(Words and photos by Steve Magnante) – It has been over a decade since the April 2000 issue of Hot Rod magazine appeared on newsstands across the nation. The main image depicted an austere white Chevy Chevette Scooter riding on skinny front tires and plain steel rims – emerging from a dense cloud of tire smoke. Only a magnifying glass would reveal the subtle 8.2 Liter emblem affixed to the lower – right quadrant of the car’s cheap plastic grille. There was no hood scoop, chrome plated blower, splashy paint graphics or massive rear tires, only a bright red cover blurb that read “11 Seconds for $2,000 Fast! & Cheap! Editors Go Insane!” The Bad Seed Caddy 500 powered Chevy Chevette had arrived. It was also the first Hot Rod cover car with bird shit on the windshield. And that’s significant.
The story really begins over three years earlier, on Thursday, August 14, 1997. That’s when I got home after a typical day of oily work as a machinist at Stage V Engineering, a leading maker of aftermarket cylinder head and valve gear components for 426 Hemi applications. As I opened the door to my humble cottage at 11846 Cherrylee Drive in El Monte, California, I noticed the phone answering machine light was blinking. I pushed “play” and it was the voice of Ro McGonegal, editor of Hot Rod magazine asking me if I’d be interested in a job as Technical Editor. He’d seen some of my writing in Drag Racing Monthly magazine and thought I’d make a good addition to his staff. Also, since Ro and Drag Racing Monthly editor Steve Collison were long time pals from their days together at Car Craft magazine in the Seventies, I’d guess Collison’s endorsement of my writing was a major factor in prompting Ro to call. I was flattered and terrified at once.
Wasting no time, I had an interview the following Monday at the Petersen Building on Wilshire Blvd. on the border of Beverly Hills. I remember connecting well with Ro, but I could sense that Hot Rod magazine publisher Jim Savas was a little iffy about me. Though I got to know Jim later as a good guy, his intense style was a bit intimidating to me and I had a hard time maintaining eye contact with this towering, dynamic figure. Of course it didn’t help that I showed up at the interview wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers. The only suit I owned was covered in dust and cobwebs and I kind of figured “if they don’t like me in a T-shirt, I’m probably not going to fit in anyway”.
But Ro was the decision maker and on Tuesday, August 19, 1997 he left another message on my answering machine saying “You’re hired, my man” and gave me my first story assignment – a review of the aftermarket EFI conversion kits that were juuuust coming onto the scene. At the time I was absolutely stunned at how quickly this all happened. It was the realization of a childhood dream.
But I also had deep reservations. I was scared. Sure, I’d already been working for 5 years as a magazine writer for Chrysler Power, Mopar Action and Drag Racing Monthly, but that was all as a free-lancer. The Hot Rod gig was a whole different thing. I’d have my own office on the 10th floor of the Petersen building at 6420 Wilshire Blvd. and be part of the mighty Petersen empire (though on its last legs as a super power of the publishing world, having just been sold to a Chicago-based investment group in 1997). It was a mind blower and I had some insecurities about this heady new direction my career was about to take. But Ro made it clear, “make yourself comfortable, there is no dress code”.
Another factor must be considered. In 1997, I was 33 years old, and had been reading car magazines since about 1972 when I found a stack of “old” back issues of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Hot Rod, Car Craft, Hi-Performance CARS and Super Stock & FX in a neighbor’s garage. From that early start, I quickly began collecting vintage car magazines and got to know the legacy of each particular title pretty well. From Road & Track to Car Life, I was a student not just of the auto industry – but also of the writers who filled the pages of the car magazines (with Roger Huntington being my favorite).
To be truthful, in 1997 my opinion of Hot Rod was that its best issues were printed between 1948 and 1972. When the title started covering vans, dune buggies, fuel economy tricks and CB radios, I tuned out. To be fair, Detroit performance was in the doldrums after 1972 and the professional drag scene was becoming increasingly formulaic, so Hot Rod editors made do with whatever they found. By the way, even though I wasn’t personally thrilled by what I saw in those more modern issues of Hot Rod, circulation numbers were very healthy and business was good during the Seventies and Eighties – the lesson for me was not to let my personal biases cloud my ability to see that “normal” people might like different things.
Still, the later stuff left me kind of cold and like so many former Hot Rod subscribers (I had my first subscription in 1979 when I was 15) my eyes were drawn to the niche-titles that began eroding the traditional Hot Rod reader base around 1980. Magazines like Car Exchange, Popular and Performance Car Review (now Muscle Car Review), Super Ford, Super Chevy, the Argus Muscle Car one-shots and Steve Schneider’s numerous Hackensack, New Jersey-based CSK Publishing titles; Cars Illustrated, High Performance Pontiac and High Performance Mopar got my attention – and news stand dollars.
And so all through the Eighties I paid only passing attention to Hot Rod, quickly leafing through each month’s issue during my trips to the magazine stand but only buying occasionally. So when I got Ro’s call on that fateful August day in 1997 I sort of figured I’d last a year before being broomed out the side door as a heretic. But when I met with Ro for my orientation, I was in for a pleasant surprise. He was on a mission to revamp Hot Rod’s image and get it away from a certain same-ness that had crept in before his arrival in September of 1996.
This is not to criticize any of the previous administrations or staffers – cranking out an A-list magazine like Hot Rod every month can sap your creative instincts quickly (I’ve fallen prey to this thing at times myself) – but Ro made it clear he wanted a fresh perspective, a more basic approach that sought to deemphasize expensive equipment and a growing sense that nothing but billet perfection would suffice. Ro wanted to bring Hot Rod back to its roots as a guide for folks wanting to improve the performance of their machines using their own hands – rather than simply paying others to do it for them. The push was also on to focus just as much on function as on form, so we were freed to include feature cars covered in primer and showing battle scars.
Now It Can Be Told
In addition to cars, I’m a military aviation buff. The original name for the Caddy / Chevette project was Natter, a nod to the German Luftwaffe rocket-powered bomber interceptor of WWII. In the end I worried it would take too much explaining to the average reader. Other dead-end pet names were Have Blue and Tacit Blue (references to F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter development airframes). In the end, we called it the Bad Seed. – Steve Magnante
This was music to my ears. I’m of the opinion that a good car shines from the inside, out. I’ve never been one for flashy paint, flawless chrome or detail for the sake of detail. I prefer a car that is solidly constructed, doesn’t pretend to be something it is not and runs faster than it should. I appreciate a good custom paint job, but not when it makes the driver too nervous to use the car for fear of getting a tiny scratch. You either own your car…or it owns you. I own my junk.
I wasn’t sure how this philosophy (which some would call laziness) would go over with the readers, but Ro agreed and gave me permission to “let my freak flag fly” as Jimi Hendrix sang. Immediately I conjured stories based on junkyard-sourced parts, zero-bling feature cars, no-nonsense performance modifications and tried to include the less popular makes and models as much as possible. I can’t say every story was a winner or a hit with every single reader, but reader mail seemed to support this low-buck, high diversity strategy was a move in the right direction.
Fortunately I was also balanced by the other staff members (Gray Baskerville, Jeff Koch and Terry McGean) who added their own special flavors to the mix. No doubt, if the entire direction of Hot Rod was altered to suit my particular tastes, it’d likely be all over within a year. I get the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that there is, indeed an ass for every seat (I know this total nut job who built an altered wheelbase Ford Fairmont…a Fairmont ferchrissake! Oh wait, that’s me). But as long as Ro gave me free reign to pitch him nutty stories, I did my best to keep them coming.
Which brings us to Friday, July 30, 1999 and the story of the Bad Seed Chevette. I had been on staff for nearly two years and so far, the broom / exit sign were nowhere to be seen. On that summer afternoon, the entire staff was hard at work on the November, 1999 issue of Hot Rod. Remember, there’s a 3 month lead time between the writing of an article and its appearance in the latest issue of the magazine. I was teamed with fellow HRM Tech Editor Terry McGean (who is now at the helm of the highly successful Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine) on a story that would be titled “Popular Swapulars” and listed the best engine / body swap combinations we could think of (see the story on Pg. 37-49 of the November, 1999 issue of HRM).
Through it all, I was haunted by the idea of stuffing a Caddy 500 into a Chevy Chevette. No, GM never conjured such a beast, but why couldn’t I? I typed up a basic review of what I wanted to do and Ro approved it for the April 2000 issue, which gave me plenty of time to pull it off, building the car at home in my back yard. In a nut shell, I wanted to combine the lightest rear wheel drive car available in the junkyard with the largest junkyard V8, the Cadillac 8.2 Litre Eldorado mill (a.k.a. the 500).
The decision to run the story in the April issue was no coincidence. It gave me the possible “out” to claim it as an April Fool’s prank. If it failed miserably I could slink away behind the April Fool’s premise, yet still give the reader something to think about when it came to power-to-weight ratios. But it didn’t fail (except on the news stand where the cover image just wasn’t compelling enough to trigger impulse buyers). Brushing aside the commercial flop, let’s now take a look at how the Bad Seed Caddy 500 Chevette came to be.
On Wednesday, December 29, 1999 Gray Baskerville snapped this burnout shot at the now-defunct LACR facility in Palmdale, CA. A mere 151 days earlier, the Bad Seed project was first approved by my Editor, Ro McGonegal and existed only on paper. This has got to be a world record for the completion of a magazine project car. These things are notoriously behind schedule. I know, I built an altered wheelbase ’63 Chevy Nova – anybody remember the Wilshire Shaker? It was supposed to be done in a year. It ended up taking six.
With an assurance from the kind folks at Ecology Auto Wrecking to donate “anything you need…as long as it’s junk” in exchange for magazine ink, I began looking for the perfect candidate. At the time (1999), there were plenty of Chevettes to be found and I could afford to be picky. I didn’t want a 4-door and on Friday, August, 20, 1999 I located the victim at Ecology Auto Wrecking’s Rialto yard. After a month of getting papers cleared (and a title in my name to clarify ownership), the Ecology Auto Parts transport truck delivered it to my home on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 18, 1999. A straight, rust-free 1980 Chevette Scooter (VIN # 1J089AAA207993) with 42,720 miles on the clock, it was a police impound victim (un-paid parking tickets).
Wasting no time, on Sunday, 9-19-99, I removed the stock 1.6 liter 4-popper and 5-speed stick and began thinking about how to mount the Caddy 500 so the car would actually function well. In hindsight, I wish I’d have held out for a 1981-up 1.8 liter Diesel Chevette, their front coil springs are significantly stiffer than the ones fitted to gas burners. The stock coils proved to be marginal with the weight of the Caddy 500. Even after the addition of screw-in spring wedges, the nose drooped – resulting in numerous scrapes on the bottom of the Caddy oil pan. I learned to ease off the gas – rather than let of abruptly – to preserve the oil pan.
Trial fitting revealed that the Caddy mill actually fits between the stock strut towers but there’s no room for exhaust manifolds. This sketch of 8-21-99 explores the possibility of mounting the engine above the shock tower obstruction – on fabricated engine mount towers. The mass of the lifted engine would have delivered a nice rearward transfer of mass upon straight line acceleration but cornering would have been terrible due to the placement of the engine so high above the natural center of gravity. The Bad Seed wasn’t meant to be a handling machine, but a more elegant solution was needed.
Taking cues from vintage exhibition funny cars, relocating the engine to be partially inside the passenger compartment alleviated the strut tower obstruction and delivered a competent plan. Of course, major firewall and floor pan surgery would be required. But with my enthusiasm for this project growing by the day, I had made up my mind. The Bad Seed wouldn’t be silly non-functional April Fool’s gag, the Hot Rod readers deserved more. Instead it’d be a competent strip machine and a demonstrator of the impact of weight distribution on traction.
Here’s a last look at the stock interior before I activated the rotary axe and nuked everything that stood in the way of the mid-mounted Caddy 500. I wonder if I’ll someday regret destroying this car…after all it was a bottom-of-the-line Scooter (note the cardboard door panels) with zero rust. But again, the SoCal junkyard scene was literally choking with these things in ’99.
A Sawz-All made quick work of the firewall, transmission tunnel and miscellaneous obstructions. I had to work fast, the Hot Rod staff was slated to leave for the first ever East Coast Power Tour the next week. I showed some of the in-process pictures to an unimpressed Mike Petralia from Chevy High Performance magazine. He responded by saying “Somebody’s got to reel you guys in”. I took it as a compliment. At the time Hot Rod was rocking many boats. But editor Ro McGonegal kept his staff insulated from critics (mostly confused Petersen advertising sales folks). The proof of the pudding was the fact Hot Rod was consistently enjoying a healthy 44% news stand sell-through rate. So Ro’s back-to-basics editorial plan was working at the reader level. That was all I cared about.
Eliminating the firewall made plenty of room for the Caddy 500 to be mounted so the carburetor was positioned right below the windshield / cowl vent. Unfortunately the stock steering column and seats fought the mid-ship engine position. Lots of additional hacking and slashing was needed before the car was ready to run. I made a conscious effort to place function over any lip service to form. All too often, projects get bogged down by some subconscious desire to attain perfection. By assuming a wartime “get it in the air” sensibility, I was freed to imagine and solve fitment problems faster.
The 1968-1976 Caddy 472/500 engine family is paradoxical. Though the #950 Eldorado heads flow better than Mopar Max Wedge castings (292-cfm @0.650 lift I and 197-cfm @ 0.550 lift E), their small diameter valve springs and delicate rocker arm pedestals limit crank speed to 5000-rpm (without aftermarket upgrades). But with 500 cubes, torque is abundant! Best of all, total weight is a mere 585-lbs, slotted right between the Chevy 350 and 454. On Friday, the 13th of August, 1999, I located a complete 1976 Caddy Coupe DeVille on death row at the Santa Fe Springs Ecology Auto Wrecking location. The windshield bore the chalked message “runs, needs gas” which I took as a sign of health. Before packing it into my Pinto for transit home, I did some on-site component swapping in the name of better power. First, the ’76 mill was fitted with Bosch EFI and big chamber 120-cc cylinder heads. So I went to a nearby 1970 Eldorado and grabbed its small-chamber 76-cc heads and low-rise, iron 4-bbl intake. The head swap boosts compression from 8.2 to 12:1 while ditching the (rare but useless) EFI manifold opened the door to the use of a cheap swap meet 4-bbl carb. One nutty observation was the fact the crankshaft flange of the 500 engine had the number 13 stamped into it – a detail I discovered on Friday the 13th. Some observers of the Bad Seed predicted disaster for my health. A more superstitious person might have been freaked by the numbers. I took it as a happy coincidence. In the end, I drove the car on dozens of occasions and never had a scare. It was a sweetheart. It only looked dangerous.
My experience with SoCal wrecking yards is that more often than not, cars are junked for reasons having nothing to do with the engine. Sure enough, opening the ’76 Caddy revealed minimal wear characteristics and no need for service.
The Caddy engine is lowered into the semi-ready Chevette engine bay for the first of many trial fits. With the entire firewall sliced away, the body shell lost a lot of torsional rigidity. With the hood closed, rocking the car side to side by hand revealed the fact the fender-to-hood gaps were “breathing” due to body flex. A simple system of tube-steel struts, welded into position at critical surgery points and a 4-point roll bar restored integrity.
With the decision to mount the engine and transmission mid-ship, upgrading the rear suspension was the next project. The Chevette was an outgrowth of the Opel / Vauxhall T-car which debuted in Brazil in 1973 with a simple 3-link, coil spring rear suspension and live rear axle. It’s simple but far too delicate to cope with the Caddy’s 500-lb/ft of torque. Tune in next time for details on the rear suspension upgrade and final assembly of the Bad Seed Chevette….the magazine project car that cured cancer, ended world famine and put a man on the Moon.
COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO OF THE TRIOLOGY….IF YOU DARE!