They say that for every Camaro fan, his or her "perfect mate" is somewhere out there--the car of their dreams just waiting for their loving attention. Although good First-Gen cars are getting harder to find all the time--at least in restorable condition and not already the subject of an expensive Overhaulin makeover--once in a while you run across a car that is so rough that no one in their right mind would buy it, even for parts. Such is the case with our subject vehicle, a rust-bucket '69 coupe with more closets in its skeleton than a sunken galleon. And yet, for someone, it was still the car of his or her dreams.
Classic Industries of Huntington Beach, California, should be well known to our readers at this point, since the company is one of the major players in manufacturing and marketing restoration parts for Camaros and other GM models. Its catalog of some 866 pages is a major "wish book" for any '67-02 Camaro owner, but especially for those First-Gen cars that have been kicked around for some decades like our subject car. Classic wanted to restore an early Camaro, using its restoration parts to show off its product line. That's only natural. It also had hoped to display the car last year in its booth at the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Fine idea.
Classic alerted its distributors that it was on a hunt, and eventually one of its contacts turned up the car you see on these pages. What Classic had told everyone it was looking for was a Camaro so bad
Sal Perez and his crew at American Muscle Cars (Guasti, California) have more than ten years experience turning out show-winning, high-bid-auction-quality restorations of Camaros and other muscle cars. They've seen it all and done it all, but even they were somewhat surprised by the level of cancer in the Classic Camaro, which they were scheduled to have done and painted for the SEMA Show. Have you even seen an old house being remodeled, and as the work progresses you see that they wound up only using one original wall and all else was brand new? As work progressed on the Camaro, it became apparent that this was going to be one of those kinds of operations.
Good news as far as Classic was concerned: it got to show just about in its catalog. This was nothing new for the boys at AMC, since working wonders with new and old metal is their thing, but the schedule wasn't going to accommodate the appearance at last November's SEMA Show.
American cars used to be built with a very strong, ladder-type frame onto which was dropped a body. By contrast, a unibody car such as the Camaro is layered much like an onion. A few basic structural sheetmetal elements are positioned in a body jig and welded together, then more pieces are attached, building out until the final exterior skin is attached. When finished, it represents a strong, unitized assembly that is fairly light for its strength, and an engineering marvel at that.
Restoring a unibody car can be more difficult than body/frame cars only because there is probably rust or damage in between those sheetmetal layers, and getting at the cancer requires painstaking surgery with power tools and torches, as you'll see in this and future installments on the Classic Camaro project. As the experts at American Muscle Cars performed their CSI-like autopsy, they peeled back rusted or damaged panels only to find the inner structural pieces to have suffered considerable rust damage. This is damage that would have stayed silently hidden if only the outer pieces were repaired or replaced. The AMC metalmen are hardened veterans when it comes to seeing these types of battlefield wounds, but believe us when we say that we have spared our readers the worst of the horrific rustout photos. This car spent some time in water, and honestly looks like it was in a brine pit at the end of the long course at Bonneville.
This series will take us through the restoration of the complete body shell on this car, and later on, the addition of cool new suspension, drivetrain, and other stuff--but to start off, we're going to the "ground floor." The floorpan is one of the most vital elements in a unibody car, and it has been carefully designed by engineers to not only provide a stable platform, but also accommodate the other car components like the seats, driveshaft, and transmission. Every curve and angle stamped into what was once a large sheet of steel is there for a purpose, either to mount or clear something, or add stiffness.
It may appear from the photos that this coupe's floor could have been saved with a few simple patches of flat steel welded into the huge holes, but it just wouldn't be the same. Since Classic offers a complete new floor, this was a perfect subject car in which to install one. Consider the Camaro as two sheetmetal pods, the cowl and the trunk, joined only by the floor, rockers, and roof, and you'll understand how important those elements are.AMC works on bodies like this only when mounted on a wheeled jig. Everything besides the bare body is stripped off and they scrub up, put their masks on, and dig in on the metal. All of the original Camaro suspension is located from the floorpan, at the cowl, and where the front of the rear leaf springs mount, so their jig is designed to bolt to the proper stock suspension-mounting points. It also puts the car at a good height for the technicians to work without developing back trouble.
As critical as the floorpan is, it works in conjunction with the multi-layer rocker panels on each side to achieve the desired platform stiffness. When almost everything needs to be replaced, as in this case, you have to be systematic about where to start, so Orlando Hernandez, who did virtually all of the metalwork you'll see here, began by cutting out the perimeter of the major rusted areas just so he wouldn't get snagged on the jagged edges as he worked inside the car. He painstakingly removed the driver-side rocker panel first and fitted up the new reproduction rocker panel, which consists of an inner and outer panel. With that rocker attached with screws, he removed some right-side flooring and replaced the right rocker panel, then the rest of the floor, and installed the new floor before welding anything together permanently.
This oversimplifies what is a great deal of work; much of it just tediously drilling out spot welds and separating panels, then straightening and cleaning surfaces for welding. This is not for the faint of heart. We have enough photos to do an entire book on this car's return from the dead, but our photo sequences will highlight only the bigger steps in the procedures. We hope your personal Camaro project never needs this much reconstructive surgery, but it's very comforting to know that whatever area of your car is rusted or damaged, the aftermarket has stepped up to reproduce all of these components. In the next issue, we'll cover rebuilding the trunk area.