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Build Your First Chevy Project Car - Build Your First Bow Tie

Tips And Tricks To Make Your First Project Car A Success.

By Tommy Lee Byrd, Photography by Tommy Lee Byrd

When it comes to car guys, pretty much everybody has a project. It provides something to work on during the evenings, and gives us something to talk about with fellow car guys. Let's just say it's healthy to have a project car of some sort to keep your mind occupied. Of course, some folks get carried away and take on too many projects at once. This usually results in very little progress because the efforts get spread so thin. It's hard to find a happy medium, but purchasing a complete running and driving car that simply needs minor updates is a step in the right direction for a beginner. In fact, you'll probably save money with this approach, even if you're a seasoned gearhead.

Building your first Chevy will be a challenge, no matter the car's condition, but that's part of the fun. However, a car that presents too much of a challenge can quickly suck the fun right out of the equation, and give you more headaches down the road. For instance, buying a car just because it's cheap only makes sense if the car is buildable. And if you take a step backward and learn what the term "buildable" means for you, your skill level and budget, then you're more educated than most buyers in this market.

Sit down and crunch the numbers to see exactly how much you want to spend, and base the build around that. Some of the cars you see in Super Chevy are extravagant and wicked fast, but you must consider the dollar amounts and man hours involved with each project. Your first Bow Tie build needs to be simple. It always helps if you can stick to a budget, so lay out the groundwork before you go all in on a project car.

If you're looking for a starting point, searching the internet on sites like www.autotraderclassics.com isn't a bad way to start. There are lots of good deals out there right now, especially on cars that are outdated, or need some work to be road worthy. Beware of deals that are too good to be true, because there are a lot of those on the Net. And don't forget about your local newspaper. It seems like an archaic way to list a car for sale these days, but plenty of people out there still use local print ads to get the word out. Finding a car locally makes for a simpler buying process, because you can physically look at the car without driving hundreds of miles or relying on cell phone pictures to determine its condition. Sometimes these cars have a bit of history among the local car guy ranks, and that's always cool.

Once you find the right car, it's a matter of doing what you can to make it better, whether it's complete or disassembled. If the car is a total basket case, then your best bet is to figure out the parts you need to order just to get it running. A key element to building your first Chevy is making it run and drive. This provides motivation to keep working, and certainly renews interest in a build that has fallen through the cracks over time. For any gearhead, firing an engine for the first time is a moment of many emotions, the two most prominent being excitement that it's actually running, and fear that it might fly apart. Again, challenges are part of a project car, and knowing how to handle them is a benefit of experience. Long-time car guys can give you more tips and tricks than we could ever fit in this article. Having an experienced friend to help along the way is always a good thing. Rarely does a car get built single-handedly, so don't hesitate to invite your buddies over for a garage night every once in a while. If you find it necessary, sweeten the deal with a few pizzas and plenty of cold drinks.

How you choose to build your Chevy greatly affects the amount of money you'll spend. Full on pro touring builds generally cost a lot because many parts on the car need to be modified to make it handle and perform to the desired level. Drag cars are in the same boat, as enthusiasts always want to go faster and make the car perform better, for the sake of a quicker e.t. or a better launch. Building a car for any type of racing quickly gets expensive. To stay on budget, you generally need to stay on the street. Build a simple street car with the appropriate upgrades, and just have fun with it. Go to cruise nights, take it to a local car show-whatever you do, just have fun. Don't worry about the car's imperfections, and don't be afraid to point them out to fellow car guys. If you haven't noticed, part of the hobby is to talk about future plans for your car.

There's no specific order you need to follow when it comes to building your first Chevy. But, it definitely makes sense to get the suspension and engine worked out before the car is painted and upholstered. Some folks concentrate mainly on getting the engine dialed in, and then move to the other areas of concern-it's all about your preference, and the car's needs. Building an old vehicle isn't cheap and it isn't easy, but the process is much simpler if you're starting with something that only needs cosmetic updates, or a fresh powerplant, rather than a complete frame-up rebuild. Take the right steps, stick to the budget, and your first Chevy build will provide lots of fun, both in the garage and on the highway. From there you can update the existing setup until the final goal is met. Whether that means outrunning a new ZO6 in a friendly showdown, or toasting the field at a Super Chevy autocross event. Either way, don't forget to have fun, and enjoy the quality time with your first Bow Tie buildup.

Chassis and Suspension
Whether chassis and suspension modifications are intended for performance or looks, it's a good place to start. Detroit Speed and Engineering is a dreamer's paradise, as it produces all sorts of high-end suspension parts for Camaros, Novas, and Chevelles. For a first-time build, you may want to resist the temptation for fancy components and keep it simple with a few modest bolt-on modifications. Cutting front coil springs is an acceptable way to lower a car's ride height, and slightly increase the spring rate, offering a stiffer suspension. This doesn't cost anything but your time. For the rear, lowering springs are usually the answer, but you can get away a lot cheaper if your car rides on leaf springs by using lowering blocks. This does little to improve the handling, but you can make the car sit right for about 40 bucks-not a bad investment.

For unibody cars, subframe connectors are always a good addition, especially on one that has suffered rust damage over the years. There's no doubt that stiffening the unibody structure helps with handling and overall performance, so you can't go wrong here. If your car didn't come with disc brakes, put that on your list of modifications and make it happen. Drum brakes just don't cut it for high performance cars, so this is a great place to spend a little extra money on your first project. Wheels and tires, however, have been known to drain bank accounts across the country. On that note, a bad set of wheels and tires can ruin an otherwise cool muscle car. Weigh out the pros and cons, and find a way to make your combination unique and tasteful.

Engine and Transmission
There's no question that the LS-family of engines is the go-to choice for power these days. Usually affordable and always powerful, the LS platform is certainly the way to go if you don't mind spending a few thousand dollars. That's if you want a brand new crate engine or even a high performance junkyard engine. However, if you want LS power with the price of a Gen I small-block Chevy, the '99-up LS-based truck engines are the answer. There are several choices for displacement, but it's common for thrifty enthusiasts to use the LQ9 (6.0-liter), which comes from the Cadillac Escalade or other large GM SUV models. You can find one of these for less than $2,000 in most cases, complete from intake to oil pan with the wiring harness also included.

Another option is to keep it simple with a Gen I small-block build, as it's still the cheapest and simplest engine to build. Big-blocks are also fairly inexpensive if you stay out of the race parts department. With all this in mind, a bone stock 6.0 Vortec engine will make around 350 hp, and a basic small block should do about the same with a mild camshaft and a decent set of iron heads-the biggest difference is the efficiency, as the late-model Vortec engine will get about 10 more mpg than an old school small-block in the same horsepower range. With the small-block, you'll save on the specialized parts needed to swap in a modern engine, like the engine-swap mounts, headers, and oil pan. It's truly a battle of pros and cons, but if your budget will allow, you'll be happier with a fuel-injected LS-style engine.

Paint and Interior
Getting your project running and driving is one thing, but making it look good is also part of the fun. Bodywork isn't for everyone, but if you can do some of the work yourself, it saves a ton of money. Rust is a big issue for cars outside of Southern California and the Sun Belt, and it's impossible to combat the problem without new metal. Luckily, many companies, like Auto Metal Direct, manufacture body panels for a variety of Chevy passenger cars. Paint and bodywork are expensive, but the quality of workmanship is usually a matter of how much you want to spend. If your budget doesn't allow for a decent paint job, just leave it in primer and have fun with it until you save enough cash for the shiny stuff.

Interior is another tough deal, as custom upholstery is expensive, no matter how you go about it. Interior kits, like the ones available from CARS Inc., can restore the interior in your Chevy, and installation is user-friendly, even for a beginner. There's never a disadvantage with simply going back to stock with an interior. However, some folks resort to racing or late model OE seats if they can't find the originals, or if they want a lighter, more functional alternative that doesn't require re-covering. Add a few auxiliary gauges if you need them, install a good shifter, possibly update the stereo, and you have comfortable surroundings with a few nice details thrown in the mix.

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By Tommy Lee Byrd
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