By 1970, the muscle car had reached the pinnacle of development. Big-block V-8 engines producing as much as 425 horsepower were available on most manufacturers’ option lists. Heavier suspension, brake and drivetrain components to make it all work had also finally become part of the package.
New emission standards, however, also left manufacturers scrambling to get the performance V-8 engines to comply — and a fuel embargo meant fuel was scarce in several parts of North America.
Insurance companies saw anything more than 300 horsepower as excessive and an increased liability, so added premiums were levied against certain models.
New bumper legislation led to shock-absorbing bumpers that stuck out from the body and were often fitted with huge rubber cushions that did little to aid styling.
The wild card in the hand was the market itself. Baby boomers who had purchased these factory hot rods in droves throughout the 1960s were shifting their attention toward investing in a home and family, instead of laying out their cash for a fast car. As time passed, emissions legislation grew stricter, compression ratios dropped and power took a back seat to a posh ride.
At Chevrolet, one of the last players was the 1973 Chevelle SS 454 hardtop. Newly styled for ’73, the Chevelle looked nothing like the previous model. Of the thousands sold, only 28,642 would wear the optional Z55, Super Sport or SS badging and just 2,500 of those were ordered with the LS-4 454 V-8 engine. Now rated in SAE net figures, advertised horsepower was just 245 at a lowly 4,000 r.p.m., while torque figures were still a respectable 375 ft./lb at 2,800 r.p.m. Only 625 of those SS454 models produced would receive the Muncie M-21 four-speed manual transmission, meaning these were uncommon models when produced.
Finding one today is extremely rare.
In 1997, Greg Eastwood of Dugald felt it was time to find a performance car as a rebuild project. Eastwood says, “A friend from work told me about a Chevelle in a Brandon backyard so I drove out with a flat-deck trailer to have a look at it.” The 1973 Chevelle SS454 was complete and still in fairly good condition. In 1998, Eastwood stripped the car and mounted it on a rotisserie for a full restoration. That was followed by a 10-year break before Eastwood would find time to return to it. A leaking windshield led to the replacement of the front floor pans to remove the only rust on the car; the replacement of the brakes, steering and suspension components brought the frame back into serviceable condition.
It was then that Eastwood started doing some investigation into the car. The Chevelle Club registry shows that of the 2,500 built, only eight were assembled in the Oshawa, Ont., plant and only two carried the four-speed manual transmission. Those two cars were built in October of 1972 and delivered to Wheaton Motors in Regina. The car was sold by the dealer only to be repossessed 10 months later and then wholesaled to a Brandon car dealer. Rick Mennie would purchase the car and drive it until 1980 before selling it to Bob Gamble.
Eastwood also found that the original engine had expired along the way and was replaced by a 1970 vintage LS-6 454 V-8. The LS-6 was built by Bob Geisbrect at Midwest Performance in Brandon and pumps out an impressive 450 horsepower.
To freshen the engine, Eastwood had Kevin Mills re-ring the stock bore TRW-forged pistons, add a new mechanical performance camshaft, roller rocker arms, aluminium intake manifold, 800 CFM Holley four-barrel carburetor and Pertronix Ignitor ignition conversion. A set of ceramic-coated tube headers lead to a 2.5-inch diameter custom dual exhaust system, with stainless steel Magnaflow mufflers, installed by Econo Muffler Auto Centre in Transcona. Backing the engine is the factory M-21 four-speed manual transmission, leading to the 3.73:1 geared, 12-bolt posi-traction rear axle. Cooling the big-block is a three-core radiator from Western Radiator.
The bodywork and preparation for a full repaint were the work of Doug Newton at Anola Custom Collision and Glass. Finished in the original Light Blue Metallic with silver accent stripes and bodyside moulding, it looks factory fresh. Chrome trim and bumpers are original and look great thanks to Eastwood’s work in bringing them back with some serious polishing. The Chevelle rolls on a set of GM 15-inch Rallye wheels with Cooper M series radials up front and Mickey Thompson ET Street radials in back.
The interior upholstery is all new. A blue velour fabric upholstery kit and seat foam were purchased from Year One and installed, along with new door panels, carpet and headliner, by Kris Johnson in Beausejour. The factory swivel bucket seats remain, as does the centre console.
Factory optional equipment includes power steering, power front disc brakes, F-40 heavy-duty suspension and cooling package, tinted glass and AM/FM 8-track stereo. The factory gauge package is retained and backed up by a set of mechanical gauges mounted under the dash.
With only a few thousand miles on the car since the rebuild, Eastwood, a member of the Manitoba Street Rod Association since 2010, still finds his schedule hasn’t allowed him much time to get out to the cruise nights and shows and let everyone see the car. This rare blast from the past is really a sight to behold.
The Chevelle SS was replaced in the model line-up in 1974 with the Laguna S3 hardtop. The horsepower, prestige and muscle car magic had faded out only to be replaced with an optional tape stripe that barely paid homage to what these boulevard brutes brought to the era.