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1968 Chevrolet Camaro - Heavy Mettle

A Commoner Like Us He Dreamed About it, But Gary Keyes Never Thought a Super Car Like a Dana Camaro Would Ever Drop Into His Lap

Chris Shelton May 14, 2013
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Things are not always what they seem. Take, for example, the supercar movement of the 1960s. Most of us understand that it came to pass as a means for new-car dealers to win potential customers by beating the competition on the track.

Or did it? According to the history books, at least one dealer regarded racing as the ends and a dealership as a means to get there. The story is legendary: when Ford denied him his own franchise, Shelby American's Peyton Cramer partnered with a Jeep/Mercedes Benz dealer to buy a defunct Chevrolet dealership in California. Paul Dombroski ran the sales department and Cramer the speed shop.

Dana prepped customers' existing cars but it made its real mark with about 50 brand-new Camaros modified like Gary Keyes' '68. No two were exactly alike—all were bespoke—but they adhered to the same hot rod formula followed by Cramer's mentor, Carroll Shelby: drop the most powerful engine in the lightest car that would oblige. At that time it meant stuffing the Corvette's 427 in Chevrolet's answer to the pony car, a combination that the make never officially offered to mere mortals. Naturally, a host of other parts sourced from the maker and aftermarket manufacturers accompanied the combinations.

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As many supercar builders did, Dana adorned its cars with optional dealer badges. Dana went one further with a unique scooped fiberglass hood design. They're the things that make cars like Keyes' so exceptional: spares don't exist. Dana prepped so few Camaros in its 18-month affair and most of those went to premature graves with their distinguishing features intact.

Keyes never thought this '68 could be one of those esteemed Dana cars when he bought it. It came without any of the features that would distinguish it as a Dana, not even the seller was marketing it as one. In fact, the only thing that seemed exceptional was that it had a life-long history drag racing along the West Coast. But as he discovered, the 427 block boasted a feature common to those used by supercar builders like Dana. "(It has) no VIN stamp on the deck," he explains. Nor did it have the stampings that would designate it as a service replacement engine. This one was bought over the counter. It's not as if a machinist milled off the numbers, either: the Tonawanda stamp, assembly date, and GM's suffix specific to replacement engines remain.

Motivated by that lump of iron, Keyes consulted an arsenal of high-ranking officials in the supercar corps to discuss the authenticity of real Dana Camaros. Among them, our own Tony Huntimer; Dave Fillion; drag racer and former Dana Chevrolet employee Dale Armstrong; restorer Brian Henderson at Super Car Workshop; and Frank LaRoche, original owner of the fabled orange 10,000-mile Dana Camaro. Armed with knowledge, he tore into the car.

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Although he called upon friends and a few professionals along the way, Keyes played a physical role in every part of the car's construction.

He began by first taking the car back to GM specifications. "Other than the add-ons, the car is stock and restored as original," he explains.

Though stock, the resto specs are indeed unique to high-performance models. The car has a 13⁄16-inch antiroll bar up front, disc brakes, and out back a 4.11:1 gear on a Positraction carrier in a 12-bolt housing. The M22 transmission between the ends has no serial number for the same reasons as the engine block. Midwest Muncie rebuilt it and Keyes crowned it with an N.O.S. '68 Hurst shifter and knob. It has an early Lakewood scattershield on one end and a thick-wall driveshaft. As GM did, Keyes gave it a brushed finish and marked it for its torque capacity, but clearcoated it for aesthetics. Both ends sport 15x6 wheels, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Keyes admits he doesn't have the means to pay someone to restore a genuine Dana Camaro. What's more, he wanted to lavish more on this car than he felt most shops would oblige. So instead, he employed a great deal of personal mettle to do this car and called on friends to do the things he couldn't.

He helped restore its chassis and friends Orin and Olin Olson tended to the body's rejuvenation. Keyes helped Jim Brodrick apply the two-stage Matador Red urethane. With authenticity as the imperative, Keyes took an adamant stance with genuine parts. He collected as much GM gingerbread as he could find and hired Tripleplate Chrome and Bumper to refinish it, and an area craftsman known best as The Hog to straighten and polish the trim. Some reproductions were inevitable, though. Using Parts Unlimited materials, Pat O'Grady re-covered the restored seat frames and Keyes and Orin Olson finished the rest of the interior. In honor of the car's bare-bones image, he forewent a center console and used the radio-delete plate common to many Dana cars. "I like the street/strip look," he concludes.

He resurrected the engine to L71 specs. Ironically, even though it was the maker's most powerful production engine for 1968 (435 horsepower), few Dana customers chose it (Keyes noted that most chose the four-barrel L72 variant that year). He built the engine with parts machined and balanced by Post Falls, Idaho's Performance Associates.

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Building an L71 isn't easy and Keyes' self-imposed restriction on using reproduction parts didn't help. The solid-lifter L88 cam, for example, lingered 45 years on parts shelves. Even the cooling fan is unique to the L71. Though the polished stainless valves and machined exhaust ports are deviations, they're consistent with Dana practice.

The car didn't come with the L71-specific Winters 797 manifold or the trio of Holley carburetors. But gather the parts he did, including an original iron-case L88 Transistorized Ignition distributor, matching coil, and amplifier box. TI Specialties updated this one with an integrated circuit. Even the diodes in the 42-amp alternator are specific to the ignition…and date coded correctly to boot.

The unique combination of aftermarket parts further distinguished real Dana Camaros from restored ones. Finding the red-bodied dampers that Dana used was easy; Koni still makes 'em. The instrument gauges are unrestored originals but Stewart-Warner still makes the 2 5⁄8-inch Deluxe-series gauges that Dana used. The panel that mounts them is N.O.S. The Sun 802 tachometer required a restoration and underwent a solid-state conversion in the process.

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If someone with ordinary means can build something so elaborate and so convincing in an average garage then what could a pro with big backing do?

Just as back in the day, the Goodyear F70-15 front tires are production units (Coker Tire) and the rear ones, custom. Hurst Racing Tire, the company founded by Ron Hurst in the '60s and operated today by Steve and Cody Adams, made these in the same matrixes the company used when these cars were new. Recaps are by definition custom but these are special in the sense that they began with brand-new F70 tires. Traction Master still makes the traction bars that Dana specified but the ones on this car were patterned after another pair on a Dana car. The chassis also benefits from a pair of bolt-on subframe connectors.

The collector flanges withstanding, the headers that Doug's Headers produces are almost perfectly faithful to the ones Doug Thorley made for Dana Chevrolet. Keyes' friend Dan Ray walked them the last step by eliminating the three-bolt flanges, extending the collectors, and welding correct four-bolt flanges to their ends. He then proceeded to build a 2 1⁄2-inch exhaust using processes and parts correct to the period, in this case gas welded with four-bolt dump tubes and Cherry Bomb glass-packed mufflers…mufflers that came out in 1968 incidentally. The ceramic finish that Russ Meeks at Finish Line Coatings applied is new but the colors are indeed correct.

Then things got tricky. Remember that thing about Dana making only 50 or so cars and most of those going to the grave intact and how Keyes' car didn't come with any of that Dana-specific stuff? Well because of this '68 there's technically a reproduction market.

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Keyes and Glasstek's Robert Mortensen and Torry Caniglia reverse-engineered the hood shape. From the mold they struck, emerged a hood not produced in some 45 years. Keyes then commissioned Motorhead Jewelry's Andrea Carnahan-Koenig to create new emblems from an original set, a job that resulted in castings that Keyes had plated. "Both were huge undertakings and expensive," he notes.

It's immature if not slightly unethical for a reporter to make biased statements about a subject, but if I've ever had a worthy occasion, this is it. No, it's not as obsessively detailed or ornamented or precious as the America's Most Beautiful Roadster or Don Ridler Memorial Award winners I've shot, but Keyes' Camaro is every bit as impressive. In fact, it may be better than those cars.

More than a legitimate driving car—and a fast one at that—Keyes' is a top-shelf example built by a guy like you and me in a two-car garage not too different than most of ours. You'd swear a pro restored it, but this was a labor largely among friends and with very few exceptions, only amateur hands touched this car. What's more, Keyes' car stands as a piece of history.

Or does it? The twinkle in Keyes' eye suggests otherwise. "What, do you think I can afford a real one of these things?" he implores as his smirk blooms into a full grin. Yep, that's right, Keyes' '68 is a replica. A genuine fake. As authentic as the leather on the car's seats. The stuff about the real parts he used is true but his car isn't a real Dana.

Call us crazy, but the charade makes the car almost more interesting than if it were real. With their special hoods, badges, and high-dollar parts combinations Dana cars are some of the hardest to replicate. At the very least it would've likely been more financially rewarding in the end to copy a more familiar Nickey or Yenko. "Bah," he says, sneering. "Those have been done and the Danas are the rarest of the super Camaros." In fact, he may well be the only one crazy enough to replicate a Dana. Even if another one follows we can't imagine it being any more faithful or built as well than this one. He really did invest himself more than a pro would've.

We know we pissed off some of you, but consider this: at least Gary Keyes is honest about his deceit. In fact, so am I—I merely let you draw your own conclusions. You wanted a little guy to hit it big. We all do. But in an ironic way he has: the car really is that convincing. It took a great deal of mettle but he did it.

The part about the average guy is also true, though. And that gives us something to ponder: if someone with ordinary means can build something so elaborate and so convincing in an average garage then what could a pro with big backing do? Consider that the next time some long-lost car with a miraculous pedigree car crosses the block at a big, fancy auction. Repeat after me as the auctioneer paints his rapid-fire picture with words: things are not always what they seem.

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