There's nothing subtle about the color orange. Oh sure, you've got your Burnt Orange crayon and your leaves-falling- off-the-trees dark orange, but we're talking musclecars here, and orange is a statement color. It demands your attention, screaming, "Here I am, look at me!" It's an exciting, energetic color, and when sprayed on the flanks of a hot Chevy, it's all about pulse-quickening attitude. On the other hand, viewing the color orange is said to increase the supply of oxygen to the brain, stimulating mental activity. There's plenty of evidence for both qualities to be found in Brian Panning's '69 SS 396 Chevelle, an orange rush of a ride that stirs the gearhead's primal passions, yet also appeals to the head with a carefully thought-out and skillfully executed performance package.
The place was Minneapolis, the time the early '70s, and Brian Panning was growing up a gearhead. He was the tagalong, the youngster who hung out with the older kids with the cool rides. The coolest--or at least the one Panning remembers best--would have to be a buddy's Butternut Yellow '57, which was powered by a high-revving 302 mill from a '69 Z/28. Panning's own first set of wheels turned out to be a '64 Galaxie 500 XL, though he had Chevelles on his mind. "I thought the '66-67 Chevelles were cool," he told us. "But then I saw the '69, and that was even better," he continued. It would turn out to be a long-lasting impression.
Panning joined the Marine Corps when he graduated from high school, enlisting with guaranteed training in aviation maintenance. Sure enough, the young performance enthusiast soon found himself at the now-defunct Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, California, wrenching on CH46 Sea Knight helicopters. This experience would have a huge influence on Panning's high-performance aspirations. Working on aircraft--especially the military variety--requires not just technical expertise and attention to every detail, but also the knowledge that survival depends on the work being done. "We had to do everything the right way," Panning recalls, "right down to torque striping bolts. There's no in-between." His awareness of just how high the stakes are jumped when Panning took to the air, becoming crew chief on a Sea Knight. No in-between, indeed.This attitude stuck with the civilian Panning and would play a big part as he rendered his 'Velle vision. "I didn't want an everyday Chevelle," he told us. "I wanted the ground to rumble." At the same time, however, he wanted something that was show-worthy, strip-worthy, and road-worthy. In other words, paraphrasing Mr. Panning, it had to be on the edge, but it also had to be reliable. It just goes to show you: If you're bold enough to paint your Chevelle bright orange, you may as well be bold enough to go for it all, right?
"After years of reading and research," he told us, "I wanted a high-tech, naturally aspirated big-block." This decision actually represented a change of direction for Panning, since he originally intended to go with a sprayed or blown 496 in place of the 427 mill the car came with. Part of that research came in the form of consultations with the man Panning tabbed to build his Chevelle's powerplant, Joe Jill of Anaheim, California's Superior Automotive. Jill had previously performed a successful cam/ heads swap on Panning's '94 Impala SS, and also had the ticket for this particular Chevelle. "Joe said he'd build me an engine that runs on pump gas but would really rip with full timing and race gas." He did just that, and believe us, the ground does rumble when this 800-plus-horsepower 540ci fat-block roars to life.
Of course, equipping his long-awaited Chevelle with a mondo motor was only part of the equation; Panning wanted the stamp of thoughtful engineering to show throughout his car, and he tabbed Buxton Motorsports of Laguna Hills, California. Rex Buxton has spent time on the track, time working for Chris Alston's outfit, and time building street rods. The skills gleaned from all this experience were put to good use in this Chevelle's construction, as the SS was stripped to a shell and rebuilt into an extreme--and extremely clean--performer. While Buxton put together a top-notch suspension package and stiffened the works with a custom rollcage, they also smoothed the firewall and sculpted a trick trunk compartment. "It's high-tech and show-quality," Panning concludes.
This kind of duality is evident throughout Brian Panning's '69 Chevelle. The eye-grabbing orange paint, combined with the big-block roar, commands the attention of all within eye- (or ear) shot, yet the heavy-breathing, Dart Big M-based Rat will run at 180 degrees until the fuel cell is empty. It'll easily click off mid-10-second e.t.'s, yet chassis dyno numbers of 600 hp and 613 lb-ft make this an E-ticket ride. Oh, and if light-speed ahead in a straight line isn't enough fun, Panning tells us all it takes is a swap to "regular" tires and a few minutes to install the front swaybar to turn this A-body into a bona fide corner carver. And did we leave out the comforts of A/C and a killer stereo? Then again, the sound system would have to be stout to be heard over the roar through the custom headers and 4-inch Borla-capped pipes.
We think it's a bit ironic that the work of art under the hood gets most of the attention. "The engine had to fit under the hood, though a 4-inch cowl would be all right. The Chevelle lines are so nice, I just wanted the focus on the car," Panning told us. As it turns out, that's just where the focus is. Look at the killer engine, the artful construction, or the eye-popping orange, but look you will. This Chevelle creation embodies all that its coloring implies, and there's no in-between about it. CHP