Photos and article by Chris Krutch Wall
Owner Awie Pretorius
The Chevrolet Firenza Can-Am is a rare sight but there are still a few to be found running around in SA although they are normally only seen at classic car events. I know there is a mean one that was often seen at Zwartkops taking part in the Historics Race Series and there have also been a few seen at local drag strips. The one you are most likely to see is Awie Pretorius’s modified Can-Am. The “Rolling Thunder” nickname is in place for a very good reason – the sound.
The best part about the Chevy Can-Am is that it is not an imported American muscle car, it is a South African creation.
In the early 1970’s one of the daddy cars on circuit was another local creation, Basil Green’s Ford Capri Perana V8. Something had to be put in place to challenge this car and so racing legends Basil Van Rooyen and Geoff Mortimer decided upon the Can-Am. They shoehorned imported competition Camaro Z28 motors into 100 Firenzas so that they could be homologated for local racing and the car became an instant cult classic. How could it not when the result was a 290hp/393Nm 5.0 V8 in a compact body that weighed in at 1100kg. back then the Firenza Can-Am managed a 0-100km dash in 5.4 seconds (being able to hit 130km in 1st gear helped) and topped out at 229km/hr. Those specifications can make modern cars blush – can you imagine those speeds in 1973? Absolutely insane!
Of course, the Little Chev we see here is not your run-of-the-mill version. It has been modified inside and out. Before the purists call for a lynching, it must be mentioned that Awie also owns an original spec Can-Am as well. It is a 1 owner, 4 door Firenza that will remain in the same condition as when it came off the production line. A few years back, Awie spent a lot of his time at various drag strips around SA. He took the Firenza to the 400m traps in a best time of 12.1 seconds at 191km/hr at Killarney whilst up on the asthmatic Reef he clocked 12.27 seconds at 188km/hr on slicks at Tarlton.
Awie’s Can-Am features some sweet modifications. Down below is a 4-bolt 350ci block fitted with a Scat 383 crank, forged I-beam rods and icon forged pistons with Hasting rings – all balanced by Alex at Alex Pro Balance. Up top there is a pair of Dart 2 Sportman heads, a Comp Extreme Energy cam with a top-secret profile, 1.6 inch roller rockers, an AFR intake, a 650 double pumper carburetor, a Powerhouse distributor and a full TNT Performance Exhaust Germiston system – all bolted together with ARP studs and bolts where possible.
With regards to the transmission, there is a Turbo 350 box built by Stan that is backed up by a 3500rpm stall convertor from Fulrace. It ends with a 10-bolt limited slip diff to get the Rolling Thunder rolling. All tallied up the Can-Am churns out 385hp and 592Nm on the rear rubber. Inside it is all race with a pair of race seats with harnesses along with a very necessary competition spec roll cage. Awie added a large tachometer and shift light along with a very necessary oil pressure gauge.
The custom-mixed grey paint on the car is exceptional. The stripes are ghosted on. This is a job well done by DNS Autobody in Carltonville. It was a seven-month process that saw the Can-Am being stripped to the bare metal with all rust and body filler removed. The original rear wing was polished up and a lower front spoiler has been moulded in. The only other change to the exterior is the aftermarket 17-inch wheels. “If you want to go fast, you might as well look good” says Awie. After drag racing her since 2001, he has decided it is time to enjoy her on the road instead of the track.
Rolling Thunder is a special kind of Can-Am. She is Awie’s pride and joy and it is very clear to see why. Awie sends a special thanks to his wife Hester for putting up with his crap, to his dad Jan for all the advice and building the motors and to Karel Horn for his small hands and working his butt off to keep the Thunder Rolling!