"You want me to get on it a little here?" The car was already rolling downhill, yet Eddie was shifting in his seat and preparing for a full-throttle pass. Crew and camera were positioned for the b-roll and trying not to notice the sharp right-hander at the bottom of the hill. A quick glance in the mirror and the car was completely sideways in a roiling fog of BFG. It was a burn that kept going till a hard lift shifted everything back to the left.
Eddie is a loan consultant from Canyon Country, California, so at first we wondered where the trendy, leased, back-slapper Benzo was and why Eddie was driving a 38-year-old musclecar. We were further confounded when he told us he was actually looking for a Mustang fastback when he scored the Chevy. The story goes that his search ended at a cousin's body shop in Colton, California. While Eddie was adding up the potential of the Mustang before him, the Chevelle caught his eye. It was a '68 Super Sport with a 396 and an automatic transmission. So what? A friend packing a '55 Chevy with a fresh GM crate 502-inch big-block had spoiled Eddie.
"That car just kept on pulling, kept on going," he remembered. "Then I heard that it ran on pump gas. That was it."
So Eddie backed the Chevelle out and joined the power-parking scene for a while with dudes from the Contemporary Car Club until he put the loot together for his own 502-crate engine.
"The 502 is perfect for this car," he said. "I could order it carb-to-pan and just bolt it in. Of course right after I did that, the 572 came out." Eddie temporarily wished for the then-new larger crate engine but might have had second thoughts when he started shredding parts. That truth surfaced when Eddie put the 567 lb-ft to the ground and ended the transmission's short career. Soon it was time for a 12-bolt and a new limited slip.
Back on the road, the 502 was getting the car loose. "I just can't stay on the gas," he said. "I have to feather it a little off the line, otherwise it doesn't go anywhere." We flinched a little when we heard that the 396 came out of a factory Super Sport Chevelle until Eddie explained that the original engine and transmission were long gone. That and the sensation of the big barking thing under the hood makes you feel like it was the right decision after all.
What: '68 Chevelle SS396
Owner: Eddie Esacu
Hometown: Canyon Country, California
Crate: The Deluxe version of the GM ZZ502 is shipped complete with everything except headers. It makes 502 hp at 5,200 (hence the name) and 567 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Rydell Chevrolet at Devonshire Street and Reseda Boulevard in Northridge, California, replaced the oil pan because the crate version does not clear the Chevelle or Camaro chassis. If you order a crate from a GM dealer, just tell them what you are driving and they will set you up.
Exhaust: When we first met Eddie, he had a set of side dumps that was nearly a deal-breaker for the feature shoot. Lucky for us, he had scheduled a date to have a set of 2.5-inch pipes connected to the Hooker Competition headers. The muffler guy at Midas did a pro job with a set of Flowmaster Super 40 mufflers and a mandrel-bent tailpipe kit. We later learned that he developed his skill building race cars on weekends.
Shifter: Since the factory stuff was missing, Eddie built his own console plate and installed the B&M MegaShifter.
Interior: This is mostly an original, stock-appearing car with SS396 badges. The only giveaways that the car is modified are the Auto Meter Sport Comp tach and 15-inch Grant walnut steering wheel. That is, of course, if you don't hear it.
Rearend: It's nothing more than a streetable 12-bolt and a 3.55:1 ratio with a limited slip on stock axles. He added a set of Edelbrock shocks for daily stuff.
Cooling: It didn't overheat while we were shooting, even though the fan was kinda small and unshrouded. That might have something to do with the massive Be Cool radiator.
Transmission: It had a 375, which, depending on how you look at it, is mostly a TH400 with TH350 bits-or the other way around. This one's bits were all over the ground thanks to more than 500 lb-ft and sticky tires. Eddie went to Mike's Transmissions in Lancaster, California, for a TH400 and a Continental 10-inch converter. No problems now.
Big Meats: The 295/50-15 BFGoodrich meats were the first thing we noticed, having owned and operated several Chevelles and El Caminos with 255 and 275 tires that rubbed and smashed into suspension parts. To get them to fit, a shop in central California welded a new, lower, shock-mounting plate a couple of inches inboard from the original location to get the 15x10 Stockton rally sport wheel to fit. Wish we'd thought of that.
Little Meats: Nothing fits like 15x5s and Futura 165x15 skinnies.
Other Stuff: If Americans can do anything, it's build V-8s that belch torque and thunder. This is essentially a bolt-together street machine with new-car manners and old-car timbre. It cruises happily at 3,000 rpm at freeway speed, and Eddie shifts it at 5,500-5,800 rpm, even when he is being serious. The big-block way is to move it without being all wound up like a clock spring.
Did you know? The 502 is the smaller sibling of the 572 without being the redhead. It has a 224/234-duration roller cam with 0.527/0.544 lift, a forged-steel crank, and aluminum oval port heads. The 572 makes about 120 more horsepower, but it will cost you $5,000 more to own it.