Growing up just a stone’s throw from the beach, Jim Osenenko would take frequent trips to Seaside Heights, a New Jersey shore town with a reputation for being the place to be if you want action during the summer months. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the sprawling surfside town was the perfect playground for teens and twenty-something revelers, ready to blow off a little steam while showing off their hot rides on the town’s main strip.
Hanging out in the rockin’ beach town had a telling effect on the youngster. And so at the tender age of 15, Jim came to the conclusion he needed to learn how to drive … pronto! Unfortunately, the great state of New Jersey had other ideas, and didn’t think he was ready to hit the streets just yet (permits are issued at 16 1/2). So Jim started out “training undercover,” first getting behind the wheel of a Chevelle SS and then quickly moving on to a sweet ’69 Camaro. The latter ride he favored the most.
Next, he got himself a part-time job to get some cash up and by the time his 16th birthday rolled around Jim had saved enough Benjamins to buy a brand spankin’ new 1978 Z28 to call his own. This purchase was a huge step forward as far as he was concerned, though the youngster was still too young to drive “legally” out on the Garden State’s roads.
Being underage didn’t stop Jim from driving his Z, as he ran that Chevy out on the streets whenever possible, avoiding both his mom and the local Cherry Tops for some time. “My plan didn’t always work,” states Jim, but the teenaged hot rodder forged on. Six months after he got the ’78, he scored a ’69 Z/28 that ultimately got him into street racing. Taking on the competition wasn’t exactly the best thing to do while on your learners permit, but Jim honestly admits; “it was the funnest car I owned back then … I just couldn’t get enough of that sleek F-body Chevy!”
After high school, Jim started his career as a homebuilder on Long Beach Island, a popular beach area not far from his home. As the money came into Jim’s bank account, more cars found space in his garage, including several more top performing Zs. Down the road he got married and had two great boys to raise and share his hobby with as well. He made sure he always had time to enjoy the Camaros with his kids.
One day in 2004, a car veered into Jim’s lane and hit him head on, leaving him with multiple injuries. Over the next couple of years, he went through several surgeries, as well as the needed rehabilitation. He sold off his prized ’69 Z during this period, since he was unable to drive. It would take a few more years before Jim was ready to get back on the road and behind the wheel. Once he was back into the driver’s seat, he really wanted a Camaro to replace the one he had let go. A search started for that elusive black Z, which led him to Savannah, Georgia. There he met Joey Wigley, a custom car guru who had a true numbers-matching Z/28 with an original dual-quad setup for sale. Jim took a chance and checked out the car, which turned out to be all that Joey said it was, plus some. With that a deal was struck for the rare ride.
Over the years the two became fast friends. Jim would take trips to Savannah to hang with his “ole buddy” and see what the shop was up to. One trip he noticed what looked like a custom frame in the corner. Intrigued, Jim asked what it was for. Joey said it was going to be a custom show rod. And here, my friends, is where the story on this particular Camaro starts.
That particular frame was destined for Joey’s own personal Z28 Pro Touring ride. The problem was he just didn’t have enough time to build the car for himself, as business was mounting up and the schedule was full. Then Jim popped the big question, “What if I bought it from you and you build me a hot, Pro Touring car? A ride that could compete with the best Camaros in the country.”
It took Joey a while to give him an answer. He really was attached to the beautiful stainless steel frame and wasn’t sure he wanted to part with it. But he realized that business is business, and if it meant making Jim happy, and getting to build it the right way, well, that was a win/win situation in his book. So the two sat down and figured out what would go into the build and then calculated a price tag. With that agreement in the books, the two shook hands and the build was underway.
The project started out with a decent plain-Jane ’69 roller that Joey sourced. The body was quickly mediablasted and found to be in good enough shape to start with. From here, the car’s body panels would be prepped for a metamorphosis of sorts. When completed, only the trunk lid would still fit a stock ride. Every other piece of metal on this car would get Joey’s signature touch, and ultimately be morphed into a totally original ’69 Z28 fire-breather!
First off, the body was test-fit on the stainless steel frame that Joey had built. The dual-tube “backbone-spined” chassis was designed specifically for a big power, Pro Touring Camaro, and contained extra tubing down the center of the car that would help this ride avoid the need for a rollcage. This structural design was a major plus in their book, since both Jim and Joey wanted a Camaro that could run with the race cars, but still have the look of a high-end street car.
Next, Joey contemplated wheel selection. To get the big meats he wanted under this car, he stretched the wheelwells, both front and back. Once that was accomplished, he looked toward the front of the car. He found that he needed to widen the cowl in preparation for the eventual installation of the motor-motivation of this rad ride: a 582-cubic-inch big-block, pump-gas driven monster, built by Burke Performance.
Once that metalwork was completed, Joey widened hood to match the cowl, splitting it down the middle and adding metal to expand it to fit. The cowl-induction scoop was also hand-fabricated to cover the big-block and its incredible induction system. The doors did not escape without modification, either; they were lengthened and shaved to match the clean look of the exterior.
That look would also extend to the glass and trim. New modern glass was sourced and fit so the metal and glass came together like a modern car would, leaving the trim off for an up-to-date look. Now, with the contemporary touches, this car was looking like a Camaro caught in a mega-time warp, traveling 50 years forward in just a single bound.
Once that was accomplished, Joey finished off the firewall and floors with 1/8-inch metal for rigidity. This would add strength to the structure of the car and help mate it to the stunning stainless frame waiting for the body in the corner of the shop. Once the body and chassis were merged, the Camaro was now ready for a special delivery. The power for this F-body had arrived and was ready for installation.
The 582ci Dart block was built up with Air Flow Research cylinder heads and a custom Kinsler fuel-injection system, complete with trumpet-style intakes and hidden fuel rails. A Concept One serpentine system, custom billet valve covers, and Mallory billet dizzy add a little bling to the engine. To add to the look, the block had been deburred, sanded, painted, and then buffed to a shine prior to the engine build. The whole powerplant is a stellar, polished, thing of beauty pushing out over 850 hp on pump gas.
Joey and Jim both wanted the Camaro to sit as low as possible. So it was decided that the exhaust needed to be tucked up and out of the way to make this happen. So Joey devised a setup where his hand-fabricated custom headers dump the spent gasses into 3-inch pipes that feed into the rocker panels on both sides of the car. Once entering the rocker, the gasses travel through a chambered exhaust and exit through a built-in outlet just before the rear tire. To keep the paint from melting off the body here, fans were installed to help keep the rocker panels from getting too hot. These units are controlled by a temperature sensor system, which Joey built into the rockers.
Power is shifted by a polished TREMEC five-speed transmission that feeds power to the Kugel-built, Jaguar-style independent rear by way of a custom aluminum driveshaft. A fully polished Kugel double coilover independent front and rear suspension handle the duties on this Z28. A Wilwood four-wheel disc brake system, featuring inboard brakes in the rear, stops this ride in time and on a dime.
The body of this Camaro was covered in Glasurit Black that looks a mile deep. Ghost flames were added in a candy finish for a little old-school break-up on the nose. Custom DPE polished aluminum wheels are at the corners and measure in at 15x7 front and 15x20 rear. They are shod in Mickey Thompson rubber, 26x10.00 and 29x18.00, respectively. All stainless lines were used for fuel and braking systems, and everything—including the wiring—was hidden in the custom frame for a clean look.
Last but not least is the interior. First off, Joey fabricated a custom dash and filled it with an assortment of AutoMeter gauges. The bucket seats were made from scratch and then the interior was finished off in high-grade leather. Tunes are supplied by a Kenwood/JL Audio system with navigation, and a backup camera was added for safety. For that uber modern touch, remote power windows, doors, mirrors, and trunk opener were added to this killer Camaro concoction.
Once completed, Joey and Jim realized they had built one of the most outstanding custom ’69 Camaro Z/28 RS’s in the country. They knew without a doubt that this ride could compete with the best custom cars in the nation. What better place is there to show off your creation than at the Detroit Autorama? So in 2013, the boys took this stunner to the Motor City to compete for the prestigious Ridler Award.
Once there, the car was chosen to be one of the top 25 cars and got its own display. Chip Foose stopped over early on and stated that he thought the Camaro was best in show, hands down. Though in the end Jim’s Z didn’t make the final cut, it certainly made some waves for sure. It took Second place in Pro Touring and won Overall Best Paint. And that was just fine with Jim and Joey. In the end, this Camaro is everything the designer wanted it to be, and an Autorama favorite to boot.
Photography by Scotty Lachenauer