For the first year of the Super Chevy Suspension & Handling Challenge, presented by Nitto Tire, we used a C5 Corvette on NT05 tires as our "bogey" or baseline vehicle. We did this for a number of reasons. First, we wanted to see how our contestants compared to a modern sports car through our battery of tests. The fifth-gen Camaro hadn't been invented yet and we couldn't get our hands on a C6.
The next two years we compared our modified vintage muscle cars to a '10 Camaro SS. Last year we wanted to shake things up and use a bone-stock vintage car as our bogey vehicle. We'd proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the aftermarket suspension systems could provide both grip and comfort that was on par with and (in some case) beyond that of Chevy's hottest new ponycar. The problem was what kind of sane individual would be willing to let us use and abuse his or her pristine stock supercar in a g-force laden whack attack where spin outs and cone rash are inevitable consequences of the festivities?
We thought we had a fish on the hook for 2011, but at the last minute the deal fell through, so we procured a new SS/RS from an unsuspecting rental agency. It worked out great, but for 2012 we doubled-down on our efforts to get a stock classic for our baseline tester. Things were not going well when I mentioned our dilemma to our Resto Tech columnist, Mark Lundquist. Did he know of anyone who could help us out? He immediately volunteered his '68 Camaro SS. It had a couple of updates, like urethane bushings, shocks and radials, but I figured it was close enough for government work. During a subsequent email exchange, he asked if we would prefer to use his unmolested '72 SS396 Chevelle?
Does Pinocchio have a wooden butt?
This highly-optioned A-body had BFG radials (P245/60R15, 400 treadwear rating), but was mechanically correct and stock, from its Quadrajet to its OE replacement shock absorbers. He picked the car up in St. Louis (it was originally sold through Bill Allen Chevrolet in Kansas City, Missouri). There was some cosmetic restoration work performed—paint and interior—but mechanically it is 100-percent numbers-matching. The engine, trans and rear have never been apart.
"All the factory build techniques were still present from the original build in 1971," Mark related. "I use it as a benchmark unit to research that particular build method of the day."
Among its many desirable options are air conditioning, remote control outside mirror, visor (vanity) mirror, floor console, power disc brakes, tilt wheel, gauges, F41 heavy-duty suspension, and the Lighting Group (mirror/map light, trunk, ashtray and under hood lights).
Since its rebirth, Mark and his wife Shirley have enjoyed taking it on many long trips through California, Arizona, and wherever else the spirit moves them.
In our sea of highly-modified Chevys, the SS stood out like a young man just back from boot camp. It was all grown up and muscular, but without a hint of steroids. Our group of veteran hot rodders, all jaded by jillions of aftermarket horsepower, humongous, gooey tires, lowering springs and loud exhaust, was awed by the Chevelle's simple perfection.
The big-block fired instantly at the twist of the key, settled to a nice idle and burbled through its stock mufflers. Judged strictly by the timing equipment, the Chevelle was out of its league, but it was never outclassed. Mary Pozzi, our merciless test driver, wanted to snuggle with it.
Besides the 240-horse 402 Rat, it came with a horseshoe floor-shifted Turbo 400, 2.73 Posi gears and the tough-looking, grey-finished five-spoke Sport rims. Inside, it has the slick-looking four-spoke sport wheel, comfy (if unsupportive) bucket seats and electric clock. To give you an idea how good this car is, the map light built into the rearview mirror still works.
On The Autocross
Our template by which every other car was being compared to was a base model bright red with black stripes '72 Chevelle with a 402 and backed by a stout THM 400. Shod with 15-inch BF Goodrich Radial T/A's and stock brakes, I really felt bad about passing this gorgeous car through my mess o' cones. It was a violation, sacrilege, a moment of insanity perhaps. Sitting in the driver's seat, I wasn't feeling warm or fuzzy about my job at hand.
Even though this car was everything but autocross ready, I had to do it. Campy was watching me like a hawk, cattle prod primed and told me he'd use it if I bailed. Man … a dilemma if I ever faced one, as the Chevelle was pristine, untainted, and way too perfect to beat on. The owner was also watching; occasionally sharing a worried look. This wasn't a car I wanted to flog, but rather wrap up in a thick, snuggly blanket, settle in with a bucket of real buttered popcorn and a large Diet Pepsi, and watch Vanishing Point at a local Drive-In.
Idling up to the start cone, I launched (softly), hurried the Chevelle onwards to the first left-hander and quickly realized this car likes nice, gentle wide turns. With that slow by modern-times steering, there was no way one could move this car around corners any other way. Yes, it put a huge load on those BFG's but they hung on, squealing like a herd of oinkers, and got me through the crossover and on to the slalom.
Through here, it was a leanfest and I then realized that quick, fast transitions left or right aren't part of the Chevelle's vocabulary. Hauling the mail to the end turnaround was good, but braking to get slowed was bad—really bad. Like in "I'm headed for the next county bad." We finally got some whoa, got around the end with a bunch of push but that's expected due to that big-block weight up front.
Hitting the "Box" high, wide, and handsome found yet more understeer and a sprinkle of weight transfer plus slow steering all mixed together with the start of throttle hesitation eventually got me ‘round. Through the sweepers and in the walloms (slaloms comprised of strings of cones rather than a single one), everything was done in slo-mo. Braking, turning, and then getting back on power … I'm patient and can wait for it. I only made two runs as this Chevelle wasn't willing to play my game much longer and had given it's all.
When this car was new and Solo events were called gymkhanas, I now know why the plethoras of Spridgets and Spitfires, Loti (both the Elan and Sevens), Fiat Abarths (the real ones), and other cars of tiny dimensions ruled the day. Given the choked-down autocross courses of yesteryear and the parking lot sites they were held on, there's no way a Camaro, Chevelle, or Corvette could maneuver smoothly and maintain any semblance of forward and competing in one would most likely have you preferring a root canal.
Driving this Chevelle, however, gave me smiles. Smiles from appreciation of how well the Chevelle tried to perform in a venue where it was totally misplaced. And a thankfulness for all the foresight aftermarket suspension companies had when they realized what these cars needed, then created and built parts to get them to where we are today.—Mary Pozzi
On The Street
Long before "LS" came to signify a high-performance, fuel-injected aluminum small-block, the designation was affixed to big-blocks, in our case, this 240-net horse 402. While it was not the fire-breather it was before GM dropped the hammer on compression, it was no stone either. It was, after all, a Mark IV engine, meaning its potential was nearly limitless. And as a daily driver, it offered gobs of torque, low maintenance and silky smooth driveability.
We were reminded of this as we tooled around in it at our test facility. The power was always there—and though it was down nearly 200 ponies to our Grand Sport, we never minded. It delivered the goods seamlessly. We fantasized about what it would have been like ordering it, then picking this car up new from Bill Allen Chevy back in the day, about the pride we'd have felt showing it off to our friends for the first time, about the thrill we'd have gotten taking our dates out in it, or cruising the local hot spots.
Realistically, although it was 40 years old, this was a close as we'd ever get to driving a brand-new 1972 SS396. It was rattle-free and the doors closed solidly. The engine purred the way it was intended for the upcoming low-octane unleaded fuel it was designed to guzzle. I got light-headed every time I started it. This dream was real.
The pictures and the timers don't lie—grip was definitely not Vette-like. It was nearly 13 seconds slower through the autocross than the GS. And you know what? We do not care. It manners were as fine as English royalty. On the skidpad, its limits were understandably low, but it reached them progressively and the big beast was easy to control at the limit.
The only problem encountered was caused by the ethanol-laden California fuel. Sometime during third autocross run, some sludge left by the ethanol's evaporation got to the Quadrajet. All that tossing around and (relatively) high g-forces sent something from the fuel tank up through the to the carb. This limited us to two good runs on the autocross. Mark took the car home, cleaned out the carb (there was a bunch of junk in it) and fuel tank. It's been fine since.
Driving this Chevelle and the other cars in our Challenge proved two things. One, the aftermarket knows how to make our classics handle. Two, while these older Chevy may not handle like modern sports cars, they are a delight nonetheless. This one's a keeper.
|1972 Chevelle SS396, with F41 heavy-duy suspension
|Skid Pad: CW 0.69g, CCW 0.76g; Average 0.74g
|Slalom: Best 38.7 mph; Average of three runs, 38.2 mph
|Autocross: Best 1.03.8; Average of three runs 1.08.64
|2013 Corvette Grand Sport
|Skid Pad: CW 0.98g, CCW 0.99g; Average 0.99g
|Slalom: Best 48.5 mph; Average of five runs 46.9 mph
|Autocross: Best 51.05; Average of five runs 51.58