I’d been in America exactly 5 minutes before it dawned on me I’d finally be able to afford to run a V8. I’d landed after a one way flight to Arizona and walked out the airport to catch my ride to my new home. As I walked out into the oven like heat I saw (heard) a Chevy 350 powered Camaro rumble past.
I’d spent the previous 8 years lusting after a Ford Mustang and had spent countless hours in book shops across the US buying books about Mustangs, eagerly absorbing as much information as I could and telling my friends in the UK how great they were. To this day I’m not sure I don’t have all the english language books that have ever been published on that car. However this Camaro sounded good… even a little better than the 4.6 Fords I’d rented on occasion.
A few months later the realization you cannot live in Phoenix without a car hit me. It was time to find a car, first choice was a Mustang but I’d ‘entertain’ the idea of switching to the bowtie following the aural experience at the airport.
With a budget of $7500 I was struggling to find a clean Mustang. Nearly all had been modified by people who had the means, but not the skill to start tuning cars. After a few weeks of driving and some cases trying to drive cars I switched my allegiance and started looking at Camaros.
I hadn’t been looking long before I struck what I thought was gold…
I’d found a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 with a few tasteful mods. The previous owner’s brother had purchased new and my seller had bought it off him when he stepped up to the SS model. In an effort to keep up with his brother he’d added the SS hood complete with non-functional air intake, the SS rear lip which I always rather liked and the SS chrome wheels. While I despised chrome wheels I rather liked these wheels. There was also a cold air intake and Borla exhaust you could adjust to push more or less fumes through a silencer – naturally I opened it up within minutes of arriving home from my pre-purchase inspection.
I was set, a close friend from Wales was set to be arriving for his first visit to the US that weekend and we planned to hit the road and head to Vegas in the V8. Vegas was fun.
It was raining as we left Nevada and pretty much didn’t stop all the way back to Phoenix. The Camaro had done well, fuel economy was as expected but the noise delivered, the stereo was great, seats not to bad for extended periods of time and it had enough urgency to keep me entertained.
However, as we pulled off the 101 just minutes from home the car cut out a light. I started the engine and it burbled back to life with a new lumpy idle and steady flow of white smoke.
Head Gasket was my immediate guess and was “confirmed” by a local car garage the very next day. This was just the beginning of the most problematic car I’ve ever owned.
The mechanic claimed this wasn’t too big a problem and could be solved using a sealant added to the coolant system, Far from flush I decided to go with this as I had no access to a garage and needed a car for my new job.
Sealed, idling and driving just fine I left the garage and drove to my new job the next day.
On my return journey the car cut out again, producing a cloud of white smoke and arrival much to the amusement of passers by.
The car was towed back to the garage where they decided to replace the head gasket this time “guaranteeing the fix and the car will be fine”… They were also kind enough to point out that I needed a new radiator, something they had missed on the repurchase inspection.
Three days later the car cut out again but this time would not start. It was returned to the garage where they gave me a discount on the work to replace the head gasket for a second time. “Never in my life have I seen this before”, “Were you over-revving the engine” – The latter not even being physically possible with the auto box.
You probably know where I’m going with this but I had the care barely another three days until it happened again. This time was more serious, the engine was taken out, stripped, sent for examination and the garage determined I’d bent or cracked the block. I was beyond questioning my decision and the quality of GM engines. I was fuming and now presented with the option of purchasing a new crate motor to go into my nightmare.
OK, done, last chance, I bought the engine and during the transplant the garage also opted to “do me favor” and replace the AC compressor while the engine was out of the way. I reluctantly handed over my credit card with the thought that I’d be keeping this car for 20 years to make sure I got my money’s worth out of it.
I picked up the car 4 days later. I was full of confidence and thrilled I had a brand new 350 under the hood with a warranty.
I was less than 2 miles from the garage when the car cut out again and would not start. Steam billowing from the exhausts and my throat burning from shouting the c word while punching the steering wheel repeatedly. This time was different. I was now (wrongly) livid with GM believing they had serious manufacturing problems with this engine. I could not bare to see the old mechanics again so this time I towed the car to a chevy dealer.
I walked in, barely able to contain my rage and poured out my story on some poor kid working in the service area.
He took pity on me and said there must be something else wrong and he’d just step out to grab the vin before diving in.
Minutes later he walked back into the garage and claimed to “have an idea”. He explained that I had a California car and cars sold in CA had some additional plumbing in the inlet manifold to help them start on cold mornings. He’d know more the next day.
I drove my rental up to the dealer immediately after work and his suspicions were confirmed. As I entered the room he was standing there smiling gleefully holding a $3.16 rubber hose with a pin prick sized hole in. I experienced overwhelming delight and total rage at the exact same time. I’m not sure I didn’t cry.
I had rebuilt the engine twice and then put a brand new crate motor in for a stupid $3.16 hose.
The car worked perfectly, across all revs, never stalling or generating smoke again until a year or so later.
I’d driven all the way to Oakhurst, CA for a friend’s wedding. As I pulled into town I noticed an increasing burning smell quickly followed by the realization that the dashboard was dead. I quickly pulled over as the car spluttered to a stop. Thankfully there was a rental car office in Oakhurst as well as a Chevy dealer. While finishing my journey in a Kia Rio I received a call that the previous owner (or mechanic) had incorrectly installed an immobilizer which had shorted and started a fire inside the dashboard.
Driving back to AZ in a faultless Kia Rio I decided to sell my Camaro. I flew back to CA the next weekend an picked up the car, gingerly driving it back to AZ and putting it up for sale the next day. Oddly enough a friend from a neighborhood bar who was well aware of all the headaches I’d had (while soothing my soul with many local beers over the previous few years) bought that car from me and it honestly never had another issue for six more years. Eventually the gearbox failed driving into Flagstaff one evening, she replaced it the next day and to my knowledge is still driving the car…
I never got around to going back to the Chevy dealer and buying that kid some beers. I you ever happen to read this article I owe you a twelve pack or two.