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.
This Catalina isn't going to win any beauty contests, but thanks to it's nitroused 455, it
Can a Pontiac run in the 10s for under $10,000? Yup. Just ask Ernie Keppler, owner/mechani
The '78 Catalina interior remains mostly original and stock, except for a carpet delete, t
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.