Tom Lee isn't the first hot rodder hooked by the "Better Off Dead" Camaro and probably won't be the last. That car was black, too, with a small-block chugging under the hood. It wasn't so much the appearance (stock RS exterior with chromed Rallye wheels), as it was being iconic. The first-gen had become the '55 Chevy of old, but the Fox Mustang has filled the first-gen's spot since the late '80s.
So Tom sees the movie, gets the yen, and meanwhile the family relocates to southern California. It's 1987, two years since he's seen the flick. He drags his parents all around the used car emporiums. Then, in the back row of one, he spots a maroon '67 and begins to mumble and salivate. The guy wants $2,800 ... mom says no. They leave. They keep looking.
Finding no other early Camaros, Tom returns to the lot. The Camaro is still there in the back, this time there are two guys crowding the front. The hood is up. Shazam! The car vendor has wonderful news: they've replaced the original 327 motor with a 350. This is soon discovered to be a big, fat lie. A douche and a detail job had only prettied it up.
"I ended up buying the car," Tom said. "I slowly modified it through high school and college. It was my only transportation so I couldn't do a body-off or anything else too drastic. I didn't have the resources for that, either. A Maaco shop blew on some black. I rebuilt the engine, but the 750 double-pumper and single-plane manifold did not cohabit well with the 'Glide and the 3.08 gears. I sold the car."
For the following fifteen years he ran the script familiar to many of us: growing his marriage and securing his future. Tom rejoined the car scene with tours of eBay, a resource that just wasn't available in the old days. In 2004, he found a '68 Camaro, but it was basically just a shell, perfect for his scheme. Tom would find satisfaction and a great feeling of accomplishment doing stuff that most folks would not ordinarily cotton to. It wasn't so much a matter of money as it was putting his hands on his own car, making it really his.
"Initially, I had planned to do everything myself, even though I'd never picked up a welder or done any paint or bodywork. I bought a welder and started out by replacing the trunk floor, tackling the Detroit Speed mini-tubs as well as re-skinning the doors. I met a lot of great people online. Detroit turned me on to www.pro-touring.com and www.lateral-g.net. I didn't have any friends locally who were into cars, so I got ideas on what I wanted to do from the websites, but, most importantly, I got a lot of help solving the things that came up."
He scraped off 37 years of grime. He had fun putting in the suspension, driveline, and the electrical matrix, but he blanched at replacing the quarters, though, and brought in Mike Hight (of Hight Fabrication) for this construction. "I was putting too much time and effort into the car for it not to turn out well," Tom says.
Hight installed the quarters and created a nacelle for the Goodridge motorcycle gas cap before handing it to Max Gilmore at South County Auto Body (Lake Forest, California). Gilmore's crew shaved the trunk and door handles, filled the side marker light holes and the rear bumper bolts, deleted the front bumper, and smoothed the firewall. Then they covered the cake with PPG urethane black and silver stripes.
Home again, Tom shored up the foundation with a Chris Alston Chassisworks front sub-frame, sub-frame connectors, and an eight-point rollcage. He continued with the suspension, upgrading with Alston 2-inch drop spindles, tubular control arms, Varishock Quickset 1 coilovers, and a 3/4-inch anti-sway bar. Detroit Speed drop-leaf bundles (175 lb/in) found their way underneath along with the preferred Koni shock absorbers. Traction control became the domain of the Cal Tracs bars. The outcome is a Camaro that sits three inches closer to the pavement with full wheel travel and a comfortable (and adjustable) but firm ride quality.
Tom posted Wilwood 11.25-inch discs at each corner and hid them behind Budnik Fontana 17x8 and 17x11 rims staged with 245/35 Pirelli P7000 and 315/35 BFG Drag Radials. Then he laid in the drivetrain that features an Alston FAB9 axle housing, a Strange Engineering center section, and S-series 31-spline axle shafts sprouting from a Tractech locker differential fitted with 3.70:1 gears. An overdriven high gear is a Pro Touring essential. Tom chose a Tremec TKO-600 five-speed and put it behind an 11-inch Hayes clutch assembly smothered by a Lakewood safety shield.
Compared to the rest of Lee's project, the forged-part filled Ram-Jet 502 crate engine is relatively untouched, but this motor is nothing if not balls-out alert, humping no less than 500 lb-ft from 2,200 all the way to the 5,800-rpm red line. Downshifting is a superfluous exercise in this 3,400-pound runner. Lee just squeezes the throttle a little bit and goes, regardless of what gear the lever is in.
He upped the lube capacity with a Milodon 7-quart sump. He maintained the juice with a 140-amp alternator, added cooling insurance with a Be Cool aluminum core, and extracted the waste with 2-inch primary pipe Chassisworks headers that were ceramic coated by Embee Performance (Santa Ana, California). The 3-inch Pypes exhaust system passes through flat Spintech Sportsman muffs that afford the down-low Camaro plenty of ground clearance and a raspy, guttural snap to the exhaust note. That big fuelie unit is fed by a Walbro in-tank pump and sucks wind through a K&N element. All accessories are driven by a Vintage Air Front Runner serpentine system.
Though Lee's runner sounds like it could be a comfortless street fighter, it's way too mature for that discipline. Tom's a senior manager at McAfee (computer head) and he has used his electronics background to customize the Camaro's interior palette-but first he had to build a place to put it all. The upright, silvery instrument panel holds a collection of Auto Meter Ultra-Lite gauges nicely offset by a Budnik Famosa steering wheel. There's also yards of black leather for the Corbeau LG 1 seats, the door panels, and the custom console Lee built, as applied by Westminster Auto Upholstery (Anaheim, California). "Pete's an absolute wizard and I'm ecstatic about how the interior turned out. Pete made it look great." The thick-pile carpeting was meant for a Mercedes-Benz. The ensemble is spectacular, yet tastefully subdued.
The audio collection includes an Alpine CDA-9835 head (CD with iPod stereo connector) and a slew of JL Audio equipment (500/1 and 300/4 amplifiers, XR650-CXi 6.5-inch speakers front and rear, and a 10W7 10-inch subwoofer. The electronics are underwritten by a (second) dedicated deep-cycle Optima battery affixed with its own voltmeter. The rearview mirror is wired for Homelink, a temperature display, and a digital compass.
Lee took the comfort and convenience notion to another level, adapting a Vintage Air HVAC system, a remote trunk release, a battery inverter in the console he made, a Detroit Speed Selecta-Speed windshield wiper kit and Billet Specialties interior illumination. All phases of the build are on Lee's website, www.camarorestoration.com.
You'd think that this package would represent the ultimate end, but Lee's brain doesn't think that way.
Hot rodding is about changing things, trying new things, maybe even rebuilding the entire car. Had he done the car now, it would have an Art Morrison full frame, an LS engine, and a minimalist interior plan. Camaro better off alive? Wonder what the slugs at the gyp car lot would think about it now.