Being molded into a gearhead is generally a natural progression. Whether it was that “cool dude” who lived down the street with the bitchin Camaro and would fire it up with open headers or it was your favorite Hot Wheel and the fact that you knew you’d have a real one just like it someday – both are realistic scenarios in which most any budding hot rodder or muscle car enthusiast can relate to. Then there’s the family influence of hot rodding – no escape from this one, and who would want to, anyway?
Darren Costello credits his father’s hobby of restoring Model A’s, along with having three older brothers who were not only helping out their dad work on cars, but they were wrenching on rides of their own as well. “It was typical of my dad to have four or five projects going at one time,” remembers Darren. “As a kid, I remember rolling around on my Schwinn Sting-ray and watching him and my brothers working on cars. They all had different tastes, and the stuff they’d be working on varied from trucks to import cars, but it was my brother David’s obsession with muscle cars that really got me going. I’ll never forget his ’71 Z28. It had huge wheels, killer rake, and header mufflers that would inform my mom when he was about a block from home.”
It’s this kind of impression that stuck with Darren, who years later, with a little help from his dad and brothers, took on his first project. “It was a ’69 Z/28 that I drove all throughout high school,” recalls Darren. “It was originally my brother David’s car, and after graduation I restored it and eventually became part owner.”
Driving that Camaro to car shows and cruise nights introduced him to like-minded hot rodders, including John Platania, who Darren claims is responsible for introducing him to big-blocks. “I had the pleasure of driving one of John’s ’69 Camaros with a ZL1 transplant,” said Darren excitedly. “The power that car had was something I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!”
Now, over time Darren had taken a liking to second-gens, and with his affinity for big-block power, he was on the hunt for a ’70- 73 F-body that could match, or at least come close to, the power of John’s ’69. With Darren getting the word out on what he was looking for, his friend Stefano Bimbi of Nickey Chicago knew of a Mulsanne Blue L78 for sale. Stefano informed Darren that Mike Guarise, a previous owner of the car, had the crew at Wonder Lake Auto in Hebron, Illinois, perform a frame-off restoration in 2000. With the original mill long gone, Mike decided to incorporate a Yenko theme by filling the ’rails with a 500hp LS6. He continued the theme with white Yenko sport stripes, cowl hood, American Torq-Thrust wheels, and a COPO spoiler. From then on it became known as the Yenko “what if” Camaro. “What if,” coming from the idea this is what a Yenko second-gen would look like had Don Yenko decided to build a ’70 supercar.
Over a 10-year period the car was bought and sold a few more times before Darren got his hands on it. It was exactly what he was looking for. “I remember driving it the first few times and thinking the LS6 had tons of power and was even scary to drive at first,” informs Darren.
With the nagging thought that only 600 L78 SS 396ci cars were built in 1970, and only a handful surviving, Darren was well aware of the car’s importance. Rummaging through old titles within the pile of paperwork that came with the car only piqued his interest even further. He began extensive Internet searches and even called some of the previous owners to learn more about car’s history. The more information he gathered, the more he realized that even though he really dug the car in its current state, it needed to be restored to original – or at least to as close as possible.
“The car’s ‘last hurrah’ with the LS6 and Yenko trim would be at the 2006 Yenko Supercar Reunion held at Gateway International Raceway. “That was a memorable weekend for me as it was the first time I’d been down a dragstrip. My best run was a 13.84 e.t. at 105 mph,” recalls Darren. “I had such a blast at that event, it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Soon after returning from the Yenko Reunion, Darren was anxious to get the car back to its original state. The next few months were dedicated to gathering up enough correctly dated engine parts to bolt up a complete L78 big-block. With his persistence and hard work finally paying off, he hauled the pieces over to MPG Racing Engines in Gurnee, Illinois, to handle the assembly process. Mickey Thompson Indy Profile tires (F70-14 front, G70-15 rear) enhance the car’s period-correct scene, while the American Racing 200S wheels (14x7 front, 15x7 rear) carry out the old-school muscle car vibe.
With the 375hp 396 finally on board, Darren now had peace of mind, but more importantly, a very cool piece of automotive history. He now claims full-fledged membership to the 1970 L78 Camaro Registry. So far he’s shown the car at several national events but considers the 2011 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in (MCACN) held in Chicago the most significant. “I actually put together a reunion of sorts for fellow L78 owners,” tells Darren. “The 1970 L78 Showcase featured seven cars – all in various stages of completion. To this date, it was the largest known gathering of these cars.”
Although he feels the SS is now built about as close as ever to its original 1970 assembly-line status, sometimes good memories have to trump originality. “For as long as I own the car it will always run the vintage American Racing 200S wheels,” said Darren. “These are the ones my brother Dave had on his ’71 Z28, and as a tribute to my dad who passed away in 2000, the car will proudly display his custom license plate from 1970.”
“The power that car had was something I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!”