Today, when you flip through the pages of Super Chevy magazine, the chances are pretty high that you will find at least one older car with an LS conversion. Let’s face it; we’ve become a spoiled lot over the years with the availability of every conceivable gadget to facilitate the insertion of modern GM power into vintage rides. So, as a reality check, we’re about to take you on a trip in the wayback machine. This will be a ride to simpler times when you couldn’t crack open a catalog, hop online, or pick up a phone and buy an LS crate engine or a plug-and-play wiring harness for your Bow Tie project. It was quite a challenge back in those dark days when the LS platform was in its infancy. That’s what Pennsylvanian Mark Shuchart was faced with when he set out to create what he describes as “a good driving car that I could depend on; not one with an old motor and transmission.”
“I had a bunch of old muscle cars over the years—Camaros and Chevelles—and my goal was to one day have something really nice,” he recalls. “Preferably, that something nice would be a rust-free convertible—something very elusive in the northeastern part of the country.” For a number of years he searched for the right car but always came up short on his quest. Unknowingly, that opportunity landed in his lap in 2003 when the ’69 Camaro that you see here was put up for sale. Mark explains, “The car sat at least 10 years in a barn—everybody talks about the barn find. It really was just sitting there in a barn because nobody bothered with it. My brother’s brother-in-law previously owned it, but he had passed away a number of years before, so his family parked it and eventually decided to part with it.”
Initially, his plans were to just clean it up and resell it—just because of what it was. After taking ownership of the Camaro, he parked it in his machine shop and for the next nine months tore it down to bare metal. As Mark dug into the car and pulled parts off, and peeled back the paint, he realized just how nice and rust free the original sheetmetal was. He had found the perfect car for his restomod project.
At this point, as we move forward with the story, we need to issue a warning, so if you’re a purist and decide to read on, we hope you don’t accidentally blow a gasket. Here goes. This was a numbers-matching ’69 Camaro SS convertible. It rolled off the assembly line in 1969 dressed in Fathom Green with a black interior and top. Under the hood was still the original 350 mill mated to an M20 four-speed, and backed by a 3.73:1 posi rear. Now, if you think that these facts went by completely unnoticed, guess again. “My buddies were like, ‘This is an original car, what are you doing?’” Mark explained. While he was aware of what the car was, it was his to do with as he pleased because it wasn’t what he wanted.
Since his mission was to build something that was a marriage of old and new, Mark quickly realized that task was beyond his mechanical abilities. Upon the advice of a friend, he contacted Lonny Gordon, owner of East Coast Muscle Cars in Craley, Pennsylvania, to take a look at the bare Camaro shell to see what could be done. Lonny recalls, “The body was gorgeous, which is hard to find up here. The matching numbers made things a little more complicated, but that is what he wanted.” A few weeks after their initial meeting, the Camaro was hauled off to the shop to undergo its transformation. Mark had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted visually, while the mechanical and fabrication side of things fell on Lonny’s shoulders. Both were on the same page and it only took a few hours to iron out the details.
Once the crew at East Coast started working on the car, the body was the first thing they tackled. They fixed all the minor rust issues, smoothed the underneath, and installed a set of Detroit Speed mini-tubs to accommodate the larger skins planned for the rear. Once it was ready for a bath of paint, the original shade of green was not in the cards. Mark wanted a brighter color so he opted for Porsche Guards Red with white stripes.
The mechanical side of the build was perhaps the most challenging hurdle for the shop. Mark wanted to install an LS unit in the Camaro, but as Lonny points out, “At that time, there weren’t many LS cars around. There were a few, but we had to fabricate a lot of stuff. It isn’t like today where you pick up a phone and order parts.” They did pick up the phone to get the LS1 and its wiring harness, which came from a wrecked ’02 Pontiac Trans Am. Advertised as a low-mileage unit, the shop left nothing to chance, so they had Race Krafters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, perform a full rebuild. After the refresh, on the dyno, it laid down 393 horses at 5,500 rpm, which was, in Mark’s opinion, the perfect balance of power and performance. Delivery of that power was assigned to a six-speed gearbox salvaged from an ’02 Camaro. That was also treated to a full rebuild using a McLeod clutch and pressure plate. Moving to the back, a 4-inch aluminum driveshaft from Inland Empire mates to a Moser rear that is packed with 33-spline axles, a Positraction differential, and 4.10:1 gears. Exhaust duties are handled through a set of 1 3/4-inch Hooker shorty headers and a stainless steel 2 1/2-inch exhaust featuring a set of Flowmaster mufflers. The only stumbling block they faced was getting the Trans Am wiring harness to work in the Camaro, which was eventually sorted.
As with the updated engine and gearbox, an upgraded suspension was also a key component in Mark’s overall plans. Part of his goal was to lower the ride height and improve handling and stopping. In order to strike that balance, East Coast relied on Detroit Speed & Engineering for the right parts. At the front they installed their tubular A-arms, sway bar, and 600 quick-ratio steering box, along with Koni coilovers and shocks. At the rear, they added Detroit Speed & Engineering springs mounted on their offset aluminum shackles and Koni shocks. This combination was good for a 3-inch drop in ride height. The stopping part was achieved with a set of Wilwood four-piston calipers and 13-inch drilled and slotted rotors at all four corners. The last piece of the puzzle was the wheel and tire choice. Mark had many flavors to pick from and he eventually narrowed it down to a set of Budnik M5 wheels. At the front, the 17x8 chrome-plated five-spoke wheels are wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport rubber, measuring 225/45R17, while the rear wheels come in at 18x12 and feature 335/30R18 Michelin Pilot Sport tires.
While the mechanical aspects of this build were, by 2003 standards, fairly modern, his direction for the interior was very much old-school. Mark could have spent buckets of cash on something opulent, but he wanted to keep it as stock as possible, so he opted for a black and white houndstooth combination to complement the Guards Red paint and white power top. The only deviations came in the form of a Budnik Stiletto steering wheel, a full complement of Auto Meter Ultra-Lite Pro-Comp gauges, custom-fabricated shoulder belt harnesses, a Sony XPlod head unit, and the deletion of the front seat headrests.
The entire project took almost two years from start to finish. Mark adds that, “this also established a very rewarding working relationship with Lonny. Together, we came up with a plan for a beautiful car that was dependable and effortless to drive. We named it Drop Top Dream since I often dreamt about the car during the build.” The culmination of that dream was realized when the car hit the road. It met, and in many ways surpassed, all expectations.