News flash: Even if you hide your trailer back at the hotel and cruise two blocks to the fairground, no one actually believes that your show car is a real driver. The nipples on the tire tread, bug-free radiator core, and trickle charger stashed in the trunk are dead giveaways. Interestingly, conversations during photo shoots usually involve a car owner bragging about how he drives his car cross-country, leading the photographer to suggest a great photo location down the street, followed by the car owner busting out an enclosed trailer for the half-mile trip.
This might explain why our man Robert McGaffin was taken aback when owner Sam Mattox braved the pothole-riddled streets of Detroit to drive his stunning 1967 Chevelle SS through a ferocious thunderstorm. “As we started getting ready to head downtown from the shop to our photo location, the photographer asked ‘Where’s the trailer?’ I told him we didn’t have a trailer, and he was stunned to see us drive the car 25 miles each way to the shoot,” Sam recalls. What makes the feat even more alarming is that the car in question is a real-deal, numbers-matching SS396 that wears all-original sheetmetal. Obviously, Sam is a no-nonsense kind of guy, a theme that permeates through every nook and cranny of his Chevelle.
Granted that Detroit isn’t the vibrant town it used to be, the car culture still runs deep. In fact, some of the most genuine and hard-core hot rodders on earth still hail from the Motor City. Although Sam’s dad wasn’t into the wrenching side of the hobby, he knew a good deal when he saw one and brought the Chevelle home in 1969. Brand loyalty clearly wasn’t an issue in the Mattox household, as Sam’s mom drove a 1969 Ford Galaxie fastback. Sam still upholds this tradition today with a 3,000-square-foot barn filled with cars ranging from a 1956 Chevy and 1969 Cougar to a 1966 GTO and 1971 Dodge Warlock truck.
That’s a lot of cool toys for any one man to have, but as a car that’s been in the family for nearly 50 years, the Chevelle represents more than just another project car. When Sam assumed possession of the Chevelle in the late ’90s, the ultimate ceiling for the long-neglected A-body seemed quite low. “My brother got the car from my dad in the ’80s to restore, and after taking it all apart he never really did anything with it. The car sat completely disassembled until 1997, when I literally picked up all the pieces and decided to put it back together,” Sam recollects.
After getting the Chevelle back on the road, Sam happily logged lots of miles on the 396 big-block for several years. Recognizing how rare the original 41,000-mile car had become, Sam crated up the 396 one day and replaced it with a Chevrolet Performance 454 crate engine. The straight-out-of-the-box engine combo inhales through a set of rectangle-port cylinder heads and an Edelbrock intake manifold, and exhales through Diamond Fabrication 1.875-inch headers and dual 3-inch MagnaFlow mufflers. To improve streetability and fuel mileage, Sam installed an Edelbrock Pro-Flo EFI system. A testament to the durability of good ol’ Bow Tie engineering, the original TH400 transmission and 12-bolt rearend are still getting the job done.
By the time 2012 rolled around, Sam wanted to update the suspension and spray the body panels with a quickie paintjob. Obviously, things didn’t exactly go as planned. “I was originally going to swap out the springs and shocks, but my friends at Diamond Fabrication talked me into upgrading the entire suspension,” says Sam. Tweaks included new Global West control arms, QA1 coilovers, Flaming River steering box, and Wilwood 13-inch disc brakes. To complement the car’s aggressive stance, Sam finished things off with Billet Specialties Spline wheels measuring 18x9 up front and 20x10 in the rear. BFGoodrich rubber provides the stick.
With the suspension work complete, the project that Sam thought was coming to a close was actually just beginning. “The guys and Diamond Fabrication talked me into completely restoring the car, so we shipped it off to Cuzie Customs for the paint and bodywork. I’m glad they did, because I don’t think I would have been happy without the work they performed on the car,” Sam explains. “Cuzie Customs straightened up the body, closed up the panel gaps to 5 mils, then sprayed it all with a fresh coat of paint. At this point, the original interior looked great, but it didn’t match the quality of the rest of the car anymore. Fortunately, Jim Dunn from Reincarnation stepped in to help. I wanted to improve the quality and feel of the interior but retain the factory look. To accomplish this, Jim installed new leather and carbon-fiber inserts everywhere, along with a new Dakota Digital dash.”
Not surprisingly, Sam has piled on the miles since finishing the Chevelle’s latest restoration, and he even lets his kids borrow the car from time to time. Being the great son that he is, Sam offered to give the car back to his dad. Being the great dad that he is, his old man recognized all the hard work Sam put into it and refused to take it back. “The best part about having restored the Chevelle to this level is that my father is still around to see it,” says Sam.
Granted that the Chevelle isn’t a show car, but for obvious reasons, it can hold its own on the show-and-shine circuit. It won First Place in its class at the 2013 Detroit Autorama, which is certainly no small feat. Unlike the majority of cars it competed against, however, Sam didn’t haul it there in a trailer. “These cars are built to enjoy, not look at,” Sam opines. “I have friends that won’t even let you get near their cars. If you can’t drive them, I don’t see the point in building them.”