(Words and Photos by Steve Magnante) – 11 Seconds For $2,000 Fast & Cheap! Editors Go Insane! This is the continued story of the Bad Seed Caddy 500 powered Chevy Chevette, one of the more controversial Hot Rod magazine project cars of all time. Is that good or bad? You decide. To briefly re-cap the first part of this story, I arrived at Hot Rod magazine in late 1997. It was a time when company management was shuffling the deck in a bid to refresh the magazine’s direction. This happens every few years at any healthy magazine and serves to prevent things from getting stale for everyone involved – most importantly – for the reader.
At the controls, was Editor Ro McGonegal who added me to the staff as a Tech Editor in August of 1997 as part of a fresh group of new faces that also included Jeff Koch and Terry McGean. Magazine re-vamps are a tricky thing. The objective is to attract a new group of readers while retaining the core. Ro elected to bring the magazine “back to Earth” so to speak, by pursuing a more low-buck and hands-on vibe to the overall content. From Feature Editor Jeff Koch’s primer covered feature cars to fellow Tech Editor Terry McGean’s Junkyard Jewel series of boneyard-based engine rebuild stories, the low-fi tactic seemed to resonate well with old time readers – who frequently praised us for “returning Hot Rod to its roots” – but also managed to appeal to younger crowd as well. All the while, Gray Baskerville continued to serve as a tangible link to Hot Rod’s past, turning out a steady stream of history pieces and retrospectives.
Though I consciously made it a point to isolate myself from the management side of the magazine business and concentrate on writing compelling stories each month (my motto was: I don’t want to manage the band, I just want to play drums), I was aware that Ro’s revised direction was a success and often heard that the news stand sell-through numbers were in excess of 40%. It is worth pointing out that no monthly magazine enjoys a 100% sell-through and anything above 30% is considered decent. The unsold units are called ‘returns” and are scrapped and recycled once the new issue arrives to take their place, crazy, huh? Of course pre-paid subscription sales are the most important factor in setting advertising rates – the life blood of any magazine. Still, the sell-through rate is a potent indicator of how compelling your particular magazine stacks up with potential buyers faced with dozens of competing choices on the news stand at any given moment. So at around 40% we were doing ok.
Anyway, my role in all of this stuff was to provide my share of stories to the mix each month. By the time the staff met to plan content for the April 2000 issue of Hot Rod, I’d been on staff for two years and was generally enjoying the job. Sure, it was a stress fest every month making sure each of my 3 to 7 story assignments went off without delays, but I reveled in the task of writing interesting stuff and I thank Ro for having an open mind and accepting even my more off-the-wall concepts.
One of which was the Bad Seed Chevette, a junkyard-sourced 11-second beast that was specifically intended to deflate the notion that you had to spend a mint to go fast. Lets pick it up here with a look at how the rear suspension was configured and an overview of how the rest of the car fell together. Next time, we’ll get into the philosophy of loyalty and how I almost fired myself over it.
Credit for the Bad Seed’s rear suspension goes to Richard LaPierre of Riverdale, Georgia. A back yard builder, Richard stuffed a Chevy 4.3 liter V6 and 4-speed in his Chevette and came up with a dynamite little package. But after destroying the stock differential, he turned to a Pinto-sourced Ford 8-inch axle. I met Richard during the 1999 Hot Rod magazine East Coast Power Tour and with his consent, copied the rear suspension for the Bad Seed. This picture and caption appeared on Pg. 40 of the original Bad Seed build story in the April 2000 issue of HRM. Thanks again Richard, wherever you are!
When the Chevette first appeared on US soil in 1976, all the big car magazines gave it a ton of publicity. After all it was a huge gamble on the part of GM. The January 1976 issue of Road Test magazine had this to say about the stock Opel-derived rear suspension bits shown here in the foreground: “The rear suspension is every bit as good as the front. Opel’s short torque tube design is the standard for live axles. The torque tube takes all the driving and braking torque, two links (one on each side) provide longitudinal location, and a Panhard rod (GM calls it a track bar) locates it laterally…the short torque tube requires less jounce room, and, as a consequence, the Chevette has more rear suspension travel than any other Chevrolet passenger car, including the big Caprice”. The torque tube is intriguing and I conjured its potential as a lift-bar for traction before waking up to the fact the miniscule gears and axle shafts wouldn’t last for long behind 500 cubes.
Retracing Richard LaPierre’s footsteps, I went to Ecology Auto Wrecking’s San Pedro yard location on 11-7-99 and scored a complete 8-inch rear axle assembly from a ’77 Mustang II powered by the optional 302 V8. If you didn’t know, the Hotchkiss-type (removable center-section) 8-inch is a little brother to the legendary Ford 9-inch and is about 2/3 as strong. It is a reliable unit with as much as 350-hp as long as overall vehicle weight is moderate and an automatic transmission is used to cushion the strain. The narrowest 8-inch housing was used in V8 powered 1974-’78 Mustang II’s, and 2.8 liter V6 powered Pintos and Mercury Bobcats. At 57-inches drum-to-drum, the Mustang II / Pinto 8-inch unit is only 3-inches wider than the Chevette unit. Though the Bad Seed was a freak, I wanted to preserve a stock-ish outward appearance. This is why I shunned too-wide, but simple to adapt 9-inch axles from Ford big-car applications.
The junkyard is full of solutions if you use a bit of imagination. Rather than fabricating a set of boxed steel lower control arms, we followed the LaPierre recipe and recycled a set of rear leaf springs from a junked Ford F-150 pickup. They are not intended to serve as part of the suspension but rather act solely as locating arms to keep the axle in position under the car. Best of all, the eye-to-pin length is perfect and places the tire right in the center of the wheel opening. An acetylene torch was required since the hard spring steel wasted Sawz-All blades in seconds.
As if the junk yard gods had preordained it, the stock Chevette lower control arm mounting brackets were the perfect width for the Ford leaf spring eyes. All I had to do was ream the holes to accept the slightly larger diameter (non-Metric) thru-bolts.
In a perfect world, the Mustang II axle pads would fall into position atop the springs. But no, the Ford axle placed the axle mounts 2-inches too far outboard on each side. So we had to slice them off and start fresh. The new axle brackets were welded to the 8-inch housing to deliver a 4-degree nose-down pinion angle with the car at full weight and at rest. Ignore the Dana 60 markings, the pads were left over from another project.
The stock Chevette rear coil springs were retained and their new position happily puts them higher than stock to deliver an extra 2-inches of ride height – despite the extra load of the Caddy V8. Again, as if the whole trick was blessed by the junkyard gods, placing the coils inside the stock Chevette spring cups puts them smack-dab atop the main leaf just ahead of the axle tube. Since it is not possible to weld locating tabs or cups to spring steel, the bottom ends of the coils rely on rugged radiator hose clamps to secure them in place (not shown).
Missing only the transverse-mounted Panhard bar (see next photo) here’s the elegantly simple LaPierre 3-Link Chevette upgrade rear suspension. The axle U-bolts and shock mounting plates are from a Slant Six Dodge Dart with a 7-1/4 rear axle and work perfectly. An extra benefit of the Ford axle swap is a bump in rear brake drum size from 8×2 to 9-1/8×2.
The stock Chevette Panhard bar is essential since it is solely responsible for limiting side-to-side axle movement. My neighbor Dale “Can Do” Kutsch handled the welding. The stock Mustang II center section contained smog-dog 2.78:1 gears and an open differential. Joe Morgan installed a cheap mini-spool to ensure bite at both slicks. Knowing the stock Caddy’s stock valve springs float at about 5,200 rpm, we crutched the lame gear ratio by choosing ultra-short M/T 24.5-9.0-13 slicks from the world of front wheel drive import car drag racing. The combo worked perfectly with the Caddy turning 4,900-rpm at the finish line.
With the Chevette’s 93-inch wheelbase and radical engine setback, you run out of space for a drive shaft pretty quickly. The solution is to leave the Caddy-sourced TH400 in the junk yard because it’s 37.75 inch overall length wastes space. Instead, I grabbed a short-tail TH400 and converter from a ’75 Pontiac Grand Prix. At 27.75 inches, it’s a full 10-inches shorter than the Caddy unit but just as strong. John Kilgore’s Burbank transmission shop volunteered a quickie rebuild. The stock converter stalled at 1,200 rpm but the 2,740-lb race weight (with my pizza-munching 240-lb carcass in the seat and a full tank of gas for ballast) and excellent traction delivered non-corrected 12.335 / 107 at the high-altitude LACR race track. Corrected for altitude, that’s about an 11.90.
After swapping the stock 120-cc cylinder heads for a set of 1968-’73 heads with 76-cc chambers, the 1976 Caddy 500’s compression grew to 12:1. The stock cam was retained and a used Edelbrock 750 was bolted to the stock cast iron dual-plane intake. The Caddy 472/500 engine family checks in at 585-lbs and is only limited by its frail pedestal-mount rocker arm architecture and small-diameter valve springs. The rotating assembly is as rugged as any B-O-P 455 and the heads outflow 1962 Mopar Max wedge units! With a modest investment you can run them to 6,000-rpm and crank an easy 500-hp and 550-lb/ft of torque. A later dyno test revealed this compression-enhanced junkyard motor to be making 303-hp at 3,900-rpm and 468-lb/ft at 3,300-rpm.
Simple engine mounts were cobbled from scraps of steel plate which were bolted to the engine then set atop the Chevette’s frame rails. Simple bits of angle iron were welded to the frame with thru-bolts used to anchor the engine in place (not shown).
The Bad Seed’s transmission cross member was made from square tubing. Note the “666” inventory control number. Ooh, scary stuff kids! The drive shaft (barely visible) is from the same Mustang II that donated it’s rear axle. Irwindale driveshaft guru Randy Bryan chopped it to 23.5-inches and massaged the front yoke to suit the Turbo 400 transmission. The single Holley Raptor muffler cost $15 at Pep Boys and was chosen for its compact size. It‘s fed by the stock cast iron exhaust manifolds and Coupe DeVille 2-1/2-inch Y-pipe. Sure, headers would have been much more potent – and costly. The single exhaust was done as a goof but also to protect my hearing. The initial plan was to “evolve” the Bad Seed in subsequent magazine stories and get it into the tens. As it was, the car sounded like a lazy motorboat at idle but with some extra snap thanks to the 12:1 compression ratio.
This simple but effective square tube cross member restored the integrity of the upper cowl region. Not shown is a genuine Chevette Scooter plastic radio delete plate I affixed to this cross member later. Below it was the motto: “Hang the DJ”.
Improvised sub frame connecters were located inside the car since ground clearance beneath the floor pan was extremely limited. Chassis fabricator Dale Kutsch employed triangulation where possible to enhance not only beam-strength, but also torsional rigidity. In this picture, the floor pan hasn’t yet been fully trimmed for exhaust head pipe clearance.
Another simple steel reinforcement was positioned between the front spring towers. It’s bolted rather than welded to ease engine installation / removal. The entire Chevette front suspension – including coil springs, shocks, brakes, steering rack and front wheels. – was inspected for safe function and retained without any modifications whatsoever. Looking back, I wish I’d have been able to score some thicker diesel-spec front coil springs for an extra inch of ground clearance. Normal driving yielded about 3-inches between the Caddy’s (stock depth) oil pan and road surface. But if I launched hard – then abruptly let off the gas – the nose would settle and tap the pan. The trick was to let off the gas gently.
To me, this is what hot rodding is all about…making something out of nothing. In a nifty bit of creativity, fabricator Dale Kutsch whipped up this master cylinder / brake pedal arrangement reusing the stock Chevette parts.
When it comes to engine cooling, radiator size isn’t as important as efficiency. Since we were in a rush to get the car done for the story deadline I cheated and borrowed the high-zoot Griffin aluminum unit from my Wilshire Shaker altered wheelbase ‘63 Nova. Patterned (loosely) after a 1965 Ford A/FX Mustang unit, its high capacity 2-row, oval-tube core kept the Nova’s Hilborn injected 502 cool despite its compact 17×16 dimensions. That said, I am certain that the Chevette radiator assembly (shown) would be up to the task of cooling the 12:1 Caddy 500 as long as a modern high efficiency core was installed. Because the Caddy’s stock mechanical fan would have been two feet away from the radiator core, a Flex-A-Lite Black Max 150 electric fan was installed to keep the air moving.
The trunk mounted battery was enclosed in a 1969 Dodge A100 van battery box and kept charged by the stock Caddy alternator. The eight-point roll bar cost $170.00 and was custom made for the project by Competition Engineering (which doesn’t charge extra to make one-off stuff to your specs). The main hoop was 38-inches tall, 47-inches wide at the base and 37-inches wide at the top – in case you’re taking notes and want to build your own version of this car. The hoop kit added 105-pounds but was a mandatory item from a safety and (mostly) strength standpoint.
The completed car never failed to pull genuine fits of laughter from surprised onlookers. Truth be told, anybody who’d be scared to drive it should definitely stay away from a motorcycle. An engine mounted between your legs, five gallons of gasoline under your chin? No Thanks! But seriously, danger is in the eye of the beholder. The only nightmare scenario that worried me was a barrel roll crash at the finish line. If that Caddy broke loose from its mounts, chances are I’d be in a world of hurt as it bashed around inside the car with me. But I designed and cobbled the steel plate motor mounts myself and everything turned out just fine. Not shown here – but of critical importance – are the Simpson five-point safety harness, one-piece fire suit and helmet I wore during track testing.
Thanks to the engine setback, the scales at the (now defunct) Frank Hawley / Ray Evernham Race Training Center at Irwindale Raceway read 2,508-lbs (2,740-lbs. with driver). The sweet part was how the car was within 15-lbs. of having 50/50 front / rear weight distribution.
One detail I always meant to re-do was the oil filter setup. The stock layout puts the oil filter an odd angle at the right-front corner of the engine where it crashed into the Chevette steering rack. The remedy was a Trans-Dapt remote filter kit. It was effective but I always meant to replace the kit’s budget-oriented rubber hoses with something less vulnerable in case of trouble. The hoses and filter are seen to the left of the radiator in this picture.
Okay, that’s it for this installment of the Bad Seed story. Next time we’ll wrap it up with a the drag test results and an example of how thinking with my gas pedal almost cost me my dream job at Hot Rod magazine. –Steve Magnante