In 1981, Jef Fern set out to scrape enough cash together so he could buy his first ride. At the ripe old age of 17, the Pennsylvania native worked numerous odd jobs to come up with $1,800 for the object of his desire: a well-worn 1970 second-gen Camaro. “It had absolutely no bells and whistles, unless you counted the badly spray-painted florescent orange traction bars and rear cover,” he recalls. “It was Forest Green, so those highlights stood out like a sore thumb!” The list of options was equally unimpressive. It was powered by a tired 307ci small-block with a voracious appetite for oil, a sloppy four-speed gearbox, and a 10-bolt rear suspended by air shocks. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was a Camaro and it was all mine.”
Short on cash but full of youthful exuberance, Jef’s Camaro became the center of his young world. “It started a long tour in how stuff falls apart, and how I learned to fix them myself,” he points out. “It taught me things like the rumbling sound that I thought was cool was, in fact, the Y-pipe about to break and fall off the car. Back then, if I had gas money I was happy! So I fixed everything myself.”
By 1983 his fire was still burning strong, but the 307 mill had packed it in for good. No amount of oil could quench its thirst anymore. A trip to the local junkyard was all it took to fetch a 327ci small-block, which then received the obligatory 600-cfm Holley, Edelbrock Torker intake, and a set of headers. His dad stepped up to the plate and volunteered to paint the car, so they looked for the best shade of red paint available at the local tractor store. With a fresh red coat and some additional ponies under the hood the last piece of the transformation was the installation of the ever-popular Cragar SST mags. It was also at that point that Jef inexplicably started breaking copious amounts of four-speed gearboxes. He states, “I broke so many I could change them in my sleep!”
Moving forward a few years, the desire to build a bigger and nastier Camaro was always on his mind. Fueled by the cars he saw in person at the Super Chevy show in Maple Grove, Pennsylvania, and in the pages of Super Chevy magazine, his mind would often slip into the “what if” mode. Reality was, however, always the bitter pill he swallowed. “I was a student at Lincoln Technical Institute at the time studying mechanical drafting,” he notes. “I was a student with no money and a mind full of dreams. Money was tight and the Camaro was my daily transportation, so hot rodding it would have to wait.”
The professional working world came knocking in 1989. He landed a job at a civil engineering company, which allowed him to start dreaming again. The substantially healthier cash flow allowed him to turn some of those “what if” moments into reality. After stashing some money away, he eventually had enough to tub the car. Jim’s Auto Works in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, was chosen to do the surgery on the back half of the second-gen. The red tractor paint also gave way to black primer. By the summer of 1989, the Camaro hit the streets sporting a tunnel-rammed 327 small-block, four-speed, eight-point rollbar, 4.88 gears, and big fat tires. The following summer, his buddy Mark Knarr said he could paint the car for him, and after some bodywork the Camaro once again broke cover sporting a fresh coat of yellow paint.
The car had become a major part in Jef’s life, and a source of pleasure and pride. It took on an even more important role as family issues clouded the picture. “It was the summer of 1990 and my parents were in the process of getting divorced,” he recalls. “The car became my rock, so I decided the rock should be blown. My girlfriend Lori lent me the cash to buy my first blower: a B&M Mega Blower. Mark and I built the first blown motor for the car, and the monster was born.” That year he also decided to dip his toe into the car show pool at the Maple Grove Super Chevy show. Jef fondly recalls, “A guy came over on a golf cart to look at the car. It turned out to be Steve Reyes from Popular Hot Rodding magazine. He wanted to shoot my car, and in January 1991 it was published for the first time in a little feature. I was on top of the world.”
Marriage bells rang in 1992 and the Camaro was destined to play an important role in the ceremony. With another blower engine built, Jef decided to have the car repainted again in time for the wedding. “I took the car to a body shop to be finished before the wedding in September, but that shop burned down—with my car inside,” he points out. Fortunately, his buddy Chet Dotts worked there and was able to push it outside. The fiberglass front end that was stored in another part of the building wasn’t as lucky. After the usual battles with insurance companies, they eventually cut a check for a new front clip. The shop owner at that point wanted nothing to do with the repaint on the Camaro so it was sent to another shop. They managed to get the job done in time for the wedding.
By the end of the ’90s, Jef had shown the car extensively in the tri-state area. The car was a source of fulfillment; however, personal hardships took their toll. His mother passed away from a prolonged illness and his marriage was coming to an abrupt end. He claims, “The car stayed with me and gave me solace in a less than stellar time.” In 2001, he decided to hit the track. “I raced the car in the fall right after the terror attack of 9/11,” he explains. “It ran its best at 10.23 at 132.92 mph at Cecil County Dragway in Maryland. I thought it wasn’t bad for a show car at the time. But it was really starting to have issues stopping at that point. It seemed to be unsafe.” The following spring the car was parked indefinitely. On his way home from a show, a head cracked and that was the nail in the Camaro coffin.
Toward the latter part of 2003 new plans for the Camaro started brewing. Jef hooked up with Dave Guenst, the owner of Guenst Motorsports in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and together they mapped out a new direction for the car. Since it was back-halved, the plan was to front-half it. That summer, Jef purchased an S&W Race Cars front clip at the Super Chevy Maple Grove flea market. With the new parts in the garage, he states, “In October 2003, I sat down at my drawing board and designed my new chassis, which was to include the new front clip tied to the old back half.” Once the car was cut apart, we realized that when it was initially tubbed, the brackets on the rear were installed upside down. The four-link boxes at the crossmember were constantly breaking loose. This answered the lingering question as to why he could never get the suspension to work properly. As a result, Jef went back to his drawing board and designed a complete, brand-new chassis. The foundation for this new chassis would be built on a mild steel 2x3 tube frame, which would also incorporate a 12-point half Funny Car ’cage. At the rear, a custom four-link suspension with single-adjustable coilovers was designed to hang the narrowed 12-bolt Chevy rear stuffed with Strange 35-spline axles and a set of Moser 3.73:1 gears. The front retained the S&W Race Cars front clip with minor modifications, along with a set of ground hugging Heidt’s 2-inch drop spindles mounted on modified A-arms. In the span of four months, using Jef’s blueprint, Dave had the Camaro sitting on all four tires. Jef proudly proclaims, “When we sat the car on the ground for the first time, it was within 1/4-inch of my design height. Having never designed a chassis before, I was pretty happy with how it turned out.”
At the end of 2003 Jef wheeled the Camaro back into his garage. He recalls, “Even though Dave worked with me and I had my hands in what he was doing, I still ran out of funds.” It sat almost dormant for the next two years. During that time he did smooth out the firewall, doorjambs, finished off all the tinwork, and painted the rollcage. He also applied for, and received, an 8.50 certification on his chassis design.
By 2005, the stash of cash was replenished and the plans once again ramped up. The focus shifted to the body and drivetrain. Roy Hamilton, owner of Creative Customs in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, was the guy Jef trusted to smooth out the body. Part of the plan going in was to augment the rear quarters and extend the wheel openings, while maintaining the original width of the overall body. This process alone became a huge time sink that ate away at the original timeline. Other modifications designed by Jef included Buick Century rear door handles frenched into the new doorskins, along with teardrop marker lights. Upon Roy’s recommendation, the Camaro should also revert back to wearing a steel front end. Jef agreed with that change, but he points out, “As with most things, I’m not happy with the stock look so I redesigned the front clip.” The end result was a steel one-piece removable front with the turn signals removed. What was initially meant to take approximately one year to accomplish ended up spanning the better part of seven years until the PPG Honda Long Beach Blue Pearl was laid down.
While the body was being massaged, the engine that would power the beast was also on the drawing board. His vision was to build a nastier, blown and injected small-block. That vision was shattered when he was taken on a ride in Rod Saboury’s twin-turbo 1963 Corvette, which at the time held the record as the world’s fastest street-legal car. It was at that point that he had an epiphany and decided to ditch the blower engine in favor of a turboed small-block. The foundation of the new unit, which took two years to build, started with a 355ci small-block stuffed with a Callies forged steel crank, Crower I-beam rods, and Wiseco 9.0:1 pistons. On the top end, a set of Brodix aluminum cylinder heads and an Edelbrock Victor Jr. intake rounded out the engine hardware. The turbo side of the equation was like sailing into uncharted waters. As a result, a fair amount of research was done, which eventually led him to Wrenchrat Inc. in Spokane Valley, Washington. Their twin-turbo kit was perfect for his unique plans. Utilizing a pair of twin 67mm Turbonetics turbos pushing 10 psi of boost through a CSU Turbo hat mounted to a CSU blow-through 750-cfm carb, it delivered the right amount of power to motivate the car.
Toward the end of 2012, the Camaro made its last trip home from the body shop. At that point it was a rolling blue canvas in need of a drivetrain … and just about everything else. Fixated on perfection, he recalls, “I spent huge amounts of time in the garage getting things to look and work just right. The turbo tubing alone took me nearly two months of trial and error just to get the right look. I also designed my intercooler and radiator at that time as well to fit perfectly in the tight, front space of the car.” Eventually, the twin-turbo mill was mated to a TH400 built by Jef and his friend Chris Root. The beefed-up three-speed auto utilizes a manual reverse valvebody and an ATI 3,000-stall converter mated to TCI Auto flexplate. With the installation of the Wrenchrat 1 7/8-inch stainless headers mated to a custom 4-inch muffler-free side-dump exhaust fabricated by his buddy Johnny Fox, it was ready to be fired up. With a smile on his face, he states, “After almost 12 long years, I drove my car for the first time in front of my house.” After that exuberant spin around the block, it was again wheeled back into the garage for another two years to have everything else installed that was missing.
The last piece of this rather prolonged build came in 2014 when Jef took the Camaro to Bux Customs in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Like all the other aspects of the car, Jef had a vision for the interior. That vision was shared with Chris McClintock, the shop owner. The theme was dubbed “Ocean Meets the Beach,” which meant lots of tan leather and suede to complement the blue exterior. Chris spent a few months creating the hand-fabricated door panels and console, along with massaging the custom fourth-gen Trans Am dash. The balance of the custom work was complemented by the use of Auto Meter Ultra-Lite gauges, Budnik billet steering wheel, Hurst Pistol Grip shifter, and modified Viper seats with custom lap belts to create a truly comfortable and stunning interior. The color palette was so pleasing that it was eventually carried over into the engine bay, where the tinwork was sprayed in the same shade, utilizing matte paint.
If you’re wondering about rolling stock, which was clearly a make it or break it proposition on this Camaro, Jef was dead-on with his choices. A matched set of Mickey Thompson Sportsman SR radial tires measuring 26x5-15 at the front wrap 15x5 Team 3 ET Classic V wheels, while at the rear, 33x22.5-15 Mickey Thompson Sportsman SR radial tires engulf the 15x15 Team 3 ET Classic V wheels. If you look between the spokes, you can spot the four-piston Aerospace disc brakes ready to bring it all to a stop.
But wait, there’s more. The Camaro was still missing a hood. For almost two years Jef drove the car without a hood. He points out, “The issue of not having a hood haunted me.” That meant a trip back to the drawing board and more endless nights in the garage fabricating a custom hood. His friend Johnny Fox lent a helping hand and they both whipped up the hood that you can see on the car today. It may look stock, but it sits 5 inches higher than the factory hood, and is actually a combination of two hoods, a tall steel cowl scoop, and a bunch of handmade parts welded together. Once the metal work was complete, he took the car to his other friend, Mike Heim, owner of Quality Custom Rides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Mike did all the finish work on the hood, including the paint, and also installed a decklid wing designed by Jef.
For now the Camaro is done, but as Jef points out, “done is just relative term for, I’m broke. It truly seems that a lifetime has been spent on this car. I was 17 when I bought the car, and now at 52, the car has survived a lot of things, and helped me deal with life in a way that I could have never imagined. This Camaro has outlasted my marriage, all of my girlfriends, most of my cash, and almost all of my hair. But without it, I don’t know where I would be today.”