For those who didn’t grow up in the 70s or 80s, the name Herb Adams may be unfamiliar to you. However, the musclecar, modern performance, and tuner world owe a lot to Adams. Adams could be described as the Godfather of the Pontiac Trans Am. He was also responsible for the Super Duty engine program. After cutting his teeth at the Pontiac division, Adams left in 1973 to pursue other interests.
A Pioneer in Performance
Among some of his other endeavors he created the infamous “Gray Ghost” Tempest, which terrorized factory Trans Am racing teams. He also helmed an effort to take a ’74 Grand Am into NASCAR, though at the time the good ole’ boy network seemed to have collaborated to shut his team out. That was not before they finished in the top five during their first outing.
Adams also created what could possibly be one of the first tuner, or niche build companies, thirty years before the massive street car performance craze and internet mail order business of today. One of his more well known and documented endeavors at the time were the Fire-Am, and Cheverra programs. These were the subject of this tuning business. Adams sold upgrade parts via mail order to customers, and also built cars in house at his Very Special Engineering (VSE) shop during the 70s and 80s.
This was long before tuners like Callaway, or Lingenfelter, were making such efforts. In fact there weren’t too many shops at the time doing anything like what Adams’ VSE shop were accomplishing, during what many consider the dark ages of performance, and musclecars. Adams was improving the overall performance of cars before it was the trend.
The Last Car
The car that is the subject of this feature is the last Cheverra built in house by Adams at VSE. This 1977 Camaro was originally constructed in 1980 and intended to run the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. It’s important to keep in mind, this was a time when running 500 miles at Daytona had an incredibly high attrition rate for NASCAR racers, with many teams happy to simply finish that race. If 500 miles was brutal then 24 hours was torture to car and it’s team. The twenty four hour endurance event took it’s toll on many high-dollar factory efforts that often lasted only a few hours under the high speed, high RPM brutality of the high banks.
We set it up to do 180 on the super speedway.
Adams had previously campaigned other cars at the 24 hour event. This particular Cheverra drew some controversy though. “We took it down there to race, and got into this whole political mess, you probably don’t even want to hear about it.” This was a time when cars like Porsche Carrerras dominated the event. The Cheverra name was a bit of a jab at those racers according to Adams. There was debate over the car’s whale tail style spoiler, and other changes made as well. “We set it up to do 180 on the super speedway,” Adams said. Finally with some back and forth the car was allowed to race. It would seem though, that this car was not meant to show it’s full potential. Early on, a blown front tire sent it into the wall, ending the run for this race.
The car was repaired and went road racing for a short time but was sold not long after. It would seem that like many Cheverras, it had disappeared – perhaps even relegated to the crusher. “We didn’t build a ton of those cars, that’s why a lot of people haven’t heard of them,” said Adams.
Missed but not forgotten, the same Cheverra reappeared, for sale on eBay nearly thirty years later. A shadow of its former self, the car needed a complete restoration to be returned to its former glory.
Adams purchased his old car, and set out to do just that. Today the car has been returned to its former glory, and now is stored inside at the Borla Facility in Johnson City, Tennessee where we happened to stumble into it, and the man himself.
Built For Speed
Components like the front hubs and suspension are constructed with NASCAR-level quality. In theory, this car could still today in theory hit the high banks of Daytona for some high speed laps today. The suspension system is full Cheverra with a few updates, the parts were based off the original VSE offerings. Originally through VSE, Adams sold upgrades that were primarily focused on the suspension systems or other needed improvements if the car were to go road racing, such as dry sump oiling systems and brake upgrades. The components were designed, built, and installed by Adams at his new endeavor Passion Motorsports.
Some of those upgrades include NASCAR specific front hubs which are better suited to handle the long and torturous demands of endurance racing. The car features much wider wheels and tires, necessitating flaring of the front and rear fenders. This too was done with stability and handling for endurance racing in mind. Cooling ducts for the brakes are designed into the fenders as well. There’s the aero nose, another piece designed by Adams which is exclusive to the Cheverra. There’s also that controversial whale tail spoiler. Designed for maximum downforce near 200 MPH, this was also something that wasn’t standard on any VSE-built car.
Inside the car features a full cage and custom buckets. We noticed a total absence of aftermarket instruments, commonly found in today’s racing builds. This car has a nod towards street driving as well, and Adams and his son Matt take it out from time to time.
Power comes from a 460ci big-block Chevy, Adams innocently tells us, “It’s just a junkyard motor,” although we’re not sure the old engineer would settle for such. He did mention that it has Edelbrock cylinder heads, camshaft, intake manifold and carburetor, which were ordered as a package. There is of course a full exhaust system from Borla, complete with side exits that kick out just before the rear wheels.
Gear changes come from a built TH400 transmission, and the rear differential is based on a 9-inch Ford carrying 3.00:1 cogs. The rear suspension still rides on leaf springs, although we’re fairly certain that Adams has made some of his own engineering changes back there as well. Even Stage II Cheverras built in the 1970s had rear sway bar and leaf spring hanger changes made to them. Stopping is of course handled by 12-inch four wheel disc brakes which were a Stage 3 component.
Since many have forgotten or weren’t around for the Cheverra and FireAm we’ve broken down each of the stages that VSE sold for these cars. Each stage is a progression of the previous and many of the components from a lower stage carry over or are upgraded in the more aggressive packages. Ironically, if you look at these packages, they don’t differ much from what many tuners offer today in terms of handling packages. Adams was doing this forty years ago, well ahead of the majority of today’s late-model and modern tuners.
Stage 1 Street
- VSE 1 5/16-inch front stabilizer bar with spherical rod-end equipped end links
- VSE specific wheel alignment specs
- VSE 1.00-inch rear stabilizer bar
- VSE modified rear leaf spring hangers
- VSE front structure kit
- VSE frontend lowering kit
- VSE battery relocation kit
- VSE 8-inch wide wheels
- VSE tire package
- VSE advanced design oil pan and pickup
- VSE large diameter bolt-in roll bar
Stage 2 Auto Cross
- VSE brake cooling ducts and backing plates, cooling holes drilled in the rear drums
- VSE metallic brake pads and shoes
- VSE adjustable shocks (Early versions utilized Koni)
- VSE Corbeau bucket seats, and racing harnesses
- VSE oil cooler and remote-filter kit, for wet-sump engine oil system
Stage 3 Racing
- VSE solid front-suspension bushings, heavy-duty front hubs and spindles
- VSE heavy-duty Ford rear, solid rear-suspension bushings
- VSE Hurst 12-inch disc brakes, front and rear
- VSE Doug Nash five-speed transmission
- VSE dry-sump engine lubrication system
Not A Museum Piece
With the changes to it now, and the gearing, it’ll probably do a little better than 180.
We asked Adams what he’s doing with the car these days as it was wearing numbers, stickers, and dirt that would indicate more than just being on display at Borla. From time to time he and Matt take it out to various autocross events. We suspect that Adams would love to get the car on a Super Speedway at least one more time. As he tells us, “With the changes to it now, and the gearing, it’ll probably do a little better than 180.”
This past summer Herb and Matt took the car to the Goodguys event in Columbus, OH with the intentions of participating on the autocross at the event. It would seem though, that this Cheverra was the subject of controversy yet again. After some wrangling though and the help of Kyle and Stacey Tucker at Detroit Speed, the car was allowed to get on the track. It ran consistently with the top performers of that day, showing just how far ahead of its time this car truly was.
Adams is presently building his own car and other projects at Passion Motorsports. One of these includes Contessa, a V8 powered sports car that is Adam’s own design from the ground up.
This car is his vision of what the Trans Am might have become had he stayed with that program and with GM.
He also can still build or come up with parts for anyone who has or wants to build a Cheverra. “I have the mold for the nose, that was how we restored this car,” he told us. Knowledge of the parts availability gets our mind stirring with bench builds of a new Cheverra build. Looks like we’ll be adding this to the bucket list of our bench builds dream garage.
It’s seldom we get to stumble upon such a unique and storied piece of automotive and racing history. We wonder how many Fire-Ams and Cheverras are actually still out there. We’ve seen a few here or there popping up at auction, but, these cars are very rare indeed. It’s even more rare that we meet a performance legend such as Adams, since so many of these great minds have already passed on. We look forward to visiting with Adams again during our next trip to Johnson City, to see what else he’s up to in his shop, and if any more relics from his storied past in the performance world have popped up.