Parked at the bottom of Saginaw Bay, about 115 miles from Detroit, Bay City, Michigan doesn't have too many claims to fame. Warren Avis, the guy who founded the Avis rental car company, was from there, as was Annie Taylor--the first person credited with going over Niagara Falls in a barrel and lived. There were some professional sports players, too, but that's about it.
The Seventies' Scottish rock band Bay City Rollers reportedly took their name after throwing a dart at a map and seeing it land on the small Michigan city. That's not exactly the hard-earned, well-deserved method of having your community recognized, but it was the seventies after all. And after looking at old photos of the band, we're pretty sure the city's current residents would be fine if the band's dart had landed on the Michigan towns of Kalamazoo or Battle Creek.
So, sleepy Bay City hasn't had much to get excited about recently, but that may change now that local car nut Don Middleton and his '97 Camaro SS 30th Anniversary convertible have hit the big time in GM High-Tech Performance. His supercharged, well-detailed ragtop caught our eye last winter at the Detroit Autorama, and when the snow finally melted, we headed up to Bay City to go for a ride and shoot some photos. We met Middleton outside the entrance of his workplace, an SC Johnson plant that cranks out Ziploc bags. Yeah, they make Ziploc bags in Bay City. Who knew?
Anyhow, Middleton's Bay City roller is tugged along by a ProCharger-fed 383-cubic-inch version of the LT1 small-block, which has powered the car to a tire-spinning 11.24 ET at 127 mph. That's not bad, but a couple of weeks later he discovered shrapnel from a previous supercharger disintegration had clogged up the heat exchanger for the blower's intercooling system, preventing maximum boost from the newer F-1A head unit to be realized.
"There was melted plastic, bits of the turbine blades and other junk in there," says Middleton. "It wasn't pretty. I immediately swapped out the heat exchanger and boost went from about 4 psi to the maximum 18 pounds--and the change in performance was phenomenal."
Like many a great car to grace these pages, Middleton's Camaro project evolved from an original vision that didn't quite follow the plan. He already had a '97 Camaro SS, but wanted one of the 30th anniversary editions and found one on CamaroZ28.com. Of the 957 that were built that year, only 251 were convertibles. Interestingly, the car turned out to be one that Middleton's car lost out to in judging at the annual Camaro Superfest show. It was a rare find, for sure, and Middleton quickly made a deal. He was also enthused by its roster of modifications, including a ProCharger P-1SC blower--even though they weren't quite finished. The car originally had an automatic, but the seller had changed it over to a T56 six-speed, too.
"I was looking for a car that was more or less done," says Middleton. "I really didn't want to get into a big, expensive project--I just wanted something to drive, even if I had to finish a few details."
If this were a reality show, those would be the ironic words joined by ominous music, just before everything comes crashing down--or, in the case of this Camaro, everything blows up. While at a shop for tuning, things didn't go well and the P-1SC didn't hold itself together. Middleton came back to the table, however, and doubled down, investing in an F-1A compressor--which predictably and quite effectively had its way with the stock bottom-end. Luckily he found yet another deal on the web for a boost-ready 383 short-block that had never been used. It had all-forged internals--including lower-compression, blower-friendly SRP pistons - and the block was modified with splayed four-bolt main caps. In short, it was the perfect bottom-end to go with Middleton's fresh F-1 supercharger.
The engine was finished off with a custom grind camshaft from Advanced Induction and set of home-ported LT4 cylinder heads, which were filled with GM Performance Parts 1.6-ratio roller rockers and COMP hydraulic roller lifters with link bars. The valves are the stock 2.00-inch intake and 1.55-inch exhaust sizes. The LT4 heads mounted over the blower pistons deliver a 9.4:1 compression ratio, which is perfect for staving off detonation with pump gas.
An LT4 intake manifold capped with a Holley 58mm throttle body serves as the middleman between the blower and the heads. It was gasket-matched to the heads. The intercooled air charge mixes with fuel delivered by a pair of Walbro 255-lph in-tank fuel pumps and sent to a set of 80-pound injectors. For greater fuel control, only one of the Walbro pumps is activated during low engine speed and low-boost driving. A Hobbs switch wired into the system (with a Racetronix harness) kicks on the secondary pump when the boost hits 7 psi, enabling sufficient fuel for the engine to enjoy all 18 pounds of the ProCharger's pressurized glory.
And before we forget, we've got to mention there's also a fully functional nitrous system plumbed into the stroker small-block, adding an extra kick to the supercharged fun. It's like the "11" position on Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tuffnel's amp--for, as he put it in that classic movie, "that little extra shove over the cliff."
Middleton wasn't able to get his Camaro back on the chassis dyno before we finished our story, so we can't report on rear-wheel numbers, but given the size of the engine and capability of the supercharger system, approximately 600 horsepower seems about right--and that's without the extra hit from the nitrous system. Interestingly, the supercharged, nitrous-fed combination in Middleton's anniversary SS is still lit by the stock Optispark ignition. Don't bother with your, "Really? The Optispark with that setup?" thoughts--we've done that thinking already for you. Middleton says it performs just fine, so who are we to second-guess it? The exhaust is routed through a set of Hooker long-tubes and into custom, mandrel-bent true-dual system featuring a pair of single-chamber Flowmasters.
With the engine out of the car, Middleton decided a return to an automatic transmission would be the prudent thing for all the power the engine would channel to the rear axle, so the six-speed was swapped for a beefed-up 700-R4. It was built by Bay City's Bullit Transmissions and features a full-manual valve body and lots of heavy-duty and billet innards. It is used with a Vigilante converter with an anti-balloon plate and 3,600-stall speed; and it is connected to the stock 10-bolt via the more balanced driveshaft from an LS1 F-body. But while the rear end is stock, it features welded tubes, a stud girdle and other reinforcements. Straight-cut gears in the 3.42-ratio Richmond ring-and-pinion are helping to prolong the axle's life, too--although Middleton admits that with the power he's pushing, the 10-bolt is probably living on borrowed time.
Suspension upgrades on the car are pretty basic, but effective. A set of H&R coil springs delivers a suitably slammed stance, while a Spohn torque arm and Hotchkis sway bars enhance handling and traction. There's also a set of Kenny Brown double diamond subframe connectors reinforcing the topless body.
And while we have nothing but respect for the powertrain and supporting parts in Middleton's Camaro, it was the roster of targeted details that really drew us to the car. Taking the cues of the car's orange-over-white factory paint scheme, he color-matched and complemented a number of the aftermarket elements, such as painting the Wolfe Race Craft six-point roll bar body-color and complementing it with orange racing harnesses for the front seats. The air intake tube under the hood, too, is white, as are the 2000-02-style 17-inch, 10-spoke Camaro SS wheels. Nice touches, every one of them.
After his previous experiences with detonated parts under the hood, Middleton is taking no chances and has wired up a number of gauges to "mind the store." They include an air/fuel meter and trans temperature gauge in the center of the dash, along with oil pressure, fuel pressure and boost gauges mounted on the A-pillar. Finally, a more accurate Autometer tachometer is lashed to the steering column.
It's been a long, unanticipated journey for this Camaro, but Middleton has no regrets. "I wanted to buy something that was already done and it didn't turn out that way," he says. "But now, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I'm glad it turned out the way it did. It's really my car now." And it's the perfect car for rolling in Bay City.
|Car:||1997 Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible|
|Heads:||LT4, home ported, 2.00 intake, 1.55 exhaust valves|
|Cam:||Advanced Inductions "blower grind"|
|Pushrods:||Trick Flow chromoly|
|Rocker arms:||GM Performance Parts 1.6-ratio|
|Throttle body:||Holley 58mm|
|Fuel injectors:||Racetronix 80-lb./hr.|
|Fuel pump:||twin Walbro 255lph|
|Ignition:||MSD 6AL, MSD coil, stock Optispark|
|Engine management:||Stock, tuned by Baker Engineering|
|Power adder:||ProCharger F-1A|
|Exhaust system:||Hooker 1.75-inch long-tube headers, 2.5-inch tubing, Flowmaster mufflers|
|Transmission:||700-R4, built by Bullit Transmissions|
|Torque converter:||Precision Vigilante 3600-stall|
|Driveshaft:||LS1 F-body, aluminum|
|Front suspension:||H&R springs, Hotchkis sway bar, stock shocks, control arms|
|Rear suspension:||H&R springs, Hotchkis sway bar, BMR control arms, Spohn torque arm, Panhard bar, stock shocks|
|Rear end:||Stock 10-bolt, 3.42 gears, posi|
|Brakes:||C5 Corvette front, stock rear|
|Front tires:||Bridgestone Potenza P275/40ZR17|
|Rear tires:||Bridgestone Potenza P275/40ZR17|
|Race weight:||3,750 (approx.)|
|Best ET/mph:||11.24 @ 127|
|Best 60-ft. time:||N/A|
|Miles driven weekly:||100|