It's one thing to yank a VTEC badge off an Integra or to steal a set of PIAAs off a Civic. However, like ruthlessly decapitating Buddha with a sledgehammer, it's another despicable act entirely to defile a '69 Chevelle SS 396. It makes even skeptics of the whole notion of fire and brimstone kind of wish for it, and scheme up ways to make the place even hotter. Well, the bad guys have eluded justice-at least for now-but the good news is that David Harless of Paso Robles, Calif., has rescued a vandalized Chevelle, and restored it to its former glory and beyond.
When David arrived on the scene back in April 2001, the crime scene was grim. There sat a '69 Chevelle in someone's backyard-without its big-block or trans. Ruffians had made off with its original 12-bolt, the interior was wasted, the front seats were gone, and various trim bits were stripped. The owner at the time received it as a gift from his grandparents, but neglected it for far too long. Finally, he did the right thing and sold it to someone who actually cared. Thank goodness. As is often the case, David's motivation for the project stemmed from early childhood recollections of a green Chevelle SS 396 his mother used to drive as a grocery-getter. Unfortunately, it got wrecked beyond repair one day, but its memory lived on.
Shortly thereafter, David invited his old man over to show off his new gem. "He just rolled his eyes and asked 'What are you going to do with that thing?'" says David. "When I told him we could work on it together, he rolled his eyes again, but I knew that deep inside he was really looking forward to it." Over the next few months, David got busy with work and the car sat once again. Then tragedy struck. "In June of that year my father passed away. It hit me pretty hard and put me in a depressed mood." Consequently, the project remained idle until his best friend, David Grogan, managed to get him psyched about turning wrenches.
During the early phase of the project, the plan was to perform a simple restoration using repop or NOS parts, and then do some cruising and drag racing once the car was finished. As the end product reflects, that didn't last long. "As the project progressed, we ran across some g-Machines, and we were immediately hooked on the big brakes, wheels, and trick suspension," says David. "Now I wanted to road race the Chevelle and people thought I was crazy. We did our homework researching how to build a g-Machine, and the stock brakes, springs, shocks, and interior started coming off."
To bestow the lumbering giant with new-found agility, the Chevelle's underpinnings have been fully modernized. Afco coil springs teamed with 12-way-adjustable QA1 shocks suspend each corner. Additionally, adjustable spring cups allow further fine-tuning of the suspension. Up front, tubular upper control arms manage wheel movement, and a 1.25-inch sway bar keeps body roll in check. Toughening up the stance even more are taller spindles out of a '73 Monte Carlo, and stopping duties are handled by a set of PBR calipers squeezing 13-inch front and 12-inch rear rotors. A neat touch that allows manageable brake pedal pressure with a big cam is the Hydratech booster, which taps into the power steering system to provide assistance. Making it all stick to the asphalt is a set of Sumitomo tires-measuring 275/40 up front and 315/35 out back-mounted on 17x9.5-inch Centerline wheels.
When the time came to pick out a powerplant, David put sensibility aside, ignored what the SS 396 badge suggested, and plopped in a 454. It's a simple yet effective build that doesn't break the bank. In its guts are a SCAT crank, Eagle rods, Wiseco 10.0:1 compression pistons, and a mild camshaft by COMP. The top end features a set of pocket-ported Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum heads fed by an Edelbrock Air-Gap intake manifold and a Barry Grant Demon 750 carburetor. A Moroso oil pan and windage tray keep the lube from sloshing around, and an MSD billet distributor and 6A box ignite the air/fuel mixture. Backing up the mill is a 200-4R overdrive transmissions encasing a 2,200-stall converter. For those brutal escapades on the road course, there's a B&M transmission cooler. Twisting the power 90 degrees is a 12-bolt rear end with freeway-friendly 3.31:1 gears and a Posi.
So that we could attach some empirical data to that hardware, we strapped on our test equipment and headed to California Speedway. We weren't disappointed. The Chevelle sprinted down the quarter-mile in 13.16 seconds at an impressive 111.55 mph, despite the super-tall ring-and-pinion and rock-hard Sumitomos. With more gear and drag-oriented tires, that's more than enough power to easily run mid- to bottom-12s. The halt from 60 mph required 134.1 feet of real estate, and the car pulled .85g of lateral acceleration on the skidpad. On our demanding 420-foot slalom, which is particularly challenging for a heavy long-wheelbase chassis, the Chevelle wriggled through the cones at a very respectable 42.7 mph. With performance on par with a late-model GTO, this Chevelle is no charlatan. It's the real deal. Instrumented testing aside, David also beats on the car at Buttonwillow Raceway.
Inside, there's comfort to go along with that brute performance. Overall, the motif is stock, but with enough modern touches to bring it out of the Mesozoic Era. The stock rear bench remains, but front occupants sit in Procar Rally bucket seats. The driver faces a LeCarra steering wheel, and a full slew of Auto Meter Pro Comp gauges that relay reports on the oil pressure, voltage, and water and coolant temperature. Furthermore, a Panasonic stereo plays the tunes, and a Painless wiring system keeps electrical gremlins at bay.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the car is that it was built on a budget of just $20,000. David is quick to credit his friend David Grogan (we'll refer to him as Grogan to avoid confusion) for spearheading the project and delegating the countless duties required to get the job done. "He did most of the work, and we shuttled the car back and forth between his garage and mine over the course of the buildup," says David. Grogan also built the motor and did all the paint and body work. What a good guy. And about that paint--David spotted the retina-searing Sunburst Orange at a Pontiac dealership on a Grand Prix. Both Daves painted the car together inside a barn. Apparently, inspiration can come from rather uninspiring subjects.
Overall, David is quite pleased with what he's been able to accomplish with his Chevelle. If not for his efforts, social miscreants would have probably reduced a legendary American icon down to a bare skeleton by now. His only regret is having waited a few years too long to get started. "The car turned out great and was a wonderful experience with a lot of late nights and head scratching," says David. "I wish my dad was here to see it." Although we never knew the guy, we have a hunch that he would be proud.