What the hell was I thinking? I had just spent two years building a '69 LS1-powered Camaro and then turned around and sold it. The title was swapped for a stack of cash and there I was, without a car and thinking of my next move. I wanted something less civilized than the street-roddish '69 I'd just built. It needed to be something that looked more like it belongs on the track than the street. The '69 is the girl you take home to meet mom, but I wanted the girl you sneak out to see.
My problem was that after two years of wrenching on the '69 I was tired of building and was ready to do some driving. Since I'd been corrupted by the turn-fast crowd over at Pro-touring.com and Lateral-g.net, it couldn't be just cruising, but hard driving in a non-linear fashion. What I decided to do was find a nice Camaro with good paint, and then just massage it a bit to fit my desires. Looking back, it probably wasn't the brightest idea, especially since I'm drawn to that familiar impulse: "While I'm here, I might as well ..."
Soon the search commenced and I stumbled upon the perfect candidate: a Prowler-orange '68 Camaro that just screamed attitude. The ride was an ex-NHRA drag car that someone reworked into sort of a Pro-Street/Pro-Touring conglomeration of parts. The body was perfect, the paint was exactly the color I wanted and, since it was previously a drag car, some of the things I wanted, like a cage and mini-tubs, were already done. It was love at first sight, and soon the '68 was on its way to sunny California from North Carolina.
Once it was home, I got to know the car my wife immediately named Penny due to its copper hue. The solid-roller 468 big-block was fed by a 1050 Dominator carb and, when fired up, had an exhaust tone that set off car alarms and woke the dead. When the TH400 shifted it dislodged vertebrae, and the Dana 60 whined merrily as the Camaro gulped down about five gallons of petrol for every mile of asphalt that rolled under her. Penny got attention and was a blast, but there was a problem. It wasn't my car. Sure, I was the owner, but I had nothing to do with the build. Soon I was thinking of how I would have built the car. Before long, the old drivetrain was sold off to someone building a Pro Street Tri-Five and I was waist deep into another project. It's a story I'm sure many of you can relate to.
I'm a huge fan of the LSX series of GM mills. They make extra power just by looking crossways at them, they're relatively lightweight, and they have a ton of aftermarket support. GM had just released the 6.0-liter LS2 variant and the decision was made to swap one into the '68. I don't buy into the notion that you need to make a thousand horsepower to be cool. In most cases anything over 600 hp only benefits the guys who sell tires. The GM crate engine was procured, and to it was added a set of AFR heads, a FAST 90mm intake, and a middle of the road Comp bumpstick. The LS2 ships from GM with a 90mm fly-by-wire throttle body. There was a time when running this would generate an Excedrin headache. With so much aftermarket support it's easy to add this 21st century technology to a nearly 40-year-old Camaro. A call to John Spears at Speartech confirmed that going without a throttle cable is a doable deal. They built a custom wiring harness for the LS2 that incorporated the necessary plugs for the electronic throttle body and for the '05 Vette gas pedal. Getting it all to work just involved mounting the gas pedal to the firewall and plugging it into the E40 GM computer.
With the engine basics worked out, the next decision was which transmission to choose. The LS2 was born to be mated to a Tremec T56, so who was I to argue? The Speartech harness included the leads to incorporate the transmission so as to retain functions like the reverse lockout. Again, the aftermarket was making this easy, so far.
The difficulty of installing an LS2 into an older car is like asking: "How long is a piece of string?" It just depends. Five years ago it was a daunting task, but today it doesn't involve nearly as much fabrication work. Many companies now sell kits to help make the swap idea a reality. There are literally dozens of guys on websites like LS1tech.com doing conversions and sharing ideas. You can now drop an LS-anything into a first generation Camaro without needing to fabricate a single part. The more obscure the transplant recipient, the more skill it will take to get it installed, but it's easier than it was even a few years ago. Still, it certainly isn't instant pudding.
The main problem with a swap like this is when you stray from the formula to change things. The subframe company I used made LSX headers specifically designed to work with their subframe and a factory steering column. My Camaro has a NASCAR-style racing column, so one tube needed to be moved on the driver-side header so that the steering shaft would fit. The C6 Corvette oil pan that comes on the LS2 was too deep, and I needed to switch to an F-body pan. That meant I needed a new pick-up, tube, and dipstick. Every change required another item to be addressed. For a drive system, I wanted to stick with GM stuff, so I bought an old fourth-gen F-body pulley system. However, this meant that I needed to modify the steering rack so that the low-slung alternator would fit. None of the problems were huge, they just needed to be worked through.
When planning out the Camaro, my idea was for the car to be low on fluff, lower on bling, and high on performance, especially in regards to handling. I wanted the body to look nearly factory '60s GM, but for the underpinnings to be leading edge tech. I came across a new subframe company called 21st Century Street Machines and was immediately impressed with their C5-based replacement subframe. They built the subframe to specifically hold my LS2 mill and the unit used C5 Vette control arms, spindles, and hubs. This meant that replacement parts would be a breeze to get even a decade from now. Their subframe also retained the lower control arm eccentric camber/caster adjustment bolts just like the factory C5 runs. This makes alignment as easy as squaring up a new Vette. The Camaro came with a homemade four-link suspension out back. I'm sure it was fine for cruising to the local Dairy Queen, but after a few hard launches with the old big-block the brackets were already twisting up. With such a capable front suspension I soon did the "While I'm here..." deal and went with a three-link rear system from Lateral Dynamics in Carlsbad, California. Incorporating a Watts-link centering device and geared towards road racing, it was certainly up to the task of helping my Camaro carve corners with the best of them. The chassis was already fairly stiff from the six-point NHRA-certified cage and Detroit Speed and Engineering (DSE) subframe bushings. I wanted to add a bit more torsional stiffness, so we welded a set of DSE subframe connectors through the floor. Double-adjustable coilover Alston Varishocks on each corner finished off the suspension.
The Camaro came to me with the gunmetal-gray Forgeline WC3 wheels, but the front offsets were wrong for the new C5 suspension. Since the wheels are three-piece, Forgeline was able to re-hoop the front rims to the right offset (6.75-inches) and they knocked almost two pounds off each wheel by replacing the chrome fasteners with their titanium ones. For rollers I went with super-sticky Toyo's RA1 R-compound competition rubber in 275/35/18 front and 335/30/18 rear. The Camaro had run huge drag slicks, so there was room to spare in the wheelwells.
A C5 front suspension means there's a large selection of brakes I could run. I've always had great luck with Wilwood stuff, so I went 13-inch rotors paired with their six-piston Superlite calipers. The Camaro didn't come to me with an e-brake system. This wasn't a problem with the automatic, but was an issue now that I had the manual trans. The solution was Wilwood's new 13-inch rear brake system with four-piston calipers and internal parking brake. Hey, it sure beats wedging a brick under the tire.