1970 Chevelle Project – The Happy Hot Rod

This is a story about a modest Chevelle project that started almost 30 years ago and was finished by someone else in a three-car home garage. RideTech headquarters has every resource needed to engineer and build competitive race cars and trophy-winning show cars. Company founder and president Bret Voelkel can pretty much head over to his business and conjure up anything from scratch. With that capability at your fingertips, would you then build a car in your three-car garage?  That’s exactly what Bret Voelkel did with his latest project — the Happy Hot Rod Chevelle.

Bret’s home shop is anything but fancy. There are no shiny stainless-steel cabinets or surgically clean floors. It’s a three-car garage with a welder, a lift, media blasting cabinet and a small sheet metal brake.  With all of the tools, workbenches and cabinets, there is just enough room for a daily driver and one project car — a 1970 Chevelle SS454 LS5 / 4 speed hard top.

Bret found this car online in California as an unfinished project. His friend Chad Reynolds from Bangshift.com checked out the car out before a deal was struck. The big block Chevelle was intact with great trim and a decent interior, but minus an engine and transmission.  The prior owner repainted the Chevelle in its original shade of Black Cherry Metallic, then parked the car for a 28-year-long slumber. Over time, the paint became superficially damaged from exposure to dust, grit, and minor scratches.  Regardless, this car has great bones with its original rust-free chassis and body panels. 

The plan was simple: Update the ancient suspension, brakes and wiring, rebuild the existing four speed trans and drop in an LS3 engine that had been kicking around RideTech from a former project. Leave the body and frame alone. Resist the urge to get carried away.

  • Goal: Keep it simple. Build a car that is easy to drive and easy to own.
  • Deadline: No deadline.
  • Budget: No budget but replace money with ingenuity whenever possible.

First and foremost, the Happy Hot Rod Chevelle has provided an opportunity for Bret to turn wrenches at home with his teenage son, Andy. Of course, Bret and the Chevelle had competition in the form of teenage girls, but every moment spent together is golden. This particular project has progressed for two and a half years. Seasons came and went, as did key events, but none of that mattered. The journey has been better than the destination. Some of us have stopped by Bret’s garage on occasion to share in the fun. Cars bring people together.

As far as build style is concerned, the Happy Hot Rod Chevelle is about moderation. The 430HP Chevrolet Performance Crate LS3 gets great gas mileage, has an easy Centerforce clutch and will idle in heavy traffic with the AC running. FiTech 1×4 EFI was installed on top of a Chevrolet Performance single plane intake manifold. Bret intends to get the cowl induction system working with the LS3/FiTech combo. An oversized PRC aluminum radiator with Spal dual fans provides excess cooling capacity.

Numerous homemade brackets can be seen throughout the engine bay including the battery hold down, slave cylinder mount and coil brackets. Bret installed a Turn One steering box with 12.7:1 ratio. It provides the perfect combination of leverage and feel in this application. 

The list goes on. Stainless steel shorty headers provide plenty of ground clearance and will never rust. Baer SS4 disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power for street driving while hiding behind 15″  Super Sport wheels.  Drum brakes are still mounted to the car’s original 12 bolt rear axle — for now. The only real splurge items on this car are the Vintage Air SureFit AC system and Frontrunner accessory drive, but Bret doesn’t see it that way. He insists on installing Vintage Air on every car he builds thanks to their rock-solid reliability and clean packaging.

The chassis consists of a factory frame with stock control arms and RideTech’s entry level StreetGRIP system. It’s the perfect budget setup for carving up back roads and pounding out highway miles. You can buy an A-body StreetGRIP kit complete for $2200 or step up in stages since all StreetGRIP components are available individually, as well. There is something special about the StreetGRIP A-body platform as these cars seemingly ride better than most new luxury cars.  Best of all, the installation can be tackled in any home garage with basic tools.

 Rebuilding the M21 4 speed transmission may have been the hardest part of the build as this was Bret’s first attempt at doing so. Speaking of the transmission, these old 4 speeds shift nicely. Of course, they are right at home within the original tunnel and shifter location.  Overdrive is awesome, but the M21 turned out to be a fine budget transmission choice. Since the LS3 makes plenty of torque down low, it’s possible to get away with four gears and a tall final drive ratio.

Many of us spent quite a few nights hanging out in Bret’s garage as he slowly brought the Happy Hot Rod Chevelle back to life.  Some evenings, Bret would connect just one wire or tighten just one bolt. We’d spent the rest of the evening B.S.’ing and listening to “Hair Nation” hard rock on Satellite radio. The place is full of old pictures, old magazines and interesting signs — many of them hand-painted by Bret’s buddy Tim Kreilein.     

With the project, nearing completion one of the last tasks was to address the car’s time-worn paint job. As usual, Bret had a plan. We delivered the car to Adam’s Polishes at Goodguys’ PPG Nationals in Columbus.  Adam Pitale’s crew rehabbed the paint to like new condition.  That unusual color really pops in sunlight. A few remaining bumps and bruises will need further attention, but a perfect car is just an imperfect car waiting to happen. Flaws add character – same as with people.

The Happy Hot Rod Chevelle turned out as planned, the Cerullo seats are comfortable, the fuel- injected LS3 fires to life on the first try and Bret got a chance to spend some time with the boy. Like the Chevelle, son Andy has transformed. Well done.

Bret and Andy Voelkel got to turn wrenches together without deadlines or distractions. For Andy, this Chevelle is a lesson in how cars were built before the days of 800 HP 1g street machines.
With the help of a custom air cleaner spacer, store bought valve cover adapters, and some orange paint, the Chevrolet Performance Crate LS3 looks old school. Coil packs were mounted on the firewall behind the engine.
A Muncie M21 4 Speed transmission was rebuilt and installed behind a Centerforce clutch with SFI certified bellhousing. Stainless Steel exhaust is by Magnaflow.
The original 12 Bolt axle is still intact. It is underscored by a RideTech StreetGRIP sway bar.
Ancient drum brakes remain intact and will probably be upgraded with a matching system from Baer Brakes. RideTech adjustable monotube shocks are valved specifically for these cars.
StreetGRIP suspension retains stock control arms and spindles. Instead, the system focuses your dollars on parts that generate the most improvement including springs, shocks, tall ball joints, a sway bar and delrin bushings. Baer brake rotors are shown as well.
The large diameter front sway bar does a great job of controlling body roll. You can also see the Turn One steering box and Holley LS conversion oil pan.
The reproduction Z28 valve covers are intended for a Gen 1 small block. Here they are mounted on readily available LS adapter plates for a cool retro look.  The same is true for the single 4 barrel intake, rerouted coil packs and cowl induction air cleaner.
Vintage Air SureFit™ AC and Frontrunner serpentine drive are fully modern. It doesn’t look old but the original brackets flex and come loose. This setup is standard equipment on every car Bret builds.
Shorty headers give up some power, but they are easy to fit and yield a wide margin of ground clearance. Accel Ceramic boot spark plug wires are another staple in all of Bret’s builds.  They simply are not affected by heat.
Bret used a  Holley LS conversion oil pan, along with engine mount adapter plates to take the guesswork out of this swap. The orange “overspray” is a nod back to 1970 assembly line processes.
An MSD capacitive discharge ignition system has been tucked under the cowl vents to clean up the engine bay.
The Cowl induction air cleaner is a work in progress.  A spacer was machined to raise the air cleaner assembly. Adapters were custom made for the PCV hose as well as the stock 1970 Chevelle throttle cable.  Next up, Bet will work on making the vacuum based cowl induction system with seal functional.
After a building many cars with update overdrive transmissions, the old school M21 4 speed is refreshingly simple and works quite well.  It shifts nicely. A Kicker KMC20 audio system was installed on top of a custom bracket. The interior will not win any trophies for now, but this car is meant to drive everywhere.
There are home made brackets everywhere on this build. Here, Bret adapted the hydraulic slave cylinder bracket to the OE-style brake booster assembly..
Like the transmission, the brakes are refreshingly simple.  We love that you can see Baer SS4 calipers and cross drilled rotors hiding behind repro Super Sport 15″ steel wheels  wheels.

Bret’s garage showcases decades of grassroots car building with proper hardware bins and storage mixed with mementos of prior builds and good times.

Artwork by lifelong friend Tim Kreilein can be seen peppered throughout the shop. Some things cannot be bought.
Here’s Andy’s childhood Height Chart on the bathroom threshold in the shop along with one or two event credentials and a fat stack of receipts.
We cant thank Calvin and the guys at Adams Polishes enough for bringing the Chevelles paint back to life. They make phenomenal products. Likewise they go out of their way tom help you understand how to detail your car.
There is a bit more work to be done on the Happy Hot Rod, but none of it will prevent Bret from adding some miles on the odometer. Look for future updates and exploits from the road.

Chevelle A-Body StreetGRIP information and ordering, click HERE

Lead photo by Robert McGaffin McGaffin Photography

Article: How to Build a Happy Hot Rod

For more information on Adam’s Polishes, click HERE

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