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...
The Anniversary Edition 427 crate motor was the primary justification for GM's interest in reworking Project X: Our '57 would basically serve as a rolling jewel box for one of the coolest crate motors to ever hit the open road. Back in our January 2008 dyno test, the 427 made 484 lb-ft of torque at 3,700 rpm and 460 hp at 5,700 rpm. As per usual, the official GMPP spec on the engine is underrated at 430 hp.
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.
At first glance, the interior...
At first glance, the interior looks like a lavish restoration-until you do some poking around. GMPD did such a great job recreating a contemporary "SS" feel, that it's not readily apparent that most of it is custom one-off fabrication. Glitzy, billet street rod chic is eschewed for an early '60s-era Impala SS feel, right down to the center console, rear seat waterfall, fabrics, and custom late-model Cadillac seats.
Slipping into the car is what got us really excited. Dave Ross had penned a modern interpretation of what a '57 Chevy interior would look like today, and the GM engineers made it happen, right down to the updated materials, and the continued "X" pattern from the 210 trim on the quarter continued on the doors and waterfall. Once we got comfortable in our new office, we realized that the entire ergonomics of the interior had been changed to its betterment. The shifter was right where it should be, the pedals were close, and our seated position put us in perfect control of the car. And the dash, with a modern Chevy? You better believe it!
At the crack of the ignition key, the ultra-rare 427 roared to life. It had been a long road for that all-aluminum big-block. GM Performance Parts had put it together early in 2007 to develop the production version of this crate engine. Throughout our test drive, the classic Rat never missed a beat, never stumbled, and certainly didn't disappoint. In fact, we had forgotten just how potent "just" a 427 can be. In this world of 500-plus street engines, there's something magical about driving a car with what is arguably the high watermark for classic big-block power. Sampling the Anniversary Edition 427 was like drinking fine wine.
Don't let the "little" 427...
Don't let the "little" 427 badges fool you. X is loaded for bear. We discovered that there's plenty of snot under the hood to send the sticky Mickey Thompsons straight to tire heaven. And the sound was fantastic. Make sure you drop by the GMPP trailer during Power Tour to sample the audible muscle-we'll uncork it for you if you ask nice!
Once under motion, we realized that Project X had been completely transformed. The chassis was stiff, and the suspension worked like it never had before in its first 50 years of existence. Remember, when we dropped off Project X, it had a tacked-in cage that wasn't run to the frame. GM Performance Division had completely redesigned the frame. They strengthened it in all the right places, and, in the process, completely tied the car together. Once we hit the circle track and road course at DPG, the suspension's true capabilities started to show itself. Remember, X was being pushed into the corners by massive steamrollers, yet the C6 front end would dig into the corners, pulling the rest of the car with it, and the big '57 would take a corner. Of course there was understeer, but with minimal input, Project X was taking corners at 60-80 mph without breaking a sweat. Quick lane changes (something that would have rattled the body off before the rebuild) were amazingly quick, with little body roll and very little drama.
The custom wheels were designed...
The custom wheels were designed by David Ross of the GM design staff, and were executed by the masters at Budnik. If you ask real nice (and write the check), they might carve you a set. Just know ahead of time that they are not a direct bolt-on for a '57 Chevy.
We watched Mike Copeland and Dr. Jamie Meyer put the car through its paces, including several of the maneuvers that today's production GM vehicles go through. But it was the simple act of cruising that might have been most impressive. Remember, one of Copeland's goals was to make sure that this car didn't beat up the driver, and his GM Performance Division team accomplished that in spades. The car tracked straight, didn't buck or load up, and the steering wheel input to the driver was extremely precise, allowing us to place the car without a forearm workout. The ergonomics also paid big dividends during spirited acceleration. Kick the clutch, yank on the Hurst, and away you go. You didn't even have to think about it-everything was right where it should be.
Following through with the...
Following through with the "rolling jewel box" theme is the side-exit exhaust, which is electronically controlled via the onboard navigation system. It's impossible to show off the engine when we drive, so we might as well flaunt it audibly. The metalworking craftsmanship by the GM Performance Division crew is outstanding.
Project X has been loaded with GM power. Smash the gas, pop the clutch, and hold on. The Anniversary Edition 427 offered loads of torque with a surprising top end charge. And with its aluminum materials, the weight of the 427 didn't upset a thing with the front suspension. We were having so much fun that we had almost forgotten that Copeland's team had wired the electronic exhaust cutout through the car's navigation system. Bring up the "exhaust" panel on the digital dash, push the "open" button, and our ears were rewarded with the sweet sounds of an uncorked Rat. We have to tell you, for a production crate engine, the Anniversary Edition 427 sure sounds nasty through open pipes.
While we've drag tested Project X with all sorts of powertrains over the last 40-plus years, this version is all about street performance. As such, we never ran official acceleration numbers, but our "butt meter" puts this thing well into the 12-second zone. More than respectable for the most well-known '57 Chevy on the planet, and plenty to keep any driver interested.
So, there it is-the greatest version of Project X ever built. You can find the car and us on the Hot Rod Power Tour as we plan on driving Project X the entire week. But what do we do with Project X after that? Do we drive it on Power Tour, and then keep adding parts? Can the car get any better than this? For the first time in the history of Project X, we're not too sure that adding more parts is the thing to do. Maybe you can help us. Send us a note telling us what you think we should do with Project X. Perhaps it's time to get another '57. Project Y anyone?
By The NumbersProject XOwner: PHR, since 1965Placentia, CaliforniaTotal cost to build: we're not saying
|Type: ||GMPP Anniversary Edition |
427 all-aluminum big-block crate engine
(one and only prototype)
|Block: ||GMPP, from original ZL1 tooling |
|Oiling: ||GMPP |
|Rotating assembly ||GMPP, 4.25x3.76-inch bore |
and stroke, forged steel crank,
forged steel rods,
forged 10.1:1 pistons
|Cylinder heads: ||GMPP aluminum oval port, |
|Valvetrain: ||GMPP aluminum 1.7:1 roller rockers, |
|Camshaft: ||GMPP hydraulic roller (PN 12366543) |
|Induction: ||GMPP aluminum oval-port intake |
with 870-cfm carburetor
|Ignition: ||GMPP |
|Exhaust: ||custom |
GM Performance Division headers
with fender-mounted cutouts
|Cooling: ||Griffin radiator |
|Built by: ||GM Performance Parts |
|Transmission: ||Richmond five-speed |
|Clutch: ||Hays |
|Driveshaft: ||GMPP custom |
|Shifter: ||Hurst |
|Rear axle: ||Strange S60 with 3.73:1 gears |
|Front suspension: ||GM Performance Division |
custom C6 suspension
spliced into original ’57 Chevy frame
|Rear suspension: ||GM Performance Division |
custom triangulated four-link
|Brakes: ||14-inch Wilwood |
|Wheels & Tires |
|Wheels: ||Budnik, |
|Tires: ||Mickey Thompson |