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Guilty as Charged

Is this one bitchin' second-gen Z? The evidence in positively says...

John Nelson Dec 14, 2004

As a prosecuting attorney for Graves County, Kentucky, John Cunningham is well practiced at investigating, strategizing, and assembling evidence from every source possible, ultimately proving his case. Turns out that Cunningham builds his cars in similar fashion. Exhibit A: the counselor's '81 Z28. A second-gen aficionado, taking the case was a given; he investigated, strategized, then assembled his "evidence": parts from 15 different second-gen F-bodies, choice aftermarket goodies, and some brilliantly executed custom work. The verdict? A true road warrior in the Pro Touring mold that ate up the 2004 Power Tour like no one's business.

One winter morning in 1984, Cunningham's daily driver '68 Impala SS, a 327/Turbo 400 two-door car, came up lame. A generous friend loaned Cunningham his '80 four-speed Z28, and the die was cast. "It had heat and air," Cunningham recalls, "and was rather peppy with the four-speed. I enjoyed the reliability and gas mileage." (All 18 mpg of it.) More importantly, his girlfriend dug the car. "No one had a third-gen Camaro," Cunningham told us. No matter--the newer car provided inspiration for what he wanted in the second-gen he knew he had to have. The new-for-'84 five-speed was a lust object, spurred on by a magazine article showing T-5 transplants into classic musclecars. The new TPI motor found in the '85 IROC was another inspiration, and the idea of building a modernized second-gen took firm root in Cunningham's mind.

As a law student in Cincinnati during the late '80s, Cunningham started buying parts cars, most of them for under $500. We'll spare you the pain of listing all the good stuff he found for dirt-cheap. We can't, however, ignore the '81 Z28 Cunningham bought for the princely sum of $50 because it had a good set of four-speed pedals in it. But darned if he hadn't also found a body that was completely devoid of damage or rust. Ma Cunningham didn't raise no fool, and that $50 Z became a case study in Camaro parts interchangeability and late second-gen performance potential--and a CHP cover car.

Working with his friend Nicky Buford, Cunningham pieced together his creation, starting by refurbishing the stock frame, followed by the drivetrain. True to the image he'd formed in the early '80s, the Q-jet topped, four-speed-backed a 355 small-block, which lacked the driveability Cunningham wanted on the 2003 Power Tour, returned for '04 topped by a Ram Jet 350 intake controlled by a Holley 950 Commander ECM. Cunningham says the system was easy to learn, but credits Holley's Jeff Georges for helping to dial it in. The hardest part, if you can call it that, was the five minutes Cunningham says it took him to switch leads so the GM idle air control motors would hook up to the Chrysler-style plugs on the Commander ECM. Sporting a cam he considers big, Cunningham says that both the throttle response and torque are "incredible."

Of course, both are aided and abetted by the '96 Firebird T56 six-speed now backing the estimated 400-horse mill. An '84-88 Corvette bellhousing, along with an LT4 clutch, did the trick when it came to mating motor and tranny; Cunningham moved the factory crossmember back 2 3/4 inches, then re-drilled the bolt holes through access slots in the frame. The factory mounting tongue was cut off, resituated to provide the desired 2-3-degree driveline angle, welded back to the crossmember, then bolted to the trans. "It was so easy it was insane," he told us. The time-consuming part was making the hydraulic linkage work with the factory '81 four-speed pedals, but this too was accomplished, and Cunningham says the clutch "works like stock." Cutting out the spot-welded four-speed hump provided all the room needed for the T56, and Cunningham modded a new piece to take its place. So how does it work? "High speeds come without any vibration," he told us. "I've had few problems with this part of the car." And since Cunningham lists the car's top end as 140--so far--we tend to believe him.

On the other hand, except for the Baer brakes and sticky Kumho 17-inch rubber, which were also added in 2004, the suspension was rebuilt to stock Z28 sport suspension specs, excluding the third-gen steering box. Cunningham credits the Moog springs he used, but also reminds us that it's "amazing" what good tires and wheels can do. "It's like a new car," he told us, "and it handles." In fact, Cunningham says it handles like no other Camaro he's driven. Likewise, the body is stock, a conglomerate of those 15 parts cars. The parts fit very well, we're told, and should, given that Cunningham took the business seriously enough to work at a nearby body shop--for free, in his spare time--just to learn about shimming body panels.

The interior, on the other hand, is certainly a custom job. How much do we need to say? Supra seats mount with owner-fabbed brackets to work with a '95 Z28 center console, which was modified with some help by Lokar to use a center-mounted parking brake lever rather than the '81's foot-activated unit. Cunningham stiffened the dash by bolting the plastic bezel directly to its aluminum support frame, and rearranged the indicator lights and switchgear to his liking. And wouldn't you know it? Fourth-gen Camaros use the same seat belt supplier as Toyota, so the female connector on the Supra seats accepted a set of 2001 Camaro belts like they were made for each other. "Those seats and the six-speed make the car," Cunningham tells us. "It's a blast to drive." So we've got comfort, handling, and 420 lb-ft on tap when needed, all in a car that turns 1,850 rpm at 70 mph (delivering 20 mpg) and just plain looks cool. If proof of late second-gen Camaro performance potential needs to be presented, here it sits, unrepentant and guilty as charged. CHP


Underappreciated in its own time, John Cunningham's '81 Z28, the last of the second-gens, counters the doubters with impeccable fit and finish, a great low and lean stance, and 17-inch Kumhos mounted on classic Torq-Thrust IIs. And dig the CHP stickers, of course.

Up close and personal with a perfectly aligned rubber-bumpered second-gen Camaro. The functional, rear-facing hood scoop allows outside air in via an accelerator-activated solenoid. The front fender ports, not shown here, allow underhood air to escape.

John Cunningham created the brackets necessary to mount leather '00 Supra seats in his '81, one of the features he says really makes the car a blast to drive. And ain't globalization great? The fourth-gen Camaro belts perfectly match the Toyota latches on the seats. Check the console peaking out in the middle...

...which came from a '95 Z28, and fit perfectly, according to the '81's owner. Underneath, the factory four-speed hump was cut out and replaced with one more conducive to locating the T56 beneath.

The shifter is a Hurst unit, and the steering wheel is from a Firebird, fitted with an owner-devised Z28 logo. The HVAC controls are rewired to work with a third-gen F-body A/C system, among other alterations. Very nice.

John Cunningham finds himself amazed at what a rolling stock upgrade has done for his essentially stock, Z28 sport-suspended '81. Seventeen-inch Kumho Ecsta MX' wrap up the aforementioned Torq-Thrust IIs, which nicely frame the 13-inch Baer Track brake rotors and dual-piston calipers.

An '81 Z28's backside may not be much to look at, but this is the only view you're liable to get of this particular example.

You won't find a 190-horse smog motor under this hood. The Vortec-head, four-bolt-main 355 is fed by a GM Ram Jet intake that's controlled by a Holley 950 Commander unit, and churns out an estimated 400 hp and 420 lb-ft. The 'bird makes its presence felt here, too: The serpentine belt system is from a '90 Firebird, the intake of '88-92 Poncho origin. Fourth-gen Z28 electric fans keep the Be Cool radiator, uh, cool.

Speed Reading
1981 Camaro Z28
John Cunningham
Mayfield, KY

Type: 1990 Chevrolet four-bolt-main 350
Block: Bored 0.030 over to 355ci
Oiling: Melling pump with Z28 pan and spring
Crankshaft: Scat, 3.48-inch stroke, stock journal diameters, balanced
Connecting Rods: LT1 pink rods with ARP bolts
Pistons: Speed Pro hypereutectic, 9.6:1 compression
Cylinder Heads: GM Vortec, pocket ported with guides and seats cut
Valves: GM, 1.94/1.50
Camshaft: Comp Cams XE270 roller cam, 0.495/0.502 lift, 230/234 degrees at 0.050
Timing Set: Comp Cams
Valvetrain: GM LT4 Hot cam springs, guides, retainers, locks, and 1.6:1 rockers; Comp Cams pushrods
Induction: GM Performance Parts Ram Jet 350 fuel injection, '88-92 Firebird airbox with a K&N filter
Ignition: MSD-6A box and GM small-cap HEI distributor
Electronic Engine Control: Holly 950 Commander ECM and harness
Exhaust: Jet Hot-coated Hedman headers, 2.5-inch pipes and Summit mufflers
Cooling: Be Cool radiator with '00 Z28 electric fans, Edelbrock water pump
Other: '90 Firebird serpentine drive belt system
Output: estimated 400 hp/420 lb-ft
Machine work: Tucker Automotive, Murray, KY
Assembled by: Owner
Thanks To: Nick Buford for his help, wife Salena and mother-in-law Glinda for the loads of Christmas and birthday presents, Tim and Josh at Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center for help with hard-to-find parts
Transmission: '96 Firebird T56 six-speed with 0.50:1 sixth-gear ratio, Hurst shifter with '96 Z28 leather handle and boot, '84-88 Corvette bellhousing, GM LT4 clutch
Rear Axle: 10-bolt with Moser axles, 4.10:1 gears, Eaton posi unit, Summit differential cover
Driveshaft: Ford Motorsports 3 1/2-inch aluminum
Frame: stock
Front & Rear Suspension: Factory setup rebuilt with all new parts along with PST polyurethane bushings, Moog springs, and Monroe shocks
Steering: 1990 IROC Camaro box and third-gen F-body pump
Other: Rock Valley fuel tank with in-tank pump, braided lines joined to new frame hardlines with AN fittings, hardline flared to accept GM-style O-ring fuel filter.
Brakes: Baer Track system with 13-inch front /12-inch rear rotors and Tube braided lines
Built by: the owner
Vehicle Weight: 3,550 pounds
Wheels: American Racing Torq-Thrust II, 17x8 and 17x9
Tires: Kumho Ecsta MX P255/45ZR17, and P285/40ZR17
Body: taken to bare metal, self-etching primer, high-build primer
Paint: Sikkens '81 Z28 Silver basecoat/clearcoat, replacement graphics by Phoenix Graphics
Work by: sanding and paint by the owner, buffed out by a local body shop
Replacement black carpet by Auto Custom Carpet; black/gray leather-covered '00 Toyota Supra seats, with rear seats covered to match by The Upholstery Shoppe in Mayfield; AutoMeter gauges, including two in the ashtray hole, with Painless Performance wiring; '88-92 GM F-body A/C system with rewired '81 Camaro controls, installed by the owner; black leather-wrapped '81 Trans Am steering wheel modified with Z28 logo; '95 Z28 center console with functional center-pull parking brake; '96 Z28 mirror; Viper alarm, keyless entry, and electric trunk; Denon head unit and 10-disc CD changer, Kenwood and Denon amps, Infinity speakers front and rear.

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