How I ended up with two muscle cars when all I wanted was a JDM rocket
The universe twists and turns around us without the feeling of movement. It pulls us towards our project cars for unknown reasons.
Does anyone else remember a time when you knew little to nothing about automobiles or the hobby in general? I do. I was raised in a family that didn’t care anything about vehicles, other than spending a minimum amount of money on them. The sole requirements were air conditioning for the summer and 4wd for winter. If I was to learn about cars, I was going to have to do it myself.
Memories, sweet, sweet memories...
I remember watching - still several years from a driver’s license - 'the Fast and the Furious'. I didn’t know much about any of the cars. I didn't know half the manufacturers and even fewer of the models. They were ‘that cool red car’ or green or white. I remember asking people what the red car was called (Integra). I only knew the name for a Supra because they said it in the movie.
This was a time in the early 2000s when imports were 'cooler' and muscle car fans were much more vocal than now. You either loved imports or muscle cars. Never both. If someone mentioned their fondness for one or the other, it was time to argue about how stupid, uninformed, and slow they were. It was quite a fun time!
I made a list of cars I wanted to try and find for my 16th birthday. Integra, Civic, Eclipse, Gallant, Celica, and the rest of the 90s pocket rockets filled the list. My dad, knowing nothing and being mostly poor, found me an excellent condition... 1992 Ford Explorer 4x4. THIS. WAS. NOT. ON. THE. LIST.
I knew my place and kept my mouth shut. I kept the Explorer in top shape and learned how to work on it, but I was always in search of a truly cool car. I kept looking at imports. At the time, they were much too expensive. Regardless I made up my mind; I wanted an import! I had to have one! Everyone who had an import was trendy, popular, and got all the girls. So then how did I end up with a 1971 Chevrolet Camaro?!
I didn't hate doing bodywork. It's time-consuming work that leads to obvious gains. The smile was added by yours truely.
The 'La Bamba' Camaro
In my search for the ultimate import, I found a 1971 Chevrolet Camaro 350 for $300. Today, we take for granted that most car guys can appreciate and enjoy other vehicle disciplines and styles. At the time I grew up to appreciate the car hobby, I don’t feel like this was the case. It was a polarized hobby.
I was lucky to find someone that may not have been a die-hard car guy but appreciated it all. I explained my 'import dream car' and learned about a Camaro for sale. I listened to the owner talk about their experience with the car and all its quirks. I didn't care about its domestic roots - I just wanted to talk cars.
It was rough, dirty, and obviously not an import. But it was cheap, fast(ish), and apparently, people thought it could be cool - with the emphasis on thought. I listened to the muscle car guys I knew. They all said I found a diamond in the rough. They said, 'Screw those imports'. I resigned myself to reading about the Camaro history. I looked at prime examples of Camaro that I could emulate. I agreed it was a worthy project. I paid the asking price - my wallet was $300 now lighter.
I don’t have pictures of the original front end. Apparently, the previous owner did not bleed the brakes properly. The car lurched forward at a T-intersection and was quickly stopped by a 3/4 ton pickup. The driver’s front fender looked like it was hit with a giant's can opener in front of the driver's wheel. Nothing remained forward of the radiator support.
After putting a battery in it, I drove it home just as it sat - the brakes still felt like stepping on a bag of smashed apples. Nothing existed forward of the radiator support. No headlights. No turn signals. No bumper. Anyone on the road must have thought it was stolen from a junkyard.
I worked on the car for several months in my high school auto shop class. Using eBay proved to be as crucial then as it can be now. From the site, a front end from a 1973 Z/28 was located a short 45-minute drive from a family member in Oregon. He graciously trailered it down to California. The cheap shipping cost me some guilt and future yard work.
I cut my teeth on this car and learned all the nuisances and annoyances of wrenching. This ‘La Bamba’ Camaro as my uncle would later name it, was a total basket case. I somehow ended up driving it 2 hours and 80-miles away to college at Chico State without getting pulled over. I continued to work on it in my shared garage with two other roommates until it came time to sell.
The $2300 I got for the car wasn't much - certainly a screaming deal today. Not exactly the best investment but the experience was essential. I learned how to wrench on the opposite of what I had intended to buy in the first place.
How did I end up looking for an import and buying a muscle car? I never let myself be completely phased by the unknown. Buy what you think is cool. Don't buy what everyone tells you is cool. Cool is ever-changing. You'll capture it briefly from time to time. Base on your style and beliefs in speed, but be open to everything.
I never was satisfied with selling that old crappy 'La Bamba Camaro'. I had to sell it as I was moving to a location without a garage and there was nowhere to put it and no money to pay someone to store it. It was necessary to step up to the next in life.
My second Camaro. This time it was a 1970 model with a Bill Mitchell Hardcore all-aluminum small-block 427ci making around 550hp.
A couple of years ago, I found myself looking for another import. I wanted a 300zx TT, Supra, NSX, or maybe an Evo. I however ran into a friend who said, “I’ve got a Camaro for sale”. History repeated itself. This one looked a little better, right?