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1978 Chevrolet Caprice SS - Capricious Act

A Surprising Caprice SS Project

Jeff Smith Dec 1, 1999

Step By Step

This is the ugly duckling '78 (A) that sparked the Caprice SS project. The end result is impressive, but it didn't come without a cost. It took more than two years to create this road warrior. The wheels are 16x8-inch Z28s that lend a factory look mounted with 255/50VR16 BFG Comp T/As.

After a complete strip job, Terry spent a ton of hours on bodywork.

Big cars mean big parts and lots of paint. Gallons of primer were combined with millions of calories burned surfacing, sanding, and painting to put a hue on this Caprice. Terry put a week's effort into each door. This was the second of three hoods that he would eventually prepare.

Here is the beginning of the chassis effort. Removing the body did allow easy access to every nook and cranny. Plenty of sweat equity went into this portion of the buildup.

The frame was epoxy-painted and detailed using Coil Spring Specialties springs, a Hotchkis front sway bar, all-new suspension components, and Master Power front disc brakes. Terry's thumper 406ci small-block included quality machine work from the Heintz Brothers combined with AFR aluminum heads, an Edelbrock intake, and Thorley headers that made an honest 400 hp through a 3-inch Random Technologies catalytic converter.

Terry did all his own body and paint work, including the final color using PPG Arctic Silver paint. It's a good thing Terry used a quality respirator because even with an HVLP gun, "overspray went everywhere!" At this point, it started to look like a real car.

Next came mounting the body with help from a friend and a John Deere tractor. There are many times when living on a farm has its advantages. The urban version is to invite all your burly friends over for pizza and then ask them to help you hang your body.

After personally choosing the Prussian Blue hides from the Connolly Leather factory in England, Terry had Robert Poole execute the interior. The dark blue carpet and SS logo floor mats from Auto Custom Carpet matched perfectly with the leather. Just Dashes performed restoration magic on the dash pieces to complete the interior work.

Why is Terry Stevens smiling? If you had survived this incredibly detail-oriented reconstruction of a Caprice SS and ended up with a car this nice, you'd be smiling too. Note the Bow Tie and SS trunk emblems.

The completed interior offers up a custom stainless steel gauge cluster built by Nick Duncan using VDO gauges, while Gary Parrish built the custom walnut center console using walnut Terry cut from a tree on the farm.

Once the Caprice completed the Power Tour, it was time to hit the dragstrip. November was cold, and traction was minimal, but the Caprice SS still managed an 8.85 in the 1/8-mile, which is roughly equal to a 13.65 in the quarter.

Imagine how intensely boring this world would be if everyone had the same taste in cars. What if everyone drove refrigerator-white Yugos? Even Pro Street '69 Camaros would be a magnificent yawn because they'd all be the same. Thank- fully, the world is full of enthusiasts like Terry Stevens, who lives on a farm on Sugar Maple Lane in North Carolina and pilots a 757 for The Friendly Skies. He also happens to fervently believe that a '78 Caprice four-door is more than a toaster oven on wheels.

Terry is one of those prescient few who can look at something as mundane as a mid-'70s quadra-door Caprice and envision the potential in its lines that no one else can see. Terry is also pit-bull persistent. We met him a few years ago through Kevin McClelland, who thought Terry's vision of a land yacht like the Caprice was more than a passing whim. Meeting Terry was like being introduced to a cross between Bill Cosby and a Jehovah's Witness. He's a lot of fun, but seriously dedicated to making this car work--even if no one else shares his idea of what his machine could become.

The story of the Caprice SS and Terry's dedication reads like some kind of Hollywood love story turned Victorian horror epic. Terry's mother-in-law decided to no longer navigate the boat around town, allowing him the opportunity to create the ultimate performance touring car--a personal '70s impression of an Impala SS. For Terry, the time had come to go big or go home. But from the onset, the project presented hurtles. Terry's wife, Sue, nixed the idea of using the family garage as a hostel for homeless Caprice parts, suggesting instead Terry convert the nearby milk shed.

After a month of cleaning and electrical wiring, a tornado hit the farm at the end of May 1996, destroying three buildings, uprooting over 300 trees, and ripping half of the roof off the recently converted shop. Exactly one year later, Terry was still converting the shed into a shop with a monster air compressor and enough power to light the city of Chicago. Officially, work on the car began on May 1, 1997, with a half hour spent stripping front clip bolts from the parts car.

In June, the sandblasting began. After smashing fingers and removing rust-stubborn control arms, Terry began the arduous task of cleaning. He literally wore out the nozzle on a borrowed sandblaster and eventually spewed through over 2,000 pounds of sand to clean the frame and attendant pieces. The work took days in between rain, when the sand was too wet to shoot. "I think it's easier," he lamented, "to give a 15-pound cat a bath."

As with any car-building project, the work progressed in overlapping sequences. While the frame effort continued, Terry had Mike Heintz at Heintz Brothers begin work on the small-block Chevy. The plan was to build a stout 486 capable of decent fuel mileage. Assisting in the effort would be a 700-R4 overdrive automatic, but the engine still needed to be efficient. After much deliberation, the plan revolved around a 350 four-bolt block, a steel stroker crank, forged pistons, and Eagle H-beam rods. For the top end, Terry chose a Comp Cams hydraulic roller (218/224 degrees of duration at 0.050 with 0.495-/0.502-inch lift) using 1.6:1 intake and 1.5:1 exhaust Comp Cams roller rockers. The rockers actuate 2.02-/1.60-inch valves in the aluminum Air Flow Research 190 heads. Up top, Edelbrock got the nod with a Performer EGR intake wearing a Carburetor Shop Q-jet carburetor and an HEI distributor.

The plan also called for the small-block to be emissions-legal by retaining the EGR valve and the catalytic converter. For the exhaust, Terry talked with Kevin McClelland at Flowmaster to come up with a system that included a pair of Doug Thorley Tri-Y coated headers that feed to a single catalytic converter.

Flowmaster then supplied a Y-pipe that splits the exhaust from the 3-inch cat into a pair of 21/2-inch pipes and Flowmaster mufflers. Of course, the Y-pipe that connects the headers to the cat didn't fit, which required minor tweaking by Mitch Edison at Exhaust Systems in nearby Salisbury. This required a couple of trips before everything fit, then came more frustration when Terry discovered his new high-torque starter wouldn't fit.

Several other companies also lent a hand, including Just Dashes, which provided major assistance restoring many of the plastic dash pieces that could not be replaced, along with a matching pad, arm rests, and other pieces to complement the Connelly leather material Terry had chosen. Terry also purchased a pair of used BMW bucket seats that arrived damaged due to poor packaging.

The rest of the chassis also needed attention. Inline Tube offered to duplicate the original brake lines in stainless, which required careful packaging in a big bicycle box, while new front discs and upgraded rear drums were ordered from Master Power Brakes. Terry also ordered a polyurethane Super Front End kit from Performance Suspension Technology, and some of the suspension pieces went to the powdercoater.

Terry also completely disassembled the 10-bolt rear axle and then had Larry Pollard at Pollard Transmissions do the installation, which included a set of 3.73 gears and an Auburn limited-slip unit. It also required detailing once assembled and painted with polyurethane paint.

The big chore was the bodywork. With the body set on blocks, Terry took the inner fenders and various other pieces that needed rust repair to Danny Shaw's Sudden Impact body shop. Terry relied on Danny's shop for bodywork and paint guidance as well as specialty work like the welding.

After all the machine work was completed by the Heintz Brothers, Terry spent six hours prepping and painting the engine block, then spent quite a few more hours rechecking all the clearances. He intended to assemble the engine himself despite the fact that this was his first attempt at engine building. Armed with a shop manual and a copy of S-A Design's How to Build a Small-Block Chevy book, he spent the next three days carefully assembling the motor.

Now came the moment of truth for the engine. Terry hauled it over to Rick Morris Racing Engines in Mooresville for a dyno pass. After breaking the engine in, carb and dyno problems below 3,000 rpm prevented a full test, causing more frustration and delay, but the engine did pull 456 lb-ft of torque. A few months later, final testing generated similar torque numbers with a final horsepower rating of 401 at 5,400 rpm that included the single 3-inch Random Technology catalytic converter, Flowmaster mufflers, and the Q-jet carburetor.

One of the perks of Terry's job as an airline pilot was a trip to England, where he met Bernie Whiskin at Connolly Leathers. There Terry was able to personally choose five Prussian Blue hides that would make up the Caprice interior.

Effort up to this point had been geared mostly toward disassembly and cleaning. Terry's diary recorded over 220 man-hours and so far only the engine had been assembled. Now the process turned the corner from destruction to construction. Terry bolted on the last details to the rear axle assembly and waxed the frame "to help prevent dirt buildup." After a test-fit of the engine and trans in the frame, it all came back apart and Terry bolted on the front and rear suspension pieces and then clearcoated all the chassis fasteners so they wouldn't rust.

The chassis vacated the shop in September to make room for the body, but suddenly it was December and little had been done. Terry cranked back up during the holidays and settled into disassembling all four doors. He had to be very careful with the weatherstripping since GM had long since discontinued the parts and no aftermarket company offered replacements. Plus, the door mechanisms were riveted together and required drilling and cutting for disassembly. He also chiseled out all the old caulking so it could be replaced, even though his body man Danny Shaw warned him: "You're doing way more work than is required." But Terry didn't let up. He spent a day and a half per door doing the stripping and prepping, only to discover large creases in two doors that would take more effort to repair.

Worse yet, once the car was stripped, Terry discovered a previous body shop had used a high-speed grinder and 24-grit paper to sand the body, which badly warped the hood, top, and deck lid. Terry pulled the hood and trunk from the parts car and stripped those parts as well. After working on six doors, two hoods, and two deck lids and patching rust holes in the car's floor pan, the body was ready for primer. All of this took a mere 122 hours of back-breaking labor to complete.

On a brighter note, Terry located a set of '86 Camaro IROC wheels that were then polished and mounted with BFGoodrich 255/50VR16 Comp T/A tires. On December 30, "I sprayed the surfacing primer on all of the pieces. Three coats took almost 2 gallons of primer...New Year's Day, what better way to celebrate than sanding doors? I wet-sanded every part except the hood." On January 10, Terry lifted the body onto the frame with help from Pat Soutullo and Terry's John Deere tractor.

"I now understand the reason body repairs are so expensive--the labor required to do a proper job is mind boggling!" After much prep work, Terry finally started painting in the last week of January. Even though this was his first shot at using PPG's basecoat/clearcoat paint, he sprayed the inside of the doors, hood, fenders, and trunk with BMW Arctic Silver, which had a touch of blue that complemented the blue leather interior.

By then it was downright cold in North Carolina, so Terry fired up the kerosene and propane heaters, warmed up the shop, and started to paint the exterior color. "It's clear to me I did this work bassackwards! I should have done all the bodywork last summer when the painting conditions were better. Of course, I thought all the bodywork would only take a month at most. Oh well..."

After way too many hours with a borrowed HVLP gun, the paint was finished with only a few minor dust hiccups in the clear that were sanded and buffed out. During this time, Terry's diary eclipsed the 500-hour mark. That's 12.5 40-hour work weeks, and the car was a long way from completion.

Frustration set in until Danny showed Terry how to set up the power window motors so that the brackets would all line up. Then Terry took on the daunting task of wiring the beast, which began with a harness that had been hiding in a big box on the shelf. Thankfully, Terry had taken the time to label each connector when he removed the harness from the donor car since the original harness had been butchered numerous times. Dozens of hours passed in the process.

By early March, Terry dropped the motor and trans in the chassis, but his flying schedule did a fantastic job of interrupting work on the car. The wiring continued to eat time and extended through May with 45 hours spent just on electrical connections. "I knew it would take time, but never thought it would be like this," he says. "Thank goodness for the digital multimeter. The last thing I want to see is smoke when I hooked up the battery." The time clock was up to 749 hours.

Then came July, and Black Thursday. Jimmy Robinson and Gary Parrish stopped by to help mount the hood. The acid etching used for the black oxide coating on the hinges froze them solid, which Terry discovered only after his newly finished hood buckled in the middle! "Do you ever feel totally, absolutely, completely speechless, flabbergasted, stunned, sad, mad--all at the same time? Oh well..."

On the positive side, Terry finally completed the wiring, with fire extinguishers at the ready and the car pushed outside ("If this sucker went up in flames, I didn't want to lose the shop too!"). A couple of cranks on the starter and the rumble of open exhaust is all the fanfare Terry needed to hear! With the engine rumbling, all the toil became worthwhile. Better yet, almost everything electrical worked the first time.

With the car sitting on all fours and running, something didn't quite look right. The front end sat around 2 to 3 inches higher than the rear. A few calls to Coil Spring Specialties confirmed the springs were correct. Later, lying underneath the car, Terry realized the "baseball bat-sized" sway bar was on upside-down, preventing the front suspension from settling. A quick swap and the car dropped to its proper ride height.

Terry expended another 40 hours locating, repairing, and painting the third hood for the Caprice. But then more bad news: A quick test run resulted in a broken transmission. After the post-mortem, he concluded the converter had failed and managed to trash the transmission as well. Terry stepped up for a brand-new 700-R4, converter, and cooler from B&M, but that took time.

Well into September 1998 the Caprice SS was finally roadworthy, and with barely 200 miles on the odometer, Terry and Sue put fears of capricious failure aside and hit the road with the East Coast Hot Rod Power Tour. The car performed flawlessly except for a second power steering pump that failed, but against all odds the Caprice averaged 17 to 19 mpg for 4,300 miles. By November, Terry also had time to take the Caprice to the local dragstrip. Despite traction problems in First and Second gears, the 4,200-pound (with driver) quadra-door cranked out a best of 8.85 in the eighth-mile, which is roughly equivalent to a 13.65 in the quarter-mile.

The Caprice SS required more than 1,000 hours of work, and he's still not finished. This is the equivalent of almost six months of 40-hour work weeks spread out over 21/2 years. His diary encompassed over 50 pages of notes and assorted car-building philosophies, from which this story was created. Total cost to build the Caprice SS tallied up to $22,000. "The engine accounted for the biggest chunk of change at approximately $6,000 but will be ready for nitrous or a blower if I should ever choose to go that route," Terry says. A complete second transmission also pushed up the overall cost.

At the end, Terry contemplated his effort. "I spent five years prior to starting the Caprice SS reading several car magazines. I clipped seven notebooks full of articles that I arranged by subject. I spent a lot of time reviewing these articles and forming mental lists of what worked and what did not work.

"Now for the big question: Would I do this again? Yes, but not to the extent that I did this car. I have lots of talents, but bodywork is definitely not one of the upper few. I will let Danny and the crew at Sudden Impact do the work. My sincere thanks to all the companies and individuals whom I have worked with during this project."

There's plenty to be learned from Terry's determined project Caprice. Most importantly, he never gave up on his dream, even when there were times he admits it was tough to continue. Remember that setbacks and mistakes will take more time and cost more than you think. But the satisfaction makes it worth all the effort. Just ask Terry Stevens. CHP


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