Life in 1978 America was quite a bit different than it is today. For example, the average income was $17,000, a new home was around $58,000, and if you were a renter, keeping your landlord happy only cost you about $260 a month. And although we were bitching about the price of gas even back then, it was just about $0.63 per gallon. That works out to just under $14.00 to fill a 22-gallon tank. And for those who care, a dozen eggs would set you back $0.48.
Those are all cool things to look back on, but for Mike Winkel the one thing he remembers most from 1978 is that was the year his mom bought a brand-new RS Camaro. Although not quite old enough to drive at the time, even then Mike had visions of a very cool hand-me-down heading his way once he reached driving age.
It’s great when a plan comes together. Fortunately for Mike, after just six years of grocery store and family-ran errands, Moms was ready to part ways with the slightly used second-gen. But it wouldn’t be as simple as just signing over the pink slip. Nope. Mike would have to acquire the Camaro in the proper fashion: he had to buy it. Not a problem for the young hustler, as he’d saved enough dough and worked odd jobs to fund a payment plan and also to cover the cost of fuel.
“I couldn’t have been more happy,” remembers Mike. “This was my first muscle car and it was a Camaro. Back in 1984, that was pretty cool. In fact, I think it’s still cool today.”
For about 25 years the car handled duty as Mike’s only means of transportation, but long, hard miles had taken its toll on the old F-body. His early intentions were geared towards an engine swap, but he soon realized that job was a bit out of his wheelhouse.
That engine swap idea got Mike to thinking maybe a total redo would be a better way to go. With the car sitting for a few months, he met up with Ron and Jeff Page (father and son duo) at Heartland Customs in Purcell, Oklahoma, to discuss breathing new life into the car.
“When Mike brought the car to us it had no engine but looked like it was in pretty good shape,” mentions Jeff. “He told me he had no intentions of ever selling the car and that he wanted it to drive and feel more like a modern hot rod than a classic, outdated muscle car.”
Mike gave Ron and Jeff the go-ahead to tear the car down to bare metal and perform a rotisserie resto, only the vintage chassis components would be updated with modern suspension, and power would come by way of an LS engine.
Performing the entire restoration and upgrade, Ron and Jeff got the ball rolling with a GM Performance Parts Hot Cam LS3 for motivation. Mostly stock, the crate engine boasts a set of ceramic-coated Street and Performance headers and a 2½-inch Heartland Customs exhaust system that dumps into a set of Flowmaster 40 series mufflers. A bit on the quiet side, Mike isn’t one to draw too much attention to himself, but the tempting tone of straight exhaust through the QTP electric cutouts was an irresistible addition.
Totally content with the 480 hp and 475 lb-ft of torque the 376ci mill puts out, Mike chose not to bother with a manual trans, so he plucked a 4L70E from the GM catalog. To handle the grunt, a GM True Trac 12-bolt rearend stuffed with a 3.55:1 limited-slip gearset and 31-spline axles sufficiently manage the power at hand.
With late-model muscle under the hood, Jeff suggested a full Detroit Speed Inc. suspension system would set the car off in drivability and would also offer the perfect stance. Reluctant at first (Jeff had to rid Mike of his previous Pro Street visions), Mike trusted Jeff’s expertise and agreed on welcoming in DSE’s front hydroformed subframe partnered with DSE’s QUADRALink rear setup and subframe connectors.
With the zillions of wheel choices on the market today, Mike settled on the twin five-spoke design of the Foose Monterey rollers (18x10 front, 18x12 rear) while Baer twin-piston Track Kit binders grip onto the 12-inch rotors on all four corners.
The aforementioned wheels are wrapped in BFGoodrich G Force rubber. The 275/35-18 wreaks little havoc up front, but shoehorning a 335/30-18 out back required Jeff to dip into his fabrication skills and whittle up a set of mini-tubs. The plentiful rubber is a tried-and-true theme that offers today’s g-Machines an extended tire patch solely designed to “one-up” the competition—in looks and road-handling agility.
Setting the interior tone, a major portion of the crusted stock garments were tossed in favor of a slew of totally custom Heartland stitchings. From the one-off aluminum trim pieces and upholstery, to the carpet and dash covering, Heartland worked their magic to bring forward a simple scene coupled with a performance-based theme. A Detroit Speed Inc. rollbar ensures safety and additional chassis stability, while the Auto Meter ES gauges rest inside the Covan classic carbon-fiber dashpanel. Keeping in tune with modern functionality and classic style, a Vintage Air A/C system blows frosty to keep a comfy climate in the business quarters.
The 1978 UM-2 option (AM/FM 8-track player) made way for a Pioneer CD player powered by a Vibe Audio amp. Jeff massaged in Vibe Audio 6x5 speakers into the doors and nestled a duo of 6x9s in the rear package tray.
“Besides the cowl-induction hood, all the sheetmetal is original,” reports Jeff. “Even the grille, bumpers, and roll pan are stock. It was garage-kept during the winters, so we did very little rust repair.”
With the body freshly rolled off the rotisserie, Jeff doused the exterior in PPG two-stage black, including the trim pieces (headlight and turn signal buckets and window trim), to keep the sinister rhythm in check. The mirror-like finish was accented with fresh windows from Vintage Glass.
Yep, America has obviously changed quite a bit since 1978, and so has Mike Winkel’s Camaro. It’s got tons more horsepower, gets better gas mileage, looks a helluva lot better, and it’s way more fun to drive. Now, if we could focus on getting the price of gas back down to $0.63 a gallon; that would really be something.