This is a car in transition, and much like her namesake, will have quite the story to tell at the end of it all.
The first step since I was given the car you see above was to get it running. Having never brought a vehicle back to life, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it. The car had been sitting for five years under a carport and the picture above was taken just a few moments after it had been pushed out onto the driveway.
To my surprise, all it needed was a new battery and some starting fluid! I turned the key and the small block roared to life and began to chug away, making the choppy potato potato potato exhaust note of an old V8. Without an exhaust pipe however, even just at idle, it sounded like I had just woken some slumbering beast. I rolled down the window because the inside door handle is broken and slid the transmission lever into drive. The car buckled down, exhaust note changing to a determined growl. Carefully, I pressed down the gas and the car slowly rolled forward. I pressed it a little harder and suddenly shot forward, gripping the thin steering wheel for dear life. The El Camino bounced as it left the driveway and I was thankful the power steering still worked because I had to quickly right myself going down the road. I couldn’t have been going more than fifteen miles per hour with my foot off the gas, but it felt like I was flying. The car began to sputter and idle poorly as I pulled back into the driveway and Jay (the former owner and friend of mine who has agreed to help me on this fool adventure) listed that the carburetor needed to be cleaned along with a new fuel filter and half a dozen other little things that any car that’s sat for a long time will need
It was delivered to my warehouse so he could start using the space in his backyard again. Once it had arrived, my girlfriend and I washed the five years of dirt away to reveal what you see above. Despite where the clear coat has been burned away, and the dings and scratches it has, for a 35 year old car I drug from someone’s back yard, it doesn’t look bad! It gave me the chance to take the pictures you see in this article:
The first is an homage to Christine, who had a similar bumper sticker in the movie Cat’s Eye. Being one of my favorite movies, I wanted to make a nod to it without being too overt. I had this magnetic one made and it is now nestled in between the tail lights.
There is a vintage music store not far from where I do my laundry, and that’s where I got this sticker. I love old science fiction, and am writing a series of short stories based in that genre.
Comparing a car of this age to a modern car in terms of interiors is just silly to me, because materials have gotten so much better over time. That being said, I never knew how cheap and brittle 80’s GM plastic could be until I finally spent some time on the inside of my new car. It feels like a dollar store toy that’s grown to full size. The glove box won’t stay shut and the trim panel above it is held on by a piece of twine! That being said, I love the steering wheel. It’s just simple with no fancy buttons or gimmicks to get in the way.
The few times I’ve been able to drive this car, what strikes me is just how simple everything is. There are no screens, sensors, or warning systems. When I rode with a friend who has a brand new Civic, I was amazed at all the technology crammed into that cabin. The gauge cluster was a screen, the radio was a screen, the HVAC system was a screen. The car had a massive box mounted where the rear view mirror poked from the windshield, and acted as a sensor for the automatic cruise control. The car would drive itself in a very limited capacity while on the highway. My Mazda 3 felt lacking when compared to all that, and now that I own this car, it’s like going back in time. It feels cozy in it’s way. It’s just me and the road ahead. Just a big engine with a car wrapped around it and a few mechanical levers deciding our fate.
A word about the car’s name. The above picture is of Lili Elbe, who was one of the first people to receive gender reassignment surgery. Although far from the first transgendered person, she was a true pioneer and an inspiration to many of us in the Trans community. The details of her life are both interesting and tragic, certainly worth a read if you are so inclined. I feel that the El Camino embodies that struggle well. What exactly is it? A truck? A car? It is forever in transition, and so I have named her Lily Elk.
Lily and I have a long way to go before she’s back on the road and ready for prime time. I’ve got lots of little things to take care of, like changing fluids, going through brakes, and giving her a tune up. I didn’t expect to have more to say so soon, but there again I didn’t expect to have her up and running so quickly!
Cool old ute, basic cars are quite different, Ive got one I drive daily bristling with tech that fortunately all still works and an old one with er nothing that always starts and runs fairly well manual choke as well.
This is a pretty truck. I am in wonderment that you could get it started so quickly after sitting for years-had the fuel system been drained and filled with fresh gas? Fluids (all), filters, belts and hoses, plugs and plug wires, brake lines and pads, etc. and you will be ready to go. I heard an interview yesterday with a Space Shuttle astronaut who explained that they are trained to overcome their fears of space flight by playing the What Will Kill Me Next game. For each and every step of a mission, they plot out each thing that could go wrong (and could kill them), and then map out and relentlessly practice every single thing they could do to prevent or successfully respond to it. Then, when bad stuff happens, they simply have to do what they have practiced, which keeps them too busy to think about waving their arms and trying to run away. I think this sort of game (especially since everything is on Youtube now) might help me with my own anxieties about trying new things, such as starting up an old car. Keep on truckin’!
Me coping with a space emergency
Was this a special edition of some kind? The two tone with matching Trans Am honeycombs is unusual. Cool ride regardless.
The wheels are from a 1979 Firebird Trans-Am and were not originally on the car. The paint is two tone because it is has a Conquista trim package.
Damn the rocker panel paint is still reflecting the parking stripe. I would sand the clear coat off and respray it. That Camino came off the line on a good day.
What are your long term plans for the car? Make it a solid runner while keeping patina? Or total resto w new paint etc? With such a solid body looks like it might be a great survivor car….fix the mechanical bits and just drive it. A cheap classic. Always loved the last gen ECs….
Good luck… These 80s El Caminos are nice, The one pictured, I no longer own. but I called it the Gentleman’s Quarter ton. Fully loaded with options and the 350 under the hood. 2 tone Gunmetal Blue, slathers of stainless trim. hood ornament and WW tires with GM spec, Chevy capped wire wheels. She was a “Conquista” but I peeled that nonsense off the tailgate, She could still do duty as a truck… Like hauling home the crated shortblock 351 for my husbands 72 Mustang Grande after the factory 351 grenaded in Eloi, Az. Halfway home to Phoenix, from Tucson. A friend with an enclosed trailer and a sturdy Dodge pickup helped haul the broken pony home. The standard rear air shocks did their job, well.
Looks like you scored a winner.
Yes, GM interiors of the 80’s generally varied between “sucks” and “sucks more” but the proven mechanicals were unbeatable. And if you got one that had one of their mechanical brain-farts, like the 267 SBC or early Turbo 200/700, replacing those with a 350 and later 700/200 are doable with your eyes closed.
Have fun. The G-bodies are a great ride when you get ’em where you want ’em.
As a kindred trans CC’er, I approve this message. She’s gorgeous!
I’ve often seen and heard of old, dormant cars that needed only a fresh battery and starter fluid to turn over and start. Then the carburetor could need to have gum cleaned out of it, and new gaskets and accelerator pump. Brakes…check ’em and fix, needless to say. All of it could cost less than one wonky module or maybe even a sensor on a new car. Some modules for even eight year olds aren’t available new any more, only as rebuilds.
It’s your sweat equity that will pay off.
Upholstery’s not expensive.
Enjoy her, you have a treasure.
Great to hear about the progress you’ve made. Be sure to be thorough going over the brakes and cooling system. Good luck and have fun!
Now that the important answer of it it runs and moves under its own power is answered time to move on to actually making it (relatively) safe and road worthy.
I’ve seen way to many people abandon projects because they tried to do it all at once. Fact is for most people driving it is the best part. So do a thing or two and take it for another spin around the block and repeat. The more you drive it the more you’ll want to drive it and thus the more enthusiasm you’ll have for fixing its issues.
I’d suggest the next step is to check the brakes, steering and suspension. So start at the front, get it up on stands and pull the wheels. Make sure that all of the tie rod ends, ball joints, idler arm are in reasonable enough shape. Inspect the brake hoses, pad thickness and flush the brake fluid.
Repeat at the rear, this time making sure to pull back the boots on the wheel cylinders to see if they are leaking, better yet just replace the cylinders as they are the most likely place to spring a leak, other than heavily rusted lines or rotted hoses.
Meanwhile run out that old gas, get some fresh in there with a strong dose of a good cleaner like Techron. Once the exhaust is on there and it has fresh gas then you can think about messing with tuning it up and get it running right. Seriously fresh gas with cleaner run through the carb may go a long way in improving how it runs.
Great advice. I would add to replace most of the other fluids in the car as well. Moisture and condensation could have infiltrated the oil after all those years, and fresh oil would be a must-do. Then there is that coolant. Flush that system out with fresh water and then replace with good quality coolant. This would be a good time to replace hoses, thermostat and probably water pump, all things that would be weak points in that cooling system.
As you said, flush and replace that brake fluid no matter what. That stuff absorbs moisture like a sponge. For the time it has been sitting, the insides of that hydraulic brake system may be corroded beyond saving. My bias is to replace as many as the brake hydraulic components as you can after a car has sat for several years. If you don’t, prepare for them to start leaking one by one.
Agreed that the other fluids should be near the top of the list.
I don’t know that I’d rush to replace the calipers but I can definitely support a new (not reman) Master cyl and wheel cylinders right off the bat and maybe hoses, depending on how they look. If it was from a place where road salt is a thing seriously consider replacing all of the steel lines, or at the very minimum an inch by inch inspection of ALL of the line. With something like an Elkie you can probably buy exact reproduction replacements too, if needed.
Once the engine is running, the braking system is an early priority for me when I get an old vehicle.
Inspect or replace the shoes, drums, calipers, rotors, wheel cylinders and master cylinder, and flush the lines with new fluid. An important yet easily overlooked item is the rubber hoses. Because they wear from the inside, it is good to just replace them on an older vehicle. They are generally not that expensive, nor difficult to replace, and new ones all around will make your car that much safer without much effort or money.
If you can’t find the exact ones for your car, take the old ones to an auto parts store that has paper catalogs and an employee who knows how to use them, and build your own from what is available.
If you have to replace metal brake line, the copper-nickel-iron stuff is a lot easier to bend and flare than the common steel line.
Good luck with your project. As scoutdude said, the fun for most people is in the driving, so take it slow, drive it, repair it, drive it more, repair it more, lather, rinse, repeat.
Being an A-body I’m certain new hoses are available, sure not on the shelf at your FLAPS, but they can almost certainly get them. If not there are a enough places that specialize in stuff for cars like this that brake part availability won’t be a problem, you may just have to wait on UPS or FedEx.
A couple of other tips.
Create a list, or more accurately lists.
One should be for those major jobs that will take a 1/2 of a day or more, the other for those little things that might take 10-60 min like checking the lights and fixing those that don’t work, or fixing the glove box so it latches.
Within those two lists highlight the items that are of a safety nature or are just needed to legally drive the car.
Then try and set goals to for example cross at least one thing off the list per week. Sure try to focus on those highlighted items, but for example if you’ve only got 30 min to give this week take a shot at that glove box. Maybe you find it just needs an adjustment, or the gunk cleaned out. 10 min and you’ve got a win crossing an item off your list. Or you find you need a new latch and you’ve got an item to put on your 3rd list, parts needed.
This generation of El Camino I’ve only ridden in the back of for a short distance. My best friend at the time, his father worked as a used car salesman. My dad and his dad rode in the “cab” and we boys rode in the bed.
I always thought they were kinda neat but by the time I was in a place that I might get one they were all beaten to death and I’m not the one to take on a project.
Best of luck to ya!
Reading the above comments, everything I was going to say has been said already, so I will just say “Yeah, what they said” to everything.
Yeah, what they said.
So awesome. Good luck with the resto!
I have always found the idea of resurrecting an old car very exciting. It sounds like you have a good one to start with, so good luck!
Is there an aftermarket source for the interior plastics for restoration? Between the heat and offgassing, they have to be awful brittle now. Any uncracked ones you may find may only be a winter’s cooling and then a summer’s heating from cracking themselves, much less trying to match the colors.
Interior reproduction parts are available from The El Camino Store and The Original Parts Group. The plastic trim in my ’79 Malibu started looking a little bad about 20 years ago. The Carmine interior started fading to pink so I had to dye it back then. Luckily, a friend of mine who had a ’78 El Camino and I found a wrecked Malibu coupe in a local junkyard years ago and stripped out much of the plastic inside. Unfortunately, much of that even dried out in storage before ever being needed.
Sooner or later I am going to have to buy some of those panels to replace some of mine. Lucky for me, my dash pad is still perfect.
Replacement plastic parts for these usually come in only black, but they also sell dye and paint in the factory colors.
I sort of have another project on my hands too: a trailer built from a ’91 Chevy S10. I bought it 2 weeks ago for $800 from a guy who lives near where I work. Has “CHEVROLET” in bold letters all the way across the tailgate & based on the badge on the upper right side in addition to the model year had the 4.3 L LB4 V6 with Throttle Body Fuel Injection when it was still a pickup. Like the Nissan Trailer (which was built from a late-model 720) it’s going to need some work to get it fully functional (WHY are safety chains always too long for minivans?) but even now it looks decent when pulled behind my ’05 Astro. The side rails are a nice touch (my brother’s ’01 Ranger has them too) & I got new tail lights for it off of eBay to match the Astro’s–and they came from the SAME seller!
Rear View–notice the 4.3 badge in the upper right corner? (it’s hard to read I know but that’s the price you pay with a cellphone camera)
Carolina Gamecock license plate fits well with the trailer’s color scheme (black/gray); I have a Clemson Tiger plate with a white background on the Nissan Trailer. I added both of them myself. 🙂
Finally got a better view of the badge
I liked the Lili Elbe story. I didn’t know about her. Nicely and respectfully done.
Congratulations! There is nothing so rewarding to me as to successfully complete a repair. I’ve always wanted to get an ElCamino as a classic vehicle to play with, but if I wait long enough my 2000 Ranger – which I purchased new – might become the classic truck of my dreams.
And the name seems really appropriate for an Elky… 🙂