1978 Pontiac Catalina Budget Race Car - Bargain Bin Brawler
Taking a '78 Catalina and turning it into a 10-second street/strip car may seem, to some, like an exercise that is diametrically opposed to the laws of aerodynamics and physics. To Ernie Keppler, a 44-year-old self-employed mechanic from Riverton, Illinois, however, it was all part of a decision to build a sleeper to go furiously fast by spending as little money as possible. "A good friend of mine, Rex Dawson of Springfield, Illinois, owned this '78 Catalina," Keppler tells HPP. "It was his daily driver, and its only claim to fame was that it towed a water ski boat occasionally for its owner."
Fate held a faster future for the Catalina, but it took pulling the stock 400ci motor in favor of a 455. "In 1989, Dawson painted my '70 GTO, and he asked me to put a 455 into the Catalina," Keppler said. "It only cost $100 and it ran, but I had to freshen it with new rings and seals."
In 1995, Dawson retired the Catalina in favor of an LT1-powered Impala SS, so Keppler offered to take the boxy Catalina to the track and lay down some test times. To both men's surprise, the B-body turned low 14s. Keppler thought it was capable of more and asked Dawson if he could try some tuning. "In the next few months, I installed all the MSD ignition stuff, checked total timing, played the jets and rods game with the carb, and no matter what I tried, the Catalina still ran low 14s," Keppler says.
He knew there was something wrong with the distributor timing, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He theorized that the 455 was capable of pushing the Catalina into the 13s, or lower, though he had yet to prove it. In a burst of inspiration, he pulled off the harmonic balancer, lined the keyway up to two other Pontiac harmonic balancers, and discovered the 455 balancer's timing mark was off by two inches, resulting in erroneous readings. He installed one of the correctly marked harmonic balancers and rechecked the timing to find that the 455 was running with 60 degrees total advance. Luckily, he had not hurt the engine. "I reset the timing at 34 degrees total, and the Catalina immediately turned 13.26s at 101.12," Keppler remembers.
Excited that the 4,108-pound fully-dressed Catalina could run respectable quarter-mile times, he approached Dawson and asked him if he would sell the Pontiac. Just $1,800 later, the Catalina was Keppler's.
Engine And Driveline
Keppler says that he always knew a 10-second Catalina was possible, even with a limited budget. In 2002, he discovered a crack in a main cap of the 455, and switched out the block for a '73 400. He increased its bore to 4.155 from 4.12 and its stroke to 4.250 from 3.75, and created a 461ci displacement engine. Four-bolt mains and main studs were employed to beef up the bottom end. A Mellings pump, producing 80 psi of pressure using a stock pan and pickup, improved oiling. The stroker kit uses an Eagle crank, Eagle forged 6.800-inch rods, and Ross flat-top pistons with Total-Seal gapless rings. Total cost for the rotating assembly was $1,900, and the machine work was outsourced to A&P Performance Rebuilders of Decatur, Illinois, at a cost of $800. Keppler performed the reassembly work himself.
Up top, No. 4X heads were milled to arrive at 93cc chambers to get a 9.5:1 compression ratio. Keppler says he followed the directions in Pete McCarthy's head porting DVD, Performance Porting to port the heads himself. He then purchased a CompCams solid roller with 294/302-deg duration advertised (258/266-deg at 0.050) 0.631/0.631-inch lift, and a 114-degree LSA. The total cost of the head/cam combo was $700.
The dual-purpose fuel delivery system includes a Mallory 140 pump set to 6 psi with a 1/2-inch line for regular duty and a Holley Blue fuel pump set to 6.5 psi using a -8 line for the nitrous system. A Holley 850 cfm carb with a Proform center sits on a '70 Pontiac dual-plane cast-iron intake, which was hand-ported by the owner. A K&N filter cleanses the incoming air. The total cost of the induction and fuel systems was $700.
Spark is created via a '78 Pontiac HEI distributor and the MSD coil mounted in its cap with total timing locked at 34 degrees. Champion Power Path wires deliver the juice to NGK R5674-8 plugs. An MSD 6AL box intensifies the spark and the NOS timing retard is used in conjunction with the nitrous. The total cost of the ignition system was $300, according to the owner.
Nitrous is the secret to getting this Poncho into the 10s. Keppler chose a component system manufactured by NOS utilizing two bottles: a 20 pound main and a 10 pound backup, both housed in the Catalina's roomy trunk. On the intake, he installed a Big Shot plate and solenoids and jets good for a 250 shot of juice. The cost of the nitrous system was $500.
Exhaust exits through Doug's 1 7/8-inch primary, 3-inch collector headers to a 3-inch X-pipe and free Walker Super Turbo mufflers. The total cost of the exhaust system was $800.
To handle and fully exploit the increase in engine power, a TCI flexplate and TCI 3,000 rpm stall converter were installed. A '73 Pontiac Turbo 400 transmission, upgraded with a Trans-Go shift kit and a '92 Cadillac trans cooler is controlled by a stock column shifter. The total cost of the transmission/torque converter combo was $450.
Power transfer comes from a Denny's driveshaft with 1350 U-joints connected to a GM 8.5 rear end from a '73 Grand Am. It is outfitted with a Strange spool, 33-spline axles, and an aluminum rear cover with brace and upgraded C-clips. The gear set is 3.42:1. "The Strange spool was only $150. That's cheaper than a Posi unit costs," Keppler says. "The total cost of the rear end was $1,300."
Suspension And Brakes
Keppler scavenged for junkyard parts to trick out his suspension as well. He pulled used front springs from an '85 Cutlass and added upper and lower polyurethane control arm bushings. He also removed the Catalina's front sway bar and installed Summit 90/10 (front) and 50/50 (rear) shocks. Other chassis mods include BMR rear upper control arms for a '70 A-body, owner fabricated rear spring jacks to stiffen the rear suspension for nitrous launches and slick usage, a '73 Grand Am lower control arms, and sway bar. A double hump transmission cross-member comes from a '73 Olds Cutlass, and the rear framerails were notched for tire clearance. Total cost of the chassis mods was $500. The front spindles, calipers and rotors came from a '77 Grand Prix to get the desired 5x4.75 bolt pattern, and the '73 Grand Am 9.5-inch rear drums were retained. The wheel/tire combo on the street and for most strip excursions is 15x7 Rally IIs wrapped in 235/75R15 Douglas Xtra-Trac A/W whitewalls. "The tires are the cheapest you can buy, but they hook up almost as well as slicks," Keppler laughs. "The Rally IIs were free, so the total investment was $150."
On The Strip
Keppler launches at 1,200-1,500 rpm and shifts at 5,800 rpm. Nitrous is activated via a full throttle switch. His '78 Catalina has run a best e.t. of 10.37 seconds at 125.02 mph on spray and 12.01 at 114 mph on motor. It weights 3,975 pounds with fuel and driver. His best 60-ft is 1.43 on slicks and 1.66 on street tires.
He says, "At the track at speed, driving the Catalina is like sitting on your couch looking out a big picture window, but on the street, it's like driving an old truck."
Our calculator shows that this Catalina has a total investment of $9,900, according to the owner's bookkeeping, thereby entering the 10-second club under $10,000. Now, we are not going to tell you that you can go out and build the exact same car for the exact same money and get the exact same result. Obviously, Keppler is a talented mechanic and his parts were collected over the years from a number of different sources that you may not be able to match on a price point. The focus of this story is simply to show how one man reached his goal of running 10s on a low budget. Perhaps you can glean some ideas from this story that you can apply to your Pontiac. Keppler says he is proud of his Catalina. "It's a fairly versatile machine, and it's good therapy. And when I pull up to somebody, it always puts a smile on my face."
Sleeper Tips
Bodywork: Choose a body style that doesn't look like a race car. The Catalina certainly fits that bill.
Don't Chrome It: Chrome or highly-polished parts don't make you go faster, but they do tip off others that your Pontiac may be more radical than you let on, so stay away from them. Ernie's Cat does go against this tip a bit with a chrome air cleaner lid and coated Doug's headers.
Hide It: Anything that can be a tip-off to your sleeper's true intentions should be hidden as best as possible. For example, the Catalina's gauges are hidden behind a slide-out panel in the middle of the dash (radio/heater controls face plate).
Hide Your Nitrous Where Possible Part I: A stretch cord switch for togglin the nitrous activation is stored under the dash in the Catalina.
Hide Your Nitrous Where Possible Part II: The headlight dimmer switch on the floor of the Catalina activates the gas-pedal-mounted NOS switch.
Stick It Where It Counts: Rubber on the quarters is a sure sleeper giveaway. The Catalina gets sticky-backed shelf paper on its lower rear quarters to protect them from molten rubber when racing. They can be easily peeled off and discarded after the races.
Nut Science: Since an external power cut-off switch mounted at the rear of the car is required by track safety rules, an old chrome air cleaner nut is used for this purpose on the Cat. This way, the assembly can be easily removed to disguise its track prowess while on the street.
Magnetism: Anything track-required that is not needed on the street should be made hideable or removable to maintain sleeper status. A magnetic sticker is used to identify the safety electric "on/off" switch on the Catalina. It was hand-lettered with a Sharpie and is easily removed after track-duty.
Rolling Stock Situation: Bright and shiny aftermarket wheels with drag radials out back look great, but will surely hurt sleeper status. Ernie makes do with Pontiac steel Rally II wheels and a set of Wal-Mart-sourced whitewall tires that he says hooks great. (However, to run mid to low 10s, Keppler did go with shiny lightweight Weld wheels and slicks at the rear.) Thomas A. DeMauro
Low-Buck Tips
Use Cheap Wal-Mart Tires: The whitewalls look great and they really hook well.
Chain It Down: A chain from the front of the engine to the frame serves two purposes. One, it limits engine twist on rubber engine mounts, which wastes energy that is better used traveling through the driveline to the ground. Two, it allows rubber engine mounts to be retained (which are much more palatable on the street than solid mounts). The chance of the rubber mount failing is greatly reduced thanks to the retaining chain.
Jack It Yourself: Homemade rear spring jacks are cheap and effective.
Proper Pattern: Switching to a 5x4.75 bolt-pattern when running a Big-Car like the Cat, which normally has a 5x5 pattern offers many more wheel choices.
Weight Reduction TipsHere is what Keppler yanked out of his Catalina to reduce curb weight from 4,128 to 3,820 pounds.ItemWeightHeater and A/C box43 lbs.A/C condenser8 lbs.A/C compressor37 lbsA/C brackets, belts, lines9 lbs.Front bumper bracket24 lbs.Wiper assembly, one horn, cruise servo, vacuum hoses15 lbs.Inner fender wells22 lbs.Cruise control unit8 lbs.Carpet and sound deadener34 lbs.Rear seat sound deadener and lap belts15 lbs.Inside door braces28 lbs.Stereo, speakers, power booster, wires18 lbs.Front swaybar18 lbs.P/S pump and belt14 lbs.Brake booster and replaced master cylinder with a later model aluminum unit with plastic reservoir15 lbs.

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