Restoration fueled by fond memories

’m a car guy, gearhead, hot-rodder and enthusiast, and was fortunate to grow up during the late 60s muscle car era. To this day, I feel they stopped building great cars after 1972. My ride is a 1966 Chevrolet El Camino, which is the pickup truck version of the Chevelle. The story of how and why I unexpectedly ended up with the El Camino is an important chapter in my life.

Here are the specs: The engine is an early 1990 small block Chevy with a Z28 profile roller cam of the same era. The Racing Head Service cylinderheads are reworked with epoxy downsized intake runners for better low end response; dual plane intake with flow work, Holley 650 carb, HEI ignition, header and two-and-a-quarter-inch dual exhaust. The lower end is pretty much stock, zero deck height and nicely balanced. The engine was designed for low rpm throttle response, good torque and fuel economy. The 700R4 transmission gives great off-the-stoplight acceleration, plus the OD and 3.73 rear gear combination makes for economical traveling speeds. It came with a trailer hitch, for what, I am not sure.

I acquired the El Camino for personal and emotional reasons. From age 14 to 18, during the summer and after school, I worked for a small performance machine shop called Performance Automotive Machine and Supply (PAMS) in WaKeeney, Kan., complete with an in-house engine dyno. Eccentric owner Kenny Hacker built race engines for local sprint car drivers and could machine, weld and fabricate it all. Kenny was my mentor, teaching me the right way to build (or rebuild) just about anything, but more importantly, the relationship between the electrical and mechanical systems. As a Navy man, his sometimes crass style of precision and quality training has stuck with me throughout my life.

In 2007, Kenny was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I visited him several times during his last few months. We talked about things like variable cam timing, how a venturi really drops air pressure, and what was in the Dairy Queen Blizzard he so loved. At this point it had been 10 years or so since I had been to see him at his shop.

One of our hospital room conversations turned to the El Camino. In his shop was the plain PPG red chassis on four wheels with the doors attached. That was as far as he got with the restoration. The engine long block was on an engine stand. The transmission was assembled. Everything else, and I mean every nut, bolt and screw was cleaned, refinished, bagged and labeled, almost as if he knew he would not be able to complete the project. He wanted me to have a chance to buy it before his estate auction.

It turned out to be the best Christmas present I ever got that had to be assembled, and took two years worth of Saturdays to finish. During the process I went through my training days with him in my head while reading all the precious little notes in the bags and boxes. Everything smelled like Kenny’s shop (a mixture of floor soap and cleaning solvent we used to make fun of).

I found many little modifications, like a quartz watch mechanism he had a jeweler replace in the stock appearing clock, the hidden map lights under the dash pad, and the secret compartment behind the seat in a body void. There I found spare parts one might need while on the road. I found extra fittings and wiring for engine oil and transmission fluid temp; air temp inside and out to be monitored closely on a small digital readout mounted in the dash. Everything else appeared stock. Kenny was also practical. Rather than carpet, he fabricated an entire floor covering out of some type of flexible glue and thick plastic sheets and had it Rhino-lined. I suspect to make it easy to clean up.

The El Camino turned out gorgeous and is a blast to drive. The color is actually dark orange in the sunlight, but has a florescent glow under artificial lights at night. I am not sure what Kenny’s dream was for the car, but with the trailer hitch, I suppose he was headed for more adventure. For myself, I now drive it weekly and took it to our first car show last month.

Everyone looks, if not stares, at it. A woman at Quik Trip followed me outside and said, “I have got to get one of these!” A young girl at the hamburger drive-thru leaned out the window so far as I rumbled by, her headset was pulled off. An older man who nearly rear-ended the guy in front of him while next to me in traffic, gave a thumbs up with his right hand while laying on the horn with his left.

One day, a guy in his 50s pulled up by me in the parking lot at the grocery store, rolled his window down, and started laughing and pointing, saying how much fun he had in an El Camino growing up in Southern California. His eyes began to tear up, he took a deep breath, waived, smiled and slowly drove off. I had to sit there for a few minutes myself and wipe the tears from my eyes and try to understand my own emotion.

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