Second Project Car and Mechanics
October 1, 1997
By Scott Lewis
For my second project car I built a 1970 Chevelle. Nothing special here, but a great learning experience. Follow along for a trip down memory lane. Along the way I will tell you about a true mechanic that I have come to trust explicitly.
My step-brother once asked me to look at a Chevelle he picked up for $500. He thought it would need some tune-up work, maybe a little more, and wanted to know if I could get it running for him to use as daily transportation. Well I looked at the car at night (a big mistake). But I could tell it was in really bad condition. The body was straight, but the rest of the car was in bad shape. The engine ran terrible. I told him the car wasn't worth saving, and offered to give him the $500 he paid for it to take it off his hands. He declined. A couple of months later he asked me to look at it again. This time I looked at it in the daytime. The car was blowing so much blue smoke that it left a trail (no lie) about an eighth mile long. There was a hole in the muffler that I could put my fist into. The rear suspension was jacked up so high I thought it had to be equipped with air shocks (it was not, it had station wagon springs). The body was reasonably straight, but it was clear that at least one fender was not original. It had been scraped slightly to the point of showing a galvanized fender under the paint. The quarter panels were replaced too. The paint inside the trunk did not match. The left rear quarter panel had a couple of dings, with rust under some patched bodywork. So it was fixed more than once in its life. I stuck to my original deal, and offered my step-brother the $500 to take it off his hands. He accepted.
So I brought the car home. I planned on using this car as a learning tool. I had never taken auto mechanics in high school, and regretted it badly. So this was my chance to teach myself. I bought a compression tester, and tested all the cylinders. All the cylinders came up between 90 - 120 psi, except one. One cylinder was 30. I did the classic squirt oil into the cylinder and test it again. Poof, 60 psi. This motor is junk. So I decided to pull the motor. I ran to a local tool rental place and got a hoist. I started pulling everything off the motor. I did my best to label all the wires, and with a friend that did take auto mechanics working the hoist, I pulled the engine and tranny out together. The only mistake I had made was not being able to figure out how to take the speedometer cable out of the back of the tranny. I cut it. That was a $12 mistake. I wouldn't let my friend help me, so he laughed when he saw the stub of cable sticking out of the tranny, then showed me how it comes off. Oops.
I had bought an engine stand that day as well, and put the engine on it. When I took it apart I found 3 piston skirts in the bottom of the oil pan. Now for that bad cylinder... When I took it out, pieces of metal fell to the floor. The ring lands between the first and second rings, and the ring lands between the second and third rings were crumbled to pieces. For about 3/4 the way around the piston. I was impressed the engine actually ran after seeing this. So was my friend.
I decided that the engine wasn't worth saving (it was only a 307 as well). So now were to look. This brings me to my mechanic. The best mechanic in the world. No, this is not too high of praise. My best friend's mother remarried an engineer at AT&T. He was a self-taught mechanic on the side. He basically did it to pay for his toys. His toys were major power tools, and car parts. We had become friends ourselves during the time after I built my first project car. Whenever I needed work done to a car, he would trade me for the labor, and only charge me his cost on parts. His cost was those great mechanics discounts. The labor trade had been building up on my side. I had helped him, and my best friend, chop up some trees they were cutting down in their backyard. Pros took the main trees down to the ground due to power lines that mandated (by law) to have professionals do it. We cut up all the wood into fire wood. We ended up with 6 cords. At least that was what my mechanic called the 6 huge piles of wood. It took us two weekends. I also helped demolish a brick wall/bar-b-que that was added to their house a long time ago. They didn't use it, and it blocked access to the coming 2-1/2 car garage (up from 1-1/2). That demo work was an all day affair for the three of us taking turns with the sledge hammer and loading the bricks up in the truck. Then one weekend when my best friend was out of town (his girlfriend moved to PA. Oh, we were in NY) I got a call from my mechanic asking if I had some time to help move the lumber. It seams that not enough fore thought was giving to the room needed to build the addition to the garage, and we needed to move 3 or the cords to another location to make room for the construction grew. No problem. In case you are woundering who got the better deal, I think I did. Although I probably gave him more than 5 times as many labor hours, he fed me (something that has stopped other from asking my help since i eat A LOT), and I always learned a lot around him. Plus most of this work was fun hanging with two of my best friends.
Back to the car. My mechanic offered me a 350 short block for $75. That was what he paid for it. It had 4 bolt mains and a steel crank. A good buy in my book. So I let my brother take the 307 and donate to the high school auto mechanics department. I put the 350 on the stand and stripped it down. I organized the parts in preparation for machining the block. I had thought about exchanging the block for a setup that was already assembled, but decided that would defeat the purpose of learning it myself. Also, there would be much more of a premium than $75 for an engine with 4 bolt mains and a steel crank. So rebuild was in order.
I started hoarding parts in my closet, same as I had done on my first project. This time I was buying more internal parts, but it was still the same stash it in the closet regiment. I had TRW forged pistons and rings, gaskets, oil pump, ARP connect rod bolts, bearings, headers, fuel pump, etc. I priced around for the machine work. I got a couple of prices for the machining package (hot tank the block, check and straighten the crank, bore and hone with torque plates, resize both ends of the rods with the new rod bolts, deck the block, install cam bearings and freeze plugs, balancing, etc. You know, the basics and a little more). The best price was with S&K Speed out on Long Island. Their price list for the individual machining beat the other's package prices. So I went to them. Besides, I got the 440 short block and heads from them for my first project car, and knew I could trust their work. Double-bonus.
After I dropped off the block, crank, pistons and rods to the machine shop I started pricing cylinder heads, so I could select the manifold, carb and cam. I didn't have enough money for a set of aftermarket heads, so I thought I would get some from a junk yard and have them rebuilt. So off to the mail order parts for the cam manifold and carb. I ordered a Holley manifold that was virtually an exact match to the old LT-1 high rise dual plane manifold that Chevy offered back in 1970. I also ordered a Holley 700 double pumper carb, and a Crane cam. I don't remember the cam specs anymore. I picked up the block from the machine shop. To my surprise the $800 that I figured by adding up all the prices from their price sheet came up $90 less. They basically did a package deal without me asking. It would have been $100 cheaper, but the block needed the threads re-tapped for an extra $10. Cool. Way to go S&K.
When I got home from the machine shop, there was a message for me to call work. I called to find out I was fired. I was working in a gas station, and the new owners fired all of the old employees. Oops. I was in trouble. Basically I was living at home (with my Mom), so rent and stuff wasn't a big deal. But I didn't have enough money to get the heads for this great short block. So I changed the mail order cam, carb, and manifold to the Edelbrock performer series cam and manifold, and went to a 600 Holley vacuum secondary card. Then I use the last of my job less money to exchange the 307 heads for a set of replacement heads, $140 complete. Complete but not performance. Oh well, speed costs money, and suddenly I didn't have any. I spent the entire winter building the engine. Since I didn't have enough money to finish the engine, I was in no hurry. I did everything myself. I would not accept help from anyone. I wanted to learn, and now had all the time to learn what it took.
Installation time. I got a job at S&K Speed, part time. This was cool, but would have been better if I had gotten the job before I spent all the money with them. With the employee discount I was able to get a high performance fuel pump for my mechanic (his network of parts suppliers were mainly replacement parts), and traded it for an HEI distributor for my engine. Cool. It was now time to install the engine. I told my best friend that I was going to rent a hoist that weekend and install the motor. Well, I get this phone call from my mechanic telling me to get over to his house ASAP. Oh no, what didn't I do. Did I forget some promise I had made. Why was he so upset. I go over. I stood there afraid of the trouble I was in. He says "I here you are going to rent a hoist to install your engine." I answer yes. He says, "What is wrong with my hoist? Haven't you done enough for me that I can help you out?" I was stunned. I told him that I was saving my favors with him until I was in real trouble. So come Saturday the two of us are pushing his hoist a half mile through the side streets from his house to mine. Cool!
Well as luck, or Murphy, would have it I really did need his help. See, the motor mounts didn't quite line up, and had he not been there I never would have been able to install the engine myself. It took us quite a while, since we first tried to install the engine and tranny together. That was the way they came out, right. Well that big ass Moroso oil pan was great for supplying lots of oil, but it wouldn't get passed the cross member with the tranny attached. So back the engine out, disconnect the tranny, and put the engine in.
I spent the next two weekends hooking up everything I could. Then I asked for some help. As it turned out, while I was installing new inner fender wells (during the long winter) I had accidentally pulled out a couple of wires leading to the heater blower motor, and lost the labels on a couple of others. Plus I didn't know how to wire in the HEI distributor. So I asked my mechanic if he could give me a had with these things. He comes over with the factory wiring diagrams that he copied form the original Chevy manuals from a friend of his that worked in a Chevy dealership. Cool. We ran a test meter to the two wires to make sure they were right, he easily figured out the couple of wires that lost their labels, and the HEI was a snap. We finished in less than an hour.
Fire up time. So now it is another day and I just finished get the motor completely full of fluids, and decided to see if it would start. I never thought it would, and figured that this would at least tell me what I was in for come the weekend. It was a Tuesday evening. I went to start the thing. I got major back fires through the carb. I thought maybe the distributor was 180 degree out. So I removed it, and turned it 180 degrees and reinstalled it. Now I was getting big sprays of fuel shooting out of the carb. Call my mechanic. In an instant he tells me that the distributor was right the first time, and I have the valves adjusted too tight. O.K. turn the distributor around, pull the valve covers and back off all the valves a half turn (per my mechanics phone instructions). Va-room it runs. In fact, I still didn't expect it to start. I was 11:00 pm, and the car had open headers. I let it run for 15 minutes for a proper break-in. This made the neighbors very mad. Oh well.
I little fine tuning of the valves and carb, plus replacing a float with a hole in it, and the engine ran without trouble for 10,000 miles. That's when I replaced the heads, cam, manifold... but that is another column.
If you have a good car story, let me know. I would love to hear it.