Project Swinger: The Project Build Wrap Up For Our ’71 Nova Part I

As our Swinger project car nears completion with only the final crucible test, the autocross session, to test our original motive behind the build, we are prone to wax nostalgic on our very first true project car. Procured to become the essence of a Pro-Touring Autocross car, this well worn 1971 Nova showed up in our first shop in the Inland Empire region of Southern California. 

When we picked up this 1971 Nova a few years back, its many coats of canary yellow seemed to be hiding something. The license plate said “SWINGER” and that sort of left a lasting impression on us, so we adopted the name and it became Project Swinger.

Swinger Opening

We began our project by stripping it down to the bare frame. Little did we know what horrors hid beneath those many layers of canary yellow paint.

The engine wasn’t anything to write home about; the body was in dire need of an extreme makeover; and the interior was the nastiest and most confusing part of the car: a fiberglass shower board was used for a door panel, and the Superman floor mats hid rust damage beneath them. While it was in pretty bad shape, our Nova was destined for greatness and we set out to make it more than just a muscle car – we set out to make Project Swinger something that turns heads and makes everyone sit up and take notice.

Getting Started

The first step in the process was to assess the bodywork that was needed and plan out what was going to get done with drivetrain, suspension, interior and the overall look of the project. We knew we had to get the bodywork straightened out and that we would be replacing some panels with new sheet metal. Like many older cars, they might look great from twenty feet, but as you get closer you start to notice the imperfections. As you inspect those imperfections, you begin to realize that distance was the car’s best friend.

Once we got the front end taken down to the bare subframe, we could assess what we had.

When you undertake a project like this you have to look deeper than the surface, and that’s where the real work becomes clear. Pulling back the carpet and trim panels reveals how well the car has aged – or how badly the elements have taken over. With Swinger, the elements were the clear winner and the floor panels were rusted. That’s when we first turned to Classic Industries to get replacement panels and begin the process of making Swinger a solid foundation to start with. To see the full article on Swinger’s floor pan replacement, click here.

The old body bushings showed signs of severe wear and damage.

Immediately we decided to take the car down to the bare frame. After assessing the material condition of the frame and sub frame, we went right after the rubber bushings. Fixing a corrosion problem at one of the mounting points, we bolted the bare subframe back to the body and recorded our Energy Suspension bushing upgrade for posterity here: Replacing Body Bushings on Classic Muscle Cars.

One of the body bushing mounting points had corroded the metal around the opening and needed a patch job.

Building the Foundation

If you know anything about the X-body Novas, you know the X-body design was an early unibody construction. The rear frame rails were integrated into the body with an independent front sub frame that attached to the body in 6 places with rubber bushings. Body flex and deflection in the bushings softened the steering response in these cars. In short, they were ill-handling, wheel-hopping beasts that were not suited for sharp cornering at higher speeds. Our goal was to make this ugly, and bad-mannered duckling into a precision-cornering, aggressive auto crossing machine.

Ridetech’s method of getting installers to read the instructions is to label the envelope “Do Not Open.” As shown here, the technique works.

Bringing our project car into the new millennium as a retro street racer with a hi-tech edginess to it has led to some real challenges in the build. However, we were fortunate to find some high performance companies with the right combination of components and experience to help solve the mysteries of the economy 1960s musclecar technology. 

Installation of Ridetech's Air Ride Kit is simple but does require a minor amount of cutting on the subframe. Nothing to worry about - the amount to be cut is minimal.

 Knowing that we were dealing with a lousy weak-knee’d 10-bolt rear end and broken down leaf-spring set-up, a suspension upgrade was eminent. Enter Air Ride Suspension and Currie Enterprises. Our upgrades on the Air Ride system can be found here: Swinger Nova Gets Street Challenged by Air Ride.

The front air shocks and arms mount with ease and add a lot of muscle to the front suspension.

Knockin’ the Bottom Out Of It!

What to do when you see the road through all the holes in your floorboard? Sheet metal is fairly easy to work with, but there is some skill and special tools involved in tackling this task. Welding sheet metal is almost an art form, and using the correct welding equipment is essential to do the job properly.

Cutting the old rusted metal out, welding in a new floorboard section then sealing the seam and laying down some primer.

Additionally, choosing restoration parts that are comparable to the original is critical to welding success. Restoration floor pans that are made of the same or similar metal as the original make the task easier, and the replacement parts should have the same shape and molding as the existing pan.

We needed to replace floorboard sections on the driver's side too.

While we were trying to figure out what to do with the rusted out floorboard a cavalry came to the rescue. Classic Industries offers help for rusty floors and we ended up replacing the front left hand floor pan, the front right hand floor pan, and the firewall extensions on both sides. To learn more about our floor pan replacement, read more here: Swinger Nova Floorpan Repair With Classic Industries.

We pulled all the parts off of our project car and sent it to Back's Autobody for sandblasting. After the paint was removed, we found a few more things that needed repaired.

We pulled all the parts off of our project car and sent it to Back’s Autobody for sandblasting. After the paint was removed, we found a few more things that needed repaired.

Hot Tubbing, Frame Stiffening and Patching 

With the underpinnings coming along, it was time to attack the sheetmetal, starting with a Detroit Speed wheel tub kit to accommodate wider tires in back, a pair of their subframe connectors to stiffen the chassis, and a firewall cover plate.

We capitalized on some down time waiting for the Chevrolet Performance Engine and decided to mini-tub the back for wider tires. These Subframe connectors helped stiffen up the unibody chassis for protection from the extra torque created by the wider tires.

Classic Industries stepped up to help us take care of our rusted out front and rear fenders, and to re-skin the driver’s door.  To check out our mini tub install, the quarter panel and fender repairs, frame stiffeners and firewall plate installation, read the full install operations in this article: Room for Wider Tires, A Stiffer Frame and a Patch Job.

Our rear quarter panels were in bad shape from a repair job performed by the previous owner. We took out the crappy repair and using sheet metal from Classic Industries, we did it the right way.

The Power

When it came time to put a mill into our project car, we called the pros at Chevrolet Performance. We were guided to Chevrolet Performance’s new LSA engine. Cranking out 556 horses with a sweet 1.9-liter Eaton supercharger for a little extra grunt. The Gen IV 376 ci small block features a 4.060-inch bore and aluminum L92 port heads with a 9.1:1 compression ratio. The forged steel crankshaft with a 3.622-inch stroke allows for a redline at 6,600 rpm. There’s plenty of breathing room created from the hydraulic roller camshaft with .480-inch intake/exhaust valve lift.

Our Chevrolet Performance Engine came in and was promptly installed.

We weren’t disappointed with the power from this engine package. The roots-type blower provides you with instant pleasure. These blown engines touch something deep within you. They make you feel alive. There’s that nasty, high-pitched squeal that starts building under the hood when you get into it. It’s like you’ve touched off a bomb, and it takes about one nanosecond for the fuse to hit the dynamite. If that sounds like an engine that you want to know more about, read our full installation article here: The Power Behind Project Swinger Nova.

Even with the supercharger installed everything fit nicely. A hood with a slight rise giving the exterior a “beauty bump” was all that was needed to finish it off.

Aeromotive’s Stealth fuel system provides the fuel supply to our LSA.

Adding Fuel To Our Fire

Aeromotive offers everything you need for a top shelf fuel system.

Separated only by a couple parts from the venerable ZR1 Corvette’s LS9, Our LSA was designed by Chevrolet Performance to provided the same supercharged punch out of the 6.2L, but with a lot less of the wear and tear.

Our next job was to get fuel to this beast and get pressurized fuel there efficiently. Aeromotive‘s Stealth fuel cell was perfect in its simplicity. Each fuel cell comes with one of Aeromotive’s high horsepower fuel pumps and a pre-filter built right in. All that’s required is to hook up two wires and the feed line. 

During the install we discovered one area of concern, the GM LSA demanded that we run our fuel system upwards to 85 psi.

Aeromotive helped us find a solution to the high fuel psi rate and you can read about it here: Fueling Swinger’s Fire with Aeromotive’s Stealth Fuel System.

AFCO’s combination aluminum radiator and electric fan unit promised to help us keep our cool.

Keeping Our Cool

AFCO‘s bolt-in replacement all-aluminum radiator and electric fan combo is one of the few direct replacement parts for an LS conversion in a classic muscle car, making dropping the popular LS-series of engines into older muscle cars a cinch. It was because so many aftermarket companies were starting to support these swaps that we decided to bring some of that modern swagger to our ’71 Nova, Project Swinger. 

The AFCO's LS conversion kit made it an easy installation with tons of room to spare between the engine and the fan.

AFCO‘s LSX conversion kit includes a 16-inch S-blade electric fan from an LS1 engine. Switching to an electric fan setup has benefits for every engine out there, and the way our LSA is setup there is no place to mount a mechanical fan. Plus, this electric fan eliminates rotating mass working against the engine, saving horsepower and improving fuel economy. If you want to know more about our aluminum radiator and electric fan conversion, check out the full article here: AFCO LS Radiator and Fan Conversion Installation.

Z-Best Paint and Autobody did a lot of body surfacing and priming to get the car ready for the color coats.

Curb Appeal

Our project car stalled for a little while when we worked on other projects, but when we decided to get the Nova moving again, we went after it with gusto. Stripping the car back to bare skin again, we hauled our beauty to Z-Best Auto Body and Paint for the professional prep and paint job. This would be a true make or break point for most auto enthusiasts. None of the steps were skipped as we trusted the crew at Z-Best to bring their “A” game. You can see how it the prep job went here: Z-Best Straightens Out Swinger For Paint

After smoothing out the primer, a quick wipe down to prep for the color coats on the body and fenders.

When it came time for Z-Best to flow the Sherwin-Williams AWX Waterborne Refinish System Dark Gray Pearl, we documented the whole process here: Straightening Swinger’s Skin and Putting on a Coat of Planet Color.

Even the bottom and insides were hit with color coats.

We finished up the curb appeal by putting in the glass and installing all the brightwork from Classic Industries. These new duds signaled the arrival of a new show car on the Pro-Touring scene. You can read about the finishing touches to our project car’s exterior here: Installing Brightwork Onto Project Swinger.

Once the paint was cured, we loaded our refreshed body on the trailer for a quick trip back home.

Eye Candy

We decided to fit the Nova with a clean, all black interior. With Classic Industries backing our immense project, we were set up with the perfect interior components to give Swinger the sleek look we are aiming for. Thanks to all of Classic’s OER products, we were also able to get many pieces that met or exceeded original factory standards. We gave our readers a preview of the interior here: Project Swinger Update: Classic Industries’ Interior

Grant LeMans Steering wheel and Classic Industries OER interior completely changed the look of our project car.

The actual installation included Procar front seats, Grant LeMans steering wheel, Dynamat installation, Dakota Digital gauge cluster along with the full Classic Industries‘ interior products. The full installation article can be viewed here: Making our Swinger More Cozy.

Procar seats from Classic Industries went along nicely with the new interior.

Transmission and Exhaust 

Keisler’s perfect fit kit with Tremec transmission brought a modern transmission into this soon-to-be Pro-Touring machine.

Our true-to-life testament of how some time, effort, and the availability of the aftermarket in top-notch, bolt-on goodies can transform your project car into a modern runner was nearing completion. We needed to re-install the LSA mill but needed a transmission that would work well with our mill as an autocrossing vehicle. Cruising was one thing… running against the clock was something else. 

For Swinger, nothing would suffice other than a modern transmission to accompany such a high-tech engine combination. For that, we relied on Keisler and their Perfect Fit Kit while using the their Tremec TKO 600.  You can view our transmission upgrade here: Installing the LSA and Tremec 5-Speed.

Selecting an exhaust system for your muscle car is probably one of the most important choices you will make. The sound is what defines the build and for our project we took it to the next level with Jet Hot coating. The Jet-Hot coating on our Flowmaster system  will not only help with heat control under the hood and inside the car, but will also provide corrosion resistance for our exhaust system that will allow it to endure for years to come. The entire process of our Flowmaster exhaust installation and Jet Hot coating can be viewed here: Jet Hot Coating and Flowmaster Exhaust For Project Swinger.

We relied on Flowmaster’s exhaust kit with Jet Hot coatings for our exhaust needs.

Ready to Run 

Even with most of the pieces in place there were still a few odds and ends that we needed to fix before we could fire up the cruiser and take it down the street. We counted on Cunningham Motorsports and HP Tuners to get our ECM flashed properly with the newer engine technology in the engine bay. 

We got our baby ready to run by taking it to Cunningham Motorsports for a custom tune with HP Tuner's software.

When it comes to hoses and fittings under the hood, making them look good was always limited to what types of hoses you bought. We used our supply of Hose Skins and Boa Clamps for the radiator hoses from Hose Candy, and the smaller hoses were treated to Hose Skins, Sidewinders and Black Super Shrink clamps. It’s a simple, yet effective way to clean up the engine compartment and give it a custom look without having bulky anodized fittings at each connection.

New glass all the way around, Optima red top battery and Hose Candy throughout the engine bay had us heading in the right direction.

We also used Earl’s hoses and fittings for the power steering system that we installed in Swinger. When it came to getting the engine cranking over, we needed a starter that can handle a high performance engine, and one that could fit our odd combination of engine and trans. TCI Auto had just what we needed.

A TCI Auto starter would give us the muscle to crank this engine over with ease.

For batteries, Optima has been our brand of choice for nearly all of our project cars. They always come through with what we need, and putting one of these AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries under the hood or trunk of a classic cars these days is a common occurrence. These finishing touches got us ready for the big day when we turned the key on our baby. You can read the full article on our push to get Swinger ready to run here: Getting Our Nova Up and Running.

Starting, Tuning and Dyno Run

In order to get our new engine started and running, we had Ryan Cunningham of Cunningham Motor Sports load up a basic safe tune in the computer so that we could drive the car short distances in case we needed to move it around the shop or take it over to Cunningham Motor Sports to do a quick tuning and dyno run session. Using custom tunes supplied by HP Tuners, Cunningham dialed in the best air/fuel ratio for the combination that we had.   

After a couple of tuning runs we decided to record a final pull on the dyno for horsepower and torque numbers. Both curves started at 2,600 rpm with the torque curve hovering just under 450 lb-ft and advancing to 469.35 lb-ft at 4,500 before taking the normal arc back downward as the horsepower increases. 

As for the rear wheel horsepower, the pull began measuring horsepower at 220hp at 2,600 with a steady and aggressive climb throughout the run. The final reading saw a peak in rear wheel horsepower at 514.74hp at 6,600 rpm.

You can watch the video of the run here:

Here’s a few more photos of our project car for you to enjoy below.

For more on the suspension and handling upgrades to Project Swinger, check out our Project Swinger Wrap Up – Part II.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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