Even someone that doesn’t like cars very much will usually crack a goofy grin and possibly glaze up a little when reminiscing about their own first car. The first ride in anyone’s life forever stores a hallowed collection of memories. Bring up AMC Gremlin to the right person and they’ll likely start grooving on what, in their minds, was the best car ever. Vance Wheeler had a little more luck and foresight than the guy blubbering about personal Gremlins. His first car will likely, by his own admission be his last, and is the ’69 shown on these very pages. His friends joke that he’ll literally drive the car into the ground at the end of the line. This Camaro is a driven project that began 22 years ago, and one that isn’t done quite yet.
Vance acquired the car as the end result of extensive negotiations with his dad. Even before he was old enough to get a license, Vance realized the ’69 Camaro was the car he had to have then, and forever. Vance watched a classified ad for the cloned Z/28 machine in the local paper for months until the fateful day when 1,900 bucks brought the car into his 14-year-old hands with his dad as intermediary. That initial purchase was the first step in what has turned out to be an endless series of improvements. The first car brought with it the first engine rebuild, which came complete with a rattle can engine bay resto at no extra charge. With the help and guidance of his brother Eddie, Vance had the engine back in the car for some street racing−erm, real world testing the very same day he passed his license test.
After all the excitement and pride of getting the Camaro up and onto the roads leveled off a little, Vance realized that the original Frost Green was not a big hit with the ladies, and made an executive decision. The frost had to give way to bare metal. This project taught a young Vance a valuable life lesson no doubt still with him today: aircraft paint stripper will also do its best to take off your own skin! After the body and paint bonanza, it was full five years before Vance made any more big time modifications. The next alteration came not by choice, but by accident. The ’69 got smacked at a stoplight forcing it to head off for repairs. The good news is that the car came back out of the shop looking better than it did going in.It still wears the same PPG Ditzler black paint today that Brown’s Body Shop laid down 14 years ago.
But Wait, There’s More!
With the Camaro looking good, Vance decided that it was time for another series of upgrades that coincided nicely with the turn of the century and the growing popularity of the touring movement. The backbone of Vance’s touring package was the Tremec TKO five-speed transmission. A Ram bell housing and clutch setup tie the input shaft to the engine. An Inland Empire custom driveline hooks the output shaft up to the 3.73 Detroit Eaton limited slip gears. For chassis flex reduction, Vance went to Detroit Speed and Engineering for subframe connectors while DSE’s mini-tubs make room for the portly rear rubber. There is definitely more to this Camaro than meets the eye. The end result of all this work: Vance doing his best to drive the Forgeline wheels off the car ever since.
As with many, if not all other parts of this particular Camaro, the first rebuild of the engine was not the last. Chris McLaughlin and Jeff Peters of Mountain Muscle meticulously hatched the current 406 cubic-inch mill. The block was punched out .030 over and fitted for some Keith Black pistons wrapped around an Eagle crank and balanced assembly. Brodix Track1 heads and HV1000 intake along with a custom COMP cam finish out the top end. The wingnut on top of the Genuine GM Air Cleaner has a K&N filter hidden inside, and is threaded into a Holley carbie fed by an electric Holley fuel pump. A Moroso oil pan keeps the oil in down under and helps prevent friction from turning the whole deal into an expensive sack of scrap metal.
Now, More than Ever
Vance’s ’69 may be up for another period of relative calm before the next round of changes. Plans for the future include a possible upgrade to the stylish hounds tooth low buckets. While the seats may have worked swell for the Camaro’s original handling capability, Vance has since upgraded the first-gens tarmac-grabbing potential and needs to bolster the vintage seats to match modern handling. If he could do anything over Vance says he would have made all the upgrades that spanned these last 22 years all at once, and add one or more turbochargers into the mix. Oh, and a stereo. Well, maybe some fresh paint. Did we mention turbos? Vance should be commended for holding onto his car and following his dreams. The Enduro bumper on the nose of this ongoing project has lived up to its name, along with the driving ambitions of a man that never let go of his first car.