When Ron Musing's '71 Corvette appeared in the Sept. '83 issue of Vette, it was already a machine to be reckoned with. Dubbed "Captain America," a nickname given to Musing when he took up bodybuilding, the shark had a full complement of the body mods so popular in the late '70s. There was a molded-on rear lip spoiler (from, of all things, a '69 Z28 Camaro); along with a front air dam, side vents, and tail-lamp assemblies from Ecklers; fixed headlights with Greenwood covers; and turbine-style wheels tucked under the ZL1 fender flares that bulged out from all four corners of the car. The whole package was finished in '73 Trans Am red, with a broad black stripe running, Baldwin/Motion Performance-style, down the bulge of the L88 hood and across the tail of the car. Unlike many other custom Corvettes of the era, though, the beast lurking under the bulged hood added the muscle that justified the bodywork.
Back in 1977, before the Captain America transformation got underway, Musing's friend Red Johnson sought out an LS7 454 to install in what was, at the time, his car. Although you'll find it as a footnote in a few Corvette books, the LS7 is a shadowy figure in early shark history. Supposedly intended as a Cobra-killer for Chevy's wink-nod backdoor racing program, the engine is rumored to have been built in a limited production run of 200 units, of which half are said to have wound up in boats. In stock trim, the LS7 was officially rated (read: underrated) at 460 hp. "Officially," none of these engines ever made it to retail customers, either--a fact that would have come as a surprise to Johnson, who ordered his through his local Chevy dealer, Gerrard Chevrolet in New Orleans. After helping him install the brand-new, '70-model-year engine, Musing noticed that his friend never drove the car. Once a week, Johnson would crank it up, let it idle, and pull it back into the garage. In the due course of time, a deal was struck, and Musing purchased the car for--sit down, folks--$6,000.
Musing, however, intended to drive it. Backed up to a Muncie M22 Rock Crusher four-speed, the LS7 was every bit the raging bull it was purported to be, and after a little attention from its new owner (Musing also happens to be a mechanical engineer), the big-block was laying down more than 550 hp. It was not, however, easily streetable. Prone to vapor lock and plug fouling, and thirsty for 100-plus-octane fuel, Captain America was great fun to drive but far from an ideal traveling companion. With only one service station in the Huntsville, Alabama, area selling 106-octane gas, and a range of about 200 miles, cruises in the car were limited to a predefined distance out of town, after which it was time to turn around--or call a tow truck.
Even before building Captain America, Ron Musing was no stranger to either Corvettes (he owned a string of fuel-injected Sting Rays), or to automobiles in general. He has built two custom cars, including a 327-powered GT40 replica and a Ferrari Koenig Boxer kit car that actually beat out real Ferraris to win the '94 World of Wheels. So after 25 years of driving Captain America, he began an extensive rebuild to freshen up the aging paint and make the car more driveable. Comparing the results to the original car reminds me of what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the very rich: like the rest, only more so.
The original Greenwood headlight covers, with their white eyebrows, stayed in place, as did all the rest of the bodywork. In place of the original Trans Am red that covered most of the car, Darrin Wood of Wood's Body Shop laid down several layers of Peterbilt Red, smoothing it in all the right places. The black-and-white stripes went on top of that--all laid out by hand, with no templates--and just for kicks, the broad center stripe was split into two, making the job that much more difficult. Once the paint was done, Gary McKelvy carefully airbrushed the Captain America figure on the ducktailed rear of the car, and Wood quickly clearcoated over it. In keeping with the theme, Musing had the removable back glass etched with Captain America's shields and then tinted, with the tint being painstakingly cut so it didn't obscure them.
But neither the shields nor the charging figure on the rear is what gives the car its punch. For that, take a look at the lettering on the sides of the L88 hood, which reads "ZZ502." To make the car less temperamental, Musing pulled the LS7 and replaced it with a GM Performance Parts ZZ502 crate engine. With a larger displacement and lower compression, the big 8.0L runs on premium and pumps out plenty of power without the added maintenance and short leash of the higher-strung 12.5:1 454. Topped with an 850-cfm Holley four-barrel and breathing through Hooker sidepipe headers with custom-made inserts, it lays down better than 500 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque, which gets from the front of the car to the back through a Richmond five-speed and a set of brand-new wheels.
Made by Vintage Wheel Works, the Torque-Thrust-like 17s were custom-made to Musing's specifications. "What are these for?" he was asked incredulously when he told them the measurements. "They'll never fit." And they wouldn't, on any ordinary '71 Corvette, but with the ZL1 flares still in place, the 9.5-inch front wheels and the 11-inch rears tuck neatly under the fenders, giving the car a low, aggressive look. Combined with the heads-up Greenwood headlights and the sidepipes, the look mirrors the Corvette racers of the day--a look that's very popular now among the C3 restomod crowd.
And it's not all looks, either. With 275s up front and 315s in the back, Captain America is plenty grounded for both cornering and straight-line performance. In fact, everything on the car screams performance. Even with all the emblems removed, there's no mistaking Captain America for anything other than what it is--one very fast Corvette. After seeing a Japanese car or two on the road, I asked Musing if people ever challenge him to race at stoplights. "Not so much," he replied.
And when he lets the big 502 stretch its legs a little, you can tell why. The gas pedal goes down, the engine's hammering idle turns into a scream, and the car pulls so hard it's almost as though the world itself had started rotating at a much faster speed--you're simply along for the ride. Don't believe what they say about small- versus big-blocks--a 350 may rev up quicker, but this car pulls like the proverbial freight train.
What surprised me most about Captain America, when Musing was kind enough to let me drive it, was the car's driveability--depending, of course, on how you define "driveable." I used a gentle touch on the throttle, and even in light afternoon traffic, it was well-mannered. So in the sense of being able to move the car from Point A to Point B without lots of smoke and noise, it was eminently driveable. I never stalled it, nor did I spin the tires. But I also didn't dare jump on the throttle: I learned early on that it doesn't pay to make any sudden moves with a big-block, and Captain America is no exception.
On the other hand, Musing, having owned the car for 30-plus years, handled it beautifully, much as an experienced musician plays his instrument. Nonetheless, this is a car that demands your undivided attention and your enduring respect. If you're going to drive something with more than 500 hp and gobs of torque, you can never afford to forget exactly how much power that is.
"It's a handful, isn't it?" he asked me as I slid out of the driver seat.
Ultimately, Captain America's combination of graceful, curving lines with the brutal, snarling power under the hood, is what makes the Corvette a uniquely American car. The '69 counter-culture film Easy Rider, whose main character was named "Captain America," used an ad line that said, "A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere." With all due respect to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper...I think we found it.
Special thanks to the staff of the Aviation Challenge at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama.