Volume III, Issue 9, Page 8

THE CLANDESTINE 509: FEASIBILITY STUDY OR PSYCHODRAMA?

Photo by Mike Banks at GM's Mesa, AZ proving grounds

t was John Heinricy on the phone, talking to me from someplace in southern Michigan. I’d heard about a big-inch engine that the “special projects” lads had built. I knew John was near the top of the hierarchy, but I didn’t know him personally.

“Yes,” he said. “We’ve got a big cubic inch big-block with EFI that we’ve been beating on in a Camaro.” This was the time of the 3rd-Gen F-body, one that was never engineered for an OE big-block install. I asked if I could drive it or least get the crap scared out of me by him and will Milford (proving grounds) and the suits get bent? The ex-South Dakota farm boy cheerily replied that it wouldn’t be problem and asked when we’d be there.

If memory is anywhere near lucid, I believe I flew from Philadelphia to Detroit Metro and picked up a loaner. One of the perks often used by the so-called automotive press is the corporate loaner car, something you couldn’t get where you lived or you were too cheap to buy at Budget. Since I was going into Chevrolet territory, I needed to be driving a sign of solidarity.   

I made the call. The loaner menu was thin and unappetizing, so I immediately turned coat, opting for a black Twin-Cam “Nova” (actually a Toyota Corolla), something that was built at the now defunct GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in Nor-Cal. Chevy rebadged it and hoped no one would notice. They didn’t.

I ran it 80 miles per hour on 96 all the way to the Milford Proving Grounds exit. I knew there were other ways to get there but didn’t have a map. In those days, once you make the right off 96, you stay straight until you come to a T intersection several miles later at General Motors Road. Hook a left and follow it to the first guard shack. Be courteous, drop the right names and the guy politely waves you on. Now, you’re inside the outside. Go straight on and negotiate the small round-about and you’re looking at the low brick building where Heinricy awaited.

We thought the 454 decals framing the hood lump were snot to throw us off, but we said nothing until John hoisted the hood and there it lay: a port-injected Rat packing 16 injectors, eight for low-speed work and another eight for the occasional moon shot. Leading to the one-off aluminum plenum chamber was flat, V-shaped intake air ducting like the C5 and C6 Corvettes have now. This was hot tuna, boy, really cool inside-the- proving-grounds dirt for any car idiot worth a tall boy or two.

This was late in 1989, what I was really looking at was the 502 crate engine that had been just a gleam in a product planner’s eye. Heinricy built this mule from a DRCE cylinder case with 4.500-inch bores. They laid a vintage LS-6 crank down the middle, hung TRW forgings on LS-6 rods, and stuck some W-port cylinder heads over the bores. As it was, the 509 produced 540hp and 575lb-ft of twist at a smooth and seamless 3,800rpm. We saw no reason that with a little more compression and camshaft timing, the motor would make 650hp no sweat.

 I’m not sure what year the body was but it looked like it began as an IROC that was slathered in white, including the exotic 17x9.5 Dymag magnesium wheels. The body had minimal but pertinent call-outs in red low on the doors and on the rear bumper cap that proclaimed “pro STREET.” Maybe it was actually the kernel of a new phase, something that turned into Pro Touring and we didn’t catch it.

John’s a drivin’ fool, y’all, tests regularly at the Nurburgring (developing the C6 and the Cadillac CTS-V among many others), races every weekend in SCCA and has run the course with Corvettes and Camaros. He nailed down the 2007 Championship in a Cobalt. Presently, he’s the director of the GM Performance Division. He was the Product Engineer and Manager of the Corvette and Camaro when we thrashed the 509 16 years ago, and he was driving competition cars all the time.

He had the Camaro fitted with a race-legal rollcage and had adapted a double-thick torque arm that was anchored to the new crossmember for the ZF 6-speed. He’d stuck a Dana 44 axle in the back of it along with a limited-slip and 3.36s. The only other aftermarket pieces were Bilstein shock absorbers and Brembo two-pot calipers on the Caprice cop car rotors up front. The 275/40ZR Goodyears were hopelessly overwhelmed by low-speed torque but they certainly were attracted to the tight little road course John twirled me around. Several times he nipped at its edges, mowing down weeds with a sheet of high-velocity gravel shrapnel. He cackled like the devil. We got evil and told him to do it some more. And he did. There would be a full moon that night.

John indicated that I wouldn’t be driving in the area he was going to because of insurance regulations, but that when we hit the pike, he’d let me wail the thing until I blew its brains out. Before that, we wound up on one of the rather long straight-aways that eventually hooked into a sweeper of some magnitude. On the first pass, the Goodyears tried to disappear into the tarmac. John was working the gearbox, pulling the stick at 5,500. When he yanked fourth, the tops of the windows pulled away from their door seals towards the inside of the Camaro with a vicious, animal howling. Compounded by the throat of the Flowmasters, I could barely hear him.

“We’re over 140 now,” he barked through the confusion. The 509 kept right on pulling. At 5,500 in Fifth (0.75:1) we were running 168. Making a theoretical shift from Fifth at 183, the Loco-Maro would top out somewhere north of 210. We never got anywhere near it. We’d made the loop and began running down the opposite straight, John pulled Sixth and the revs sustained but the engine began to ebb. King Kong was snorting paint thinner and had no intention of sitting up straight. We couldn’t get the load to pull beyond 4,000rpm.

Out on one of John’s specific test loops, we were careful not to smack pedestrians or into other cars. John had optimized all the primary systems to operate like they were encased in ball bearings but as we concentrated on the syncopation of the clutch, throttle, and shifter we lived in a roaring cloud. The Big Block Basher had a 3,521-pound curb weight with a full tank of gas. Although there were nearly 2,100 pounds of it over the front axle, the car drove sweet, controlled, and it gobbled up everything we could put to it. Though Heinricy must have been bored out of his skull, he neither cracked wise nor muttered anything resembling a curse.

Polluted by emotion and resonance, we sat in the Camaro making small noises while John waited for us to leave the car. We started up the Twin Cam Nova but couldn’t tell right away if the engine was running or not. At three in the afternoon, the moon was already in a big silvery O in the ice-blue sky. We stayed in the slow lane all the way back to the airport. 

 

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