When you live close to the shore, like I do, it's not uncommon to see four-wheel-drive vehicles with surf-fishing racks on the front bumper. The formula is this: fishing racks + beach = 4WD vehicle, usually a truck. That's what threw me when I first saw Dewey Powell's menacingly cool-looking '81-bodied Corvette at the Strictly Corvettes Show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The first thing I noticed was the stylized fishing-pole rack and the way it was angled back from the middle to match the car's pointed nose. Then the tall tires and L88 wheel flares got me. "Wow," I thought, "What's this?" And that was before I looked under the hood and saw a dual-quad 392 Hemi.
Powell was completely relaxed in a lawn chair, wearing jeans, black cowboy boots, a black T-shirt, and wrap-around shades. "That yours?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's right," he answered, "and I drove it here today. You should have seen it yesterday. It was covered with sand." I had just met Ocean City's local legend, Dewey Powell.
Powell is what you might call "Old School." You could also say that he truly has gasoline in his veins. As a small child, he helped out at his Dad's Esso gas station, which opened in 1912. By 1945, Powell was pumping gas and looking to go fast at the local eighth-mile dragstrip with his Model A pickup truck powered by a Chevy engine. Powell's uncle owned one of the most famous dirt tracks in South Jersey. Over the decades the track was named Powell Speedway, then Pleasantville Speedway, and finally, Atlantic City Speedway. Today, the old racetrack is long gone, but Powell is still powering around in one of several of his hand-made machines.
This was definitely a racing family, and Powell built all sorts of dirt track and drag cars. Dirt racers are unique in that they don't mind fixing cars that get slammed around. If something breaks, they fix it and get back on the track. They're also very good at mixing and matching parts from all kinds of cars in order to reach their objective.
Powell's 4WD Corvette comes from that kind of "garage engineering." The basic structure of the car is a '69 Corvette. When Powell bought the car in 1976, it had been set up for drag racing with a turbocharged LS6 454. Life can be hard for cars that reside along the shore, as the salt air eats them alive. The original body was completely shot, but it just happened that a friend had a body from an '81 Corvette for the right price. Being a career mechanic and having access to lots of parts, Powell started another of his car projects.
With the car completely stripped and a new body waiting, Powell set about building his 4WD Corvette. The C3 rides on a short, 98-inch wheelbase. Since the front-wheel-drive unit was coming out of a Cadillac Eldorado, and a transfer cast was to be mounted behind the transmission, Powell needed an engine that was shorter than a big-block Chevy. Powell had raced Hemis before and thought, "Why not?"
The 392 Hemi is out of a '58 Chrysler New Yorker. We tend to forget just how much cast-iron was in those old Hemis. With a Turbo 400 and a 1,800rpm-stall torque converter, Powell's engine, trans, and 4WD transfer case weighs around 1,000 pounds. The 392 Hemi has 10.5:1 compression and uses a 0.490-lift hydraulic cam operating stainless steel valves. The aluminum intake manifold is the only substantial part on this engine that's not cast-iron. The current two Edelbrock carbs will soon be replaced with two 600 Holleys.