It’s a story we’ve heard time and time again. Guy buys muscle car. Guy plans to restore muscle car. Life happens. Car gets sidelined. Mark Campbell’s 1966 Chevelle fell into that age-old paradox. However, with the support of his wife, Shannon; his dad Hurley; and much help from Eric Saliba at Little Shop Mfg., what could have been another project car turned Craigslist for sale ad, was completed to perfection.
It was way back in 2000 when Mark first saw the car. It was parked on the side of the road and in pretty rough shape. But, despite its condition, Mark was drawn to the car. “When I was a small child my dad had a '66 Chevelle, so I guess you could say I was raised around them,” he said.
He knew he wanted a Chevelle, and it had to be 1966. So, with his wife’s blessing, he forked over some hard-earned cash and drove the car home.
“It threw the belt right off the motor on the ride home,” said Campbell. “The brakes were horrendous. It was drums all the way around and when you would step on the brakes they would lock up. I was pretty scared to drive it. I only took it out maybe three times in the first seven years I had the car.”
Campbell began to amass a mental image of what he wanted the car to be. The original plan was to build it with his dad, but some health issues interfered, and life swooped back in the form of a growing family. The Campbells welcomed their first, and soon second, child into the world, while the Chevelle sat waiting, patiently, knowing its moment in the sun would come.
In 2007, Campbell took the car to Little Shop Mfg. where Eric Saliba took over the reigns of the project. And, while Campbell had seven years worth of mental renderings and ideas pent up, the first step was to get the car to the blaster’s to see what the two had to work with.
As is often the case with mediablasting, the end result was not what Campbell was hoping for.
“I knew it was in bad shape, but I didn’t know it was in that bad of shape,” said Campbell. “It was amazing what the last people who did bodywork had hid. There were holes in the rust so big you could stick your head through.”
Saliba suggested that Campbell find another body to base the build on, but he had a sense of attachment to this ’66. After all, they’d been pals for over seven years at this point.
Once the decision was made to save the original body, Little Shop got to work swapping out one fender, both quarters, and rebuilding the metal around the front and rear glass, which they modified for a more modern look by removing the chrome trim.
Other custom touches include shaved and tucked body-color bumpers, a smoothed firewall, a 1964 Chevelle dash, Intro Prowler 18-inch wheels, and a wire and plumbing tuck under the hood.
From the get-go, Campbell knew he wanted to drive and enjoy the car. “I never wanted a show car,” he said.
There was talk of removing the windshield wipers, and a few other aesthetic improvements that would have compromised the driveability of the ’66, but Campbell held fast in his belief that this was a “go car, not a show car.”
Shortly after the Chevelle was delivered to Saliba, the economy began circling the drain. Money got tight, and with four mouths to feed in the Campbell home, the Chevelle once again found itself at the bottom of the financial food chain.
“I paid as I went,” said Campbell. “Eric was understanding. I gave him money, he would work until it ran out and then he would stop.”
Progress on the car continued at a slow crawl until 2009 when money began to stabilize and Campbell could afford to really get going on the car.
Little Shop finished up the bodywork, blocking the car till the body panels ran straight as an arrow. Ken Bugg and Timothy Dunn sprayed the car in DuPont (now Axalta) Dark Tarnish Silver. Then the automotive goodies began raining in.
The stock front suspension was scrapped in favor of Hotchkis tubular control arms and suspension oscillations are now kept under control by QA1 coilovers. At the back-end of the car, a custom NASCAR-style trailing arm setup keeps a 3.50-geared Currie 9-inch rearend properly positioned and articulating. On all four corners reside Wilwood brakes that slow the ’66 down in much more of a hurry than the lock-up-prone drums it first came home with.
Underhood beats a thunderous heart, a 496-cube big-block Chevy. Campbell is a big fan of modern LS engines, adding that “they’re great and make tons of power,” but he opted to keep his car powered by a good ol’ Rat, just like it left the factory with – only with 100 extra cubes to play with. “Everybody had LS motors, I wanted a big-block,” said Campbell. “The car came that way and I wanted it to stay that way.” We can certainly respect that sentiment.
Despite the old-school powerplant, that didn’t mean Campbell was opposed to giving it a new-school edge. Hence, the car boasts a FAST XFI fuel-injection system. The modern induction is paired with Pro Comp aluminum cylinder heads and a healthy Erson roller cam. With a Tremec five-speed transmission handling power transmission and freeway-friendly cogs in the rearend, the Chevelle routinely gets 19.5 mpg on the highway – an impressive figure for an engine slinging around nearly 500 cubes. Oh yeah, and it belted out 618 horsepower on the engine dyno.
The engine actually earned the car its current nickname, ‘Old Smokey.’ Campbell had some trouble with the original engine provider, which Saliba and a local shop later helped sort out. A rocker stud (which is tapped through into the intake port) was installed without any sealant. The engine would suck in oil at idle and smoke like a chimney out the tailpipe.
“We couldn’t see it on the dyno but after five minutes running in the car it started pouring smoke,” said Campbell. That, however, didn’t stop him from getting out to its first event.
“I actually won a Flowmaster American Thunder award at the Goodguys show in Nashville,” said Campbell. When the guy gave it to me, they had crossed out ‘Thunder’ and wrote in ‘Smoke,’” he laughed. That comedic malady has since been remedied, but the name stuck. “It’s a term of endearment.”
The car has racked up a little over 3,000 miles since completion, a good chunk of those are from its trip to Las Vegas where it spent a week at the Meguiar’s booth during the SEMA show.
At the onset of what later evolved into a 14-year project, Campbell had one goal: “I wanted to build something different than the next guy.” After a good chunk of time, support from his family, and help from Saliba and Little Shop Mfg., that dream has been accomplished.