One of the most critical and yet overlooked systems to be found on a classic Corvette is the cooling system. Anyone who has clocked any serious seat time in one of these machines has inevitably experienced the anxiety of steadily climbing temperatures, and the worry and grief that goes along with it. Nothing ruins a summer outing like a vehicle that simply won't keep its cool. Add a modified engine, lower gears, or even normal stock equipment like air conditioning, and the potential for heating problems is only exasperated.
With most new vehicles, we tend not to give it a second thought, flying down desert highways in the searing heat of summer, A/C blasting, with nary a worry in a world. Contrast that to sweating with the A/C long switched off to preserve cooling capacity, fretting and concerned as the temperature gauge continues to climb. Sometimes, evasive action is called for, slowing to a fraction of the flow of modern traffic, or even turning on the heater in a desperate bid to shed additional BTUs with the meager capacity of the heater core. Take the opposite scenario, you're trapped in the snarl of urban traffic with nowhere to go, idling and crawling with no possibility of escape; the temperature gauge begins to soar. You suffer the impending doom, again perhaps trying the heater trick, or continuously clutching, or going to neutral and holding some revs in a frantic effort to shave critical degrees. If enough heat reaches the carb, you'll experience the double indignity of an engine boiling the fuel and continually trying to stall. A nightmare scenario? Actually, it's all too common.
These kinds of problems are so prevalent, in fact, that in many cases the tendency to overheat is a primary reason many owners simply will not drive their classic Vette. A few bad experiences as those just described are more than enough for many owners to opt for permanent dry-dock in the confines of a garage. So, what makes a modern machine so capable of coping in situations which may push our older Vettes over the edge? There are a variety of factors, not the least of which include higher overdrive gearing to reduce the revs, and the seldom considered effects of built-up rust and corrosion in the water jackets. Be that as it may, almost all modern machines feature large aluminum radiators with high-efficiency electric fans.
For the ultimate cooling in a classic Vette, it pays to take a page from the advancements put forth by the modern OEMs. First, consider that at best, many older Vettes were marginally equipped in cooling capacity, even when new. Although there are many factors involved in cooling efficiency, such as airflow, the fan/fan clutch condition, thermostat, and water pump, the bottom line comes down to one major factor-the radiator's ability to shed heat. When it comes to real cooling ability, this is the big-daddy factor that really counts the most. If that capacity is not there, you can fool with thermostats, trick water pumps, fans, airflow shields, gaskets, or all manner of magic elixirs and potions added to the coolant, and still come away frustrated. By contrast, bolt-in a radiator with heroic capacity to dissipate BTUs and fans to really move the air, and success is virtually guaranteed every time.
A perfect example of all we've aforementioned is our '76 Stingray. With only a mildly modded 350, this machine has ample get-up and go, but the combination of relatively low gearing and a marginal factory cooling system made it undrivable from any practical standpoint. At normal freeway speed, the temperature would climb precipitously, punctuated with convulsions of boiling and frothing when parked at the end of a run. On the other hand, crawling through traffic was a certain death sentence, sure to end with coolant breaching its confines to spill gracelessly on the tarmac below. Basically, the car was useless, but we knew what to do. Here there was no room to compromise; the plan was simply to bolt-in the best system we could find-a modern high-capacity radiator, complete with precisely controlled electric fans.