Tony Garratt is your typical middle-aged Kiwi bloke who has owned a few cool cars over the years and was quite happy cruising the North Shore of Auckland in his tidy ’78 Camaro. Weekends would see Tony going to runs and enjoying the hot rod and muscle car scene in New Zealand’s biggest city.
That changed a couple of years ago when Tony noticed that the number of Camaros being imported was increasing — thankfully not to the proportions of the current Mustang epidemic, but enough to make them almost common. This started Tony looking for something new — well, old actually.
Having spent more than just a few miles riding shotgun in his mate Joe Kuizina’s 454–powered ’74 El Camino, Tony thought he might have a look for something similar for himself. El Caminos are not a common sight on the roads of New Zealand, so Tony started browsing Trade Me just in case something showed up. That’s where he spotted the 1968 El Camino you see here.
Admittedly, the car looked a bit different from the way it looks now, but Tony could see its potential: change the wheels, drop it a little to alter the stance, and it could be the perfect cruiser. The El Camino was owned by a bloke called Neil, a Huntly panel beater, and it had been his pride and joy. He had done a full restoration, putting his panel-beating and painting skills to the test, straightening and repairing 40-plus years of wear and tear, before finishing it off in a custom bright green 2K paint.
He built the El Camino as his “keeper” but his situation had changed and it had to go. As the El Camino was priced at about where Tony could afford it, the Camaro soon also went on Trade Me, with Tony hoping for a quick sale before someone else snapped up the El Camino. A month passed with no interest and Tony’s nerves were getting stretched, so being a brave soul he dipped into the wedding fund and bought the El Camino anyway. Fortunately, the Camaro sold soon after!
With the Camaro gone and the El Camino at home, Tony and fiancée Shelley started clocking up the miles. The problem was that they were very slow ones. The 350-cube small block just didn’t have the get up and go Tony was used to; while it was OK, something needed to change to wake it up a bit. A recent ride in another El Camino, a blown ’67, was nagging in the back of Tony’s mind and before long plans for a rebuild or a repower were underway.
Then one fateful night, while surfing the internet looking at engines,Tony made the mistake of spending a bit too much time with his good friend Jack (last name: Daniels). He came across Big Al’s Toybox in the US, and the engine offerings there were just too much for him.
Before he knew it, the wedding fund was totally depleted. Fortunately, he had shown some restraint and settled on a small block and not one of the monster motors Big Al offers, but in his moment of weakness Tony had forgotten not only that the US and Kiwi dollars are not 1:1 but a few other little issues such as freight, GST, and so on — not to mention the big issue of Shelley. Let’s just say that she was far from impressed to find the coffers were empty thanks to a late night internet transaction after too much JD. With phrases like “Well, that’s the last you’ll ever see of that” ringing in his ears, Tony was relieved when he received confirmation that the engine was actually on it way!
As the weeks turned into months, Shelley was getting concerned but eventually, three months after the cash left their account, the crate arrived, and for Tony it was better than Xmas morning as a kid. Tony had had no doubts that the engine would arrive because Big Al has a big reputation in the US. He’s been selling his turnkey motors for 25 years, and has sold more than 10,000 of them in that time. Al has so much confidence in his engines that he offers a one year warranty that starts when the engine is in and the car is ready for the road, not when the engine leaves his shop. That is a good thing when it takes three months to get it here! Tony’s new small block is one of Big Al’s “Little Bad Ass 408” engines. It is as tough a street motor as you could want, rated at over 700hp on pump gas.
The engine is based on a new Dart block, and the parts list reads like a who’s who of the performance world, with every component selected for reliable performance while making plenty of power. Every engine is dynoed before leaving the shop, and Tony was stoked to see that his had exceeded the magic 700hp mark, with 713hp and an equally massive 642ft·lbs of torque at only 4800rpm. This engine was set to wake the El Camino up big time!
Anyone who tries to swap out an asthmatic old engine for something with considerably more power knows it is never just a quick and easy swap. The drivetrain that was happily living behind the 300hp small block (and Tony is being generous here) was never going to cope with the addition of 400 or so more horsepower. Likewise, the cooling system, the fuel system, and the ignition were all going to need replacing to make it work. Poor Shelley! She thought the big expense was ending with the purchase of the engine.
With only three months to Beach Hop, Tony got in touch with the guys at The Workshop in Dairy Flat. Kahu and Anton are passionate about classic cars and muscle cars and quickly found a space in which Tony’s toy could live while they made everything work as it should — and, believe me, there was plenty to do and not much time in which to do it.
Starting from the front, the standard radiator was never going to cut it so an alloy unit was fitted, filling the area in front of the new engine. Added to this monster was a pair of electric fans on a thermal switch, which Kahu also fitted with a manual switch just in case.
With the cooling under control, the boys at The Workshop attacked the fuel system, modifying the tank for the Aeromotive electric fuel pump, regulator, and filters before running all new braided lines from end to-end of the El Camino. The stock ignition was also ditched, with a mix of Mallory and MSD components now lighting the fires.
The transmission needed a tickle-up to cope with the newfound power, and while it was out a new 2500rpm high stall was also fitted. Then Kahu was on to the fiddly stuff, making brackets to mount the power steering pump, alternator, and the like. It’s getting these little things right that really makes or breaks a car but the process eats up the time, which was not good with the Beach Hop deadline rapidly approaching.
Special mention needs to be made of Vince Lettice, who helped solve Tony’s bonnet problems while all this other work was going on. Loath to cut up a genuine cowl induction hood, Tony had imported a standard NOS replacement, which needed to be cut to clear the blower. Vince was up to the task and, as the old adage instructs, measured twice (or more) and only needed one go at cutting the hole, which lined up perfectly first time.
Underneath the El Camino, The Workshop team hooked the new blown motor up to the existing twin 2½-inch exhaust with Flowmaster mufflers — it’s a bit small for the killer small block but sounds OK if a bit quiet, which was kind of the idea, as the plan was to get the car through certification with no noise hassles. It can always be upgraded to a three-inch to free up some horsepower later. The certification was relatively straightforward, as the El Camino had already been a well-set-up car that handled well before the engine swap. Even with the added mass of the new power plant, it passed with no issues.
With the El Camino now road legal again — just a few days before the Beach Hop deadline — Tony started putting a few miles on the new engine by driving around the North Shore. Despite pressure to play it safe and trailer the car down to the hop, Tony was adamant it would be driven there. With just a few local shakedown miles on the clock, Tony and Shelley headed south with one eye on the road and the other on the gauges. Happily, they arrived safely at Beach Hop with the El Camino never missing a beat — nor any gas station between Auckland and Whangamata!
Since that great maiden voyage, Tony and Shelley have been putting plenty of miles on their El Camino, while also trying to replenish their wedding fund! Next stop is the drag strip, where Tony will see what times the “Little Bad Ass 408” can run, and also whether the poor little 10-bolt diff can handle the abuse. I think the wedding could be on hold for a little longer!
- Vehicle: 1968 Chev El Camino
- Engine: 408 SB Chev by Big Al’s Toybox in the USA. Dart SHP block, Eagle 4340 double-keyed stroker crank, H-beam steel rods, SRP 8.5:1 compression pistons, file–fit Speedpro rings, H Series rod and main bearings, Melling high pressure oil pump, Moroso sump, Comp Cams 652/652 roller cam, Comp Cams roller lifters, Comp Cams pushrods, polished aluminium timing cover, polished 64cc aluminium heads, Manley stainless steel valves, Comp Cams springs, chromoly retainers and locks, ARP screw-in 7/16 studs and guide plates, Comp Cams chromoly roller rockers, Jomar stud girdles, polished aluminium valve covers, billet breathers, polished raised-port The Blower Shop intake, The Blower Shop polished 8–71 supercharger, funny car–style belt guard, SFI balancer, polished aluminium water pump, twin Holley 750cfm boost reference blower carbs, polished The Blower Shop dual carb scoop, K&N air filters, MSD and Mallory ignition
- Driveline: TH400 with 2500 stall converter, 10-bolt rear end, LSD head
- Suspension/Brakes: Stock suspension with lowered springs, stock disc front/drum rear
- Wheels/Tyres: Intro Vista 18x8 and 20x10 with 235/40R18 and 275/30R20 Falken 452 tyres
- Performance: Dyno sheet with the engine shows 713hp and 642 ft·lbs of torque at 4800rpm so Tony is looking forward to testing it at the strip!