Just out of high school, Sam Enloe of Peoria, Arizona, found himself surrounded by gearhead friends. He bought a 1989 Camaro off the showroom floor and immediately pulled the motor like he saw his friends doing. Soon after, he found himself working as plant manager of Evergreen Performance and building cars on the side. Evergreen Performance, now called Airaid, kept him busy doing the work he dreamed of doing as a youngster. Being around car parts all day made it impossible to avoid having projects of his own. Sam doesn't do anything just a little bit, even if he intends to.
With a 20-year history of overbuilding every car he has ever owned, he wanted a car he could just drive. The last project, a 1992 Mustang, was supposed to serve as a weekend driver and turned into an over-the-top drag car that had no business on the street. He's had a number of ponies over the years, but never a first-generation F-body. He wanted something new to him, but easy to keep on the road. He looked around at the car shows, print ads, online ads, and eBay for a nicely restored car to call his own.
In September of 2009, a beautifully photographed 1969 COPO Camaro clone caught his eye. It was garnet red with a very immaculate interior, all styled after the corporate order car. Sam and the builder/seller exchanged emails and photos for weeks. It was obvious the seller spent some bucks on professional photography to sell the car; Sam received over 50 high-quality photos. Needless to say, Sam was impressed. He had the car shipped out and when it was delivered a month later it looked just as beautiful as it did in the photos. The truck driver backed the car out of his rig and handed Sam the keys.
Sam's excitement for starting the first drive home was bubbling over. He twisted the key and the big-block fired right up. "This is great," Sam thought. As he put the shifter into first and eased it out onto the road, he felt like something was wrong. He thought, "Even stock, a 454-cubic inch big-block surely should be more powerful than this, maybe it's actually in third gear." Another trial proved that yes, it was in fact in first gear, and it was horrifically under powered. That wasn't the only issue. It was also clear that the fresh gloss-black paint on the front suspension was merely a mask to hide some tired old parts.
There was no smile on Sam's face for the whole trip. Sam booted up the computer and looked at the photos again to see if there was a hint of something fishy that he had missed before. Until you know what you are looking for, the photos made the car look immaculate. He found, however, that they were taken just at the right angle and with the right lighting to give the appearance of a fresh build. That's when the compromises started.
Sam hooked up an oil pressure gauge to check the health of the sadly performing big-block. It showed minimal oil pressure which proved to be its demise only a couple weeks in. "Well, since I have some connections on parts, I might as well build a pretty stout big-block to replace this one," Sam said, "If this is the only money I have to put into the car, I'll still be happy." Fifteen thousand dollars and 700 horsepower later, he had a healthy engine again. In order to get the right clutch discs, Sam had to verify that the transmission was, in fact, a 10 spline wide ratio Muncie as described in the auction listing. Guess what, it wasn't. It was a junky Saginaw four-speed—that wasn't going to work. Sam's justification was that an overdrive transmission would be more fun on the street anyway, so he put in the Tremec TKO five-speed.
Like many old cars, this one had some electrical inconsistencies. Sometimes a switch would work, sometimes not, and same with the taillights and turn signals. Each repair Sam made uncovered another needed repair. After chasing down a half-dozen issues, Sam decided that he just had to replace it all. Armed with an American Autowire kit specific to his first-gen, he started removing the interior parts. That fresh carpet was laid down over a floor covered with dirt and trash. One issue was that the turn-signal switch didn't work and he had to pull the column to chase down the problem. What he found inside was shocking. The entire column was packed with clay, no question the previous owner pulled it out of the wet, muddy ground, wiped it down, and bolted it in with no remorse. At this point, he had lost all faith in the builder's words and conveniently angled pictures. The transmission identification issue could have been a mistake, but this sloppy interior was a product of pure laziness.
"There, the lights work, the engine and transmission work," Sam thought. He started to worry that the rearend might be the next thing to go now that he's got triple the torque. He wanted to pop the cover of the 12-bolt to see what condition it was in and furnish any necessary upgrades. You guessed it; the 12-bolt had 12-bolts on the cover, but it wasn't for a Chevy. This was some oddball early '70s Oldsmobile rearend with the upper control arm mounts ground off and leaf perches welded in their place. All set up to look like a desirable rearend.
"What else could go wrong," Sam wondered, "what about the front suspension?" He was already so deep in the project he had lost count of how much money he had spent. He grudgingly started the inspection of the frontend to see what else he would be buying. That black paint was clearly sprayed over rust, road dirt, and grease. There wasn't a single new part under there. Sam barely touched the pitman arm when the ball joint connecting it to the center link blew apart. He couldn't believe it; he had been driving the car like that the whole time! With the rear suspension already replaced, the front suspension was the only area that he hadn't already completely rebuilt.
"The engine failure was like a loose thread on a sweater. I pulled on that only to find the entire sweater unraveling until there was nothing left. One repair lead to the discovery of another problem until I ended up replacing just about everything," Sam said. When he stepped away from the finished project he realized he had just overbuilt another car, but he didn't care. It wasn't about self-control, it was just bad luck. He ended up with something that's a blast to drive and good looking too.
Engine & Drivetrain
The ridiculously underpowered big-block 454 lasted about a month when the oil pressure dropped and the engine failed. Obviously, Sam wasn't looking to build a drag race engine for this car, but with his connections as a builder, he couldn't help but to go a little over the top. The whole engine was scrapped and a brand-new Dart Big M block with a 4.56-inch bore and forged Scat 4.25-inch stroke crank give a displacement up to 555 cubic inches. Sam had Pat Musi of New Jersey do the machine work and get the combination internally balanced with a set of forged Scat connecting rods and Mahle pistons. The CNC ported Edelbrock cylinder heads top the block with 2.3-/1.80-inch valves. Sam chose an Edelbrock hydraulic roller with 0.632/0.648-inches lift and 248/256-degrees duration at 0.050-inch lift. The camshaft operates 3/8-inch hardened chrome-moly pushrods and Crane 1.7:1 roller rockers. An Edelbrock Super Victor bolts on top with a Quick Fuel 1050-cfm Dominator-style carb and, of course, an Airaid carb hat (PN 100-725), 5-inch UBI intake kit, and Synthaflow air filter. Sam's latest installation, unfortunately not in time for the photo shoot, was an entirely new ignition system. Sam chose the MSD Power Grid system. It's like a completely digital system with a locked out distributor and a 3D timing curve Sam set on his computer. He's got the ability to add on traction control, launch control, and rpm-triggered devices. This combination is good for 686 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 721 ft/lbs of torque at 4,200 rpm. This much power needs some efficient exhaust so Sam had custom Lemons headers built with 2 1/8-inch primary tubes stepped to 2 ¼ and finally to 3 ½-inch collectors. The 3 ½-inch tubes go to Flowmaster mufflers and pipes that exit in the rear. The fake out Muncie that turned out to be a standard Saginaw gearbox was not going to handle the power of the 555 for very long. The TKO600, with 2.87, 1.89, 1.28, 1.0, and .64 gears will last a whole lot longer. It's driven by a Ram aluminum flywheel and dual-disc clutch and rowed by a Hurst shifter. The PST carbon-fiber driveshaft delivers power to the Chassisworks custom build Fab9 housing with Strange 35-spline axles, Strange 9-inch center section, billet Lenco locker and Strange 3.70:1 gears.
The brittle suspension the car came with broke apart with ease. Instead of putting in replacement parts, Sam, in his true form, decided to replace it with all the fancy race-ready components. He installed Smith Racecraft tubular control arms, QA1 double-adjustable coilovers, and all rebuilt steering parts including the hand-scraped steering column up front. The rearend got Calvert Racing split monoleaf springs and their adjustable shocks. No need for sway bars on a drag car folks, but the Caltrac traction bars help its street manners.
He stiffened the unibody chassis with solid aluminum body mounts from Detroit Speed and Engineering, subframe connectors from Competition Engineering, and custom bent and TIG welded chrome-moly 8-point roll cage that went in after the photo shoot. "Tuning and the added rigidity should greatly improve track times," Sam says.
Wheels & Brakes
The hub-capped steelies would have been fine if paired with a mild 454 and stocker suspension, but not anymore. They found a new home while Sam bolted on a set of Billet Specialties Street Lite model wheels. The 15X4-inch fronts were wrapped in 26X4-inch Mickey Thompson SR Radials while the 15X8-inch rears got 275/60R15 Mickey Thompson Drag Radials. At the end of the drag strip, they are slowed down but a 4-wheel disc Wilwood setup.
The high number of photos Sam received from the seller showed the body off as a freshly smoothed and painted garnet red. The ex-clone car has minimal badging as a COPO would, but the traditional Camaro header panel and fender emblems remain. Sam actually had to do zero body work to this car, but did notice that at least the quarter panels and the floor had been replaced.
The interior was another feature that sold him on this particular Camaro. It was 100 percent new replacement parts ordered from one of the classic car restoration catalogs. If everything worked the way it was supposed to he wouldn't have had to tear into it at all. That wasn't the case, and once the theme changed he had to update it with a couple race necessities. The vinyl bucket seats made way for Kirkey race pieces, and a ton of instrumentation was added. He popped in a Covans dash out fitted with Auto Meter gauges throughout. He stripped the car of every wire and replaced them with a kit from American Autowire to ensure every switch, light, and gauge worked this time.