Tracey Cormier is probably a lot like you. He holds down a steady day job—in his case, he services autoclave sterilization equipment in bio-research and hospital settings to make sure they eradicate every last germ and microbe—but his true passion is messing with motorized machines of every description, and he fills his spare hours doing just that.
Located in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, his winters are spent making repairs and performance modifications to snowmobiles for himself and friends. In the warmer months, he opens his home garage to motorcycles, off-road buggies, pleasure boats, and the occasional airplane engine, but at the core of it all is a burning interest in Chevrolet muscle cars and the engines that make them run fast. When he's not on the road making repair calls at New England hospitals and research labs, the lights in his shop are burning at all hours of the night.
Your author knew Tracey back in the mid-1980s when he campaigned one of the quickest Chevelles on the local "midnight nationals" circuit. Though my 1964 Polara had a stout 440, pushbutton Torqueflite, and 4.10 Dana, Tracey's burgundy 1968 Chevelle was generally a car length ahead—and with "only" 383 cubes, to boot!
In the nearly 30 years since those nights spent "doing dangerous things safely," Tracey married his gal, Donna, and raised two sons—Collin, 18, an electrician and Trevor, 21, a machinist. Though Tracey still owns that fabled 1968 Chevelle (now powered by a 434-cube small-block and capable of high-9s), he recently took on a 1968 Camaro refurbishment project that's a case study in making something cool out of a bunch of loose parts bought for a song.
Better yet, Tracey's build bucks the trend toward Peterbilt-sized rims and disco-glam trinkets in favor of a distinct, retro vibe not unlike the Motion Performance L88-powered street sweepers of the late-1960s. Function dictates form in this case.
It started four years ago when an acquaintance got a divorce and needed to get rid of a project car. He called Tracey, who visited but was rightfully spooked by the lack of a vehicle title. Too many car crafters over the years have learned the hard way that, no matter how cheap it is, a car without a title might as well not exist. Laying down a wad of cash, only to have a previous owner lay claim due to some legal tangle is never good. So Tracey waited a full year as the title situation was straightened out. That gave him time to consider a strategy. Along with the disassembled Camaro shell, the deal included a 2003 LS6 Corvette engine and wiring harness (including computer) as well as thousands of dollars in reproduction body panels, chrome, bumpers, glass, and other goodies. Though the Camaro had some rust issues, Tracey's fully equipped shop and solid skillset allowed him to handle virtually every aspect of the refurbishment—except for body and paintwork—by himself.
With the title sorted out, Tracey forked over $14,000 and trailered home his prize. The first thing he realized was the Corvette-sourced engine, powertrain computer, and wiring harness would force too much adaptation work and cobbling. Studying the latest Chevrolet Performance Parts catalog, he decided to skip the used LS6 with its "mere" 405 hp and step up to a LS376/525 crate engine with 120 extra ponies. Also, the aftermarket is loaded with plug-and-play electronic conversion kits for earlier Chevy applications designed to eliminate the splicing and dicing Tracey would have faced trying to make the modern Corvette harness work in the vintage Camaro. And so began the wheeling and dealing. The LS6 engine was sold for $5,000, which covered most of the $6,000 purchase price of a new LS376/525 from Chevrolet. The stock 10-bolt rear axle found a buyer at the swap meet and in its place went a reworked Ford 8.8 axle from a 1997 Explorer he scored at the boneyard for $195. Though a Bow Tie man at heart, Tracey figures guys have been swapping Ford 9-inch axles under GM cars for decades without flinching, so what's the—diff?
Of course, the 8.8 is a Salisbury-type unit, where the differential and gearset load from the rear of the housing, just like a GM 10- or 12-bolt. Plus, the Explorer unit comes standard with 10.8-inch-diameter solid rotors, the same 31-spline, clutch-type Traction Lok limited-slip differential as found in the Mustang GT, and (in some models) 3.73 gears, ideal for street and strip use. The downsides for Camaro use are too much width, larger wheel-bolt pattern, and different spring mounts. But where there's a will, there's a way. The adaptation work was handled by Mitchell Differential of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, who re-tubed the housing to suit the Camaro, fitted Camaro-compatible spring perches, and installed high-strength, 31-spline axleshafts with the GM 5-on-4.75-inch bolt pattern. All said and done, Tracey has less than $1,400 in the unit, saving even more bucks by re-drilling the Explorer rotors to suit the GM bolt pattern himself.
In the axle installation process, Tracey encountered an unexpected problem that he solved. Take note, this might help you out if you're considering a similar swap. The stock Explorer brake configuration places both calipers behind the axle centerline. Meanwhile, to cure a nasty axle-hop problem on all 1967 Camaros, GM staggered the rear shock-absorber mounting positions on all 1968s with V8 power. Instead of placing both shocks ahead of the axle la '67, the stagger strategy moved the driver-side shock to the rear of the axle centerline. This way pinion movement under hard acceleration or braking simultaneously put one shock into compression and the other into extension, which helped tame unchecked axle movement, but what helped curb axle tramp then complicates disc-brake conversion today. The staggered location of the driver-side shock puts it smack dab in conflict with the Explorer brake caliper. While the passenger side of Tracey's axle swap didn't suffer shock-to-caliper interference, the driver side was a no go.
After some thought, Tracey realized the Explorer caliper adapters can be flipped over like a coin to reposition the caliper location 180 degrees from stock. This put the driver-side caliper ahead of the axletube, the passenger-side caliper behind it, and cured the interference issue. Some might wonder if this asymmetrical caliper placement puts an uneven brake torque load on the suspension, but with several hundred spirited miles on the clock since the rework, everything seems fine.
As a Massachusetts-based car, rust had damaged the quarter-panels, floorpans, and trunk floor, but none of it was beyond Tracey's ability. He also installed a replacement steel transmission tunnel to make way for the six-speed Tremec transmission. Final bodywork and painting fell to Kearns Collision of Northbridge, Massachusetts, where Ron Decker applied the Spies Hecker PG-Z Black Forrest Green basecoat and three coats of Glamor Clear. That's right, this car is a very dark shade of green, not the black it appears to be unless bathed in warm sunlight.
Inside, a mixture of modern convenience and originality enhance the driving experience, where a pair of Procar Rally GT buckets hold occupants firmly in place. The back seat is retained but has been upholstered to match the pattern of the front buckets. A small-diameter Grant GT steering wheel improves feel while its red on-center stripe comes in handy as a quick visual aid when Tracey hangs the tail out. Other trick touches include a Dakota Digital gauge package that mounts within the stock-appearing bezels. Its 160-mph maximum is not a fantasy. With its 0.63:1 top gear and 436 hp delivered to the tires, Tracey says he's seen 130 mph—"And there was plenty more to go."
Don't be fooled by those manual door window cranks. They're connected to a power-window conversion kit by A-1 Electric (PN GM89-K). A gentle 2-inch downward press lowers the glass, while an opposite motion raises it. Built rugged enough to endure accidental cranking by the occasional ham-fisted passenger, they add a cool touch of modernity that's supported by the short-throw MGW six-speed shift handle sprouting from the console. Just above the console, an Alpine audio system with eight speakers by Sound Sensation (Auburn, Massachusetts) stands in for the radio delete plate Tracey briefly considered. To the right of the tunes stands the glovebox. Ordinarily a small, dark compartment containing registration papers, insurance cards, and spare ketchup packets, here it's the cranium in which the Camaro's brain is located. Dropping the lid reveals the fuse block, ECU, and OBD diagnostics connector.
All said and done, Cormier's cool retro-modern Camaro offers the best of both worlds. Its solid retro vibe wouldn't be out of place at any cruise event or late-night romp (with slicks). But thanks to its lightweight aluminum engine, state-of-the-art computer controls, double-overdrive stick, suspension upgrades, and four wheel discs, it can hang with the best of the modern breed of muscle cars on the open road.
1968 Chevy Camaro | Tracey Cormier | North Brookfield, MA
Engine: Chevrolet Performance calls its 525hp LS376/525 (PN 19301360), "Our most powerful naturally aspirated 6.2L," and that's no joke. Perched above the 515hp LS376/515, 480hp LS376/480, and 430hp LS3, you have to move into the realm of the supercharged LSA (556 hp), LS9 (638 hp), and LT4 (650 hp) to get more LS crate engine grunt from the General. Packed inside its all-aluminum, six-bolt main block, powdered metal rods, a nodular iron crank, and 10.7:1 hypereutectic pistons deliver 376 cubes that drink 92-octane unleaded premium from a new Spectra tank with an internal Walbro pump. Above the cylinders, light aluminum L92-style heads contain 2.165/1.590-inch valves running on 15-degree angles with offset roller rocker arms. A hydraulic roller cam with 0.525/0.525-inch lift, 226/236 degrees duration, and a tight 110-degree lobe-separation angle delivers instant throttle response and efficient breathing all the way up to 6,200 rpm. Tracey says he is used to building his own engines, but these new crate engines are just too awesome to ignore. And did we mention the LS376/525 makes 486 lb-ft of torque? The only changes involved swapping the cast-aluminum Chevy SStype pan for a Moroso steel LS conversion unit and remote oil-filter relocation kit.
Induction: The stock LS3 nylon plastic composite "barrel ram" that comes on the LS376/525 crate engine is a twin to the ones first seen on the 2009 Corvette. The stock injectors and 92.8mm ETC throttle-body are untouched. The front-loader throttle-body position required Tracey to fabricate a 90-degree offset intake tube that's fed by an open element conical filter.
Engine Output: Chevrolet Performance calls it 525 hp at 6,200 rpm and 486 lb-ft at 5,200 rpm, and the Mustang chassis dyno at Enhanced Street Performance calls it 436 hp at the tires.
Ignition/ECU: Stock GM coils and ignition cables, with PSI computer and ignition module.
Exhaust: Hooker Super Comp headers, Pypes stainless X-pipe kit with 3-inch mufflers and tailpipes.
Driveline: A GM clutch and flywheel feed a salvage-yard Tremec six-speed with 2.66, 1.78, 1.30, 1.00, 0.80, and 0.63:1 ratios. The Drive Shaft Shop (Salisbury, NC) made up the 3-inch driveshaft to suit the Tremec 31-spline slip yoke and Ford-spec four-bolt axle companion flange. A Hooker transmission crossmember (PN 12626) eased the merger of the big Tremec and Camaro mounting points.
Chassis: Stock Camaro unibody with Hotchkis bolt-in subframe connectors (PN 4007), welded in place for more rigid support, Tracey says the difference from stock is "night and day."
Rear End: 1997 Ford Explorer 8.8-inch Traction-Lok with factory 3.73 gears and replacement axletubes by Mitchell Differential (Shrewsbury, MA).
Suspension: The front suspension consists of Global West tubular upper and lower A-arms and front coil springs with stock Camaro power steering. A Detroit Speed 1-inch front sway bar and 3/4-inch Helwig rear bar ensure flat cornering. The stock four-leaf rear springs are reused with staggered gas shocks to curb axle tramp.
Brakes: The stock Camaro manual front disc brakes were rebuilt and are teamed with the stock Ford Explorer rear disc brakes.
Wheels/Tires: In these days of massive hoops, Tracey's choice of traditional 15x8 Corvette Rally wheels stands out at many car shows. Rubber comes from Toyo, with P205/65R-15 Spectrums up front and beefy P275/60R15 Proxes S/T out back.