Look like a big-dollar pro build? Think again. This blown big block Camaro was built in a suburban garage.
I remember being heavily involved in a conversation-come-argument many years back about the pros and cons of building a car yourself, rather than paying professionals to do it. At the time I was 100 percent on the do it yourself side of the fence. While I still like to think that way a bit, the reality is I’ve grown to learn my limitations, and these days if I had the time and money to choose between paying someone to build a car for me or smashing my knuckles doing it myself, it would be a much harder decision.
As my knowledge of cars has grown, my awareness of my own shortfalls has also become more apparent, so while I like top-shelf vehicles, I don’t have the patience or ability to get them to that level without some help from the pros. On the other hand, the owner of this 1969 Camaro, Vince Lettice, has shown he’s got what it takes to mix it with the big boys.
From Mopar to Chev
The Lettice family’s journey to Camaro ownership came about by accident. Owning a pretty cool ’68 Dodge Charger, Vince and his family have long been regulars at a monthly Auckland breakfast meet. It was on the way home from one of these meets that Vince noticed they were being followed. It turned out to be nothing sinister at all, rather someone wanting desperately to buy a Charger just like theirs. Although the car wasn’t for sale, the price was right and a deal was done.
We all know an empty garage only lasts for so long when there’s a muscle car fan in the house, so it was just a matter of time before a new car found its way in. After weighing up the options, the high costs involved meant another Mopar was ruled out. That plan was instead to buy something with a bit more aftermarket support and easier access to parts. We all know Camaros fit that criteria, to the extent that they’re a tad on the common side. Factory big block cars are a bit more unusual, though, especially ones fitted with a manual transmission. Upon finding such a car, Vince knew then and there that it would be the one.
Turn Key Cool
Having been in New Zealand since the early 1980s the car Vince selected had a bit of local history and was already registered and Warranted, allowing the family to jump in and go.
That came to a sudden end one day when Vince decided to give the car a little spruce. “It all started one Sunday afternoon when I decided I would take it apart to give it a quick tidy up,” he recalls. “Well, a couple hours of later I had the car in a thousand pieces, just in time for when the wife comes home.”
Vince explains that some quick talking went on at that point. Whatever he said obviously worked, because from there things became even more involved. “I then got out the 180mm disc grinder and started to grind off all the paint from the roof; man, if only you could see the wife’s face.”
We get the feeling he’s probably lucky the car was in bits or he might well have been sleeping in it that night. It’s not that his wife Jacqui is anti cars at all, in fact the whole family love them, it was more the shock of the sudden change in the car’s condition that took her by surprise.
Where I’d fall short in attention to detail, Vince excelled, knowing if he was going to paint the car in the garage, it had to be done right: no shortcuts could be taken or it would show in the finished results. “The funniest thing of all is when you tell people that I just painted it black in the shed at home. They sort of give you a real worried, corner-of-the-mouth smile.” I guess I fell into that category. I’d heard that the car was painted at home before I saw it, but if Vince hadn’t let on that he’d done it himself, you’d never know. This was a long way from the average home job, with so much attention to detail and preparation that it’s on par with any pro job we’ve seen, if not better.
It wasn’t what you’d call plain sailing, however. “The dust. Man, you have no idea.”
“The car was metal cleaned, and two pack etch primer was applied over the shell and panels. I had to do the body shell first, because working in a confined space there’s not much room to spread things out. I ended up buying some thick clear, plastic and built a booth inside the garage to try and keep the dust down and prevent paint fumes from entering the house. The joys of an internal garage!”
After fixing the few small imperfections in the panel work, Vince primed the car with a Glasurit two pack primer before re-assembling it. “I bolted it all back together to gap the car up,” he says. “This is very important as things do move out of alignment, plus at this stage you can spend time on the door gaps and guard top and lower valance. With the Camaro they are really good for that, you have to be careful; as you move one thing, that moves something else and so on; you can go around in circles.”
Things were going pretty well with the mocked up garage spray booth, but then Vince had some bad luck — someone broke into the garage and stole all his tools. “The police came two days later and tried to take prints but no luck of course. I asked the detective if there was any chance of finding my tools, and he just laughed and said your best bet would be to go down to the local pub and try and buy them back.” With just a pair of screwdrivers left, the build came to a halt, and although Vince was thoroughly pissed off, at least the car was left unscathed.
After waiting for his insurance company to pay out, it was Christmas Eve before the car finally got some PPG deep black on it. Once coated, the car was swapped to the other side of the garage and the panels were sprayed one by one. Despite taking as much care as possible, the nightmares of painting in the garage at home started to rear their ugly head. Vince had just finished applying the clear coat to the driver’s door. It was looking great until he turned away to wash his gun. When he returned to inspect his efforts he found a large spider had been admiring his handiwork from above. Possibly affected by the fumes, the spider had landed smack in the centre of the door.
“It had continued to drag its body to the bottom edge of the door, it left the Grand Canyon in the wet clear, so this had to be stripped back,” says a somewhat unimpressed Vince.
A few weeks later when the car was reassembled, the standard engine just didn’t cut it, nor did the stock wheels. The latter was an easy fix. A set of 18-inch Boyd Coddington rims was decided on, the polished faces perfectly matching the shine of the chrome work on the car.
Getting the engine bay to look as impressive was a slightly more time and money-consuming task. The factory matching numbers block was stripped back and cleaned up before being repainted in factory orange and assembled by Vince under the watchful eye of Al Shadwick.
Al will be familiar to many readers of NZV8, being the owner of supercharger specialist workshop Al’s Blowers. With him involved, it’s no surprise the car ended up with a Blower Shop 8/71 supercharger on it.
Like the bodywork, this wasn’t a simple slap together job; everything was completed to perfection after being well thought out and discussed with the experts. The single 950cfm carb that feeds air and fuel into the engine is mounted on a billet machined base plate, and uses hard fuel lines.
“Al set up the blower and reckons it’s spot on, we are going to go down a couple of pulley sizes now as the fine turning has been sorted. If Al says it good then it’s good,” says Vince, and we’d tend to agree.
Not wanting gauges and lines all over the place, Vince made the engine bay as clean as possible by hiding plenty of wiring and mounting the coil under the dash.
The result is a simple but great-looking engine bay, although most people’s attention is focused on the part of the engine that sits above the bonnet anyway.
The rest of the car is fairly simple; Vince saw no reason to mess with the parts they got right from the factory.
The stock interior is all in great condition and the brakes were designed with the big block in mind, so they have also been up to the task so far.
The aim of the engine build was never for excessive amounts of power. That’s not to say the car is a slouch — it is able to light up the Kumhos in third gear when driven sensibly, though it’s a nice and polite cruiser that gets plenty of attention for all the right reasons.
Despite everything he’s achieved, Vince is modest about his work. “Anyone can do this with some planning. I did it because I simply did not have the coin to get someone to panel and paint it — I wish I could have.”
The difference is that when Vince is cruising in the Camaro and everyone is looking, he has the knowledge that it’s all his own hard work.
Surely that has to be the icing on the cake when you own a seriously cool car.
1969 Chev Camaro X-code 55 – Specifications
Engine: 402ci (6.6-litre) big block, four-bolt mains, steel crank, Melling high-volume oil pump, standard rods, KB domed pistons, ARP bolt kit, Moroso high-capacity sump, Comp Cams timing set, Summit timing cover, large open chamber 454 heads, three-angle valve cut, K-liners, hardened seats, port matched, Comp Cams heavy duty springs, Comp Cams roller rockers, Comp Cams chromoly retainers, Comp Cams spring retainers, Comp Cams 9.5mm push rods, stainless steel Manley valves, ARP head stud kit, Comp Cams very mild cam, 8/71 Blower Shop supercharger, billet front and end plates, Teflon-coated rotors, polished manifold, race alloy stud kit, stainless steel cap screws, billet snout, single 950cfm boost-referenced 4150 Holley HP Series carb, GM high-flow mechanical fuel pump, braided lines and XRP in-line fuel filter, handmade 9.5mm alloy polished fuel hard lines, Russell fittings, MSD ignition, Top Gun 8.8mm leads, Taylor wire separators, Ceramic (HPC) coated 1.75-inch Headman headers, three-inch collectors fitted to 2.5-inch exhaust, twin three-chamber Flowmaster mufflers, large-core GM big block four-row radiator, billet Weiand high-volume mechanical water pump, 100mm billet fan spacer, GM plastic fan, Billet Specialties pulley set
Driveline: M21 close-ratio Muncie four-speed manual, Hurst shifter, aftermarket flywheel, Centre Force clutch, 12-bolt 3.23:1 posi rear end, Summit chrome rear end cover
Suspension: QA1 50mm lowering springs, Koni adjustable shocks, heavy duty front sway bar, all new Nolathane bushes, stock five-leaf rear springs with Bilstein adjustable shocks, all new bushes
Brakes: Stock disc/drum
Wheels/tyres: 18-inch Boyd Coddington Magneto rims, 235/40R18 and 275/35R18 Kumho tyres
Exterior: PPG 2K black paint with 2K clear
Interior: Momo wheel and Hurst alloy shifter, Custom Auto Sound head unit, Pioneer rear speakers
Performance: Estimated 550hp (410kW)
Vince and Jacqui Lettice – Owner Profile
Age: 43 (Vince)
Occupation: Composite sales engineer
Previously owned cars: SS Comy, Dodge Dart, 1968 Dodge Charger
Dream car: Still trying to work that one out
Why the Camaro?: Must have been mad or maybe a midlife crisis, always liked the ’69 shape
Build time: Eight months and still tinkering
Length of ownership: 15 months
Vince thanks: I wish to thank my wife Jacqui and my kids Emma and Mark for putting up with the dust and the smell and the long hours and the tantrums. I would also like to thank Alan Shadwick from Al’s Blower Drives — without his help with the motor and blower setup I would have been screwed. Al’s a guy who has done it all and seen it all before, his knowledge is unquestionable.
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Adam Croy
This article is from NZV8 issue 65. Click here to check it out.