In the quest for better handling and braking performance, some Chevys just need a few bolt-ons and some well-considered tweaking. In other cases, more radical surgery is the order of the day. The original Nova definitely falls into the latter category. They ride tolerably and remain popular with enthusiasts, but turning and stopping prodigies they aren't. In this two-part project, we'll be raiding the Heidt's Hot Rod Shop catalog to totally transform the chassis and suspension system of our test subject, a nearly stock '66 Nova. For starters, we'll be performing radical bolt-on surgery by installing Heidt's Superide II IFS front subframe and the host of turn-quick and stop-fast goodies that come with it.
Why call this job "radical bolt-on surgery?" Well, the entire stock Nova frontend has to be removed before it can be replaced with the Heidt's subframe. Once that's done, the new Superide unit bolts right into place using the original mounting holes, no welding required. The stout subframe unit is constructed from 2x3x1/8-inch thick steel box tubing, much thicker than the stock steel stampings. The motor mount stands are welded in place, so once the subframe is installed, all that remains (a few twists and turns aside) is to mount up the suspension and brakes, replace the engine, hook up the steering, and put the thing back together.
We asked Gary Heidt about the advantages of installing one of his Superide systems, and he was quick with an answer, though not the one we expected. We thought he'd talk about the increased stiffness of his subframe, or the fact that it cuts about 150 pounds off the frontend of the car, or maybe even the modern components used on the Superide II IFS. Instead, he gave us a more fundamental reason to expect improvement in our subject Nova's handling. "The original '60s suspension used the performance technology available at the time," he told us. "We've come a long way since then, in terms of improving suspension geometry and handling characteristics. The original setup gives a good ride, but not good handling. With this system, the car will drive nice and handle better." Gary also mentioned the tunability we'd be gaining with the Aldan coilovers used in this system, which are adjustable for both damping and spring preload, as well as his adjustable power-steering valve.
John Barbera of Johns Customz & Performance, our pro installers for this project, echoed these thoughts. "We've got a car that's seen normal wear and tear on its original frontend, but it has a mildly built engine (a 350-horse small-block rather than the original six-banger, with more to come), so we want better handling and braking, stiffer suspension, and better control (i.e., adjustability) for both the track and the street." John agreed that we were gaining all these things with the Heidt's setup and the components it employs.
Speaking of components, Heidt's offers a variety of options with its front subframes, and we went for the good stuff--most of which you'll see below. With the Superide II package, plain steel control arms are standard, the upper units being adjustable for caster and camber. We've already mentioned the fine-tuning capability we'll have with the Aldan coilovers (we'll explore this in Part II), and we should have extra handling prowess by adding the optional swaybar kit. Stopping won't be a problem, as Heidt's sent along its 12-inch Wilwood four-piston Big Brake kit, while Wilwood kicked in an exquisite manual dual master cylinder and the necessary flex lines. The steering system was a joint effort; Heidt's upgraded us to a power rack-and-pinion, but as you'll see below, we even gained control of the power-assist rate with Heidt's adjustable power-steering valve kit. A Flaming River tilt column and wheel connected right up to the new rack. As a final touch, we added Heidt's inner fender panels to make sure the Nova's engine compartment comes out sano as can be.
While the subframe and its components are bolt-on items, remember that this is a major project, and it'll take some time--even some improvisation--depending on your particular setup. The photos that follow are an overview rather than a comprehensive look at the process--you'll find the complete lowdown in the detailed instructions. Johns Customz, which does jobs like this all the time, recommends that the home mechanic set aside two full weekends to accomplish the task.
Of course, more than any of these details, we're all interested in the bottom line: Does it work? How will our worked-over Chevy II handle with all these modern amenities in place? Well, you'll have to wait for the final verdict, 'cause we're only half done. In Part II of our Chevy II Renovation, we'll be attacking the Nova's rearend, replacing it with a Heidt's rear subframe. Then we'll make another trip to the test track where, as they say, the numbers don't lie. We're looking forward to the results, and hope you'll stay tuned.