Back in the day, automatic transmissions had a less than savory rep. On the main, they weren't known as the most positive way to transfer torque. Inefficient horsepower thieves are what they were. You wanted to avoid all that, you stayed natural, you banged gears with a stick shift and a clutch. Guys who drove automatics (even the Torqueflite mob) couldn't really hold their heads up in polite car society of the time. Automatics were punk and, by association, so were the people who drove them. Deft stick-shift manipulation was an art that required practice, but certainly there were stick-shift artists everywhere. Guys who didn't get it raced an automatic. Ridicule was heaped upon them.
Years later, you realize that it was all a bunch of crap. Years later, you realize that the automatic is now a seven- or eight-speed gear processor, for cripe's sake, way more efficient and powerful than some damn clutch-governed stick shift. In the old days, the objection from the purists was that the automatic simply assumed too much of the driving skill and soon enough debilitated the hand-eye-foot coordination and rendered physical finesse unnecessary. Now the idea is to remove the human element. Take the chance to muff the deal out of the picture entirely.
That's why we have hot rodders. That's why there are guys like Russell Saunders, a young 31 who's learning with his first "serious" reacher. According to popular domain, Russell's '68 RS/SS would probably qualify as a street/strip car or at least one that performed better at the dragstrip than on the interstate. If Russell has taken some measures to the extreme, so what? That's his prerogative.
Rather than hover over a common Muncie four-speed or reap the aftermarket like most everyone else would, Russell got downright esoteric on us. As a resident of Virginia, he depended on locals to provide. Since torque is always the issue, Russell prepared accordingly. The Strange Engineering S60 Dana axle, fitted with a Detroit Locker differential and 35-spline axleshafts, pretty much bulletproofs the Camaro's back end. (All production Mopar Hemi and RB-motor cars equipped with a clutch also got a Dana 60 93/4-inch axle as part of the deal.)
The worshipped icon was the Chrysler A833 Hemi four-speed, as rugged and storied as something that might have hung off Thor's war belt. There were drawbacks. Its iron case was heavy. The aluminum-case version was lighter, but your arm would ache just as badly the next day from pulling on its big sliders and pesky synchronizer rings. Dutch Irrgang worked for Jenkins Competition then. As a matter of fact, most Chevy Pro Stockers of the minute used the A833, so Dutch removed every other tooth from the synchros in Bill's cars, thus creating the fabled "slick shift." (We know, you heard it differently.)
In the have-it-now 21st century, you can bank on diversity. We have store-bought goods falling all over the joint. Passon Performance is a niche purveyor, and its aluminum-case A833 is high-rated stuff. Russell: "The main goal was to have a fully streetable transmission (2.65, 1.93, 1.39, 1:1) with synchronizers that would hold up to a 6,500-rpm launch on cheater slicks but still be driver-friendly around town. Kinda old school, but..." Did the whole thing up like an NHRA Super Stocker, circa 1970, didn't you? Thanks for being a real bad-dad here, Russell, and hacking out a theoretically different path, pal. Your car is nothing less than the root and the inspiration of what people drive now.
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
Lynwood Daughtrey did the motor at Precision Engines in Salem, Virginia. Rather than crank an expensive 700hp 540 around town, Russell felt something with smaller lungs, like a 530hp 396, would radiate plenty of asphalt-disturbing guff. Lynwood did a 0.030-inch cleanup bore but left the stock stroke for a cumulative 402 ci. Then he decked and align-bored the block and balanced the rotating assembly. The cleaned-up forged crankshaft supports GM rods and 12:1 Keith Black pistons and pins. A Cloyes Double Roller timing set connects crank with cam, in this case a Comp solid flat-tappet grind (252/259 degrees duration at 0.050 inch, 0.612 inch lift both valves). Manley pushrods work with Comp roller rocker arms, Comp springs, and 2.19/1.88-inch valves. Before Lynwood attached the GM square-port iron heads, he performed some minor porting work and gave the pockets a three-angle valve job. He put the Moroso 7-quart oil pan on with a matching windage tray and crankshaft scraper, flipped the fat-block over, and assembled the induction and fitted ancillary systems. A Weiand Team G single-plane manifold receives a Holley 950 HP carburetor, the MSD Digital 6 Plus is set on kill, and the total timing is a hefty 46 degrees. Bad humor exits quickly through the Jet-Hot-coated Hooker Super Comp headers with 21/8-inch primaries stuffing a 3-inch collector. Borla XR1 stainless steel mufflers are part of the 21/2-inch system. ARP fasteners and K&N products are used throughout. Russell comes out of the hole at 6,500. That means the drivetrain better be like a bullet. Russell and brother Matt narrowed the big Strange Engineering S60 axle 11 inches and hung it with ladder bars and coilover shock absorbers. A Detroit Locker fitted with hairy 5.13:1 gears spins Strange 35-spline axles. A Ram flywheel, pressure plate, and clutch intermediate the durable but friendly gearbox from Passon Performance (passonperformance.com), its reborn A833 four-speed. (Ol' pal Steve Collison loved this kind of car--if he were here today, you'd be needing the cops and a six-pack of Black Russians to pull him off it.) A Strange chromemoly driveshaft disrupts the third member.
BRAKES & WHEELS
Since it's not apt to undertake a road-race regimen anytime soon, the Camaro does just as well with Wilwood discs in front and rebuilt stock drums at the back. Rather than the usual Welds, Russell pepped up the sleek exterior with American Racing TrakStar hoops, 15x4 and 15x12. Mickey Thompson leads the charge with 26x7.50-15 Sportsman Fronts. The 31x16.50-15LT Hoosier Quick Time Pro drive tires are 30.9 inches tall and have a 13.0-inch-wide slick surface.
The new hub-to-hub width for the Strange S60 is 49 inches. The Saunders brothers hung it with Competition Engineering ladder bars and a diagonal link in conjunction with Strange single-adjustable shocks and 250-lb/in QA1 coil springs. While they were welding on the Camaro, the boys put up an eight-point rollcage and lent some torsional stiffness to the whole with subframe connectors. The Saunders rehabbed the front suspension and retained the original subframe but inserted Moroso coils and Comp Engineering adjustable shocks. Antisway bars are not used. Mini-tubs usurp rear seat space. To reduce front-end mass, the Saunders boys used a GM manual steering box as well as the stock spindles. In the end, they wound up with more chassis than they needed, suggesting imminent power satellites.
The mostly pristine body was flogged by the brothers. Matt painted it PPG 9700 Black and PPG 9700 White, basecoat and clearcoat. Matt eschews decals so he applied the crisp SS stripes in paint.
Early street-race vibe here: a skinny Grant walnut woodgrain tiller, an Auto Meter hawker here and there, a big tach leering, and a Hurst Super Shifter with Line-Loc on top. King's Auto Upholstery in Roanoke, Virginia, redid the room in '67 deluxe vinyl, deviating from the norm with white seat strips to accent the exterior. The dashboard escaped abuse, but the wiring got new with a complete Painless assembly, right down to connections for the CD player, amps, and speakers.
HOW IT GOES
The dynamometer didn't tell this story. Russell estimates the yield at 530 hp at 6,500 and 480 lb-ft of torque at 5,400. In the eighth-mile, the RS/SS turns low 7s. In case you're wondering how that tight gear treats the Camaro on the extreme top end, it'll buzz 135 flat out. CHP