All car crafters lust after a fully equipped shop where they can work on their latest projects, store spare parts, and bench-race with buddies. While all of that is possible even in a one-car garage, the space is often shared with gardening tools, old bicycles, and grandma's hand-me-down quilting kit. It takes resources to set up a truly useful shop, and most of us just don't have that kind of dough to toss around. It's a predicament that The El Caminos Club of Bakersfield, California, is solving through teamwork and camaraderie.
The club was founded in September 2000 by three friends in a garage. They built a '74 El Camino from a piece of junk into a nice platform that could eventually become a show-quality car. Now, just over six years later, the membership has grown to 54, all of whom own at least one El Camino. Through a system of membership tiers-each with a distinct dues structure and club benefits-they have developed their own car shows, offer discounts from area sponsors, and, yes, have obtained a 3,000-square-foot shop that is exclusive to club members.
As far as they know, the ECCB is currently the only club in California that is exclusive to the Chevrolet car-based small pickup that rolled off the assembly lines from 1959 until the '87 model-year. The group's slogan is "Everybody has an El Camino story."
The ECCB is at least partly the brainchild of founder and president Richard Lopez. "When I was a freshman in high school in Santa Paula, California, the school football jock had a '68 royal-blue El Camino, and he was dating the head cheerleader," Lopez recalls. "That got me hooked. I soon found an El Camino that had an exhaust leak, so I got it for $200. I fixed the leak and drove it home. It just took Second Place in Pro Stock class at the '06 Chevy's Limited car show."
Lopez also presides over the Bakersfield Car Club Council, which represents all of the more than 40 car clubs in Kern County, California, and he is a regional director of the El Camino Owners Association (elcaminocentral.com), a Web-based organization with several thousand members throughout the nation.
Betty Paulk, chatting with fellow club member Ruben Gonzalez, owns a white '68 SS 396 El Camino with blue SS stripes. In 1990, Betty's husband, Roger, bought a 450hp, 454ci LS7 crate motor from the local GM Performance outlet and mated the big-block to a Muncie four-speed transmission. He added a set of Summit ladder bars and a Detroit locker for the 3.73-geared rearend. Betty loves the handling and the performance of the engine, noting that it's not at all squirrelly even with all that power.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of membership in The El Caminos Club of Bakersfield is the aforementioned shop, which is known as the clubhouse. The group had been looking for a yard or a garage to work in when a club member came across a steel barnlike affair and negotiated a rental deal with the owner, also a car enthusiast. The place still needs a lot of improvement, but the members are avid about turning the shell into a haven for their hobby. They'd been in occupancy for about six months when we visited and had begun construction on a two-story suite of rooms in one corner of the clubhouse. The bottom level will house the office, lounge, and reception area. The top area will be a headquarters, where the members will hold meetings in which they discuss past, current, and future events as well as updates on the project cars being worked on. Web cams will be installed around shop and conference room to allow for simulcasts to club chapters around the state. The structure is under 24-hour video surveillance and is set up for network, satellite TV, and cable.
The club's memberships are tiered from the entry-level Bronze, which is $60 per year, up to the Platinum level at $150 per month. Benefits range from an exclusive club T-shirt to paid entry fees for any of the events that the ECCB hosts. At the top Platinum level, the member receives a key to the shop and has exclusive rights to a bay. There are currently four cars in the shop for the year, and their owners are able to do whatever they want, as if it were their own garage.
Members also receive rewards from club sponsors. For instance, the local Kragen Auto Parts provides discounts of 5 to 50 percent, depending upon quarterly sales. Other sponsors include Brock's Trailers, Xpress Lube, Oasis Heating & Air, and Family Motors Auto Group. The club is a state-recognized entity, with a business license, a doing-business-as name, and its own bank accounts.
The club hosts an annual car show, which is open to all makes and models. The event is run on a competition format, so $1,500 to $2,500 in cash prizes is awarded in addition to trophies. "We get between 50 and 60 car entries," Lopez says, "but we're gearing up to host a national 50th anniversary El Camino car show in 2009."
ECCB runs an annual Cruise 4 the Needy in November where they load their El Caminos with bags of groceries, donating them to approximately 20 families as a Thanksgiving gift, and end up at a park for a potluck and a car show.
Louie Gonzalez's phantom blue '69 El Camino (far left, middle row) features ghost flames and a '90 350ci truck engine with a TH350 transmission. It can be found parked in front of Louie's automotive garage on most days. Rudy Maldenado's '82-Corvette-red '59 El Camino with blue-tipped yellow flames took four years to complete. Rudy loves to tell the story of how he turned a rustbucket into a showpiece with a 454ci big-block and a 700-R4 automatic transmission.
The camel-brown '75 El Camino on the left is owned by Ian Perez. It also has a 350/350, but Ian feels the best modification so far is the stereo and DVD with dual 12-inch woofers and 10-inch two-way door speakers. The '74 El Camino Classic 400 on the right is the pride and joy of Richard Lopez, president and founder of The El Caminos Club of Bakersfield. The strip/street gloss-black Elco has been enhanced with '70s-style nostalgia red flames. It is powered by a 330hp '78 four-bolt-main truck engine backed by TH400 transmission with a 2,500-rpm-stall torque converter. Richard loves that he can make a deal on an engine or transmission, load it into the back of the El Camino, and drive off. "Try that with a Camaro," he says.
While the primary aim of the club is to enjoy the pickups and friendships, mentoring has become a secondary benefit. "Among our group, we have a welder, master mechanics, a paint-and-body man-the gamut," Lopez says. "We want to bring in that kind of talent and nurture it and network with it. That way the young guys can learn from the older ones. That's a hidden aspect of the car club-helping those younger guys. Our club is family oriented. It's not a bunch of boys who sneak away and do their own thing. We bring our [wives/girlfriends] and kids with us."
Among those who help teach others is Rudy Maldenado, who owns a flamed '59. It's equipped with a 502 big-block, which Rudy-a mechanic by profession-installed himself. He's been into early Chevrolets since he was a kid, so he's quite open to sharing his expertise with others. And his hobby is shared with his family.
"The thing is, my wife loves old cars, too," Rudy explains. "I've got a lot of friends who like old cars, but their wives hate 'em. I was telling her the other day that we need to sell one of our cars to make room for a new one. She said, "Well, don't sell the old cars."
Another member, Oscar Jimenez, also involves his family in his project. He bought a '78 El Camino with a 350/350 combination seven years ago for $700. He has now invested about $8,900, including custom paint applied by his brother-in-law and interior work by his brother. He has mounted 20-inch rims and is set up for street performance.
The member cars also include a true SS '68 owned by Betty Paulk and her husband, Roger, who bought it four years ago for $8,500. They wanted a 454 when they acquired it, so Roger visited the local GM Performance outlet and ordered the first 450hp LS7 engine in Bakersfield. It was Betty's idea to hinge the storage compartment door in the bed behind the cab, and that's where they positioned the battery. The opening is actuated with air shocks, with a hidden latch under the framerail.
The club prides itself on working together to achieve common goals, and the members plan to expand the concept throughout the state. They just opened a new chapter in San Jose and are exploring other locations where interested owners are looking for like-minded El Camino fans. Those who fit that criterion may contact Richard Lopez via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit elcaminosclub.com, which is the club's Web site.
The owner of the '72 orange EL Camino with a camper shell is 72-year-old Dean LeMasters. He and his wife bought the 350/350 pickup several years ago at an auction. Last year, a CHP officer pulled Dean over to say that he remembered the vehicle. The previous owner apparently street-raced the El Camino and is currently incarcerated for reckless driving in the L.A. area. Dean is not so cavalier with his driving. Harold Meeks, who happens to be the owner of the local Chevy dealership, 3 Way Chevrolet, had his '70 El Camino restored as a 502ci SS clone. It sports gloss-black paint and a black interior as well as some chrome accessories. The '71 tangerine-orange El Camino belongs to 19-year-old Cody Schneider. It's powered by a 350ci engine backed by a TH350 automatic transmission with a 3,000-rpm-stall torque converter that Cody installed with his dad, Lawrence. Father and son are grateful for The El Caminos Club's hard work and efforts to provide the membership with events and support they can enjoy. Cody is now in college and allows his younger sister Delaney to drive the El Camino to Foothill High School.
John Hustead owns the the '82 El Camino Conquistador at the far left, coated in metallic-parchment paint with gold-dust pinstriping. Its 3.8L V-6 engine is mated to a TH350 transmission, and it still includes all of the original packages along with a straight body. John's second vehicle is the two-tone gray '84 GMC Sprint Caballero (second from left) with a 383ci engine and a TH350 transmission. Oscar Jimenez purchased his one-owner black '78 El Camino Conquistador (center) 15 years ago for $800. Its 350ci crate small-block works with a 700-R4 transmission. After 411/42 years of hard work from family members, Oscar was proud to see his El Camino featured in the annual Bakersfield Christmas parade. Next up, second from right, is Ruben Gonzales' metallic midnight-blue '80 GMC Caballero, powered by a 305ci engine and a TH350 transmission. The Center Line rims are wrapped in P205/R60-15 rubber. Ruben's wife, Pat, drives it to the daycare where she works and enjoys the versatility the El Camino provides. Albert Lopez owns the desert tan '79 El Camino on the right. Like Hustead's Conquistador, it is also powered by a 3.8L and a TH350 transmission. The only modification is the Sirius satellite radio and a Flowmaster after-cat exhaust system.
Rudy Maldenado rebuilt the nearly stock 454 engine in his garage, adding such items as an
Betty Paulk came up with the idea of relocating the battery into a compartment in her truc
In 2004, Richard Lopez bought this primer-gray '73 El Camino for $500. When he ran the VIN, he discovered that it is a true 265hp, 454ci/TH400 SS Custom. Even the engine's numbers match. The engine has been cosmetically upgraded and now features ceramic-coated Hooker headers, a complete MSD Ignition system, and geardrive. The floorpan was cut out and new panels welded in as part of a full frame-off restoration. The original #74 dark metallic red paint will be restored and complemented with SS stripes. Being able to perform that kind of work in the group's garage is one of the benefits of being a Platinum member of The El Caminos Club of Bakersfield.