Dan Howe is no stranger to building vehicles with a purpose. A few years ago, his 1984 Monte Carlo placed well in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge. So, when it came time to reward his son Josh for all of his hard work on the Monte Carlo project, it was Josh’s choice to build the amazing 1986 El Camino seen here.
Now, typically “El Camino” and “amazing” don’t really fit in the same sentence. The coupe/utility placed greater emphasis on the utility part of the equation, especially in later years once the factory-installed big-block engines were no longer an option. But as we look deeper under the skin of this masterpiece, the small details begin to add up to show big promise to the enlightened onlooker. Classified as a truck, but based on a variety of GM car platforms through its lifespan, the El Camino sticks out like a sore thumb, whether on the show field or the racetrack.
“This project was the result of a conversation while participating at OUSCI 2012 between Jeff Schwartz, Jeff Smith, and I,” says Dan Howe. “The subject of my next build came up. With the success of our very first build, an ’84 Monte Carlo SS, I suggested an El Camino to match it. With the chassis being a little different, Jeff was willing to develop a chassis for it.” For the uninitiated, Jeff Schwartz is the brains behind Schwartz Performance in Woodstock, Illinois—a well-known provider of bolt-in muscle car chassis that are proven to perform at the track and on the street. “Six weeks later, I was an owner of a 1986 model for $3,700. Very clean in appearance, it had a repaint, 78,000 miles on the clock, and was sold in Iowa new. This truck, as per the registration, was going to be more than GM ever planned,” says Howe.
And thus the work commenced. As Howe’s own Monte Carlo was Schwartz Performance chassis #1 in that configuration, so too would be this El Camino. Although the two share G-body underpinnings, Schwartz decided to take the road less traveled with this car and create one of his G-Machine chassis for the project. There’s a custom triangulated four-link design for the rear of the car featuring a splined sway bar. A Moser Engineering 9-inch housing uses 3.50 gears and an Eaton Truetrac to plant the power.
In the front there’s tubular upper and lower control arms, a rack-and-pinion steering assembly, and yet another splined sway bar for stiffness. These items are proven to perform on the track as well, with testing of the chassis showing a 200 percent improvement in stiffness over a stock G-body chassis. Baer six-piston calipers squeeze 14-inch rotors at all four corners, while billet coilovers control suspension motion. When the chassis returned home from Schwartz Performance, it was time to dig into the details. “First on the agenda was mini-tubs. Four inches was added with the intentions of the casual observer never knowing it wasn’t done at the factory. Next, the body was pulled off the old chassis and suspended from the ceiling in the shop, a converted barn my grandfather built in 1921. There, the bottom was completely stripped and then coated with Upol Raptor bedliner,” says Howe.
Josh Howe then proceeded to strip the body of the El Camino, often with the help of his sister Kaycee, who also assisted with final assembly. The El Camino turned out to have three layers of paint upon most of its panels. There wasn’t much rust, although the rear quarters did require repair in a number of spots. Unique for this particular car is the choice of the G-body-era Monte Carlo SS nose conversion, rear roll pan, and other pieces needed to finish off the body. Each of these parts came from Honest Charley’s. Heat extractors were added to the original hood, and the vents and other trim have had carbon-fiber hydrographics added to finish off their appearance.
The El Camino—believe it or not—was painted in the family’s converted chicken house, using DuPont Chroma Premiere Dark Red Metallic pigment, laid down by Josh and Nick Kleitsch. “I wanted a red, not too red and not too dark,” says Howe. “Josh sprayed many test cards, and finally one weekend he showed me one that was perfect. It turned out to be the original 1986 El Camino Dark Red Metallic the car was born with.”
Back when this car first rolled off the assembly line, the top-of-the-line fuel-injected engine was the wheezy 4.3-liter V-6, which produced a whopping 110 horsepower—not exactly the lifeline to performance. And to top off the lame power production, the engines were fitted with throttle-body fuel injection to boot. Those pieces are long gone, as the Elky has been upgraded in a big way with an LS426 engine, assembled by Jesse Riggle at West Bend Dyno Tuning. The engine started life as a 364 cubic-inch LQ4 and has been poked-and-stroked to 426 cubic inches through the use of a 4.065-inch bore and 4.100-inch crankshaft from Manley. A set of forged Manley H-beam connecting rods combine with a set of 10.0:1 JE pistons, Stage 3 hand-ported 317 castings, and a Comp bumpstick to pound out a whopping 513 wheel horsepower and 495 lb-ft of torque on the West Bend dyno. “These guys are amazing at what they do and I can’t thank them enough. The base program they supplied fired the powerplant on the first turn of the key, and it idled at 900 rpm,” says Howe.
It wasn’t as simple as dropping an engine into the bay, though; in order to run the late-model LS engine, a harness from PSI Conversions was required. Howe used an LS7 mass airflow sensor and added cruise control to the harness—an easy task as the harness is made to order. Based on past experience with this type of configuration in the G-body chassis, a set of F-body Pacesetter headers were modified to clear the steering shaft, and a Jegs 3-inch universal exhaust kit, including H-pipe and Moroso Spiral Flow mufflers, finished off the exhaust. Backing up the engine is the tried-and-true TREMEC T56 Magnum six-speed manual transmission, sourced from Bowler Transmission, who also supplied the shifter. An LS7 clutch and flywheel was used. The customization continued with the wheel choice: a set of XXR 521s in Gun Metal Gray. The 18x8.5 front wheels carry 275/35/18 tires, while the Weldcraft-widened 18x12 rear wheels have 335/30/18 BFGoodrich Rivals wrapped ’round.
On the inside, a set of seats from a Pontiac G8, complete with power actuation and heated surfaces are in place, with a set of custom-made mounts installed to keep the seats low while retaining the use of the factory locating positions. A console from a Monte Carlo has been modified to accept the Auto Meter fuel, voltage, and oil temperature gauges, while the factory gauge pod has been modified to house the GPS-enabled speedometer, tachometer, coolant temperature, and oil pressure gauges.
The two-and-a-half-year build process culminated with the installation of the license plate – aptly stamped “HOWEVIL”; this nasty El Camino is certainly that. Howe is appreciative of everyone who’s been involved in the project, most importantly his wife, Janice, who knows exactly how much the project cost and was happy anyways.
“The plans for this truck’s future include several USCA events and chasing cones at every autocross it can find,” says Howe. That sounds like an excellent reward to us.