What Camaro enthusiast hasn't dreamed of owning a first-gen at one time or another, or more specifically, "the holy grail" of first-gens: a 1969? No doubt, many of us have slumbered with vivid images of being strapped in the seat and gripping the wheel of an angry first-gen while hugging corners at unheard of speeds or hammering the loud pedal to a wheels-up, 10-second quarter-mile run only to be awakened by the sound of squealing tires and the smell of burning rubber, which in reality was the high-pitched buzz of your alarm clock interrupting the ultimate driving fantasy. Sound familiar? And that smell coming from under your sheets—wasn't burning rubber. TMI? Probably so, but we've all been there.
One of those dreamers is Pete Nikonovich. Now, Pete isn't new to the Camaro world, as his first ride was a garden-variety 1972. "Every dollar I earned back then was used to customize, increase performance, and enhance the appearance of that car," remembers Pete. "It wasn't much, but it was all I could afford at the time, and I loved it."
About three years ago life opened up allowing Pete to turn his dreams of owning a stellar 1969 into reality. His initial plan was to buy a car that someone had started to build but ran out of money or maybe lost interest in. Well, Pete found that car on eBay. Although he was the high bidder his bid didn't meet the auction's reserve, so it was a no sale. After the auction ended, Pete and the owner exchanged a few emails and agreed upon a dollar amount to get the deal done.
"The car was shipped from California to a few miles outside of my home in Charlotte, North Carolina," informs Pete. "After looking the car over, I fired it up and attempted to drive it the rest of the way home. Unfortunately, the car stalled after driving just a few miles. I called AAA to have the car towed home only to find out the car ran out of gas even though the fuel gauge showed the tank was half full. About a month later while driving through the canyon, the alternator decided to exit the car due to it not being tightened down properly."
It was then that Pete realized it was time to have the entire car looked over, so he took it to his buddy Mike Henn, of Henn Automotive, to check it all out. Two months of tightening bolts, building brackets, and replacing wires got Pete back on the road. Sadly, two months later the cam and distributor gears were toast. With his AAA tow miles depleted and tired of chasing bolts, it was time to take a serious look into taking the car to the next level.
Starting with the powerplant, Pete veered in the direction of a Nelson Racing Engines 632 Hot Rod series engine. Big horsepower, and at this point, reliability had become a larger-than-life attraction.
With the NRE bullet a few weeks away from delivery, Pete dragged the wounded warrior over to Dan Holohan, owner of Holohan's Hot Rod Shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, for some necessary firewall modifications to make room for the new mill. Dan is more than familiar with custom fabrication and classic Camaros as his former employers include Rad Rides by Troy and Detroit Speed Inc.
The aforementioned 632 is rated at 820 hp and 770 lb-ft of torque. How does it get there? Nelson starts with a Dart block bored to 4.60 inches and a Callies 4340 forged 4.75-inch stroke crank, then hangs a colony of JE 9.8:1-compression pistons via Callies H-beam connecting rods. A custom NRE hydraulic roller cam sets the tone and the assemblage is capped off with Brodix CNC-ported 440-cfm heads. ARP fasteners secure the ensemble throughout.
An Electromotive fuel management system handles the fuel and air combo delivered to the NRE Alien dual injector intake manifold pumped in via a double dose of Aeromotive fuel pumps. An Electromotive ignition system lights the fire while spent greenhouse gasses travel through a set of custom-fabricated Calvin Elston headers and 3-inch crossover pipe. Stainless Works Turbo Chambered mufflers slightly diffuse the madness.
A Billet Specialties Tru Trac serpentine system leads the charge and lines up the polished ancillaries via a Goodyear Gatorback belt, while an AutoRad core support, closeout panel, and aluminum radiator armed with dual Viper fans keep the engine temps in check.
After Dan worked his magic on the firewall, Mike Henn and Kevin Jenkins installed the engine, electrical, and plumbing. Dan massaged the inner fenders then doused the engine bay in Toyota Dark Gray metallic with satin finish. He tied in some tasty nuances including custom spark plug wire/puke tank brackets then inconspicuously relocated the coil packs to the firewall. DSE fender braces and Billet Specialties hood hinges complement the scene.
A Tremec TKO transmission and McLeod RXT twin-disc clutch ably handle shifting duties, while twist makes its way to a Spraker Racing-assembled Dana 12-bolt rearend housing and limited slip armed with 3.73 cogs.
With the "snowball effect" in full swing, Pete knew the modestly upgraded suspension was a less-than-stellar candidate to handle the car's newfound horsepower. Dan wrote the prescription for a Detroit Speed Inc, suspension setup and doctored in the healthy concoction. A DSE subframe was bolted in up front along with DSE's QUADRALink suspension system out back. Double adjustable JRi coilover shocks reside on all four corners. Baer six-piston calipers and 14-inch rotors handle stopping duties up front while Baer four-piston grabbers and 13-inch rotors do diligence out back. While at it, Dan heated in a set of DSE subframe connectors to further stiffen the chassis. BFG KDW rubber (275/35-18 front, 335/30-18 rear) wrap around a set of Budnik Cobalt rims (18x10 front, 18x12 rear).
Drawing from the Pro Touring template, the interior is a stellar example of form and function featuring a custom production performed by Hot Rod Interiors by Chuck. The one-off door panels and carbon-fiber center console solidify the sporty/luxury motif commonly found in today's muscle car builds. Race-inspired black leather Recaro seats set the scene for the interior and the DSE rollbar offers additional safety and chassis stiffness. Reminiscent of a P-51 cockpit, the gauge panel is populated with a plethora of informants, including white-faced Auto Meter Pro Comp gauges and an LED shift light. A Flaming River polished steering column topped by a black leather wrapped Flaming River D steering wheel provides course navigation while a Vintage Air A/C system ensures a comfy captain's quarters.
Freeman's Car Stereo installed an Alpine CDA-9857 head unit, which conducts the tunes through a 1,200-watt amp and quad assemblage of flush-mounted speakers (MB Quart 5-inchers up front, and 6x9s in the rear).
With the NRE Alien intake's additional height requirements, an AMD 4-inch cowl hood was called upon to provide the necessary clearance. Dan modified the cowl opening for additional race flavor then aligned and fit it to perfection.
Although Pete admits to embarking on an unforeseen three-year journey of letdowns and buildups, it was a trip worth taking. "This car is now the perfect balance of performance and show quality in which I take great pride," said Pete. "It gets driven on a weekly basis, and also sees a good amount of track time."
To this day Pete claims the most memorable experience was testing the car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We got to spend half a day tuning the car's suspension on the big track and the infield road course. I never dreamed of having such an opportunity."
So what would he do different if given a second chance? "A few things come to mind," said Pete. "I'd start off with a car that wasn't quite so finished, hire an appraiser to look the car over, and next—and quite possibly most importantly—I'd tell my wife about purchasing the car before telling my daughter. Things just tend to work better that way."