It was at the PRI show a couple of years back. As soon as you entered the main hall, there it was: hot lava on wheels. The bright orange 'Cuda was without a doubt the most vicious and charismatic creation on the floor and detailed quite unlike anything anyone had previously seen. It came from Alabama out of Alan Johnson's Hot Rod Shop (JHRS) in Gadsden. Despite its bright livery, the car was still curiously understated against its rough-hewn, natural-surface wheels. It glowed; it growled in harmony with the remarks of passersby.
Defiant as a fine piece of art, it challenged onlookers to find one bit of it that hadn't been modified, molded, or made for its mission. Johnson is probably better known for his dramatic yet understated street rods, but a car is a car regardless and JHRS attends to them all with imagination, candor, and craftsmanship.
Nathan Powell has been a frequent contributor to the Johnson coffers, having enjoyed several JHRS street rod creations over a dozen years or so. He also owns several late-model sports and high-performance cars, so there isn't a single feature of this Camaro that's been overlooked. He wanted a '69 Camaro that would be a comfortable, accommodating driver-one that could also perform well on the track and be a looker without sacrificing a single ounce of function. Get in, jack the throttle once, twist the starter, and rocket down the road like nobody's business, air conditioner blowing chilly, Nathan's adrenalin climbing hot on the high side.
Grunt was the key, Nathan figured, so Keith Dorton's Automotive Specialists Racing Engines in Concord, North Carolina, whipped him up a version of the popular four-bolt main bearing 540 big-block, blueprinted, balanced, and filled with parts of the highest quality.
The rotating assembly includes a Callies crankshaft, forged connecting rods, and Wiseco 10.5:1 pistons that cohabit nicely with pump gas octane. The oiling system is directly affected by the Stef's aluminum road race oil pan and corresponding pump. Pan baffling keeps the lube from climbing away from the areas it was meant to protect during on-track antics. To further draw heat from the assembly, ASRE included an Earl's oil cooler mounted on the core support on the left side of the copper/brass Walker radiator. A Stewart water pump keeps coolant on the run.
A COMP cam (we'd say hydraulic roller) of unspecified characteristics has been partnered with all the rest of COMP's valvetrain technology. The top of the motor wears mighty Dart aluminum cylinder heads straddled by a Victor intake manifold and a Holley as big as a hippopotamus. The cowl-sourced cold air is the job of that spectacularly smooth dual-tract intake system that was hand-formed from aluminum sheet. A K&N filter catches airborne junk before it enters the engine. A Vintage Air Front Runner accessory drive connects the alternator, air conditioner compressor, and power steering pump. Fuel is sourced from a safety cell resting on a trunk floor that was modified for the installation. Spark jumps salty from an ignition system operating with ever-popular MSD components. JHRS machined the decidedly unusual rocker covers from billet stock.
Johnson and his crew set the engine back as far as possible without having to recess the firewall. In fact, JHRS did create a new firewall showing the same rib detail as the rocker covers. They also raised the engine block 11/2 inches, thus precluding off-the-shelf headers. Johnson's Venny Garcia got to it with 2 1/8-inch diameter primary pipes that were ceramic-coated black by Performance Coatings in Jonesboro, Georgia.
The following oval-shaped (21/2x4-inch) stainless exhaust system dumps into Flowmaster Delta Force ARCA race mufflers. JHRS set the dramatic stage for this installation, cleaning up the stock inner fenderwells by filling all superfluous openings, removing the stamping wrinkles, and making custom dust shields that close out the upper control arms. The radiator cover was custom-built to match the valve covers. Both these items are available over the counter directly from Perfection Hot Rod Parts, an Alan Johnson subsidiary.
Transferring the flywheel output of 721 hp at 6,000 rpm and 693 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm to the driveline begins with a rather uncommon device for a street car. One of Mac Tilton's hydraulic throw-out bearings simplifies the traditional clutch linkage proposition and operates a Tilton 8-inch-diameter pressure plate that sandwiches triple carbon-fiber discs on an aluminum flywheel. A Lakewood blast shield that accepts a six-speed transmission contains the package. Torque stampedes down the aluminum propeller made by the Driveshaft Shop in Salisbury, North Carolina. The terminus is a Currie 9-Plus axle fitted with a limited-slip differential and lightened ring gear as per JHRS. The axle ratio is 3.70:1.
With such uncommon components at work, you might expect Nathan's Camaro to ride on a custom tube frame. It does not. To support the power system and stiffen the body to eliminate flex and encourage sharp handling characteristics, it does have a 12-point, 15/8-inch rollcage that strengthens and ties the car together. Detroit Speed frame connectors join the front and rear subassemblies carried by the original rails. Rack steering plays out with DSE spindles and tubular upper and lower control arms. Hyperco coils and Bilstein adjustable dampers support the front of the Camaro. The rear of the car and that hefty Currie piece are carried by a DSE Quadra-Link system and companion Hyperco coils and Bilstein adjustables.
As you are aware, the rim and tire combination can make or break the aura. Here, Johnson's wheels are a composite of Kinesis K19 three-piece modulars, 19x9.5 in front and 20x12 in the rear. Before installing the Michelin PS2 295/30 and 335/35 skins, the K19 centers were painted and flat-cleared like the body stripes and underhood components. Wilwood 14-inch front brakes and 13-inch rear discs are prominent. A booster is not used and the master cylinders are firewall-mounted basically in the stock location.
JHRS gave as much attention to the interior and its trappings as they did the rest of the rocket. To separate Nathan's Camaro from any other of the same vintage, Johnson's crew built a console, laid in Classic gauges and instruments beneath the custom leather dash pad, crafted the shift mechanism for the six-speed, and topped the Flaming River tilt steering column with a 13-inch-diameter FR Revolution wheel. Different shades of gray form the floor covering and attend the leather-sheathed custom door, side panels, and console, also available through Perfection Hot Rod Parts. Paul Atkins stitched Recaro Topline seats in contrasting red. And somewhere in there hides an Alpine-based audio system.
"As for the body, we always prefer something that is as close to original as possible," Johnson says. "You pay more for it but have to fix much, much less. This body was the best. It had no rust and very little damage. Tony Inman, Venny and Dino Garcia, and Anthony Myrick removed the side markers, rearview mirrors, antenna, all the original emblems, and performed all the other metalwork and interior panels. They formed the bumpers from 12-gauge steel stock and sent them to John Wright's Custom Chrome in Grafton, Ohio, for the plating detail. To prepare the body to accept the minimal bumpers, the same team also rolled the front and rear pans and infused the body with a custom license tag recess.
"The taillights are original GM, just made to fit better," Alan says. "We relocated the original gas filler cap and customized it with flat stock and then put a hidden magnetic popper behind it so it pops open when you push on it. The deck spoiler is original, as is the ZL2 hood. We added DSE electrics to the RS headlight doors, but Nathan can use them just as well closed."
The paint, if you can believe it, is a custom brew of PPG Orange base and other potions at the disposal of painter Greg Chalcraft. He finished off the hood and decklid with stripes-another poultice steeped in graphite. Thus one more '69 Camaro saved from the dirt nap.
*NOTE: Excitotoxins are real. It's the stuff that food conglomerates add to their processed products to make them taste better, though still toxic. In this case, the excitotoxin works in reverse. Would-be chumps salivate at the sight of Nathan's Camaro, and they're the ones who absorb the toxin, watching helplessly as it burns past them like a bad dream.