It was like we had landed on another planet. Mid-December, and the sun-scorched earth was only broken by long stretches of flawless blacktop. A perfect blue background without a cloud in the sky framed everything that we looked at. We had been invited to GM's Desert Proving Grounds (DPG) located in Mesa, Arizona, to test the latest version of Project X. The DPG is the same place that GM's engineers evaluate and develop every GM vehicle before it goes public. Had we found automotive heaven?
To understand the significance of this test drive, you have to realize how fortunate we were to even be allowed into the DPG. With a central office in Detroit, GM realized early on that their engineers needed a warm climate testing facility to keep their vehicle development efforts going forward, while Michigan was buried in snow half the year. So in April of 1953, GM opened this amazing 5,000-acre facility to address those needs. During the five decades of operation, the DPG has been instrumental in the development of generations of GM vehicles. Not surprisingly, there have also been several automotive urban legends to come out of the DPG. Stories of buried treasure in the form of '50s-70s whole vehicles and super-rare parts hit us as soon as we found out that we were heading to the DPG. Were there acres of Corvettes buried in the Arizona sand? Did we see '50s Cadillac steering columns, '60s passenger car bumpers, and flawless GM sheetmetal growing out of the ground? We'll never tell, but we can say that once you set foot on the DPG, you start to think that anything is possible. That feeling was oh so fitting. Since we first hooked up with GM on this project, our entire perception of car building had been completely turned upside down.
The last year has been a blur since GM first approached Popular Hot Rodding with the offer of a lifetime. They wanted our car-our beloved '57 Chevy known the world over as Project X. In exchange for access to the longest running project car in the history of hot rods, GM promised something special-a transformation that no one else could offer. Project X was going home, back to the place that first sent it down an assembly line over 50 years ago. Project X was going back to General Motors.
Their plan was simply amazing. X was going to get the royal treatment from front to back. First, GM Performance Parts offered up the one and only prototype of their soon-to-be-released Anniversary Edition 427 big-block. This very limited-edition crate engine is based off of an all-aluminum block that is formed from the original ZL1 tooling. "Cool" doesn't even come close to describing an engine in our project car that was used to develop, test, and evaluate a modern-day version of the greatest big-block ever released by GM.
But, there was so much more in store for Project X. Dave Ross, industry-leading vehicle designer and GM employee from the GM Design Studio, relived his youth, and set the GM team on the path to an amazing final goal. Then, GM Performance Division got involved. Al Oppenheiser helped start the project, while Jim LaFontaine and Bernie Lecroix watched it grow. But it was Mike Copeland, surrounded by an army of GM's top vehicle development technicians, who made this vision of Project X a reality. The entire build was done in ten weeks, a relatively long build for this crew of GM employees who are used to working under the gun to put GM's concept and show cars together for the world to see.
The Anniversary Edition 427 crate motor was the primary justification for GM's interest in
Snapping back to the DPG, and all of that is behind us now. We were ready to sample the best talent GM could offer. Here it was, the moment of truth. Thousands of man-hours, decades of hot rod knowledge, a fortune in parts, and a priceless piece of our souls rolled out into the Arizona sun for the first time since the SEMA show debut. A rebirth, a reincarnation, and a completely new beginning for Project X were sitting before us.
The first thing that hit us about X was the stance. Never before had the car stood so perfectly. The one-off chassis had paid immediate dividends-if only in appearance. But we were expecting much better driving characteristics once we got on the track.
Once we got up closer to the car, all of the subtle exterior changes started rushing forward. The custom "427" logos, one-off rims, exhaust ports, custom chrome trim, massive rear tires-it all came together better than anything we had seen before. Perhaps the functional ram-air hood was the most enticing piece. We had seen other attempts at ram-air setups on '57s, but nothing like this. The GM Performance Division engineers constructed a factory-looking substructure, widened the hood openings, and integrated hand-fabricated "bullets." We detailed it our last issue, but in the completed car, it was a center point of attention. And how would the car sound when we cracked open the exhaust on the high-winding 427 big-block? We couldn't wait.