(Words and Photos by Steve Magnante) – It all started innocently enough with a Friday afternoon bench racing session in my office at Hot Rod magazine. It was summertime in L.A., July 6, 2001 to be precise, and I was excited at the prospect of doing a little clandestine street racing in the Bad Seed Chevette later that night. After all, with its ideal 50/50 static weight distribution and 10-inch M/T slicks, it’d hook in a car wash, let alone on our little non-sanctioned test track on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Now before you freak out in disgust – or joy – when I bring up the topic of street racing, let me explain that my kind of street racing has nothing to do with the sensationalized carnage on the evening news or depicted (with hilarious inaccuracies) in Hollywood movies.
Our little group of acceleration junkies consisted of guys from all walks of life – including some cops and even a lawyer – who enjoyed getting together and “doing dangerous things…safely” within the closed confines of an industrial park in the aptly named City of Industry. Specifically, we ran on a half-mile long, four-lane-wide access road called Capital Avenue. There were no cross streets, no home owners to annoy with the sound of open headers and burning rubber and best of all there was a full ¼ mile of shut down space after the finish line was crossed. It was perfect and had been a hot spot for over a decade before I ever showed up with my Hemi powered Dart for the first time in 1998. Heck, if it’s not raining, they’re probably running there tonight.
Okay, with that out of the way, I was excited to see if the low buck Chevette could hold its own and put out an informal invitation to fellow magazine employees from Car Craft, Chevy High Performance to come along and watch. Whether any of these guys (plus one gal staffer in particular who was as race savvy as any of us dudes) was going to run their machines is best left to them to admit – or deny. For now, I’ll just say we all enjoyed plenty of late night bonding at Capital Ave. on other occasions. It was part of our job, at least that’s how I looked at it.
So as we’re chatting in my office, my recently promoted boss, David Freiburger walked in and one of the bunch said to him; “So Dave, are you going too?” “Where” asked David to which the response was; “To watch Steve race the Chevette at Capital Avenue tonight”. The silence was deafening. David turns to me with a very serious look and asks “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” In a panic, I blurted out a scramble of words that confirmed my intentions but stressed how safe the situation really was. I was busted before I even broke any laws! David concluded with “You won’t think it’s such a good idea when you’re ticketed” and left the office clearly upset.
An awkward and embarrassing hush fell over the group. Here’s some back-story to tell you why it was all so dramatic – and before I go on, I want to say right up front that I have deep respect for David Frieburger and his ability to run – and grow – any magazine he’s put in charge of. Whether it’s Car Craft, Rod & Custom, Four Wheeler or most recently Hot Rod, the guy has an unmatched ability to crank out monthly magazines that connect with readers. Despite some occasional friction (see below), I’d consider us pals – though we don’t hang out much these days since I moved 3,200 miles from L.A. to the wilds of rural Massachusetts in 2005.
With that said, let’s remember that when I was hired to be Tech Editor in 1997, my boss was the irreverent and (to me and many others) legendary Ro McGonegal, a man who I respect equally. Under Ro’s tenure as Editor of Hot Rod magazine there was a healthy unruly and reckless vibe that encouraged stuff like the Bad Seed Chevette. Take chances or die. I was in my glory. And if I happened to take in a little street racing on the weekend (from which I scored numerous feature and tech stories for use in the magazine), well that wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Heck, I sort of figured it was my duty to go into the battle field and come back with reports “from the front” – where guys were putting to use the hop-up tips they’d seen in the pages of Hot Rod.
But all of that changed suddenly. On Thursday, April 12, 2001 word spread quickly through the Emap-Petersen hierarchy that Ro’s time as Editor had come to an end – with David Freiburger arriving to replace him as Editor In Chief. The most stressful dimension was that Ro was still on staff, and I had deep allegiance to him and his ways. He’d been my boss for the previous four years and held dear many of the same things I did. There was a lot of loyalty. I liken it to a situation where a U-Boat suddenly gets a new Captain…but the old Captain is still on board. The crew is going to be confused. Though Ro was gracious in ceding authority to David, I harbored a lingering sense of anger over the deal – which I should have let go.
By the time of that July 6 office show down, David had been my boss for about three months. While we shared a mutual appreciation for Mopars (and getting as many as possible into the pages of Hot Rod), other aspects of our styles differed a bit. And so with his promotion into such a position of power, David had to react to news that one of his staffers was involved in street racing exactly as he did – by telling me no. I get that…now, some 12 years later. At the time I was deeply conflicted.
It all went like this: After the group in my office dispersed in a funk, David returned 20 minutes later with a really angry look on his face. He told me: “Taking the Chevette out street racing is a huge liability for the company”. Thinking more with my gas pedal than my brain I attempted to counter with: “But Dave, I own the car and have a title in my name so if anything happens, my ass will be on the line, not the company”. I was so sure our little street scene was safe I hoped he’d understand my logic – plus I’d already bought a bunch of expensive race gas to feed the 12:1 compression ratio in the Caddy motor and had no other use for it.
But David dug in further with; “You’re not hearing me. NO”. At this point, it was a show down and we’re both twitching with anger. For me, I was being told what to do and it stung. I wasn’t used to this. And from David’s point of view, I was being insubordinate and reckless. I realized that further discussion would likely end with my termination – which I wasn’t quite ready for. So I said: “Okay Dave, What I don’t want to do at this point is run afoul of your good graces. The car will not be used this weekend”. Looking back, I am still confused as to why my brain selected the goofy phrase “good graces” but that’s what I said. Anyhoo, we exchanged pleasantries then got back to the business of cranking out the latest issue of Hot Rod. But I knew my days were numbered.
To be truthful, it is a documented fact that most Hot Rod magazine staffers (Tech Editors, Feature Editors, Associate Editors, Editorial Assistants, even Editors) last about 3 years before moving on. They either get promoted to the Editor chair of a smaller magazine title, join the advertising sales team, get hired by the aftermarket as PR folks / copy writers or simply “burn out” and move on to other pursuits. But while you’re there, Hot Rod magazine is a fantastic stepping stone. It’s what you make of it, and I focused on making it fun. Guys like Marlan Davis, (the late, great) Gray Baskerville – and the highly respected David Freiburger – are the uncommon exceptions to the Hot Rod revolving door of recent history. They’ve managed to make themselves indispensable and have been rewarded with decades-long careers.
As for me, I served as Hot Rod Tech Editor for 8 calendar years (hired on Tuesday, August 19, 1997, resigned on Tuesday, January 20, 2004) and am proud to say I contributed to 77 issues of Hot Rod (cover dates December 1997 through April 2004), plus several additional articles as a freelance contributor in the years after my 2004 departure. From the start, I made it a point not to get involved with corporate or office politics. Again, I just wanted to play drums. I didn’t want to manage the band. Getting back to the Bad Seed Chevette, I stayed true to my word to David that the car wouldn’t be used that early July weekend.
But I didn’t promise anything about the night of Saturday, November 3, 2001. That’s when, about four months after the office showdown I trailered the little beast over to Capital Avenue for some safe and sane running. By this time, nobody on staff was sharing street racing stories over the water cooler and those of us who still played around did so quietly. A more conservative vibe had come over the place – driven in part by the fact the company got sold a few times and management heads rolled every so often. Worker ants like me were mostly safe from the axe, but again any late night street shenanigans were discussed off campus during lunch breaks on the other side of Wilshire Blvd. at Rocco’s Pizza.
I wish I could say the Chevette dominated the racing scene that cool November evening. Though it was hooking very well on the VHT-sprayed Captial Ave. starting line, I was defeated by 3 car lengths by “Jordie” in a sick small block powered ’64 Nova. Then an off-duty Sylmar police officer in a Chevy motivated Fox Mustang sedan zonked me to the tune of 5 car lengths. My seat-of-the-pants meter told me I was running low 12’s but these guys were up the ladder several rungs – they ran 10’s and 11’s at the strip.
But after the second pass, the Caddy 500 started pumping oil out the dip stick tube, making a mess of the interior – and my Simpson fire suit. Most likely, a ring land in one of the well-worn cast aluminum factory pistons had succumbed to the elevated (12:1) compression ratio brought on by the head swap. I was done for the night since the oil was also spraying the exhaust manifolds and causing a blinding smoke screen inside the car.
The threat of fire wasn’t my main concern since the engine was dead cold before each run (lots of waiting around between races on Capitol Ave.). The crankcase oil exiting the breathers was only warm to the touch and likewise, the stock Sedan DeVille exhaust manifolds were far from being heat soaked. The flash point of motor oil is simply too high for any of these heat sources to cause ignition. I’d have run it again but the wounded piston caused a miss and I was disgusted. We loaded the wounded Bad Seed on the trailer and brought it home to my place in El Monte.
In the end, the Bad Seed Chevette issue (April 2000) turned out to be a news stand bomb. The sell-through number was roughly 33-percent (compared to the 35 to 44-percent showing of a typical issue). You have to remember that the cover image of any magazine is the most influential element in making – or losing – a sale. I had plans for an overhead picture of the car, pirouetting wildly in a series of tight donuts. But the expense of renting a crane and lighting was too much for the monthly budget. As it was, the Bad Seed’s intimate engine-driver arrangement forced the rental of a fully-staffed ambulance to whisk me away for reconstruction if something went bad during magazine test sessions at L.A.C.R. / Palmdale. Had it not been for this additional $1,000 safety expense, perhaps more resources could have been made available for a more artistic – and compelling – cover shot.
Despite the meager setup, Gray Baskerville did his best to capture the nutty spirit of the Bad Seed, aiming his camera at the nose of the contraption emerging from a cloud of tire smoke with me at the controls, gazing through a bird shit smeared windshield. With fingers crossed, the cover design was approved by management and sent off to the printers for execution. Again, the news stand result wasn’t good. But it took several weeks for us to learn that sad fact.
In the meantime, the car was responsible for over 50 reader letters – with supporters outnumbering detractors by 10-to-1. But reader letters are a funny thing. More often than not, it is the vocal minority that tends to speak up. Meanwhile the silent majority pay the bills. Catering to a vocal few is risky business. But more significantly, the Bad Seed’s detractors included many advertisers and in-house corporate decision makers who felt the fast-for-cheap concept went a bit too far. In some camps, there was a sense that we were shaming Hot Rod’s legacy and reputation with such juvenile and crude antics. Perhaps. But let’s remember, it was the April 2000 issue, and April Fools pranks have long been part of the magazine trade.
After the Caddy 500 puked on that cold November evening, I lost interest and let it sit outdoors in my yard for ten months. I had my hands full with a series of projects like a nitrous-fed Slant Six Duster and three altered wheelbase creations. All the while, I knew the Bad Seed deserved a happy fate but was equally aware that it’d never be street legal in California (where V8 engine swaps are deal-killers). As for weekend drag strip use, I toyed with the idea of fabricating a quickie engine housing and firewall to get it past drag strip tech inspectors but somehow felt the entire premise of the car would be lost with the engine caged. So it continued to sit.
Long story short, I got the Bad Seed running again in 2004 and traded it to a buddy named Steve Benoit in exchange for rebuilding the 727 Torqueflite in my Stage V Hemi powered ’67 Dart. Steve is one of the guys from Bob Mosher’s Mopar Super Stock clone factory in Monrovia, CA. Though Steve had plans to make it legal for weekend bracket racing, it ended up in the hands of an unknown (at least to me) collector who brought it to the recent Hot Rod Homecoming at Pomona. Oddly, I have yet to communicate with the present owner but would be happy to talk any time. So there it is, the story of the Bad Seed Caddy 500 powered Chevette, one of the more infamous magazine project cars of recent times. Now you know the whole story! – Steve Magnante