Just a Second
Everyone knows there's only one '68 Z/28 convertible. Don't they?
Vince Piggins built it for Chevy general manager Pete Estes, fortified it with more power and lots of trick options, from the cross-ram dual four-barrel intake to 4.88:1 gears and four-wheel disc brakes. The green machine recently changed hands to the tune of seven figures, though it's still known as the Estes Camaro, and is celebrated as a fantastical one-of-one creation that many may consider the ultimate first-gen Camaro.
We're here to tell you that the Estes Camaro's new owner has nothing to sweat; his Z/28 doesn't have a long-lost cousin that's been floating in the ether for four decades. As nice as this car is, and as much documentation as owner John Scholz III of Pleasanton, California, has to prove that it is what it is, it quite simply isn't real.
Cue a chorus of readers annoyed that this isn't a real car. We can debate about what a "real" car is all day long. But your author drove it, and spent a blustery March morning shivering on a dry lake bed to get shots as the sun came up over the mountain, so he well knows it exists. Is it a real Marina Blue small-block V-8 RS convertible? Yes, it is. And so the questions arise: If it isn't what it purports to be, beyond a blue Camaro ragtop, then what the heck is it?
It might be easier to get into what it isn't. This Camaro is not a clone; it's different enough from Maynard's that no one can possibly mistake the two. (Yes, we know that color-selection markers mean that a clone can be differently marked and colored than the donor. Hush.) Nor can it be considered a tribute car (the latest euphemism for "clone"), for many of the same reasons.
And it's not really a fraud, because the owner completely owns up to every aspect of what he did to the car. Frankly, he was positively gleeful about pointing out every aspect of his machine.
Besides, the most important number on the whole car--the VIN--has remained unaffected and untouched. It's still a Norwood, Ohio-built 1968 Camaro V-8 convertible, and this is reflected in the 124678N VIN sequence. Thus we parse the difference between what's legal and what's ethical: People swap engines and components all the time to no one's detriment, but changing out VINs is a no-no according to the state.
Beyond that, although we're not lawyers, we're pretty sure that fraud usually involves deception in a financial transaction between two parties, and--despite some very careful and thorough manipulation of the documents that could well be considered proof of this car's proper existence--that hasn't happened. Indeed, Scholz had to sell three of his other Camaros to help pay for the building of this particular beast...after that kind of sacrifice, he's not looking to part with it anytime soon.
So what is it?
The owner prefers the term "counterfeit." "Where there is big money involved," Scholz told us, "whether it's a painting, a rare coin or a muscle car, counterfeiters will always be around. What better way to show what's happening in our hobby than to create a perfect three-dollar bill?"
Indeed, while the concept and execution were Scholz's own, he made regular trips to Steve's Camaros for plenty of NOS, restored and reproduction parts. Everywhere you look, there are plenty of actual, correct, date-coded bits. The 327 block (with the correctly cast-in 3914678 part number and which, while not original, was cast within two weeks of this car's original mill) shared a part number with the 302 for part of 1968. Thus it is saved the ignominy of having its ID ground down and re-stamped, although the V0103MO (V for Flint-built engine, 0103 for month and week, and MO for the code indicating a 290hp 302) suffix has been added.
"I didn't want to resurface the block with a milling machine," he says. "That would have been too obvious." So instead, the block was surfaced with an antique broaching machine ("This doesn't give you the accurate tolerances of today's precision machining," Scholz explains, "but I was after correctness, not precision.") The deck surface was then aged for a year, using alternating coatings of a muriatic acid solution and a saline solution, which allowed it to corrode more quickly.
An original 302 crank (p/n 3941176) has been added, along with 11:1 pistons. On the top end, correct 3917291 heads were installed; they're correct for either a 302 or a 327 with 2.02-inch intake valves. The 1100814 alternator, 1108367 starter, 1111266 distributor, pulleys and brackets have all been date-coded.
And then, of course, there's the correct intake and carburetors: The original (not repro, Scholz swears) intake was a $6,800 flea market piece. We can't believe we just typed "$6,800" and "flea market" while describing an intake manifold, but such is the high demand for these pieces, in the days before the quality re-pops were on the market. The carburetors are correct reproduction 585cfm Holleys from Heartbeat City. ("There are some subtle differences," Scholz says, without telling us exactly what they are.)
A couple of friendly words from Bay Area cross-ram Z coupe owner Mark Schwartz at a show convinced Scholz to ditch the vacuum advance. "I learned that they use the L88/ZL1-type distributor with a dummy vacuum advance can," Scholz told us. "Those are $1,200 on eBay. So I made one. Now it's got pure centrifugal advance."
The same attention to detail is paid all around the car. You could tear the thing apart and, while it would be certainly considered a very fine restoration, there's nothing to give away that there's anything hinky going on. This completeness was something of a challenge: As if finding (and buying, yikes) the right parts alone wasn't enough, Scholz stuck with his car's original build date of the 3rd week of January for his machine. "Building a January car is difficult," he says. "Some of the parts are dated late '67 and are specific to the '68 model year." Yet they're all within the realm of possibility: The dates are randomly scattered throughout October, November and December of 1967.
So sticking your head under the hood will reveal nothing. Poke around elsewhere, and there's no indication either: This performer doesn't wait for the audience to stop gasping, but continues on with its po-faced show.
"I was at a show recently," Scholz says, "I walked away and came back, and there's some guy lying underneath my gas tank. So I kicked his foot to get his attention. He was telling me that you can tell a fake JL8 rear by how the emergency brake cables were set up, and he was wondering where I got mine? I told him that they came with the rear."
Some have questioned the dust shields on the front brakes, because the service package wouldn't have had them, "but the experts are 50/50 on it," Scholz says.
Creating a numbers-matching second of a car that everyone knows there's only one of, with correctly dated components, is one thing, he tells us. "Adding full documentation to this car really opens up a can of worms." Indeed, the paperwork, again happily coughed up by the owner, backs up everything as written on the car. Which some might find troubling.
Scholz started by recreating a window sticker, stirring in both the options the actual car came with and the ones he added on later. The sticker and invoice both came from a real dealership: Gordon Wilson Chevrolet (now Larry H. Miller Chevrolet) in Murray, Utah--the dealership where this particular car was originally delivered to the fictional Robert Tuller. A full complement of options (named and priced on our spec page) on the sticker and three dealer-installed goodies (the "cross/ram intake kit," the camshaft kit, and the four-wheel disc brake kit) adding $1,234.76 on the dealer invoice, made for a $6,210.84 Camaro.
An NOS owners' manual was sourced (copies are now available). The Protect-O-Plate, which reads V0103MO, has the fictitious Tuller's home address and reflects the engine suffix stamped into the block. The book reflects the original 3.73:1 rear, which would have been replaced with the disc-brake axle at the dealership.
The paperwork was sent out to be weathered. "I promised the bigwigs in the Camaro club that I wouldn't disclose who did it," he says in response to our query regarding just who, exactly, is able to age documents with such accuracy that nothing short of carbon-dating will reveal their true age.
So it's in character and can't be shaken. What's done is done, so we might as well enjoy the show. Slip inside, and at first blush it's like any other Camaro convertible you've been in. If you're too tall, the top of the windshield will bisect your vision. The steering wheel could stand to be a couple of degrees higher up, even with the added tilt column. Endless headroom, thanks to the down-folded top. You know the drill.
Turning the key is another matter. It cranks readily enough, but at cold idle, you really don't want to be near it. It twitches, it spits, it cackles. You can hear the valves defiantly slamming shut inside the heads with each revolution of the cam. It smells like the drag strip, the muffler sounds like there's a Maxwell House can with a pachinko ball let loose inside, and it seems very annoyed to have woken up and realized that it's alive to see another day--and doubly so to discover that you roused it from its slumber.
Even once it warms up, and is able to maintain a rolling 950-1,100 rpm idle, it's still muttering under its breath through gritted teeth at you. The Muncie shifter shivers in its moorings--whether it's from engine vibrations or sheer fear remains undetermined.
Getting it to warm up and calm down on a chilly morning is easier said than done out in the open desert. Surely the carb jetting isn't helping: With 61 jets in the primaries, 69s in the secondaries, and a #35 accelerator pump squirter, it's been tuned for sea level. "My friend Henry Olsen did his magic... when I mentioned my Z/28 cross-ram, he said 'Get that thing over here! It's been a while since I tuned one.' " Here at the El Mirage dry lakebed, we're more than half a mile up (2,800 feet); leaner jetting could help things. But it is what it is on this frigid March morning.
Blip the throttle, and you actually get some response, rather than the fat black hole that a small-cube, multi-carb V-8 could easily throw you into. Let up on the clutch--the takeup is nearly all the way up on the pedal's travel--and the pedal seems stiff, but not heavy. Getting aggressive with it off idle, even once it's warmed up, is a good way to stumble and stall. Rather, if you roll into it off idle and don't upset the carbs, you'll be on track to take advantage of all that power once it kicks you in the small of the back at around 2,500 rpm. Do it, and you're hurled clear through redline in less time than it takes to tell.
Once you're moving, though, the 302 demands a strong hand: Tentative shifts will be rewarded with revs caught well outside the power band, quickly scrubbing off your momentum. No, you need to get in there and rev the whee out of it, clear up to 7,000 rpm if you must, and shift hard and fast.
It's easy to do--the clutch and Muncie shifter are nicely weighted so that they work in concert, demanding a forceful approach without threatening to break any hard parts. In third and fourth gears, the Muncie shifter rattled something fierce in its gate--it actually drowned out the engine. They all do that, we know, but this is the kind of behavior that made Hurst a household name in the '60s.
As delightful as all that power was, the bias-ply rubber it rode on was an utter fright: Willing to sniff out and follow every crack in the ancient desert-baked pavement, letting the nose feel deceptively light under even moderate acceleration. Luckily, the power steering was perfectly tuned to be able to catch the chassis' antics while dancing around on its repro bias-ply tires. The slightest of fingertip movements from behind the wheel let you save yourself from what seemed like inevitable disaster; the lack of on-center slop made up for the relative lack of feel. The JL8 disc brakes were strong, progressive, fade-free and nicely dialed in, so anytime the rubber got to be too much (or, more correctly, not enough), you could count on them to bring you back down to earth.
But as much of an experience as it is to drive, this car, more than maybe any other muscle car ever built, doesn't need to count on its actual performance to make your head explode. No, the fact that it exists at all is what's supposed to blow your mind; it messes with your perceptions of what you think you know. If owner Scholz chooses not to show his documentation during a show--oh, who are we kidding, even if he does show off the paperwork--heads are scratched before they explode.
"I built it to prove a point," he says. Okay then, John. What's the point?
"These days, there are a lot of cars going through auctions, and trading hands, that are just fake. That's just unfortunate. So I created the ultimate fake--a car that everyone knows there's only one of. Yet here's a second, completely documented car. It's scary.
"When I first showed this car with the documentation, man, did I get an earful. I'm not trying to fool everyone. I'm just showing everyone that it's being done. It's something everyone knows is happening, but I'm one of the first to say 'Hey, look at what's going on.' These days, you can't really believe what you read anymore. You have to do your homework if you're going to shell out for a big-bucks car, even with documentation.
"People are wondering whether I'm trying to rip someone off, but at the same time I've received plenty of pats on the back for standing in front of a clone instead of hiding behind it."
The original Z/28 convertible has only been in the hands of a few... and I will never be one of those fortunate collectors. So I went out and did what any passionate car builder would do: I built my own, down to every correct detail.
At shows, people will tell me that Chevy never made one of these, but when they see the documentation, or the correctly broached and stamped engine suffix code, they completely believe Chevy made it. I just smile, shake their hand and tell them that they can't always believe what they hear, see or read.
It's simply a counterfeit convertible.
Source: Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines
August, 2008 - Jeff Koch
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