It was a haven for street racing, cruising, and hanging out in driveways. Just ask any car guy who grew up in the San Fernando Valley during the late-'60s and early-'70s. The endless grid of the lightly populated streets, spanning about a mile between traffic lights, made it the perfect asphalt field for hunting impromptu street races. On any given night you could drive down desolate four-lane streets--Sherman Way, Roscoe, or Devonshire--and within minutes pull alongside some musclecar prey. Big-block Chevelles, Mach I Mustangs, 442s, Road Runners, almost anything with two doors and dual exhaust seemed abundant and readily willing to accept battle. Paired up behind crosswalk lines, the tension that filled the suburban air while waiting for a red traffic light to GO green was phenomenal. Then like a shotgun blast, it was full throttle ahead and slamming gears.
In the summer of '71, 17-year-old John Villegas thrived within this clandestine elation. Weeks before entering his senior year at Cleveland High School (in Reseda) he was content with his 327-powered '57 Chevy. Then he learned of a well-worn, one-owner 396 Camaro driven by a traveling salesman. It was a Valley car that had been sold new at nearby Rancho Chevrolet. The Camaro's factory four-speed and big-block had logged over 100K miles during those first four years, and the traveling salesman thought he could no longer afford to keep putting 35-cent-a-gallon supreme in the thirsty Rat. Heck, regular-grade was just 31 cents a gallon, and that's what the new Chevy Vegas ran on--with twice the mileage! So the traveling salesman priced the Camaro to sell and gladly took young John Villegas' 500 bucks as a down payment on a new Vega.
Shortly after acquiring the Camaro, John realized the 396 needed a solid going-through. But instead of bringing the original Rat motor back to square one, John caught the big-horsepower bug and decided to stuff something really persuasive under the hood. So he saved several weeks' paychecks, then walked into the Chevy parts department and told the counterman he'd like one L88 427, please. In the early-'70s, that engine assembly cost roughly $1,000 and included open-chamber aluminum cylinder heads, 12.5:1 compression, an open-plenum aluminum GM intake manifold, an 850-cfm Holley carburetor, a forged and Tufftrided crank, a mechanical lifter camshaft, and 7/16-inch pushrods. Days later, with this new 427 nestled in the engine bay, John put some 5.13s in the 12-bolt and paid regular visits to the Saturday night street races that converged behind the Bank of America building at Van Nuys Boulevard and Kittridge Street.
For years the Camaro earned quite a reputation in the west end of the Valley. But by the early-'80s, John and his young family started having fun with speedboats, and as a result, the sporadically-driven Camaro donated its powerplant to a flat bottom. Fortunately, John had the foresight to keep his long-standing Camaro (albeit minus the motor), and rolled it to one side of the garage.
Fifteen years of speedboat racing with his wife Pam and two daughters Jenny and Jamie had transpired before John realized how cool it would be to again drive the Camaro. Although he now ran another motor in the boat, he still had that L88. So with the help of close friends, he pulled the Camaro down to the frame, added new glistening paint, and most importantly, decided to reinstate the feverous power of his trusty L88.
First he took the block, heads, and crank to Jim Grubbs Motorsports (JGM), in Valencia, California, for machining. The new parts included a COMP Cams solid lifter camshaft with 0.590 lift and 236 degrees duration measured at 0.050-inch lift. At JGM the aluminum heads received a full port and polish job to improve flow, and then the factory aluminum intake runners were ported to match. Since John is a seasoned drag boat guy, he loves lots of compression and is accustomed to running a strong mix of VP 110 race gas. So he had the heads cut to reduce the combustion-chamber size from 118 cc to 110 cc, which pumped the L88's hairy 12.5:1 compression to a robust 14:1.
With the engine work well underway, John trailered the body to Alexander's Customs in Valencia to have the old paint stripped and minor bodywork performed to bestow mirror-flat sheetmetal. After generous coats of fresh Lemans Blue and white Z/28-style stripes had been applied, the frame and related suspension items came off for powder coating.
To the chassis he added Competition Engineering frame connectors, and for gross bite, some of John Calvin's Cal Tracs bars. Because the new COMP Cams camshaft grind improved the 427's mid-range torque, John replaced the 5.13:1 gearset with some 3.73s. For wheels and tires he chose a cool set of 17-inch Eagle Alloys fitted with Nitto rubber.
From start to finish the entire buildup took four years. Whether it's the mile-deep paint or the sound of a high-compression L88 idling that captures your interest, John's Camaro is just incredible. Weeks after our photo shoot we caught up with John at this year's Super Chevy Show held at Pomona Raceway. We visited with him as he was busy tuning the Camaro to get it into the 11s. And by the end of the day he met his goal when he clocked a tire burning 11.89 at 117 mph. Spend just a few minutes with John and he'll quickly tell you how he loves racing the Camaro, as well as showing and driving it with his wife and daughters. The thrill of it all is infectious and he doesn't want it to go away.
|Speed Reading |
|1967 Camaro |
|John and Pam Villegas |
|Castaic, California |
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|ENGINE || |
|Type: ||427ci big-block (0.030-inch overbore) L88 |
|Block: ||GM cast iron four-bolt |
|Connecting Rods: ||L88 7/16-inch with ARP rod bolts, full floating wrist pins |
|Pistons: ||GM forged |
|Compression Ratio: ||14:1 |
|Cylinder Heads: ||L88 aluminum rectangular port |
|Valves: ||2.19/1.90 intake, exhaust |
|Crankshaft: ||forged steel, Tufftrided, cross-drilled |
|Camshaft: ||COMP Cams solid lifter 0.590-inch lift, 236 degrees duration at 0.050-inch lift |
|Induction: ||Holley 850-cfm double pumper, GM aluminum intake manifold (L88) |
|Ignition: ||HEI w/MSD components |
|Air Intake: ||factory '69 Special Ducted Camaro hood (ZL2), air-cleaner assembly with K & N element |
|Oiling System: ||9-quart Milodon pan and pickup |
|Exhaust: ||Jardine Headers and |
|3-inch exhaust system || |
|Machine Work: ||Jim Grubbs Motorsports, Valencia, CA |
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|DRIVETRAIN ||Close-ratio (2.20:1 low) Muncie four-speed, Hurst Competition Plus shifter, McLeod 11-inch diaphragm clutch, 12-bolt axle, 3.73:1 ring-and-pinion, Eaton posi unit, hardened axles, Summit aluminum support |
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|CHASSIS ||Competition Engineering subframe connectors, polyurethane frame and control-arm bushings, KYB shocks, Cal Tracs traction bars, driveshaft loop, 1 1/4-inch front sway bar |
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|WHEELS & TIRES || |
|Front: ||17x8 (w/5-inch backspace) Eagle Alloy, P225/40R17 Nitto |
|Rear: ||17x9.5 (w/5-inch backspace) Eagle Alloy, P275/50R17 Nitto |
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|BODY & PAINT ||Lemans Blue with white stripes (w/blue pearl) applied by Alexander's Custom, Canyon Country, California |
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|INTERIOR ||stock trim, Auto Meter gauges |
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|PERFORMANCE ||1/4-mile: 11.89 e.t. at 117.2 mph through the mufflers; Super Chevy event at Pomona Raceway April 30, 2005. |