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1969 Chevy Chevelle SS - Timing Is Everything

Bob Saltarelli transforms his daily-driver into a showtime head-turner

Ro McGonegal Mar 10, 2008
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Are what you wanted and what you got necessarily the same thing? Maybe. We envision the ideal and get real life instead. Sometimes it's a matter of ignorance and sometimes it's really a matter of time. Projects tend to dominate all else when they are young. The longer you spend with them the more your enthusiasm wanes, and the more likely that the hot trends will bend corners and you'll be left with a cliche instead of a car. Things that were leading edge the first time you opened your mouth are now common currency, totally mainstream. You begin seeing adverts for stuff that was flat unobtainium when you began your project.

Maybe it would be best to skirt the issue altogether. Buy a well-preserved driver, bag it, put some pretty legs on it, and go to town without ever looking back. Bob Saltarelli did that. Bought and drove.

"I found the car at the Pomona swap meet. For $6,000. It was driver quality. I drove it to work for 2 years." Then that eternal bugaboo, paint jail and its legacy of anguish and impatience, lifted its scuzzy head.

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"Because of painter problems with a body-off restoration on a '55 Bel Air," winced Bob, "I decided to do just a paint job and maybe some 17-inch wheels on the Chevelle, you know, to have a car to drive in the summer. One thing led to another and the Chevelle is what it is today." Yeah, Bob, something that goes and handles and stops and rides a ton better than the original. Something that's blissful to the eye. Something that's at once contemporary and vintage. Look around. Retro. A trend that even conservative Detroit has glommed onto.

It didn't take Bob very long to put a face on his current passion or to go from tooling just a driver to something a lot more subjective. He was burning the tires off it in less than a year. He'd concentrated on three mandates: stance, color, and the tire and rim combination, all integrated quite successfully, we think. Last March, he took the 'Velle to the first annual Goodguys get-together at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, California. He won the award for Best Homebuilt Car award.

Saltarelli is a 51-year old longshoreman, so he would have had an operator's license at the very end of the old Muscle Car Trauma, not in time to buy anything off the showroom floor, but certainly at a distinct advantage when it came to cheap and plentiful pre-owned iron that the insurance companies wouldn't touch with your 10-foot pole.

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Now, a lifetime later, Bob could do what he wanted with whatever he wanted. We could call it Pro Touring but it isn't Pro anything. It's simply Bob's vision with just the right amount of mechanical enhancement and eye-candy upgrades.

Musclecars are good-looking land sharks packed with wildly undisciplined talent. They have too much torque and not enough social skills to put it to use effectively. It was as if the only thing that mattered was that it went like hell in straight line, albeit with wheelhop. Braking and handling? These aren't sports cars, Sammy. They were built to bellow, burn rubber, and beat down a dragstrip in a time before "socially acceptable" illegally entered the lexicon. Tetraethyl lead was the key and it was pennies a gallon. The luster of America's best years was rapidly going dim. We had the power then, that was for damn sure, but don't forget that the dinosaurs evolved into birds.

Bob kept chipping. Got himself a '73 454 cylinder case, had Contemporary Auto Machine poke it 60-over and do the blueprinting, balancing, and align boring required. Since our hero was only looking to scare up some asphalt and not annihilate the rest of the world, he kept the compression ratio for those Speed-Pro pistons at a safe-and-sane 10:1. The Comp hydraulic roller comes in easy with 230 duration at 0.050-inch and 0.520-inch lift on both valves. A Milodon steel 8-quart oil pan and an Edelbrock front cover seal off the lower end.

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Bob centered on some oval-port iron heads and complemented them with an Edelbrock RPM Performer intake manifold and a Mighty Demon 750-cfm carburetor. That distributor lurking in the shadows is an MSD HEI unit sprouting Accel 8.8mm wires. Unburned hydrocarbons and other effluvia move quickly through the ceramic-coated Doug's 2-inch primaries and into a 2 -inch diameter exhaust fitted with a crossover pipe and raucous Flowmaster 40s. On the driving end, Bob bolted a Turbo 400 (prepped by Kevin) to the 468-incher, preceding it with a TCI 2,800-rpm stall speed converter. The throttle body retains normal shift pattern.

He scrubbed the engine compartment and scraped off all the superfluous stuff, finished the wheelhouses in gloss black, contrasted the firewall in matte gray, and put smaller, more compact systems in place of large and inefficient ones. All of it pops the nicely detailed engine right up front. Bob looked to the chassis with more than beauty in mind. Since he was building a 500hp engine, he wanted the car to absorb large jolts of power and torque in stride, not shrink like it was grabbed from behind in some damn sleeper hold.

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Forget Pro Touring. All Bob wanted to do here was add some active handling measures should he have to avoid the ass end of an SUV, not hanging the rear end of the Chevelle out on the Ortega Highway. Powerful, linear stopping characteristics are part of that machine. Bob built the reformed suspension around better steering geometry inherent in B-body spindles and decorated them with Hotchkis tubular upper and lower control arms, 1-3/8-inch hollow anti-sway bar, 2-inch drop coil springs, and KYB shock absorbers. In the rear of the car, he posted a J.S. Gear-assembled 12-bolt axle fitted with 3.42:1 gears and a Posi-traction differential, Hotchkis 2-inch drop coils, adjustable upper links and lower controls arms with polyurethane bushings. To match the front bar, Bob included a Hotchkis solid 1-inch diameter piece.

Though often overlooked by those who can't seem to get the 15-inch rim syndrome, the original brakes, no matter how many times they are rebuilt, remain less than what the car really needs to burn off big energy in a hurry. To that end, Bob pedals Baer brakes with a 13-inch rotor at every corner. Bigger than average brakes invite larger, more contemporary rolling stock, not something that looks straight out of the '70s. Highly polished Budnik 18x8 and 20x10 GTX rims receive BFG g-Force 245/40s and 295/40s. Everything looks like it's right where it belongs.

Bright-metal trim and bumpers were re-chromed by Superior Plating in Inglewood, CA, while Gem Tech down Huntington Beach way applied subtle shades of powdercoat. The Chevelle poses a clean, compact silhouette without any drastic sheetmetal rearrangement because of this: the PPG Sunset Orange, the relationship between the tops of the tires and the fender wells, and the polished wheel/design all have sympathy for one another and the combination works out like a real mother.

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Since we suspect Bob is heavy on the cruise aspect, inhospitable appointments just aren't tolerated. Bob wants to feel like he's in a cruisin' car, not a racin' car, so it's all down-home comfort looking pretty much the way it always has. The vinyl is new but the color is the same. There are tunes...coming out of the Alpine-amped Pioneer speakers, front and rear, daddy-o. Bob kept the original dashboard and instrument panel, but added to the array with some choice Auto Meter ancillaries.

If he had it to do differently, Bob would have liked, you know, more power. Not too far down the road, he's wanting to add some more, you know, power, in the form of a 502 or a 572. After all, gotta give that Hotchkis stuff hell.



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