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Sleeper! A ’65 Chevelle SS That Left the Pro Street Look Behind

Jun 17, 2023

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To celebrate HOT ROD's 75th anniversary, we teamed up with CASTROL GTX to bring you some of the stories that exemplify the core of what HOT ROD is and reflect the brand's influence on America's car culture. Click here to learn more about CASTROL GTX.

By Terry McGean

Photography: Terry McGean

Kevin Thompson needed an edge. He needed something that would allow him to blend in with the masses, so he could come and go virtually unnoticed. The Pro Street '72 Bronco he had been running, with its tube chassis, fiberglass body, and bright teal paint, was anything but subtle. Getting a fair race from the guys at the track and a fair break from the cops on the street had become nearly impossible.

The remedy was obvious. He would build a new car and leave the Pro Street look to the fairground guys. Thompson had always fancied the '65 Chevelle SS, particularly those with the Z16 option (the first of the big-blocks), although he had no intention of seeking out one of these collectibles. Instead, he planned what he loosely referred to as a ZX16: his interpretation of the ultimate '65 Chevelle. He combined factory trim on the outside and the finest technology available underneath. If all went according to plan, the product would appear as a mildly modified street machine and thoroughly conceal its ability to tear up the quarter in less than 10 seconds. Thompson eventually uncovered a super-clean '65 Malibu, and the cars condition was commensurate with the 61,000 miles showing on the clock.

He drove the Chevelle for two months with its original 283/three-on-the-tree power combo, all the while gathering the necessary elements for his clandestine conversion. He began with the engine, using a Donovan 500 aluminum cylinder block to save weight and because, "I always wanted one." The block was overbored 0.030 inch (to 4.530 inches) and clearanced to accept a 4-1/2-inch stroker crank from Lunati for a displacement of 580 cubic inches.

Venolia pistons fill the bores, and aluminum Venolia rods put the power to the crank. For the top end, Thompson selected Dart/Olds Big Chief aluminum-head castings and a Dart Big Chief intake; Gianino-Lukovich Racing Engines in Detroit ported these systems as a unit. The heads were fitted with Manley 2.40/1.92-inch titanium valves and Comp Cams valvesprings. A Jesel shaft-mount rocker setup takes orders from the Erson mechanical roller cam ground for 0.834/0.789-inch lift and 290/308 degrees of duration (at 0.050 inch). A Jesel beltdrive spins the cam at 2-degrees retarded. Mounted atop the Big Chief intake is a Carb Shop Terminator flowing 1,425 cfm and fed by a MagnaFlow 450-gph fuel pump. Spark emanates from an MSD crank-trigger setup and a 7AL box. For oiling, Thompson had friend and fabricator Eddie Wilbanks modify an aluminum Stef's pan to clear a Titan billet wet-sump pump. As a hedge against the great unknown and as an ace up his sleeve, Thompson plumbed in a two-stage system from Nitrous Express: a l00hp plate and a 200hp fogger. However, he didn't utilize the juice when the nasty Rat churned out 980 hp at 7,000 rpm and 760 lb-ft of torque at 6,550.

Meanwhile, compadres Leo Goff and Randy McGeehee fabricated the step headers, which begin with 2⅛-inch primaries and were enlarged to 2¼ inches before entering the collectors and feeding into a 4-inch dual exhaust system. McGeehee and Goff also constructed the eight-point cage per Thompson's specific instructions: It must be as inconspicuous as possible. From there, the car went to Quick Classics in Memphis, where Thompson stripped the frame, firewall, and underside of the floorpans so that proprietor Todd McCutchen could paint them. McCutchen also painted the cage in the body color to further conceal it. Thompson hated the factory Sandlewood paint when he first saw it, but friends talked him into leaving it alone. He soon realized that the hideously sleepy fleshy tan made a strong contribution to the Chevelle's grandma image.

That subdued image was also a factor when it came time to set up the rear suspension. Typically, a sub-10-second A-body would be fixed with a narrowed rear axle, wheeltubs, and a four-link or, at least, a, ladder-bar suspension, but that kind of stuff scares potential opponents away. With that in mind, Thompson ordered a Moser 9-inch Ford housing in stock Chevelle dimensions. A Mark Williams third member accommodates a Mark Williams spool, 35-spline Moser axleshafts, and 3.89:1 Richmond gears.

Thompson employed Dick Miller adjustable upper control arms along with Hotchkis lowers to tie the housing to the frame. For stability, he included a Hotchkis sway bar. He facilitates fine tuning via HAL Corp. adjustable shocks and an Air Lift airbag in the right-rear coil to add preload. Considering the stock rear suspension, you'd assume that huge slicks would be needed to compensate, but Thompson only runs 9x29-inch Goodyears. While the little tires help with the image of innocence, the wheelhousings won't accept anything larger—and Thompson refuses to cut the car. We love it. The traction trick is in the original gas tank, see. While fuel is stored in a cell mounted in the trunk, the stock tank remains for visual fakery and to hold water that serves as ballast, thus helping to plant the rear tires. Obviously, the amount of water varies to provide "tuning." Thompson rigged up a pump to spray the rear tires should the need, heh, heh, for an impromptu burnout arise.

The front suspension is fitted with Energy Suspension polyurethane bushings, Moroso Trick 160 springs, and the Competition Engineering 90/10 drag shocks crucial to the Chevelle's launch pattern. With the speed this car can generate, Thompson felt it prudent to install Aerospace Components disc brakes at all four corners.

Harnessing the big-block's power is a J.W. Performance Ultra-Glide (Powerglide) built with a Vasco input shaft, an adjustable trans brake, and a Precision Industries 9-inch converter, set up for 4,000rpm stall. A Mark Williams driveshaft connects it to the third member.

Remember how Thompson wanted Chevy trim wherever possible? If it weren't for the rollcage, you could sit in this car and never know what was really going on… as long as you don't open the glovebox, or the ashtray, or try to turn the heater on. Yeah, and nix the radio, too. The glovebox contains an Auto Meter playback tach, along with water-temp and oil-pressure gauges and a shift light. The tach playback unit, nitrous gauges and indicator lights, and the trans brake and line-lock indicator lights are mounted on the back of the glovebox door. Thompson doesn't smoke, so inside the ashtray you'll find switches for the nitrous purge. Further, the fuel-pressure gauges are mounted to a hinged panel that swings up under the dash and right out of sight. The factory heater controls arm the nitrous and activate the burnout spray, the nitrous bottle heaters, the cooling fans, and the electric water pump, as well as alternating the switch on the shifter between line-lock and trans brake. Another invisible, hinged panel contains the MSD controls, nitrous relays, and other electronics. All that remains of the factory AM radio is the faceplate.

Thompson even used a stock Powerglide floor shifter, which he modified to lock out neutral. Factory bucket seats were recovered in repro Fawn upholstery, and an original-style SS wheel on a factory tilt column finishes off the interior. In all, it's still a damn straight grandma's beater, ain't it?

In addition to those Thompson credits here for helping bring his vision of the ZX16 to life, his greatest appreciation is for his wife, Lee Anne, who endured (and still does endure) the nights Thompson spent in the garage and the days at the track. And he'll be spending even more time at the drags since the dialing process is going full tilt. So far, the flesh-colored sleeper has run 9.70s on the motor. Traction limitations have precluded experimentation with the nitrous, but it's definitely on track. And according to Thompson, so are 8-second timeslips.

This story was originally published in the January 1999 issue of HOT ROD. MOTORTREND and HOT ROD's rich magazine history and legacy dating back to 1948 is something highly valued by its longtime readers, and that's why we've invested deeply to make the content available to you in a modern and accessible format. In the interest of transparency, these magazine articles are presented as originally published, without modification, and may contain content that does not reflect the company's contemporary values and standards.

To celebrate HOT ROD's 75th anniversary, we teamed up with CASTROL GTX to bring you some of the stories that exemplify the core of what HOT ROD is and reflect the brand's influence on America's car culture. Click here to learn more about CASTROL GTX.