Just as some law-enforcement officers have to stay undercover, so too do certain muscle cars. When I bought my 1970 Chevelle SS454 in late December 1970, I had just received an appointment to become a Special Agent with the FBI.
The original sticker price of the LS6-equipped car, including options and destination charge, was $4,276.05. The cash price to me was discounted to $3,700, including the $200 trade-in for my 1962 Falcon, which had a blown engine.
My new car was black with white stripes. I thought J. Edgar Hoover might frown upon the stripes, so as part of my purchase deal with Reeder Chevrolet in Knoxville, Tennessee, I had them feathered out and painted black.
I was also worried about theft. This particular car had been on the Reeder lot for some time, and while there, the carburetor, air cleaner, and battery were stolen. No surprise, then, that the car had been moved into the showroom for safekeeping when I first saw it. But the aftermarket parts the dealer used to replace the stolen items were disappointing. The air cleaner was small, about 8 inches in diameter, with an open element. It was mounted on top of a 2- to 3-inch-high steel riser bolted on top of the carburetor. I later learned that the carburetor was not even the original model. I believe it was a 730- or 750-cfm Holley with vacuum secondaries, not a 780- to 800-cfm double-pumper like the car's original equipment.
To make the car less attractive to thieves in the future, I had Reeder replace the 454 emblems with 350 emblems. (I should have saved the original 454 emblems, but did not.) Consequently, my Chevelle became the only SS350 LS6 model in existence, and it came that way straight from the dealership!
After all of the post-sale, pre-delivery preparation had been completed by Reeder, my father took possession of the car while I was out of town. He picked up the car and parked it in our garage after negotiating our long, steep driveway with some difficulty. He told me that he would never get behind the wheel of that "beast" again!
As it turned out, my father was one of just three people, other than me, to drive the car before I sold it. One was a girl I was dating at the time, who took it on a 50-mile trip from Myrtle Beach back to Washington, D.C., in April 1971. The other was in 1975, by a fellow FBI agent friend who had been Best Man in my wedding.
In those first days of ownership, before even driving the car out of the garage, I carefully removed the window sticker and maintained it with the original invoice/bill of sale in my files. Later I discovered a build sheet under the back seat, which I maintained as well.
Before moving to California for my first office of assignment, I installed a trailer hitch on the car. I remember towing a U-Haul trailer on a route that ran through Nevada, where there was no speed limit at the time. Not one to pass up an opportunity to drive fast legally, I towed the trailer at 120 mph for several miles, until I cooked a bearing in one of the trailer wheels. The wheel passed me as I drove down Interstate 80. When I limped into the next town with a U-Haul center to swap out trailers, I noticed that the trailer had "45 mph Speed Limit" painted on the side. Oops!
I drove the Chevelle a lot in San Francisco, including trips back home to Knoxville. I made the 2,487-mile roundtrip in 31 hours driving nonstop, except for gas stops, by myself. Average mileage was under 10 mpg, but gas was only 30 cents a gallon back then.
After I moved to Los Angeles, and by fall 1972, the car had accumulated almost 50,000 miles and I was on my third clutch. The LS6's massive power, combined with the hills of San Francisco and the 3.31 rearend, had been hard on clutches.
Not much later I blew out the Muncie M22 tranny while power-shifting from First to Second gear at 7,200 rpm near Ontario Motor Speedway. I had to leave the car on the roadside in Ontario and take a very long bus ride back to west Los Angeles. I rented a truck and trailer and returned the next day to get the car. Thankfully it was still there. The car was just under the 50,000-mile warranty limit, and the transmission was replaced for no charge at a Los Angeles Chevrolet dealer.
Not too long after the transmission was replaced I bought a book called How to Hot Rod Big-Block Chevys. It became my Bible. I began tricking out the engine as soon as I had extra money. Its 450 hp was not enough!
I first installed 2 1/8-inch Hooker headers (with one tube passing around the frame—what a nightmare that was to install), then a Mallory dual-point ignition system, and a high-rise manifold and a 850-cfm double-pumper, which I later replaced with a Corvette L71 Tri-power manifold with a 1,350-cfm carb setup. The entire smog pump system was removed and scrapped. After I completed all that work, the car really hauled! After countless clutch replacements, I installed a dual-disc truck clutch, which held up much better than the lightweight single-disc system that came on the car.
Following a no-injury accident in 1975, I had the body shop remove all of the Chevrolet emblems on the car and fill the holes prior to painting it, including the SS350 emblems. The car was completely covered with black lacquer with no stripes of any kind. The polished aluminum fender trim rings were also removed, so the only chrome trim pieces left on the car were the door handles, keyholes, bumpers, and gutter rails.
I drove the Chevelle only occasionally after it left the shop, averaging about a thousand miles per year. In 1987 I bought a 1986 Corvette and pretty much stopped driving the Chevelle completely. When I was transferred from Los Angeles to Tennessee, I had just a few days to decide what to do with it. I did not want to sell the Chevelle, but had no place to store it in Tennessee.
I obtained Jeff Reade's name from a friend and sold the car to him for $5,000 cash on October 1, 1999. The car had 81,719 miles on it. It still had the Tri-power system on it, and as a bonus I included the high-rise four-barrel manifold and carburetor in the trunk, along with the original cast iron exhaust manifolds, original dealer sticker, bill of sale, and other paperwork. I think he removed the Tri-power and installed the four-barrel system before he sold the car to Mike Maggio.
Since Reade apparently never transferred the car to his name, Maggio became technically the second owner. But at the time he was going through a bad business deal, and to protect the car on paper, he "sold" the car to his stepdaughter Melissa (third owner per the paperwork). Then Tom Giarraffa acquired it, but kept Melissa on the title until John Ginger and his Chevelle expert, Rick Nelson of MuscleCar Restoration and Design, negotiated a deal.
John is now the owner, and he relied on Rick's skills to bring the car back to original. It was no easy task, Rick recalls. "Nothing was salvageable in the interior. No soft parts could be restored." He went to extraordinary lengths over nearly a two-year period to track down N.O.S. parts, or used ones that could be freshened.
As for the numbers-matching drivetrain, the engine was completely gone through, bored, and fitted with new a cam and pistons. Rick gives a special nod to Eric Jackson of Vintage Muscle Car Parts for his work on the carb. "His work is unbelievable," Rick says.
What motivated John Ginger to tackle such a massive restoration? Aside from the car's thorough documentation, his reasons will be familiar to many muscle car enthusiasts. He owned a 1968 SS396 Chevelle back in the late 1960s, and fell in love with the 1970 body style as well. "It was the pinnacle of Chevelle design," he says. And the black and tan interior was so different, it really caught his attention. But the bottom line was that he wanted a car with "no stories, no excuses." The real deal—case closed.
At a Glance
1970 Chevelle SS454
Owned by: John Ginger, Laguna Beach, CA
Restored by: MuscleCar Restoration and Design, Pleasant Plains, IL
Engine: 454ci/450hp LS6 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M22 4-speed manual
Rearend: 12-bolt with 3.31 gears and Positraction
Interior: Saddle vinyl bucket seat
Wheels: AO-code SS
Tires: F70-14 Goodyear Polyglas
Special parts: Rare dual-snorkel air cleaner
Wedding Bells Chevelle
John Orr's Chevelle was just a few years old when he married Susie, now his wife of more than 43 years, on September 28, 1974. When they emerged from the ceremony, the Chevelle was all done up with white ribbons and shoe polish by his father and some neighborhood kids.
"I knew it was going to happen, could not avoid it," John recalls. "I just hoped they would not touch the paint, only the glass." He admits to a strong devotion to the Chevelle. "Before I got married, I was married to that car. Susie once said she was going to bury me in it."
Years later, as a prank, John decorated the car the same way for his cousin Frank, who was trying to keep his wedding a secret. The tin cans and white shoe polish gave it away.