and told me to just get in and drive out to Loch Raven Reservoir and back. A brand-new 1970 Impala sedan beckoned, and off we went. And almost immediately, I discovered the main reason why this is a better car than the Chrysler products: the steering.

I had never driven a big American car with power steering like this. The Saginaw unit had a variable ratio, was surprisingly accurate, with a modicum of actual feedback. Who knew that existed? Not this seventeen-year old. And GM’s suspension guys were a little less sleepy than the competition too. Yes, the Mopars might have been a tad more buttoned down, which in some circumstance gave it an edge, perhaps, in cornering. But lets not forget, the mission of these cars was maximum comfort, quiet and refinement. And in that equation, the Chevy had them beat.

It didn’t end with a leisurely but impressionable cruise around Loch Raven, though. That very summer I started hanging out with a girl in my neighborhood whose parents had just bought the same spec Impala sedan, with the standard 350 V8 and Turbo-Hydramatic. We drove it out to go skinny-dipping in the Gunpowder many a hot night. And I was driving big Fords during the day at work. I was conducting the most prolonged comparison test in history.

Lets start with the basic structure: the 1970 was the last year of the perimeter-framed generation that started in 1965. By 1970, it benefited from what any car (usually) does after having been made for six years: build quality was the best. The Ford was a distant third, and the new fuselage Mopars felt a little short on development time, at least the first year ’69 I drove. The Chevy was impeccably quiet, refined and smooth. It’s engine started and ran smoother than the other two too. Chryslers, like our own ’65 Coronet, were notorious stallers and ran rough in rainy weather until electronic ignition came along. The Fords didn’t start as effortlessly. GM’s Rochester carbs seemed to be better sorted out.

Chevy small blocks were always velvety runners, the 327 being a real gem. The 350, with its longer stroke, couldn’t quite equal it, but its extra torque was welcome. The level of standard V8 power, with 250 hp, was a substantial improvement over the 283 that had to huff and puff through the Powerslide just a few years earlier. The Turbo-Hydramatic was undoubtedly the best autobox in the world at the time terms of smoothness. Here’s the deal: in 1970, the standard engine/automatic combo of this plain-Jane pedestrian sedan was a good as any in the world in terms of its mission.  You’d have to go to a Mercedes 6.3 for competition, and its transmission was a lot harsher. Never mind its price.

And by 1970, the Chevy finally had decent sized 15″ wheels and tires, compared the absurd little 14″ donuts they were putting on these cars a few years earlier. And disc brakes! The improvement from 1964 to 1970 was pretty remarkable, and made 1970 was a high water mark for the big American sedan, for at least another seven years anyway. The 1971 big GM cars had a shocking drop in quality of build and materials, and were drastically bigger and less efficient. A giant step backwards from the comfortable but fairly-reasonable sized 1970s.

Yes, the 1970 Chevy was the pinnacle of its genre. It was supremely refined, quiet, reasonably well built, comfortable, and if ordered with the available HD suspension, was a decent handling and steering car considering its size. Mopar steering was utterly devoid of any feel or sensation, and the Torque-Flite was rugged and efficient, but didn’t shift as smoothly. And as hard-charging as the 383 and 440 were, they still couldn’t hold a candle to the Chevy rat motors.

I almost forgot; my third and very much final ’70 Chevy sedan experience. It was mostly the polar opposite of the others so far, but it still earned my grudging respect. In 1976, I got a job with Yellow Cab of San Diego driving a taxi (obviously). As the newest driver, I got the oldest car: a totally clapped out ’70 Chevy with probably well over a half-million miles on it. And it was the beneficiary of GM’s willingness to accommodate any wish of its fleet buyers: it had a tired 250 CI six backed up by the ancient two-speed Powerglide, manual (!) steering, and un-assisted drum brakes. 1950 technology was just an RPO away.

I drove this poor thing mercilessly, tearing up and down I-5 at eighty-five, and ripping through San Diego’s endless canyons with the tires howling. Speaking of which, these were tires unlike any I’d ever seen before or again: special taxi-cab rubber that was unusually wide, like a wide-oval, but the tread was totally smooth except a series of straight cuts, that would be re-cut when the “tread” got low. It looked exactly like the F1 tires now in use. Bizarre.

One day, after weeks of the most extreme abuse, I was leaving the garage and stopped a tad harder than average for a light, at about 25 mph. The left front wheel sheared off, thanks to a ball joint that gave out then instead of the un-guard-railed  canyon curve I had been screeching down the day before. It was like a racehorse stumbling out of the gate, and it had to be put down. They gave me a 1971 fat-boy, still with a six and Powerglide, but Chevy finally put a stop to the manual steering for 1971. But I hated it compared to the ’70; the body was a bucket of clattering junk, and the rear seat bottom cushion wasn’t even attached anymore. The ’70 felt lithe and lively compared to this heap of jello, even with a six and biceps-building steering.

What a beginning and end to my ’70 Chevy rides, from that lust-object 454 convertible to that tired smoking taxi. They’re not exactly what I day-dream about these days, but if I could have a time warp shopping spree of  any big sedan from that era, it would be a black ’70 Impala four door, with the 454, HD suspension, Rally wheels…a lot like the one in the picture here. Sorry, Mopar fans, but those wide hips don’t quite cut it compared to a mean, lean, clean-steering Chevy.

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