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Homebuilt, Old-School-Style, Big-Block–Powered 1969 Camaro

Sparkly, homebuilt SS big-block says: “It’s just me. Here’s a thumb in your eye.”

Ro McGonegal Dec 26, 2018
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How Brad Hamilton got into this business was the way most of us got into this business. We watched. We emulated. We looked to the future. We didn’t quit. We pestered incessantly: for answers, for acceptance. We gave up our kindergarten cap guns and horror comic books, but not our cherry bombs.

We went to the drag races with our dad and in those places we saw what hot rods were and what they did. The crack and the utter lawlessness of open exhaust pipes changed our life in an instant. It had an acrid veil of unburned hydrocarbons. Back then, “high-test” was liquor, not regular grade gasoline, but high-octane Sunoco 260 that was laced with beautiful, carcinogenic lead. The mother’s milk of high compression, and had a scent you couldn’t find better no place. It was a heady and persuasive siren, like fumes from a keg of nitromethane.

Brad’s mechanic father wasn’t a nitro addict but brought him to the closest venue, the fabled Union Grove quarter-mile, where he drag raced his cars. Brad’s been captured by the scene and the ambience since he was a young teen. He says he built the Camaro as a tribute to his father and his two brothers and to pass the love of cars to his son Jake, as his father did for him.

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It was Brad’s brother Todd who found the Camaro in the first place. This car was huddled in a corner of a Chevy dealer’s lot. It was three shades of green with a skizzy tarpaper roof flapping off the top. Its floorboards were disintegrating. Its joints were leaking. Generations of mice had converted the interior into a wonderland of foam, stuffing, and dust motes. The rodent legion, by then exterminated, had stunk the place up nonetheless.

Then it all went wrong. Todd had had the car a few months before he was in a wreck in his dad’s Corvette that he did not survive.

So it was a long time, more than 11 years after the first rust scabs were chiseled off, before the Camaro would turn a tire in anger. To get the fuse lighted, Brad had hoisted the lump on jack stands and unrolled sheet plastic and made a tent around it to contain the sand from the blaster. When he was done, he looked like he was marooned in the Sahara desert or maybe the Gobi after he’d scoured the Camaro with more than 900 pounds of grit.

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Brad affirms that none of it would have occurred had it not been for the expertise and forethought of his neighbor, savvy Rick Brown. Brad was adamant about the importance of this relationship. “Without his patience, help, and understanding, the car would have never been built.” So then Brad, Rick, and Brad’s son Jake (with Brad’s wife, Gina, cheerleading) were the ones to put the sweat, labor, and aching heads in the whole of the industry. Outside labor fell to Ron Klajbor’s R&B Autobody and the crew at Danny’s Upholstery.

The formula is basic. R&B applied the triple-green masterfully. The appearance of the body carries the car completely. Brad and Rick set the stance right, but beyond the thicker antisway bars and the lowering springs that achieved this, the chassis remains virginal. The boys stepped up the appearance with 17-inch wheels that at 10 feet don’t look any different than 18-inch hoops after you’ve plied ’em with wide-section tires.

They passed up the usual LS platform in favor of big-block cylinder bores. Was the thinking that even a junky-looking Chevrolet Rat would trump the ugly-stick LS architecture? It doesn’t matter. Take a peek. The big-block looks cool idling in there, muttering, ready to spew torque all over the place at ridiculously low crankshaft speed. So this is to say the engine is smooth, effortless, and enjoyable in traffic; when you drive street, you drive torque, not horsepower.

And to transfer grunt there’s nothing like manipulating a manual transmission as guided by your muscle memory right along with that meat-eating grin on your grille. What Brad needed was just one overdriven top gear, not two, so a stout TREMEC five-speed provides that guff. The Spec II clutch assembly offers light pedal feel along with ferocious clamping power that seems impervious to abuse.

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At this point, the Camaro is all about perception. Is what you see what you get? It’s got all the right cues and humor going for it. There’s a lot left in the power department, too. The silent thing about the 454 is its forged rotating assembly. Its stout pistons have a compression ratio low enough to accommodate boosted atmosphere inside those cylinders without fear of having stuff blow up in their faces. The power-adder(s) could safely and easily increase output by 500 horsepower or more and the grunt in commensurate fashion. Surely, more of this largesse would occur with pin-point computer control instead of the completely analog system in there now, so if Brad gets a little rambunctious and really wants this thing to hit like freight train, it well could.

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Brad speaks of the finest thing that’s happened in the Camaro so far: “The first ride with my son Jake. Had my father’s and brother’s ashes sitting in the back of it that wasn’t anything but a metal floor—it had no windows or seat belts and the headers were open!” And although the end is never really in sight, Brad feels accomplished. He’s ready now to pass the Camaro and its legacy to his son.

What will Brad be doing in the near future? Hopefully, he’ll be riding the new golden pony. “Our plan is to build a Chevy II. Being family-oriented, Gina is OK with us building another car but … she wants to go to Hawaii first!” Yup, ya definitely gotta take care of Gina first. CHP

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Tech Check
Owner: Brad and Gina Hamilton, Algonquin, Illinois
Vehicle: 1969 Camaro SS

Engine
Type: ZZ454
Displacement: 454 ci
Compression Ratio: 9.5:1
Bore: 4.250 inches
Stroke: 4.000 inches
Cylinder Heads: Chevrolet oval port aluminum, 110cc combustion chambers, 2.25/1.88 valves, pushrod guideplates
Rotating Assembly: Forged steel crankshaft, forged rods, forged aluminum pistons, Chevrolet ring packs, OE four-bolt main caps
Valvetrain: Crower 1.6:1 roller rocker arms, 7/16-inch pushrods, Comp Cams valvesprings
Camshaft: Chevrolet 502 hp, (0.572/0.540-inch lift; 224/234-deg. duration at 0.050; 112-deg. centerline)
Induction: Edelbrock Air-Gap intake manifold, 750-cfm Holley 4150 carburetor, K&N filter, narrowed OE fuel tank w/ sump
Ignition: MSD 6AL box, MSD primary wires
Exhaust: Custom-made Lemons headers, 2 1/8-inch primaries, 3-inch system, DynoMax Ultra Flow mufflers
Ancillaries: March accessory drive, Be Cool radiator and fans, carbon-fiber console insert, custom wiring by Brad Hamilton and Rick Brown, Marquez front marker lights
Machine Work: Chevrolet Performance
Assembly: Chevrolet Performance
Output (at the crank): 536 hp at 5,600 rpm; 561 lb-ft at 3,700 rpm

Drivetrain
Transmission: Keisler Engineering TKO-600, Spec II Stage 2 clutch assembly, GM flywheel, 3-inch-diameter chromoly driveshaft
Rear Axle: Ford 9-inch, 3.55:1 gears, Traction-Lok differential, Moser 31-spline axles

Chassis
Front Suspension: Stock spindles; Detroit Speed Inc. (DSE) control arms, 2-inch drop springs, and 1 1/8-inch antisway bar; Koni adjustable shocks
Rear Suspension: DSE leaf springs and mini-tubs, Koni adjustable shocks
Brakes: Baer 12-inch rotors, four-piston calipers, front; C4 Corvette 11-inch rotors, two-piston calipers, rear

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Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Budnik Famosa 17x8 front, 17x11 rear
Tires: BFGoodrich g-Force T/A 245/40 front, 315/35 rear

Interior
Upholstery: Danny’s Upholstery (Wauconda, IL)
Material: Stock vinyl
Seats: OE
Steering: Flaming River tilt column and steering box, Budnik Famosa wheel
Shifter: Hurst
Dash: OE w/ Covan carbon-fiber insert
Instrumentation: AutoMeter Pro-Comp Ultra-Lite
Audio: N/A
HVAC: N/A

Exterior
Bodywork: Ron Klajbor
Paint By: Ron Klajbor, R&B Autobody (Berwyn, IL)
Paint: Custom PPG Pearl Green mix
Hood: Chevrolet steel 2-inch cowl
Grille: OE
Bumpers: OE

Photos by Robert McGaffin

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