My First Project Car
August 1, 1997
By Scott Lewis
Welcome. This is my first edition of Car Corner. I plan on writing an editorial on cars. Today I will tell you about my first project car. In future editions you can expect more articles like this one, and articles on other automotive related topics. I am planning on writing about the ultimate Camaro project car. Basically that will be my dream car if I ever get the time and the money, mostly the money, to build it. So join me on this little venture, and maybe we can have some fun.
My first project car was a 1973 Plymouth Road Runner GTX. It ad a 440 engine. I bought the car from the original owner, also my best friend's brother, for $320. The paint was in horrible shape. It was originally silver, or gray, but as some people know many Chrysler cars from that era had a tendency for the primer to bleed through the top coat of paint. The car also had rust on each quarter panel just behind the rear wheels. Typical. The interior was perfect except for a couple of rips in the drivers seat. Easily fixed with a pair of seat covers.
I got the car in 1985. The engine was mostly original except for a Holley carb and the disconnecting of some of the emissions control devices of the time. I drove the car as is for about 6 months. The engine was so tired that it could not even chirp the tires off the line. Only power braking would allow it to smoke the tires.
A friend of mine noticed a slight knocking sound in the engine. I thought it might have been a bad tank of gas. My friend's father was retired, but used to own a garage, and had a good deal of experience with cars. We took it by him for a look. Keep in mind up to this point in time I learned most of what I knew about cars from magazines and books, and knew very little about actually working on cars until this Road Runner. My friend's father lifted the hood, and then asked my friend to get him a pair of pliers. He looked at the engine idling for about 2 minutes. It seams like 20 to me. Then he used the pliers to grab one of the spark plug wires off, with the engine running. Suddenly this light knocking sound turned into a huge banging sound. He put the plug wire back on, and told me the engine was junk and I should get the car off the road before it died in the street. Damn, what was I going to do. I couldn't believe it.
Well, I drove the car home and put it in my mother's garage. I left the car in that garage for about 6 - 8 months while I saved every penny I could to build a new engine. I had been reading about cars for about 5 years at this point, but had never gotten the chance to really do anything about it. I drove my mother's car during this time. I mail ordered various parts as I saved money. I stored the parts n my closet. I had a couple of friends that thought I was nuts getting all these speed parts. Even the friend, whose father told me about the original engine being junk, told me the parts I was getting would never work together. He was taking auto mechanics in high school. I had already gotten a Competition Cams 292 Magnum Cam, Holley 750 Double Pumper Carb, Edelbrock Torker Manifold, Blackjack Aluminum coated headers, B&M Holeshot torque convert, Rhodes variable duration lifters, and a couple of other parts I can't think of.
Since I had never built an engine before, or put one in a car, I got some help. I took the car over my aunt's boyfriend's house. He was a backyard mechanic, mostly into bodywork. He had never built a high performance engine before, but he had done some rebuilds on motorcycle engines, and had done some remove and replace operations before. So I thought he had the qualifications I needed, plus he was cheap and had a place and equipment to do the work.
A local machine shop had gotten a large batch of factory new short blocks from Chrysler. They were 440 magnum short blocks still in the crates. I got one for $800. The machine shop also had rebuilt 440 heads. They were the same castings as the ones used in the late sixties on 375 hp 440 engines. They were completely rebuilt with all new stainless steel valves, guilds, springs, etc. It even included a three angle valve job. The heads cost $500. So for $1300 I gave them my engine and picked up the new short block, and the rebuilt heads. When I went back to the machine shop to get some of the items from the original engine they told me it had spun a bearing so bad that they couldn't turn the engine in the block. It was a miracle that it ran right up until we lifted it from the car.
So the build was on. It took us about two weeks to put it all together. We finally got it going. I only regretted one thing, the distributor. I thought an aftermarket one would do a better job that the factory one. I later found out that the factory electronic distributor of the time was a very good piece. As it turned out, the car ran great. All the people that thought I was nuts changed their tune. Even my aunt's friend didn't know if it would work. He was the first to change his mind. He said that it would chirp the tires with only 1/3 throttle on the way home from the muffler shop were the exhaust was installed. Others changed their minds when I gave them rides in this speed demon.
My memory is a little weak, but it is possible that this Road Runner was faster than my 93 Z28. And the package never got optimized. The car only had 2.93:1 gears, and regular tires. 3:91:1 gears were in the plan, as well as some sticky aftermarket tires. With those mods, and a little tuning, that Road Runner would be the fastest car I ever drove. But alas, the car died a disastrous wiring melt down, due to problems the car had before I owned it, and did know how to take care of until it was too late. I eventually had to junk the car, and sold the engine. The original Magnum 500 style wheels are currently stored in my old bedroom closet back at my mother's house.
During the time I drove the Road Runner, before the engine build up, I had a falling out with my best friend. My new best friend's mother was getting remarried to an AT&T engineer. He was also a self taught mechanic. He is the only person that told me that I got too small a carb. He said I should have gotten the 850 Holley. Since I did not meet him until just after the engine was in the car, it was too late. I did not mind though, and was worried about too big a carb with an automatic transmission.
My new best friend at that time is still my best friend today. His step-father and I built a good friendship as well, and I still refer to him as my mechanic. I live 2000 mile away from him now, but that has not stopped me from calling him when I am stuck with a problem. In fact, next month's column I will tell the story of my mechanic in combination with my second car project.
If you have a good car story, let me know. I would love to hear it.