When exactly did the '69 Camaro become a highly valued collector car, worthy of sharing spotlight time with 250 Ferraris, straight-eight Packards, and gullwing Mercedes? The legitimizing of musclecar collecting may seem like a positive development, but when the cars we've spent the past 35 years tweaking, tuning, building, and beating are worth six-figure cash, modifying them might almost seem financially irresponsible.
That's why we feel better when we come across guys who still focus on enjoying the musclecar experience, even if they appreciate the collector aspect. Jim Hughes is kinda like that. As a kid in New York in the '60s, he grew up dreaming and drooling over the SoCal car scene as portrayed in magazines and movies. That was during the late '60s when most guys were either into road racing sports cars or drag racing musclecars. Jim was into both. Today, as a resident of Los Angeles, Jim's tastes remain similar; he still lusts for American iron, though with a functional bent-straight restorations don't hold particular appeal, though neither does slicing and dicing a treasured classic.
He sums up his build philosophy like this: "We perform 'restifications,' which means that the car remains original unless there is a high-quality, well-engineered upgrade available that improves function and enhances the appearance without looking out of place alongside the OEM components." It's a mantra Jim shares with friend and build partner Steve Rindos. Steve has been restoring classic Chevys as a hobby for years, using the exacting standards he deals with daily as an aerospace machinist. The two have completed other projects together previously, most recently, a similar '69 Camaro seen on our April '05 cover. That car-a small-block with an automatic-was to satisfy Jim's desire for the perfect street Camaro, but then he found this one, a numbers-matching, big-block SS/RS. The more exclusive pedigree had its draw, but it was Jim's inner motorhead that was lusting for a fat block.
The small-block car was sold and the Muscatine Coupe acquired, so named for the town in Iowa where it was found. The name grew out of Jim and Steve's attempts to differentiate this project from the previous '69 during the build process, and it stuck, at least in part because it rings with a tone similar to that of the titles hung on some of the most legendary cars from the glory days of hot rodding.
When it came to actually executing the project, Jim and Steve applied their credo by making select alterations to the Camaro to improve the driving experience, like topping the numbers-matching 396 with aluminum Edelbrock heads and intake and adding Hooker long-tubes and a custom 211/42-inch exhaust. But the most significant deviation, and we're told, the one with the biggest payoff, is the five-speed manual-trans conversion to replace the original TH400 automatic.
Other subtle functional enhancements can be found inside, where Cerullo buckets, wrapped in factory-style hounds-tooth, replace the stock front seats for added support, and a Nardi steering wheel classes up the joint.
As it stands, the Camaro manages to sound hairy and pulls hard while remaining comfortable, even over the ratted streets in the Valley, suggesting that Jim and Steve achieved their goal of creating an improved Camaro without straying too far from its origins. There is, however, talk. Could a 572ci crate engine be considered a mild enhancement?
Car: '69 Camaro SS/RS 396
Owner: Jim Hughes
Hometown: West "I can see the whole Valley from here!" Hills, California
Engine: Miraculously, the original numbers-matching 396 block was still in the Camaro when Jim got it, so it was sent to Eddings Engine in San Fernando, California, bored 0.030-over and fitted with Federal-Mogul pistons on the stock, reconditioned rods. The stock crank was retained and the whole deal is held together with ARP fasteners.
Heads: Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum assemblies with 2.19/1.88-inch valves and 100cc chambers. With the Fed Mogul pistons, the heads make 9.0:1 compression for trouble-free motoring on lighter-fluid-like SoCal pump gasoline.
Induction: An Edelbrock Performer RPM Air-Gap intake serves the little big-block well over a broad rpm range, topped with a Holley 750-cfm carb.
Valvetrain: A Comp Cams Xtreme Roller hydraulic arrangement with 0.510-inch lift and 276/282 advertised duration transmits through a set of Comp roller rockers.
Ignition: A Mallory electronic distributor is supported with a barrage of MSD stuff, like a 6AL box and Blaster coil.
Exhaust: Manifolds are corks for big-blocks, so Jim installed a set of Hooker Comp tubes with the 396. They use 211/48-inch primaries and feed a custom system that uses 211/42-inch Flowmaster three-chamber cans with custom 3-inch tailpipes set to jut just below the rear valence.
Transmission: The Camaro left the factory with a Turbo 400, but grabbing your own gears is more fun, and overdrive is always a welcome addition on the open road, so a Keisler five-speed conversion is utilized, incorporating a Tremec TKO gearbox and a Lakewood scattershield. The kit is intended to swap in place of a stock four-speed, so the custom shifter pokes right through the appropriate place in the console. The Hurst handle makes it look OE.
Rearend: The original 12-bolt housing remains, now filled with 3.55:1 gears on the freshened original Posi-traction unit.
Front suspension: Global West tubular arms replace the stock stamped-steel pieces. A Global 111/48-inch sway bar works with Detroit Spring big-block 111/42-inch drop springs and KYB shocks to keep it flat in the corners when the original fast-ratio power-steering box says so.
Rear suspension: Stock five-leaf springs hang the 12-bolt with Global West bushings and KYB shocks.
Brakes: The original power-assisted front-disc/rear-drum arrangement has been freshened and gives the Camaro a much more positive slowing sensation than most of its contemporaries, even with the big-block up front.
Body: Most of the original skin remains, untouched save for the deletion of the rocker-panel spear and vinyl top and trim. Guillermo Osario of Classic Vision Auto Restoration in Burbank smoothed the flanks and applied the '69 Camaro LeMans Blue paint in place of the previous Porsche India Red and the even more previous factory Fathom Green hue.
Interior: The stock seats didn't go with the enhanced cornering ability and weren't that comfortable anyway, so based on experience with previous projects, a set of Cerullo buckets were custom upholstered with OE-style deluxe houndstooth cloth inserts; the stock rear bench wears matching covers. That steering wheel is a genuine Nardi unit, a reissue of the style found in the original Ferrari GTOs. Jim feels that this is the design GM was trying to emulate with the optional Rosewood wheel, which he affectionately refers to as "that plastic thing."
Wheels/tires: It's hard to go wrong with Torq-Thrusts, and the Hughes Camaro reinforces that belief with 17x8 and 17x9.5 TTIIs front/rear wrapped in BFG G-Force KD 225/45-17 and 275/40-17 rubber, respectively.
"This is basically the car I wanted back when they were nearly new, only better." Jim Hughes