Getting a Vehicle Back on the Road, Part 1: Fresh Rubber Helps Get Our LS-Swapped Chevelle Wagon Street-Worthy
When it comes to project cars, buying someone else’s abandoned, forgotten or incomplete project can be either the best or the worst thing you can do.
In an ideal situation, a lot of the hard work will already be completed, and some of the expensive parts will already be there. And you, the new owner, will mainly responsible for tying up loose ends, and saving a lot of money (and time) along the way.
But just as often, taking over someone else’s unfinished project can turn into a nightmare. And fixing old mistakes and shortcuts can drive you mad and empty your wallet very quickly. It's often so bad that you’d have been much better off simply starting your own project from scratch.
These were all thoughts that were crossing my mind a couple months ago standing in a gentlemen's garage overlooking a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle Concours station wagon.
Welcome to the Wagon Life
I hadn't been looking for another project car, but the previous evening the Chevelle had popped up on my local Craigslist and I couldn't resist going to take a look. The guy told me he'd been working on the car over the past couple of years but life (and space issues) got in the way.
The car itself was cosmetically unrestored. Original yellow paint with plenty of patina (if that's your thing). The interior was equally original and also in need of restoration.
Additionally, the channels where the rear side windows go had rusted from water leaking in, so the owner had removed the glass and hadn't got around to having the rust repaired and the windows re-sealed and reinstalled. This was by far the biggest "issue" with the car.
There were plenty of positives though. Aside from the window issue, the car was otherwise rust free and didn't have any major body issues.
A Modern Heart
The owner had also removed the original 350 cubic inch small block and installed a Chevy 5.3L LS V8 and 4L60E overdrive transmission from an early 2000s Suburban.
The wiring was a bit of mess and most of the gauges didn't work, but the car fired up and ran, and he said the car drove pretty well.
However, there was no exhaust system installed yet and the roar from the open header V8 and the complaints from a homeowner's association was another reason he'd decided to sell the car.
All in all I was pretty impressed with the car. It needed lots of work for sure, but the potential was undeniable.
Ever since having kids, I'd always wanted to own a station wagon version of late '60s/early '70s muscle car and the Chevelle fit the bill perfectly. And the fact that it already had a 5.3 swap was icing on the cake.
But given the number of cars I already have and the lack of time to work on them, I was still hesitant to pull the trigger. I certainly didn't need the car. However, his initial asking price wasn't outrageous, and I made a not-quite lowball offer, which he accepted without much hesitation.
A Deal is Made
Uh-oh. Just what I needed. So there we were on trip to the bank, and a couple hours later loading the Chevelle onto my dad's car trailer and pissing-off the seller's neighbors with open headers one last time.
After getting the car home it was time to figure out what to do with it. I knew this was going to be a long term project, but there were a couple things I wanted to do sooner rather than later.
The first was a temporary fix for the rear side windows. Being wintertime, and with my own garage full, my brother let me store the car inside his shop to make sure the elements didn't wreak havoc on the old Chevy.
Fortunately the glass came with the car (along with a whole load of other miscellaneous parts he'd collected) so while I look for someone who can do the metal work to properly repair the window openings, we pulled out the duct tape and put the glass back in.
This will at least keep rain water (and critters) from getting inside the car while its parked on the sideyard at my house.
During the process of the unloading the car and moving it around, we not surprisingly discovered a couple other issues. First was the shift linkage that had come undone, which was fortunately an easy fix.
The second was a gasoline leak near the external fuel pump which left a nice smelly puddle under the car when we tried to move it from my brother's place.
Once again it was a more of an annoying headache than a difficult fix, and surely won't be the last as we dig into the car more.
"Can I Borrow Your NT555 G2s?"
Needless to say I was anxious to at least get the car out on the road to see how it drove. But before doing that, I wanted to address the wheels and tires.
The car came with 15" wheels from an S10 pickup and I didn't want to take any chances with the old, worn tires so I called in another favor to my dad.
Being a General Motors A-Body cousin to my Chevelle, my dad's 1970 Pontiac GTO has the same wheel bolt pattern and fitment as my car, so I asked (in my nicest voice) if I could borrow his Nitto NT555 G2 tires and 17" Trans Am Race Engineering wheels.
The GTO is actually going under the knife for some engine work of its own (look for that soon) so it worked out well for me to borrow his tires for a bit.
The wheels are 17"x8 all around and the NT555 G2s are 245-45 R17 on each corner—and even on the unrestored wagon the wheels and tires made huge difference in looks.
They did, however, also emphasize the need for some suspension work. I'm not sure how much is because of the 5.3 swap, but the nose of the car sits way too high right now—I can't wait to see how the car will look with a proper stance.
Of course soon enough the car will have its own set of NT555 G2s and wheels and I'll likely going something a little more aggressive, because unlike the GTO, there'll be no need to worry about much about modifying a "true muscle car" when it comes to the wagon.
For now though these will do just fine. And the other day I finally had the chance to get the car out on the road for a little drive with no need to worry about a blowout or other issues from the old tires it came with.
The previous owner wasn't lying. The car actually drives surprisingly well. With the exception of it being ridiculously loud, catching whiffs of gas fumes and wiring all over the interior. The 5.3L runs great, and it's great having an engine and transmission at least, that perform like a modern car.
I only drove the car for a short time, but I still had a huge smile on my face. And I also started having visions of all the things you can do with a car like this.
There's an incredibly long list of stuff that needs to be done. First will be getting some sort of exhaust installed and getting the rust repaired and side windows properly mounted.
But from there, the possibilities are endless. And that's what I'll be talking about in my next installment in this series.
For now, here's hoping my risky decision to adopt someone else's unfinished project was the right one. Let's just say I'm optimistic.
More From Driving Line
- Want to know more about this wheel and tire setup? Check out our original impressions from the 1970 Pontiac GTO.