Dave Campbell is one of those guys living the life most of us can only dream about. Being the director of one of the country’s best-known and respected speed shops, Performance Parts, he’s managed to make a living out of doing what he loves. He’s got an ultra-supportive family that is as car mad as he is, he’s built a bunch of cool cars — at home, by himself — and, to top it off, he’s just a damn good guy. While his El Camino may give off a sinister vibe, the man behind the wheel is anything but.
An engineer before he took ownership of Performance Parts, Dave’s pretty clued up when it comes to sticking things together and that includes all aspects of building cool cars. Not only is he a gun fabricator, but he’s also not shabby when it comes to building his own engines and transmissions.
It was through Dave’s engine-building connections that, nearly 20 years ago now, an offer came up to buy a proven 750hp big block from an offshore power boat that was, at the time, very well known. The boat itself, along with two of the sister engines, had taken a bit of a plunge, and, as such, the team was looking at going in another direction, so the spare motors were put up for sale.
While Dave had a few cars that the motor could go into, he knew it needed to be treated with respect and put into something that would be able to make the most of what it offered. For this, it needed to be a full-chassis car. Being a long-time ’68 El Camino fan, Dave knew that was the answer he was looking for.
As Dave says when asked about the origins of the car, “One of the biggest problems with the El Caminos is that the back trays get beat up because they are just work-hacks in the US. But the old saying ‘Look and you shall find’ is true. I came across this 1968 396 SS four-speed with an M22 Rock Crusher and straight-cut gears, and with a camper shell on the back of it. It was an Arizona vehicle, had sat for most of its life under a carport, and had only 57,000 miles on the clock. Since the camper had been there the whole time, the tray was mint! It also had the original paint, with only light surface rust on the top of the front guards and roof, so I had to have it!”
Despite the car having a full chassis, Dave knew it wasn’t just a matter of dropping in the motor and it being good to go. Instead, he took his time to do it right and that included building up a tough turbo 400 trans that would be able to handle the torque of the 500-cubic-inch motor. As part of that, the rear suspension saw a lot of work to ensure it could handle the stresses placed upon it, and also in an attempt to get the car to put the power to the ground. This included boxing the rear arms and making the top mounting holes adjustable as well as all the usual stuff you’d expect, such as replacing all the bushes.
The factory-fitted 12-bolt diff was deemed to be up to the task with the addition of a 3.55:1-ratio Posi head and C-clip eliminators. Building a trans to take the abuse was a whole lot harder, but, again, Dave took care of the job himself at home, filling a turbo 400 with the best bits he could get his hands on, including a 3500rpm TCI StreetFighter stall converter and a B&M shift kit.
The great thing is that, since the 500-cube motor was originally built with essentially no expense spared, and was yet to run, it didn’t need to be touched. Instead, Dave could relax in the knowledge that it was built, from the Bow Tie block up, to be not only hugely powerful but also reliable even under extended periods of high-RPM running. It was with these factors in mind that the original builder had filled the 4.44-inch bores with a four-inch-stroke Kryptonite crank, forged JE pistons, and Carrillo rods. All Dave needed to do to make the most of it was fit the MSD ignition system and swap out the injection set-up for a Holley Dominator Stage 4 carb. Atop this, he created a custom air intake set-up that was designed to sit as low as possible, yet is as high flowing as something that would stick out of the bonnet.
As much as Dave tried to fit it all under the hood, though, it just wouldn’t, and that’s when he called upon Aaron Williams to help create a custom scoop. While the plan was always for the car to be raw and tough looking without any bling, when the bodywork was being sorted, Dave wasn’t sure what colour he wanted it to be. The short-term solution was to finish the panel work and give the vehicle a quick coat of matte black. That same quick coat is still on the car today, 18-odd years after it was applied.
Adding to the tough look was the widest set of rubber that could be squeezed under the guards. While the rest of the vehicle remains as it was originally built, Dave’s long since lost count of how many sets of rear tyres it’s been through. The wheels that the 305/50R15 rubber is wrapped around are Convo Pros measuring in at 15x10 inches wide. Up front, 15x8 versions are shod with 265/60R15 that gets replaced far less frequently.
With the relatively wild cam in the car, there was a lack of vacuum to run the brakes off. To get around this, the decision was made to install a Hydroboost System, of which Dave now can’t speak highly enough. With race pads clamping discs up front and stock drums on the rear, the car now pulls up with ease, even after frying the tyres at all sorts of speeds.
It was with this in mind that some serious thought also went into the steering system. The result is a three-turns-lock-to-lock set-up, which helps with getting the front end pointed in the desired direction when the rear end is billowing smoke. Speaking of steering, a Panhard bar was a late addition to the vehicle, as it would often try to steer from the rear.
Making sure that both he and passengers were safe inside, Dave fabricated his own roll cage before having Glen at Spectrum Upholstery create an equally impressive interior. The theory behind the seats was that being such a tough car, surely it must have abs? Well, now it does.
But how does it drive? “After a fair few hours of tuning, I feel it’s now the perfect street machine; it’s fast, has skids on tap, stops on a dime, handles really well, but is still a pussycat if you stay off the loud pedal. My daughter took it to Beach Hop and cruised around in it this year with no problems at all,” says Dave — not that you’d think it was a pussy cat when you hear it fired into life.
After 19 years of ownership, for most of which the car has been on the road looking exactly as is, Dave’s starting to think he’s had enough of it. “I’m not as young as I was,” he laughs, “and it’s really a young person’s car — the way you hear it coming long before you see it, the attention it gets, etc. I’m sure people must think I look too old to be driving it.”
So, does this mean it’ll be up for sale sometime soon? “Maybe.” But then again, considering the way Dave grins every time he jumps in and hits the gas, we’re pretty sure it’s something he’ll find very hard to give up!
Vehicle: 1968 Chevrolet El Camino
Engine: 500ci big block Chev, tall-deck Bow Tie block, four-inch stroke, 4.44-inch bore, Jesel belt drive, Kryptonite crank, JE pistons, Carrillo Rods, ARP fasteners, fluid damper, Stef’s aluminium sump, 12.4:1 compression, Dart 360 heads, Crane roller cam, heavy-duty valve gear, Edelbrock Victor manifold, Holley Dominator Stage 4 carb, Holley fuel pump, MSD distributor, MSD 6AL, Taylor leads, Hooker Headers, twin 3½-inch stainless exhausts, Flowmaster mufflers, alloy radiator, Gilmer drive, Davies Craig electric fans
Driveline: Turbo 400 transmission, TCI StreetFighter 3500rpm stall converter, B&M shift kit, 12-bolt diff, 3.55:1-ratio Positraction head, C-clip eliminators
Suspension: Aftermarket front springs, Koni shocks, King rear springs, adjustable and boxed rear top arms
Brakes: Hydroboost, two-pot front calipers, drum rear
Wheels/Tyres: 15x8-inch and 15x10-inch Center Line Convo Pro rims, 265/60R15 and 305/50R15 BF Goodrich tyres
Exterior: Dulux satin black paint, custom hood scoop
Interior: Full custom re-trim, roll cage, Auto Meter gauges, B&M shifter
Performance: Approx 700hp, 11.5 seconds at 124mph, street trim
Owner: Dave Campbell
Car club: Papakura Rod & Custom Club
Age: Old school
Occupation: Director, Performance Parts
Previously owned cars: Too many to list
Dream car: Just purchased it — brand-new 2013 Grand Sport Corvette
Why the El Camino? I had an opportunity to buy one of the ‘Fleet Lease’ offshore 750hp race-boat motors, so I did. Then I needed something to put it in
Build time: A few years
Length of ownership: More than 19 years in the family
Dave thanks: Aaron Williams for helping with panel and scoop, Glen at Spectrum Upholstery, Tony at Steelie Gears for setting up the Posi
This article originally appeared in NZV8 Issue No. 112. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: