Let's face facts, folks: We don't love our musclecar-era Chevys for their handling prowess. Truth be told, today's lowliest econoboxeshandle and ride better than your average veteran Bow Tie, and in our book, that's just not right. So in this, the first of two installments, we set out to update the road-and track-manners of a big-block-powered '69 El Camino SS by installing Hotchkis Performance's Total Vehicle System (TVS), all the while documenting the results on the test course.
We weren't just looking for handling for handling's sake. The ability to take a turn at speed is great, and a smooth ride is hard to beat, but having a car agile enough to avoid unexpected obstacles (e.g., the swerving latte-sipper chatting on a cell phone, the unexpected canine crossing the street, the shredded tire tread in the middle of the lane) is priceless. If you're gonna drive the thing, you want to drive safely, right?
The complete TVS Package that our Rat-powered Elky's owner chose consists of Sport Springs and Hotchkis' new Extreme sway bars front and back, heavy-duty tie-rod sleeves, lower rear trailing arms, and new double-adjustable upper trailing arms. To this we added a pair of trailing-arm mount braces, a set of HPS 100 shocks, and an airbag kit. With better suspension in place, the stage was set to take advantage of modern rolling stock so we mounted up a set of Oasis Wheels 17-inch IROC hoops shod in BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW rubber.
To test the efficacy of the TVS package, we hit the test track with our veteran El Camino to lay down baseline numbers, run on stock-style 14-inch Cooper tires, no less. We headed down the road to the Hotchkis Installation Center for the upgrades, then returned some weeks later for post-upgrade testing. With the TVS in place and running our modern BFGs, we were able to twist through the slalom course 3.5 mph faster than baseline. What's just as impressive, however, is that we were able to make the run just over 2 mph faster on the old-school Coopers. Better suspension makes good use of better tires, but in this case, dividends are paid even with traditional tires.
Our skidpad test area was unfortunately unavailable during our baseline testing, but frankly, we don't need to know where we started to realize that the 0.85g we pulled with the TVS/BFG combo is impressive-as is the 0.76g we managed with the 14-inchers mounted. We've seen a baseline of 0.63g on a '70 Elky with similar rubber in a previous test. The more-modern alignment specs, lack of body roll, and better contact-patch management all led to less understeer-and greatly improved roadholding ability. Finally, our subject '69 stopped 8 feet shorter from 60 mph. We wanted to retest on the Coopers, but our day of testing had taken its toll on the car's stock binders, a deficiency we'll remedy in Part II.
The El Camino's owner, Bernie DeMarkey, told us he was prepared to sacrifice a smooth ride in the name of performance...and was glad to find that he didn't have to. "The ride quality is much better than before," he reported. "The car's solid, but not abrupt when it hits bumps," he continued. "The body lean is totally gone, and so is that 'floaty' feel." DeMarkey summed up his revised ride by saying, "We've updated the overall feel of the car to what we're driving today."
As performed by Hotchkis Installation Center lead wrench Corey Bedortha, installing the TVS on this A-body took roughly a day, less alignment and pinion-angle setup. We mention the issue of alignment on purpose. According to Bedortha, the factory rear suspensions setups couldn't really handle the power being put through them, "so they made the front end not bite." Factory toe-in was set at 51/416 inch; Bedortha set it to 11/416 inch with the TVS. The General also endowed the Elky with positive camber, 0-0.5 degree's worth; the new setting is -0.7 degree. Factory caster, on the other hand, was negative (-1.5 degrees). Bedortha set it to +1.9 degrees, which he told us was the best he could get. To see more improvement, we need more positive caster and negative camber.
And that's where we'll end Part I of our quest to create and agile Elky. Installing the Hotchkis TVS system radically improved this musclecar's handling and ride quality, but our alignment options are limited by the stock spindles and control arms. In Part II, we'll address this issue with Hotchkis' B-body spindle conversion, as well as its brand-spanking-new upper and lower control arms. The spindle setup provides new 12-inch front disc brakes-to this we'll add a True Connections rear disc kit. We'll of course hit the test track again and bring you the numbers. See you then.
Graphic DepictionIt's all well and good for us to talk about "improved handling," but it's better still when we can show you. First of all, note the drastic reduction in body roll in our before and after photos. We all know that cutting down body roll is a good thing; John Hotchkis explains why: "With increased roll stiffness, the car turns more quickly and is better balanced." The real action, however, happens where the rubber meets the road. "The secret," Hotchkis continues, "is to manage the tire contact patch." Check out the Elky's right front tire in each of our photos.
In stock form, the tire is literally falling over and cornering on its side. Once TVS-equipped, cornering is happening on the tires' contact patch, which is as it should be. There's a lot of grip happening here, much more than any tire could achieve with the stock suspension. This is especially important with modern rubber. "Today's tires are better than the race rubber available when these cars were new," Hotchkis observes. Stiffer is generally better, but if the sway bar/spring combo is too stiff, the tires are overpowered and pull on road ripples. It's a balancing act; in this case, well-balanced is what we got.
ON THE TEST TRACK
|BEFORE||40.6 mph||n/a||185 feet|
|AFTER (w/14-inch tires)||42.7 mph||0.76g||n/a|
|AFTER(w/17-inch tires)||44.1 mph||0.85g||177 feet|