In the February 2018 issue of Super Chevy we gave you a sneak peek at Joe Courtney's '69 Camaro RS/SS pace car convertible getting a modern makeover at Ai Design in Tuckahoe, New York. With the work now complete, we can show you the end result of the many months of fabrication and paintwork performed on this car. However, before we go any further, we need to have the obligatory disclaimer, so for the purists who want to know if it's a real RS/SS pace car, we'd advise you to hold on to something or just leave the room because it is a legit RPO Z11 car. Now, before you break out the Courtney voodoo dolls, cut the guy some slack. At the time he purchased the Camaro it had already been restomodded and the original drivetrain was a distant memory. He acknowledges that, "if it was still a numbers-matching car, I wouldn't have touched it." What he had initially purchased appeared to be a nice '69 with really decent paint and a 502-cubic-inch big-block. Beyond those attributes, it was really slow, handled poorly, lacked comfort, and didn't inspire any real sense of safety.
Those were too many strikes to live with in a car that Courtney really wanted to enjoy. In his stable of machinery he has a Ferrari and a couple of Porsches, along with a number of other foreign and domestic performance cars. He is also an accomplished racer with a championship title in IMSA's Ferrari Challenge series and a number of top finishes in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo series, so his performance and safety bar has always been set pretty high.
The desire to raise the Camaro a few notches in performance and handling to match the other rides in his garage was what brought him to Ai Design in Tuckahoe, New York. This wasn't a cold call on his part though. Courtney and Matt Figliola, owner of Ai, have collaborated in the past on other cars, so this was another project built on trust and previous satisfaction.
The goal was to re-imagine the car with an emphasis on performance, reliability, and comfort, while retaining the classic look and feel of an original pace car. That was what it evolved into. Before anything was ever done to the Camaro, the initial conversation primarily focused on suspension and engine upgrades. Figliola notes, "When we started talking about what motor and suspension to use, it became apparent that the really cool, cutting-edge stuff would come from a place like Detroit Speed. We didn't want to mess that up, so we never entertained a lesser choice." On the propulsion side, the old-school big-cube mill would be ditched in favor of an LS crate engine backed by a modern six-speed.
When the car rolled into Ai to have the upgrades installed, they started the disassembly process and were quickly able to get a better idea of what they were working with. Since a new coat of paint wasn't initially on the menu, extra care was taken to avoid any kind of potential damage. As they tore into it, Figliola explains, "We started to give Joe some opinions about what we were finding. On one of his visits, he was able to see the car apart and was very receptive in wanting to correct some of the problems we found, but then it got to a point where it could no longer be just a repair. It had to be viewed from the mindset of a complete redo."
That commitment mushroomed into a full rebuild that was all encompassing and would touch on every aspect of the car, and opened the door for Figliola to bring Ai's fabrication expertise to the project. Once Courtney committed to the additional work, the body was sodablasted and the sins underneath the nice paint were revealed. There were ample amounts of filler all over the body, with the heaviest concentration at the rear fascia, which was at some point replaced ... poorly. Shoddy work was also evident in the patch panels they found on the original quarters. The front clip had also been swapped at some point.
Overall, the decision to go full-on with a respray proved to be the right choice because the crew at Ai ended up doing extensive bodywork to get the panels back into shape. Along the way they fixed all the body gaps and cleaned up the front and rear bumpers. They were tucked in and recontoured to hug the body, with all the mounting hardware hidden. The rear valance was also modified with the addition of cutouts to accommodate the custom exhaust. Under the hood the firewall was smoothed out, while at the rear a new set of Detroit Speed mini-tubs were installed.
While the body was coming together, the drivetrain was also taking shape. As planned, the front and rear suspension assemblies were ordered from Detroit Speed. The front utilizes their hydroformed subframe, tubular upper and lower control arms, coilover shocks, rack-and-pinion steering, and forged spindles. At the rear they installed their QUADRALink kit that consists of coilover shocks and springs, a long Panhard rod for rear axle lateral control, and high durometer rubber bushings.
Under the hood, it would be an LS affair with the installation of a Mast Motorsports 650 Black Label Road & Track LS7 crate engine. Rated at 650 horses and 570 lb-ft of torque, this choice was the perfect balance for streetable performance. Shifting for that mill came via a TREMEC T-56 six-speed mated to a custom Driveshaft Shop 3.5-inch aluminum driveshaft turning the 3.70:1-geared Moser Engineering 9-inch Muscle Pak rear. The exhaust is a combination of Detroit Speed headers and 3 1/4-inch stainless steel oval pipes running back to Borla stainless mufflers.
Since safety was a key concern with Courtney, and the existing brakes didn't inspire any confidence, Figliola recommended the installation of Baer Extreme Plus six-piston calipers with 12-inch, two-piece SDZ rotors at all four corners. That went hand in hand with the addition of some new wheels and rubber as well. With the goal of keeping the original flavor of the pace car intact, the choice came down to a set of American Racing VN327 Rally wheels and some sticky rubber. Up front they measure 18x10 and wear Toyo Proxes R888 275/35ZR18 skins. The rear set measures 18x12 and is wrapped in 335/30ZR18.
The drivetrain and bodywork spanned a few months until it was all ready for primer. Ai has cut its teeth on the fabrication side of the equation and doesn't do any of the finish paintwork on the cars. They have partnered with a small number of shops that they use for primer and paint application. Based on the specific project they are working on, they decide which is best suited for a given task. On the Camaro, that work was entrusted to Jim Kinsella in Beacon Falls, Connecticut, to lay down the BASF two-stage Dover White and Hugger Orange paint combo. After the body was returned from its makeover, the reassembly of the drivetrain started, and the next hurdle in the rebuild started to take shape: the interior.
This aspect of the transformation is, by Figliola's own admission, often the most enjoyable aspect in bringing these types of projects to life. While the mechanical side of the Camaro was in many ways a plug-and-play proposition, creating the unique interior—while maintaining the essence of the original one—was the real challenge. The key to that goal was the design of a new dash and console assembly, and modern seats that integrated a mix of comfort and safety.
Google searches to see what other shops had done with custom dashes gave him some ideas of where to go ... and what to avoid. He points out, "I saw late-model, or late-different-model retrofits, which all looked out of scale and too big. Nothing interested me. I thought a departure from OEM was needed, but not too severely. I also thought that there needed to be some organic shaping, which the later styles lacked." His main goal was to craft something that didn't draw too much attention to itself.
For the dash, he had a fiberglass cast made of an original steel piece. From there, a new fiberglass dash was fabricated and then modified to have the left side mirror the contours on the right. The construction of the hood above the instrument cluster is crafted from Baltic Birch plywood laminated over a form to freeze the very subtle curved design. Both of these pieces were then wrapped in black leather. The dash insert, gauges, head unit, and switches sit in a 3/4-inch machined ABS plastic fascia that incorporates grafted-in 3D-printed sections for switch beds. Blending this with the leather pieces was achieved with the use of PPG soft-touch black matte paint. The gauges used in this application are from Dakota Digital, while the head unit is a Pioneer AVIC-8201NEX multimedia controller.
The center console is also a product of the 3D printer. It surrounds the Ringbrothers shifter and supports a variety of in-house laser-etched switches with Ai's propriety fonts, and recessed USB ports.
As with the dash, the seats were also carefully planned with a particular emphasis on safety. Figliola looked at the options available and decided that a front set from a Cadillac CTS were the best choice for the Camaro. They utilize safer belts with an integral third point. Fitting these units wasn't a simple task due to the larger dimensions of the modern seat, its mounting points, and electronics integration. Modifications to these seats consisted of resculpted foam surfaces and the integration of the headrests into the seatbacks. Smaller integrated headrests were also added to the rear seats and everything was then wrapped in a combination of orange Garrett Leather and Houndstooth fabric.
The door and rear panels were also in-house created pieces, which hide an array of Dynaudio speakers. Rounding out the interior changes was the installation of a Flaming River steering column and a matte black, 300mm Nardi steering wheel and custom SS horn pad.
As the car came together, the fruits of many months of preparation and fabrication took shape. The visually clean installation of the LS7 was a result of a decision to hide all of the wiring harnesses, bulkhead fittings, and A/C lines running from the Vintage Air system. The engine cover—a modified late-model Camaro piece—is a combination of an OEM unit with 3D-printed extensions, which is held in place with magnets for quick-release. The underside of the hood was dressed up with a mid-'60's Ferrari-inspired custom hood insulator. That attention to detail is evident in the trunk area as well, with the installation of a full complement of handcrafted panels, finished in Mercedes Benz black velour carpet, that hide the battery and fuse block.
A project like this is the culmination of the sum of all its parts to arrive at a cohesive point that the customer is happy with, and fulfills their wishes. On this build, the final judge was Courtney, and his verdict was that, "The car is so far above what I had expected—the driveability of it. It's reliable and it's a lot of fun. You can spend hours looking at it and not realize everything that has been done to it ... and I love that."
Step By Step
Photography by John Machaqueiro