Running an 8.62 at the dragstrip is nothing to sneeze at unless that 8.62 figure doesn’t represent second or even minutes. Traveling at a blistering 0.029 mph, it takes a garden snail 8.62 hours to travel a quarter-mile, which works out to a 31,032-second e.t. Can we get a yippee ki-yay? That’s pretty darn slow in anyone’s book, but imagine a preposterous scenario where a garden snails absolutely annihilates an SS396 Camaro. It happened to Will Lewis when he logged just 500 miles in 10 years on his ’69 Camaro, enough time for a snail to travel over 2,500 miles. Talk about embarrassing.
Like many hot rodders, Will learned the hard way that the expectations of youth don’t always stack up to the realities of modern driving demands. To correct the situation, he transformed his Camaro from a stock restoration to an LS3-powered Pro Touring cruiser that drives like a late-model yet retains its all-original flavor. It was a long and arduous journey that took three attempts to perfect, but the donuts, burnouts, and powerslides that have ensued have made it well worth the trip.
Dreams of one day cruising the streets in an SS396 Camaro started early in Will’s childhood. “By the time I was 13 years old, I had every parts catalog and factory build manual out there for first-gen Camaros. I could tell you everything about these cars at that age, and I was just taken by them for some reason,” he recalls. “I desperately wanted a first-gen Camaro when I turned 16, but my dad wouldn’t allow it. He probably saved my life because I would have almost certainly wrecked it. For the next 20 years, I had a job, a wife, kids, and a ranch to take care of. You know, all of the typical stuff people have to do. As I got more established and my kids got older, I was finally able to get a Camaro about 12 years go. It was my first real project car. ”
Considering that Will had to wait several decades to pursue his dreams, he wasn’t willing to compromise by building a clone. “I was intent on finding an RS/SS car with a big-block and a vinyl top,” he says. “Six months later, I found a real SS396 car with vinyl top that didn’t have the numbers-matching motor, but still had the original TH400 trans and 12-bolt rearend. I wanted to build it back up correctly to original specifications, and also add the RS package, as if I originally ordered it up that way from the factory.”
As an original California car, the Camaro appeared solid from afar, but closer examination revealed a troubled past. “I thought it was a so-so restoration that ran well, and had some rust bubbles on the lower quarter-panels. I found out it had been hit on one of the quarters, which twisted the car up, so it needed a lot more work than I thought,” Will recounts. “I tried to tackle some of the work myself before I dropped it off at a restoration shop. They messed up the car and hosed me pretty badly.”
After breaking his car out of paint-and-body jail, Will enlisted the help of Jeff Cameron at Dooley and Sons Hot Rod Shop (www.dooleyandsons.com) to get his project back on track. The crew replaced the damaged quarter-panel in addition to replacing the front sheetmetal. To upgrade the Camaro’s aesthetics and performance, Dooley and Sons installed an RS conversion kit, rebuilt the engine, and swapped out the automatic for a TREMEC TKO 600 five-speed. On the inside, houndstooth-covered seats replaced the originals, and a Vintage Air A/C system was installed as well.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Instead of riding off into the sunset in a big-block Camaro, Will’s dream car hardly moved for the next 10 years. The car sat for so long, in fact, that he felt the need to freshen up the paint a bit, which spawned yet another round of modifications. “I took the car back to Dooley and Sons so they could polish up the paint, and Jeff asked ‘How was the drive over?’ I said it wasn’t worth a damn,” Will jokes. “I told Jeff that the car doesn’t want to start or stop, and it hunts all over the road. I said it drives just like a car from 1969, and it’s not any fun at all.”
Seeking customer satisfaction, Jeff suggested modernizing the Camaro’s suspension and brakes to enhance its overall driveability. “He said if you don’t like driving it, why don’t we make some upgrades so that you can actually enjoy it,” Will recalls. “He recommended installing a Heidt’s front subframe assembly and four-link, and some Wilwood four-piston brakes. I originally wanted white-letter tires, but Jeff talked me into going with low-profile tires on a set of Schott Challenger wheels (19x8 front, 20x10 rear). Then he dangled a 550hp LS3 in front of me, and I had to have it. Since the car didn’t have a numbers-matching engine anymore, I was OK with going the restomod route.”
While many Bow Tie diehards would frown upon swapping a small-block into a real SS396 car, the Don Hardy Race Cars LS3 packs big-block bark in a lightweight aluminum package. It utilizes a stock LS3 block that has been bored to 4.080 inches, and fitted with a stock 3.622-inch GM crank, steel rods, and forged 11.0:1 custom pistons. A Holley single-plane intake manifold tapped for multi-point EFI is matched with a 1,000-cfm throttle body to provide airflow to factory LS3 cylinder heads. From there, Hooker headers and dual 3-inch Borla mufflers evacuate the cylinders. With a custom DHRC hydraulic roller cam managing the valve events, the combo kicks out a respectable 550 horsepower.
Ultimately, Will’s patience and determination paid off, and he’s finally able to enjoy the type of Camaro he always dreamed of owning. “I had to build the car three times to get it right, but it’s more than I ever imagined,” Will gushes. “It handles, accelerates, and brakes just like a modern car. There are no creaks or rattles, and it starts right up, too.”
Unlike the first (or second?) time around, the miles are quickly piling up. On the drive home from the shop, Will was so smitten with the LS3 and Heidt’s suspension that he went joy riding for a couple hundred miles before calling it a day. “When I first got it back, I started looking for a wide expanse of concrete. I went to the local high school parking lot and started doing donuts,” he chuckles. Maybe he smeared a couple of snails across the pavement, too.