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1969 Chevy Camaro - Back Burner Bullet

A Camaro that started out just a driver became thatand much more

John Nelson May 1, 2011
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A decade ago, Colby Donaldson made one of the biggest moves in his life. When he was accepted for the second season of the hit reality show Survivor, he figured he’d get a free trip to Australia, lots of adventure, and maybe some dough out of the deal. He ended up deciding to move to California and make a career for himself in the entertainment industry. It was at this point, early on in his new endeavor, that Colby received some sage advice from one of Hollywood’s elite: Do not give up your passion. Whatever it is outside the entertainment business that makes you happy, don’t lose it. Donaldson has moved through several appearances in the Survivor universe, along with a smattering of TV roles, and is now host of History Channel’s Top Shot, which is currently filming its third season. If this gig isn’t every guy’s fantasy we don’t know what is, with contestants taking aim with everything from tomahawks to Tommy guns to long bows as well as just about any other weapon you can imagine, along with explosions aplenty. About the only thing missing, as far as we’re concerned, are fast cars but not to worry, cause Colby Donaldson has that covered as well. He’s an individual who loves to build cars, and if this bullet-sleek back burner ’69 Camaro is any indication, the man’s not only hung onto that passion, he’s intensified it as well.

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Although almost everything changed when Colby moved to California, the desire to build custom cars stuck with him. All the equipment in his tiny little Texas shop made the move with him to California, and after landing some shop space, he commenced doing what he’d been doing since the age of 15building cars. To be more specific, his specialty was fixing up and customizing vintage SUVs: Land Cruisers, Broncos, Blazers, and the like. Vintage SUVs were so popular, he recalls. Anything with a top that comes off, sold. But there was always the desire to do a classic American muscle car simmering beneath the surface, and they don’t get more classic that a 1969 Chevy Camaro. Colby actually began two ’69 Camaro projects simultaneously. The crazy thing here is that the Camaro you’re looking at now, the one that was finished first, was the back burner project, the one meant to be less extreme, the car meant to be just a driver. So much for that

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Colby began with a running, driving, original California black-plate car with a fresh black paintjob and a numbers matching 350 small-block under the hood. Colby bored and stroked the four-bolt main block to 383 ci, then topped it off to good effect with a selection of Edelbrock components: Performer RPM heads, a matching Performer RPM intake, and a Performer RPM cam for good measure, teamed with Erson stainless rockers. With it’s street performance friendly specs (0.488/0.510-inch lift, along with 234/244 degrees lift at 0.50, intake and exhaust), and when fed by a 750 Holley double-pumper prepped by Bob Jennings Dyno Shop of North Hills, California, the result was an excellently balanced street/performance engine, making an estimated 430 hp and at least that much in torque. The fires are lit with a MSD Pro Billet distributor activated by a 6AL box, while the spent gasses are evacuated by coated, full-length Dynatech headers, along with a Dynatech stainless exhaust, crossover pipe, and mufflers. A Northern aluminum radiator and shroud fitted with two Spal fans keeps the works running cool, and a March drive system controls the accessories, including a Vintage Air Compac A/C system. In keeping with the driver ethos he had planned for the car (i.e., sitting in L.A. traffic), Donaldson backed the peppy small-block with a Dana Sniff Transmissions-built 700R4 trans.

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The project got kicked up a level when Colby began work on the suspension. It started off innocently enough, with Air Ride Technologies components called for all around. The original plan, however, was for lowered leaf springs and 275-width tires, which Colby decided he just couldn’t do. I knew I wanted more, and that’s when I crossed the line, he told us. With that, this Camaro came out of the shadows, off the back burner, and Donaldson, with his accomplice Scott Risleyan accomplished fabricator who works in the movie car businessdecided to make this ’69 Camaro a top-tier car. And the first step down that road was to stick some extra fat rubber under this thing: 315s on 20-inch rims, with a total tire height of 29 inches, and to do it without any rubbing. Ambitious? Donaldson admits that he goes through phases while building a car, as his imagination propels him to interesting places. To get the ultra-slammed, sinister stance he wanted, Colby and Risley actually moved the ShockWave upper crossmember into the trunk area. To accommodate the new position while maintaining proper geometry for the double adjustable ShockWaves, the pair preceded to radius the upper Air Ride control links to curve around the axle tubes. Earl Williams of Williams Classic Chassis (La Verne, California) then went to work, creating new, thicker, double-adjustable lower control links, along sano new lower axle mounts, creating a custom triangulated four-bar setup to locate the stout Moser 12-bolt rearend (filled with 33-spline axles, a True-Trac diff, and 4.10:1 gears) that he had narrowed 3 inches on each side. And although Colby had already fitted the ’69 with Detroit Speed Deep Tubs to accommodate the mondo rear rubber, Donaldson and Risley guaranteed there’d be no tire rubbing by completely reconstructing the outer fenderwells to obtain the needed space.

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In comparison, the front suspension, though trick in itself, seems almost tame. An Air Ride Street Challenge Kit got the call, including 2-inch drop spindles, double-adjustable Shock Waves, tubular upper and lower control arms, and a MuscleBar swaybar. Along with a Detroit Speed ceramic-coated steering gearbox, all was bolted to the now radically transformed Camaro’s original front subframe, which was now securely tied into the trick rearend with DSE weld-in subframe connectors. Braking duties are handled by a tried and true Wilwood setup: 14-inch rotors and six-piston calipers up front, 13-inch platters with four-piston binders in the back, both done in a touch of red to set off the otherwise stealth-black exterior. A Wilwood aluminum master cylinder bolstered by a CPP Hydro-boost setup ensures eye-bulging stopping power. Earl Williams also made his mark up front, creating the same inner fenderwells, which perfectly match the Donaldson/Risley created smoothed firewall, and also hides all the wiring, thanks to diligent work by Colby’s friend and wiring wiz, Carlos Warlick of SW Motorsports (Sun Valley, California). It all rolls on Boze three-piece forged wheels, 20x11 out back and 18x8.5 up front, custom powdercoated and fitted with custom CNC’d knock-off caps, and wrapped in Continental Sport Contact rubber, 315/35ZR20 snuggled into the back, 245/40ZR18s up front.

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If you think that all sounds a bit extreme for a driver, then you won’t be surprised by the plush interior, created by an assortment of different shops. New factory-style carpets, mats, doorpanels, and a dash (concealing a DSE bracket for the Compac Air Ride system) laid the foundation. The headliner, however, is a custom suede piece; the seats are custom pieces based on off-road racebuckets, padded and shaved to create Colby’s ideal muscle car buckets. The driver interface also got a thorough working over, with AutoMeter gauges housed in a Covan’s gauge panel, Lokar shifter and pedals, and an ididit tilt steering column painted to match the body. Unable to find any off-the-shelf console setups he liked, but knowing that he wanted a touch-screen GPS system to go with his full Alpine/Kenwood stereo setup, Colby and Carlos settled on a ’70 Camaro console to house the control center, which the pair fiberglassed to fit and painted to match. One great point of pride for Colby is his Camaro’s trunk: despite a raised suspension crossmember, intruding 20-inch wheels, behind the seat subwoofers, a rear-mounted battery, and dual compressors with a 5-gallon tank for the Air Ride system well, after sealing it off with upholstered panels ... the car still has a usable trunk.

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The entire car was wired by Carlos Warlick using an American Autowire harness, for starters, and his own custom work where needed.

That leaves us with the ’69s body, which, Colby tells us had a nice 10-footer paintjob and was a part he hadn’t intended to touch. Things changed, however, as he kept eyeballing the car’s stock door handles, developing a serious chrome allergy that didn’t match the sleek, sinister aesthetic he’d created in his mind. He also received an invite to show the car at the ’10 Beverly Hills Concours d’ Elegance, which meant it was time to step things up yet another notch. So off came the door handles, shaved and replaced with an Auto-Loc power door system. Gene and Mario of A&G Auto Services in Sylmar, California, handled the body and paint upgrade, creating one of the straightest black cars you’re likely to see. Putting it back together, the look was completed with Detroit Speed Solid Body Mounts, Billet Hood Hinges, and a Selecta-Speed Wiper Kit. Marquez Design was then tabbed for Billet taillights, powdercoated to match the Boze wheels, along with Billet parking lamps/turn signals. A&G also molded in flush-mounted LED side marker lights, then used a black/clearcoat combo to make them undetectable until they’re turned on. The bumpers were shaved and molded by Colby himself, then black powdercoated before being painted, a little insurance policy against rock chips (It’s a driver, remember?).

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In the end, what had been a low-priority project, a shadow build, as Colby calls it, turned out to be much more than planned. It’s certainly a show-quality car, but it’s also the driver our man wanted, a car you could haul butt to Vegas in, with the A/C and stereo blasting, pull up to the hotel and just dump the airbags it’s so sleek, so sinister. To me the aesthetic of it is just amazing. Colby’s justifiably proud of the struggle and work he’s put in to make it in the entertainment industry. However, he’s just as proud that he took that Hollywood sage’s advice, and not only kept his passion for building cars, but nourished it as well. Just take a look. If the target was top tier, as opposed to back burner, this Camaro’s certainly scored a bullseye.

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