The romance of the open road. Freedom. The adventure that lies beyond the borders of our hometowns. Somewhere inside every last one of us is a prisoner waiting to break free of the daily grind. That's part of the hook that draws us to cars in the first place. What will we see? Who will we meet? What will happen?
This is how memories are made.
Unfortunately, in today's fast-paced world, we often forget this. Modern cars like the Camaro SS or Corvette can whisk us from place to place at ultra high speeds while in comfort that would have been unimaginable in a high-performance car of the '60s. You can cruise for hours at 130 mph in air-conditioned, leather-swaddled luxury, all while your overdrive trans keeps the rpm relatively low and the fuel economy reasonable. You can travel thousands of miles, yet somehow never experience anything more satisfying than watching the mile markers pass.
We wanted to change that. Old movies like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop sucked us in as adolescents. They romanticized the thrill of the open road. Whenever we hear classic songs like "Born To Be Wild," "I Get Around," or "Born To Run," we shove the throttle to the floor. But typically that is only in short bursts. Your authors yearned to experience the excitement of a long journey in an old muscle car. We are both tried-and-true road warriors, and have taken Homeric jaunts in old big-block brutes, but that was years ago when both we and the Detroit iron were a lot younger. We could recite dialog from our favorite car movies, sing every line of our favorite cruising tunes, and remember where we were when we first heard them, but time, family obligations and the endless drudgery of daily living had kept us from breaking out the mean machines for an epic trip. This was about to change.
The completion of the mechanical phase of our SS509 Nova project afforded us that opportunity. The Nova was purchased and built in South Jersey, but we decided to drive it to Super Chevy's home base in Tampa rather than put it on a car carrier or trailer. Nowadays, hot rods and classics are usually relegated to secondary driver duty—local shows or fair-weather cruise nights. Maybe even a drag strip pass or three. Some may take them for highway rides if a show's not too far away, but people are more likely to trailer them any great distance.
Not for us. Not this time. It was Two-Lane Blacktop, 2013.
When we began our project a few years ago, the idea was to create a car that did one thing really well—accelerate—while maintaining OK street manners on a diet of pump gas. The X-body was a legit SS350 four-speed car, but by the time Editor Jim Campisano acquired it, the previous owner had set it up for Rat power. He ran it with a 396, Turbo 350 and the original 10-bolt. Jim got it sans powerplant, but it was mini-tubbed, had a 20-gallon fuel cell, drag radials, a dash full of Auto Meter gauges, and a host of other upgrades. Over the last three years, we added a 669-horse 509, Performance Automatic Turbo 400, and Currie 9-inch rear with 3.70:1 gears.
The direction of the project changed before the 509 install, when we decided to put in a Total Cost Involved front clip. Designed for optimal street driving and handling, we liked the idea of adding rack-and-pinion steering to the Nova, as well as taking some 100-plus pounds off the nose. The 509 is a monstrously heavy piece, even with aluminum heads, so we didn't mind the extra work. (OK, maybe co-author Dan Foley did since he performed 90-percent of the job.) Though we traded some drag racing prowess, the car's street behavior was so vastly improved over stock we never looked back.
The plan was to motor south and meet up at the Richmond Super Chevy Show at Virginia Motorsports Park. Logistics dictated that Dan made the first leg of the journey by himself. Editor Jim would meet him there. We'd display the car in the magazine's subscription booth, perhaps even lead the True Street road tour and make an exhibition pass or two.
Part 1: New Jersey To Richmond
As told by Dan Foley: Being a tech-nut, I realized this 1,100-mile journey would prove the durability of all the components we used, abused, dyno and strip tested. Though it was a solo drive for the first leg of the trip from the Jersey Pine Barrens to Virginia Motorsports Park, it was a beautiful, uneventful ride. I rose early and hit the rode at 4 a.m. The stillness and the darkness of the Pine Barrens set a classic tone for the trip. It was me, the stereo, and the roar of the 509, with the mythical Jersey Devil riding shotgun.
I had two choices when it came to mapping out the route. I could have taken the Garden State Parkway southbound to its terminus in Cape May. Then I would hop the ferry to Delaware and drive to Virginia. Fear of missing the ferry if something unforeseen happened, though, made cutting across Jersey, then heading south over the Delaware Memorial Bridge seem like the safer route. We had faith in the car, but you never know.
This worked out fine until I got into northern Virginia. Is there ever a time when the roads here are not backed up for miles? The 509 started guzzling $4 a gallon premium like a frat boy at a keg party. Before the trip, I had leaned the carb out a bit with the air bleeds in the hope of improving fuel economy. But the Nova gets zero miles per gallon when it's not moving, and only improved to the mid 8s when traffic was flowing. This was a far cry from the 10-12 mpg I thought I'd get, but there was no turning back. I ended up making three fuel stops between Jersey and Virginia, the last just before I got to the track. This kept us from having to fill up before we departed the next morning.
With rain in the forecast, I coated the windshield with Rain-X, cleaned and reinstalled the wipers, and equipped the new Weld RTS wheels with a fresh set of Nitto 555 Drag Radials (325/50R15). The Nittos are a full-treaded street tire and we'd really put them to the test during this journey. It rained early and often after I left New Jersey, but I never felt the car hydroplane even a bit. The Nittos acted like normal street tires the whole way. Not bad for 13-inch wide rollers that enabled us to run 10.47 with a 1.46 60-ft time in the quarter-mile!
I pulled into VMP at around noon. The pro show had just run, and the skies opened up again. Editor Campy directed me to the SC booth. The timing was great. The spectators were running for cover under the grandstand, which was where our booth was. As I backed the Nova into position, the show-goers came out from under cover to get a good look at our project car. Jim had done a nice job a few minutes earlier of hyping the car and our trip over the P.A. with the track announcer. Once I showed up, so did the gawkers. Hearing all the positive feedback from the readers about the car and our journey was a real ego boost. They were stoked that we drove the car all the way from Jersey on drag radials without overdrive or A/C—and in the rain! So far, so good.
Part 2: Virginia To Tampa
As told by Jim Campisano: We woke up to some serious fog and light misting rain on our Sunday departure day, but there was nothing that was going to stop us. After getting a couple of coffees to go, we hit Route 1 south from Dinwiddie. We saluted Virginia Motorsports Park as we drove by and enjoyed the road as it wound through the countryside. After an hour or so, we cut east across Route 40 to I-95. We were both still a little groggy when a bird committed suicide by flying directly into the path of our speeding Nova. Neither of us saw it, but we sure heard the loud bang as it hit the grille. The explosion of feathers was a dead giveaway.
As Jackie Gleason said in Smokey & The Bandit, "That was an attention getter!"
Now fully awake, we made our first gas stop at a country Sunoco station. Not only did we top the fuel cell with 93-octane, but sampled perhaps the best homemade sausage and egg biscuit ever. It was also here we learned the $590 million Powerball jackpot went to a single winner in Hillsborough County, Florida—just where Circle Track magazine editor and Powerball partner Rob Fisher was supposed to buy our weekly ticket the day before. Geez, if ever I needed "correct, matching numbers," this was it.
We checked the oil, ATF, etc., and as it had been since Dan left Jersey, everything was still full. After our quick break, we hit the road, visions of a new Powerball-fueled car collection dancing in my head. We were happy to see the drones were still sleeping in. The interstate was pretty much ours and ours alone. Despite the fact the car was mechanically perfect, we never calibrated the Auto Meter speedometer, so it read exactly zero the whole trip. No speedo? No problem! We dialed up the free Speed Box iPhone app I'd downloaded a while back. It uses a GPS signal to give you your exact speed, and there's even an odometer.
Naturally, the rain followed us on and off for most of the roll south. Could have lived without that. The once-shiny Nova and Weld wheels were becoming a mess. We were also dismayed by the lack of cool cars on there. Except for a fifth-gen Camaro once in a while and a late-model Vette or two, the trip was depressingly short of eye candy. Where's Warren Oates and that GTO from the film?
As we motored on down I-95, we planned at some point to exit and hit more of the scenic back roads through the Carolinas. But a funny thing happened along the way. Suddenly the trip became less and less about seeing the countryside and enjoying some twisting-turning back roads, and more about two old friends enjoying a common bond. North Carolina turned to South Carolina, then to Georgia, and we just kept B.S.ing, finding different driving tunes on the iPod (which we played through the car stereo), popping in different CDs, and, in general, just having a heck of a time.
It'd been over four years since I moved from the Garden State, and while you can keep in touch with family and friends via email, Facebook, telephones, etc., there's really no substitute to seeing people in person. I met Dan in 1991 when I was photographing his '67 Dodge R/T for MuscleCars magazine. I bought an old winter beater from him shortly thereafter, and we've been friends ever since. Anytime you can buy a used car from someone and become lifelong buddies, well, it tells you a lot about the person you bought it from.
We hit Daytona just around dinnertime (which coincided with our 41st or 50th fuel stop), so we took pictures outside the Speedway. Finally, the sun was out. We were going to hit either the local Hooters or Wing House (a Hooters-type breastaurant), but we were only a few hours from our destination, and frankly, neither of us wanted to stop. Except for its insatiable appetite for premium, the Nova behaved like a champ. Rolling with the windows up most of the trip, there was absolutely no wind noise in the car. The kick panel vents kept us relatively cool, and the sound of the 3-inch exhaust wasn't unbearable, despite the fact that we cruised at around 3,500 rpm most of the time.
Realistically, we filled up eight times between Virginia and Tampa—shades of 1969—but never really let the fuel cell go below a quarter of a tank. Just an old habit. You never knew when you'd hit unexpected traffic and that could've emptied the tank faster than a hole in it. Our mpg for the journey came in at a low of 8.1 mpg and a high of 9.1. Given how flat the SS bucket seats were, the fuel stops gave us a good excuse to stop and stretch our legs. All things considered, I don't think the mpg for a 509-inch, 10-second Nova that weighed over two-tons loaded is all that bad.
We finally pulled into my driveway 15 hours and 15 minutes after we began our odyssey. Seeing the Nova in my driveway for the first time was an absolute rush. The reaction on my kids' faces was priceless. Rattling the neighbors' windows the next morning when I fired it up was worth every penny I've spent on it.
I may not have seen the whole U.S.A. in my Chevrolet, but I had a fine time seeing what I did. I hope this story serves as an inspiration to everyone who has an old car and has been thinking of taking it for little—or not so little—spin.
(For more on our journey, check out the blogs section of superchevy.com).