Once in a while we come across a Chevrolet project that really jumps up and grabs our attention. It's got pizzazz, guts, a measure of excess mixed with function. And, usually, dares to be just a little bit different than all of the other nice rides we see. There doesn't seem to be a regular prescription or ingredient for this type of creation, other than possibly being what it is at just the right time and the right place. But whatever can be ascertained about its allure, one thing's for certain, it gives the majority of those who experience it the same feeling. That's what the Hotchkis Performance LS1-powered '71 Camaro has done--it's cast a spell that won't soon go away.
How did this orange-with-white-stripes beauty come into existence? Like a perfect flower, one might think that it simply was a fluke of nature, created by the car gods years ago and hidden away in some nuclear safehouse. The truth, however, is much less dramatic: John Hotchkis had a vision and wanted to see it through. With the experience of his company--Hotchkis Performance--and the backing of many top aftermarket firms (plus the promise of editorial coverage from SUPER CHEVY magazine), he and his team of R&D engineers set out to create a machine with the perfect mix of nostalgia, brute strength, nimbleness, finesse, and modern technology. And, with that agenda fully in focus, the result is just that: the seamless marriage of old and new.
Sure, we've seen a good share of stellar rides that have combined high-tech with classic construction. And, by no means intending to diminish their impact, they represent a growing trend. But the Hotchkis Camaro will serve to heighten the bar of excellence.
IN THE BEGINNING
As already noted, the Camaro was the brainchild of John Hotchkis. His goal was to build a machine that would look good, with performance on the cutting edge in the handling, acceleration, braking, and comfort departments. And, from a marketing perspective, showcase in all its glory, the overall creation with his company's new line of road-hugging suspension components that were designed on the car before it graduated to project status.
From the onset, the car was dubbed F-71. And, as many projects are, it was created from a no-frills, inexpensive driver. Paul Yniguez, one of Hotchkis' R&D engineers, located the donor car after a painstaking search essentially brought him full circle: the '71 RS model, with a 350/350 engine/trans combo, was literally found next door to the Hotchkis facility. After the regular line of suspension goodies were perfected (these included sway bars, coil springs, leaf springs, and shocks), the search for contributing sponsors was on. With time ticking away (it was early March last year and one goal for John and crew was to display their concept at the SEMA extravaganza, which took place in November), they were able to enlist the services and product donation from a virtual Who's Who of the performance industry.
GM Performance felt the car needed its latest high-tech wonder: a Corvette-inspired all-aluminum LS1 powerplant with matching T56 six-speed transmission was plucked before it could be dropped in a '00 Vette.
Facing 16-hour days with no reprieve, even on the weekends, the crew tore most of the stock parts from the basically straight body and set about installing the new components. The LS1/T56 install was a challenge, as were the requisite A/C climate control systems.
Correctly installing the Vette engine and tranny required some massaging of the stock subframe. To improve weight bias, the engine was positioned as far back and low as possible without repositioning the firewall. The subframe, which had all the seams welded, required notching to provide clearance for the low-mounted alternator and A/C compressor. Strengthening was also an issue, and reinforcement connectors were added to the lower portion of the subframe. When finished, the LS1 resided 2 inches further back than it does in a stock '00 Camaro.
Detailing was another element that was important to "Team Hotchkis." All parts were either painted or powdercoated to preserve and display the intricacy with which they were installed.
The LS1, which by this time had been accepted as a viable replacement powerplant for select high-end custom applications such as street rods, did, however, require a significant degree of preparation to work in the Camaro. At that point, there had been no previous installations into a Second-Generation F-Body. GM Performance gurus Gary Penn and Walt Campbell were instrumental in getting the parts and pieces necessary for the entire swap (things such as the electric fan and accessory drive system) while high-tech wizard Mark McPhail from GM Racing worked his magic on the temperamental computer system, even to the degree of personalizing the engine ID code so it read "Hotchkis."
SWEATING THE DETAILS
When sailing in uncharted waters, one has to expect deviations from the original plan. When it got to the point of working with the fuel system, the wind began to blow in a circular direction, requiring more modifications than would have been necessary if they had simply installed an aftermarket fuel cell.
On paper, the plan was to purchase a plastic gas tank intended for a Fourth-Gen Camaro, replete with the fuel pump in place, then mount it, plumb the lines, and be ready to move on. In retrospect, it would have been much easier to fit a fuel cell and plumb it with steel braided lines. In order to properly fit the plastic tank, the trunk floor had to be removed and a new one was fabricated in its place, with stainless steel straps created to secure the new tank down. Then there was the wiring situation. The in-tank pump featured four wires, a special design GM connector plug and the wiring harness had two bare wires. To make everything hook up correctly, the fuel pump was wired directly to the computer and Team Hotchkis went through three $90-a-piece oxygen sensors before finding the correct plug and cutting it off so it could be used in the wiring system.
From there, the special fuel lines required for the transplant had to be fabricated using plastic line from Ford (GM didn't offer bare plastic OEM fuel line at the time) coupled with push fittings that were removed from various pre-made GM lines. When completed, the plastic hoses received a stainless mesh sleeve from Goodridge for protection.
Rounding out the trunk area of the Camaro was an Optima battery, wired into the car's electrical system with special cable from Tsunami Wiring.
PUMPING UP THE BASICS
While the high-tech end of the project may have required a degree in automotive and electrical engineering, there was still plenty of basic car-crafting skill involved when it came to upgrading some of the areas more usually associated with construction of a classic cruiser.
For instance, the interior, which featured restoration parts from Classic Industries, wiring harnesses from Painless Wiring, insulation and sound-deadening material from Dynamat, as well as climate control unit from Vintage Air, had its dash, console, and door panels replaced with new units fabricated in-house from sheets of aluminum. To give them a cool look, they were shipped off to Santa Fe Enameling to be powdercoated gloss silver, rather than simply polished (which would require more upkeep in the long run). Industry standard Auto Meter gauges were used exclusively and a slice of Italy even found its way into the cabin by virtue of a Momo steering wheel and shifter knob.
To round out the interior comforts, Jesses Upholstery dressed the Corbeau seats in a durable light-black cloth and positioned them on insulated floorboards covered with carpet from ACC.
When it came to finding small items that have long since been eliminated from the Chevy parts catalog, the folks at Memory Lane chipped in to make sure that certain things remained as original as possible (i.e.: door locks, bumper brackets, and the like).
As mentioned earlier, the suspension received the complete Hotchkis treatment with coils, leafs, and bars leaving it with an awesome stance and the ability--with the additional help from Energy Suspension's polyurethane bushings--to cut through the canyon in a breeze. Bilstein shocks were installed to dampen the lowered ride and a Lee 12.7:1 quick-ratio steering box makes short order of the effort required to get the massive Yokohama's (275-40x17, front, 315-35x17 out back) to turn. American Racing Torque Thrust Two wheels have plenty of window space to vent (and allow to be seen) the massive Baer Racing cross-drilled rotors and aluminum binders (13-inch rotors in front, 12-inch units at the rear). Taking the brute force from the potent LS1 is a stout 9-inch rearend furnished by Currie Enterprises complete with stump-pulling 4.10:1 cogs mated to a Traction Lok carrier.
The intent of the car was to be an all-around performer--which meant it had to have the perfect combination of power, comfort, cornering agility, and stopping ability--but it also needed a level of reliability to keep all of the systems up to the task. That's where Team Hotchkis' meticulous attention to detail really shines. All of the loose ends that often plague project cars were addressed. Wire connections were installed perfectly and all fasteners used were of the highest quality. Rubber molding was replaced, warped plastic amenities were swapped, there was even a trick set of extra bright A.P.C. H4 headlights installed for trouble-free night cruising.
Even underhood non essentials were kept to a minimum. Stock exhaust manifolds are used in place of tubular headers which exit through cool sounding, yet not-too-big, 2 1/2-inch Flowmaster mufflers. On the top side, a custom air intake with K&N filter were employed to make sure the LS1 has no breathing problems. Again for reliability, MSD plug wires were laced away from potential hazards such as exhaust and linkage interference, Red Line synthetic engine oil was used in the LS1's crankcase, and a sure-handed B&M Ripper six-speed shifter was mated to the Pontiac Historic Services-supplied T56 providing a positive feel when rowing through the gears.
FROM A VISUAL PERSPECTIVE
When we check out potential feature cars, usually the first thing that draws our attention is the way the car looks. But when it comes to making a final decree as to whether the vehicle finds its way into these pages, the determining factor is more often than not the level of detail the car has been built to. Since Hotchkis' F-71 is a work of art from the inside out, the final appearance was one area that was given a lot of consideration.
It was determined that keeping it simple, yet clean, was the best approach. And that's where Sal Perez at American Muscle Cars (yes, the same Camaro expert that painted our Project Silver Streak Third-Gen giveaway car) rose to the occasion. While the body was in pretty good shape and didn't require a major overhaul, prepping it for color was still a time-consuming task. Once the outer skin was in perfect shape, only four elements were employed to reach Hotchkis' visual goal: A steel cowl induction hood from Goodmark was chosen; simple stock-appearing front and rear spoilers were installed; a mix of modern and classic tires and wheels were mounted; and the color--consisting of a custom tangerine two-stage paint from PPG Industries with brilliant white racing stripes--was applied and brought to a super-smooth, glass-like finish. The result: a perfect combo of early muscle car and modern road race performance.
THE FINAL WRAP
From start to finish, the Hotchkis' F-71 took roughly 30 days to assemble. But that doesn't begin to describe the amount of work and camaraderie that it took to plan out and implement this project. Orchestrating the harmony between the engineers who created the blueprint, the companies providing the components, and the craftsman assembling it all together was an enormous task. Team Hotchkis deserves many kudos in making this groundbreaking project come to fruition. But, like all of us, they are car guys and the satisfaction of seeing the hot rod hit the road is more than enough to make them feel proud.
Today, after a busy schedule during the last half of 2000 where it made numerous appearances at car shows, club events, and a few major cruises, the car is still as hot as ever and is even driven daily. For us, it was often a tough ride keeping up with Hotchkis' fast track approach to getting the car finished. But in the end run, it was a project we were proud to be part of, and won't ever forget.