In our minds, the joy of owning a classic muscle car is 50 percent style and 50 percent experience. There is nothing quite like the visual presence of a late-’60s or early-’70s GM muscle car—whether that be Chevelle, Nova, Camaro, or the like. There’s also nothing quite like driving one of these cars. It’s something about that raw power of a pushrod V-8 and questionable handling characteristics that pushes the engagement well beyond most other driving experiences. If there is one thing that can take that driving experience to the next level, it’s shifting your own gears.
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There’s been a lot of “save the stick” talk over the past decade or so in regards to new vehicles. If you’ve driven modern cars lately, you can understand why. For an automotive enthusiast, you need that added driver engagement because the smooth, quite ride and brisk acceleration of modern cars gets boring quick. A recent Internet meme contends that comparing Tesla 0-to-60 times to other “real” performance cars is akin to comparing a microwave to a barbecue grill—yeah it might cook faster but when was the last time someone asked for a microwave burger? So, if throwing a manual transmission into a modern appliance on four wheels can actually make it fun to drive, just think how a stick would feel in a ’60s muscle car!
Obviously, we’re not the first ones to figure this out. There’s a reason factory four-speed cars tend to be so dang expensive. Rather than try to find a reasonably priced Nova SS with a stick (do those even exist?), we’ll just make our own. While we’re at it, we might as well add an overdrive gear, too.
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Remember when we topped our fresh 383ci stroker build with a Holley 650 Double-Pumper? That is because we hoped to back our small-block with a manual transmission. The “on or off” nature of a manual pairs best with mechanical secondaries when you want to put your foot in it. Well, thanks to some fantastic companies in the industry, we were able to turn that dream into a reality. What’s even better is we were able to do it in our home garage with relative ease.
When TREMEC first announced the TKX a few years back, we knew it was the perfect transmission for our ’69 Nova. A compact five-speed that can handle 600 lb-ft of torque and high-rpm shifts? Yes, please! Up until that point, a five-speed transmission that could handle the torque of even a mildly built 383ci small-block was a big ask. The only other option was the larger, six-speed T56 Magnum, which was overkill for us. Not only would it require extensive floor and tunnel modifications, but we just didn’t see the need for two overdrive gears. As long as we have at least one gear that drops us below 1.00:1 for highway cruising that will be just fine.
So TREMEC had the transmission we wanted, but how do we actually go about installing it? After being in production for a few years, various companies have developed swap kits for specific applications to help take some of the guesswork out of it. One such company that stepped up to the plate was Silver Sport Transmissions (SST).
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As it turned out, SST went well beyond taking “some” of the guesswork out of it, providing everything from the correct bellhousing to the shifter and shift location adapter, clutch master cylinder, concentric slave cylinder, manual brake and clutch pedals, transmission yoke, and fluids. They even send the little things like hardware, transmission isolator, pedal pads, and mechanical speedometer cable. SST also partners with McLeod Racing to provide a complete clutch kit and flywheels for each specific engine and horsepower needs. The only missing piece of the puzzle was adapting our already-beefy Inland Empire Driveline (IED) driveshaft to the new transmission. For that, we reached back out to IED and they were able to help make the necessary modifications.
The entire conversion took around two weeks; working a couple hours each night plus a few half-days on weekends. The only aspects of the conversion we haven’t addressed are installing the new speedometer cable and reverse light/safety neutral wiring. We’ll get to those when we replace our factory steering column.