COAL #2: 1967 Camaro – Personalizing a Blank Canvas

Now that I had my very own personal transportation device, it was time to make it a little more…personal.

I had always liked the look of the Camaro RS/SS packages with their blacked out rocker panels and rear trunk panel.  Some masking tape, $3.00 of Satin Black spray paint and 2 hours later I had a sharper, semi-SS looking Camaro.

But what was that blue smoke that occasionally followed the car?


Although the Chevy six is only somewhat less legendary in durability than it’s small block V8 cousin, a compression and a leak down test showed that the rings and valve guides had seen better days.  Fortunately for me, I was in auto shop class in high school, so a few dollars for pistons, rings, bearings, gaskets, some machine work and presto – a rebuilt engine!

You know that great feeling when a plan finally comes together?  The engine started up on the first try, and served me well for the next eight years.  Even when it was run without oil or coolant, temperature gauge pegged, and smoke pouring out of the engine compartment!  Oh, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…

As my personal finances improved, so did my creativity.  Although it did have a shifter on the floor, the shifter itself was surrounded by a vast expanse of carpet – no console on this stripper model.  And wouldn’t gauges be nicer than idiot lights on the dash?  A search of one of the local junkyards (automotive recyclers for those born after 1990) found a 1968 Camaro SS with a red interior.  Removal of a few screws, bolts and wires and the deluxe steering wheel, main gauges, and console with instruments were mine.  More black spray paint and more screws, bolts and wires and the newly obtained pieces were safely installed.

Wow – a real live tach, water temperature, ammeter and oil pressure gauge.  The oil pressure gauge in the console was interesting in that it ran a live oil line directly from the engine into the car to the rear of the gauge.  After all, what could go wrong with a live oil line inside the car?  Oh wait, there I go again getting ahead of myself…

Another search found a wrecked 1971 Firebird with high backed bucket seats, so those were removed and mounted.  Ah, much more comfortable than the thin stock seats!

Goodyear GT Radials were installed on new slotted mag wheels, and stabilizer bars were added front and rear. This was my first experience with radial tires, and the improvement over bias-belted tires was a revelation.  The Chevy six also weighed 188 pounds less than the 350 small block, which meant that my Camaro was better balanced and handled much better than my friend’s Camaro SS 350 or another friend’s Javelin.

A company called Clifford Performance specialized in high performance parts for six cylinder engines, so a set of headers were installed with a dual exhaust.  The car was now quicker and got better mileage as well – 18-21 MPG.

Earl Scheib (whose ads consisted of a gravely, chainsmoking voice announcing “I’ll paint any car for $29.95 $39.95 $49.95 $79.95 $99.95!) blessed the car with medium blue metallic paint.  Earl Scheib shops were famous for painting anything on the car – chrome trim, insignia’s, you name it.

I removed everything possible, taped what couldn’t be removed and sanded the car for paint prep.  No more Butternut Piss Chicken Yellow!

While the new found power was nice, the wide gearing of the three speed left something to be desired.  But wait a minute – won’t a four speed transmission just bolt right up?  Scouring the newspaper classifieds for a few months, I came upon a Muncie four speed out of a 396 Chevelle.  A 40 mile drive, $75 later and the four speed was mine.

Now, if the internet had existed back in 1975, I would have discovered that the SS 396 was offered with the Muncie M22 Rock Crusher close ratio four speed.  Awesome if you’re running quarter mile sprints with a big block and a 4.10:1 rear end – not as hot on a six cylinder with a 3.08:1 rear axle.  Ah well, these are the life  experiences we call “lessons”, right?  It was great once the car was moving, but first gear starts could be a bit of a challenge at times for those that I lent my car to.

Speaking of lending my car, have I alluded to a certain “oiling problem”?  I was living up in the Southern California mountains, serving as a lifeguard at a church camp.  Two counselors wanted to go down the hill to town and do some shopping, so I said “Sure – you can borrow my car”.  A couple of hours later I heard a horrendous racket coming up the hill – miles away from the camp.  The exhaust sounded familiar, but the rest of the noise, valves clacking, bearings knocking, misfires multiplying – definitely didn’t.  I soon saw my car limping up into the parking lot with smoke billowing everywhere.  What had they done?!?

Somewhere in their travels, the girls had managed to work the console loose from its mounting.  One quick shift into second had sent the console rearward and broken the oil line to the oil gauge.  While they couldn’t figure out why oil was spraying everywhere inside the car, they were able to put a couple of towels around the console to keep the oil somewhat contained.  By the time the car reached the parking lot, they had climbed 3,500 feet in 85 degree weather, pegged the temperature gauge, lost the coolant, and drained all but 1 quart of oil.  The billowing smoke told the rest of the story.  I really didn’t want to yell at friends, so I put on a brave face as I listened to their story.

I waited a couple of hours to let the engine and my temper cool down.  Even though the engine was obviously ruined, maybe I could get it started and at least limp it downhill to a shop.  I drained what little oil was left, changed the filter, added oil, added coolant and tried to start the car.  You know what?  The car started.  It idled,  it didn’t leak any fluids, make any clunking noises or overheat from a warped head.  I was shocked, as the little six had taken all the abuse that two automotively challenged females could throw at it and came back for more.  People may talk about Chrysler’s slant six as being the ultimate in dependability, but that day the Chevy six showed that it could hold its own.  Amazingly, it ran just fine for the rest of my ownership, never complaining and never mentioning this episode again.

The Camaro was a great teacher of many things automotive over the years, and one of the lessons taught was the value of strong ventilated disc brakes on a car.  My car didn’t have those of course, and therein lies the lesson.

Living at the camp that summer meant that we had Friday night and Saturday off between one group of campers leaving and another checking in.  Friday nights often found us quickly showering, then heading down the mountain to grab some food together before driving to our respective homes.  There were a variety of cars represented among the staff, and for some reason, we were feeling particularly spunky one week as we headed into town.  Now the road down the mountain was twisty and winding up high before entering the top of a valley with a long downhill straightaway.  Eric left first in his two liter Pinto, hitting 95 mph on the long straightaway.  Gene and his Vega GT left second and hit an even 100 mph.

I left last and decided to see what the car would do on that stretch.  Flying down the hill at 115 mph, the engine was singing and tires were gripping.

Oh, did I mention that there was stop sign at the bottom of the hill?

Physics majors can tell us all about the energy and heat generated by slowing a rapidly moving object to a stop.  I am not a physics major, but I can say that I started braking earlier than normal as I was aware that brake fade could be a problem with drum brakes.  The speedometer told the story as it wound down from 115 to 105, 95, 85, 75, 65, downshift to third, 60, 55 hey we’re not slowing as fast anymore!  I stood on the non-power assisted brakes even harder and saw 50, 45, 42 downshift to second, oh my gawd that stop sign is coming up, 40, 38, 36, this isn’t going to be good….

I blew through the stop sign at 35 mph, unable to do anything but perhaps send the car off the road into the ditch ending in multiple rollovers.  Did I mention that I worked at a church camp, and God smiles on the stupid as well as the young?  The cross road had an open sight line in both directions, and I could see that, miraculously, there was no cross traffic.  I took my foot off the brake as I went through the intersection, staying in second gear and hoping that the brakes would cool enough to allow me to stop in another mile where the next stop sign was.

Youthful indiscretions can be instructive or fatal, depending on the location of a car on a cross road, a deer jumping out from behind a tree, or a wheel bearing failure at 180,000 miles.  None of these happened that day, and I lived to tell the tale, taking to heart a lesson in physics and becoming slightly wiser.

The Camaro served me well for eight years, hauling up to eight people (it was high school!), trekking on annual beach camping trips up and down the California coast as well as multiple trips to Denver to visit my Mom.  I knew that our time was coming to a close when I got a new job in downtown LA.  A three piece suit, no air conditioning, and a long commute in stop and go traffic added up to finally outgrowing my first car.

Our next COAL, however, deals not with the Camaro’s replacement but with a sexy little Italian that caught my eye and played with my heart…