It had to be done. Our ’69 El Camino wouldn’t do a burnout, yet it smoked worse than a blue hair on a heater at the penny slots. That ain’t right. It needed a new engine. By our warped logic, driving 500 miles from Los Angeles to Sparks, Nevada, to do the swap in Summit Racing’s parking-lot instead of doing the job at home made perfect sense. Back home, we would likely waste time by making 10 or more trips to the parts store for junk we didn’t have. Summit Racing had the new engine and everything else we needed, so technically we’d just make one long trip to the parts store. Mankind has never schemed a plan so perfectly efficient. And then it snowed.
The Elco has been in Finnegan’s family since Woodstock. His wife, Jessa, inherited it from her father, who inherited it from her grandfather, who bought it brand new. It’s unmolested, straight, extremely worn out, and until now, Jessa had never driven it. It’s been repainted and reupholstered a couple times during the last four decades but otherwise left stock. We decided it would be quicker to replace the two-barrel 350 with a monster in a box than to rebuild it. Oh, the small-block had a dead hole, too.
The cheapo displacement-on-demand system was the result of the No. 1 cylinder’s intake rocker arm stud breaking in half, which we discovered right before leaving town. No telling how long it had been like that, but we were sure the car was driven for a year or more in that condition before it was parked for good and the keys tossed to the Finnegans. We reasoned that if it ran that long without dying, we should be able to motor it all the way to Nevada without fixing the broken stud in the cast-iron head. Call us lazy, but we really didn’t have time to invest in the wheezy, smoking V8 when a 420hp 383 stroker was waiting to be dropped between the rails. We had tunnel vision.
Pre-trip prep included patching rust holes in the floors created by outside storage, occasional rainstorms, and a lack of weather stripping. We also restored most of the interior with parts from YearOne and Original Parts Group. OPG provided the correct dark-blue dashpad and door panels. YearOne offered new door and window seals and a slick, plastic prep-and-paint system that worked wonders on the remaining aftermarket panels that we could only source in black. The last mod was to replace the wasted factory exhaust with Flowmaster American Thunder 21⁄2-inch pipes so we wouldn’t choke on the fumes emanating from the ventilated, factory Y-pipe.
We hit the road with our video crew chasing us in a minivan, filming the action for another episode of Roadkill, our YouTube show. Forty miles into the trip, the front end of the van was covered in motor oil coming from the Elco’s exhaust. Soon after, Freiburger was covered in vomit because he was dog-sitting the laziest pit bull on Earth, who was carsick and riding in the middle of the bench seat. Miraculously, with a bed full of tools and seven functioning cylinders, the Elco got 17 mpg, and somehow we didn’t get pulled over between California and Nevada.
The genius of the El Camino is that you can literally pack the bed with everything you need to fix it. We set up camp in the corner of Summit’s parking lot with a toolbox, a folding table, and a collapsible engine hoist we brought along. Right after we yanked the old motor out, the skies darkened and snow fell off and on for the rest of the day as we shivered and wrenched. We ended day one at about 1 a.m. the next day, half-frozen but with the new engine in place. Day two was full of surprises.
If you’ve never been to a Summit Racing distribution center, you have to visit at least once. There are three epic facilities in the States (Tallmadge, Ohio; McDonough, Georgia; and Sparks, Nevada). Beyond the six-figure square footage of the warehouse, each store has a massive showroom staffed by gearheads who actually have a clue as to what they are talking about. You’d think that swapping an old small-block for a new one would be simple, but it wasn’t. We needed to adapt the factory throttle and transmission kickdown cables from the stock two-barrel carb to the Edelbrock 750 that came on the new engine. No problem. The staff knew exactly where to find the parts in Summit’s massive database. The new engine needed a 400 balancer and an externally balanced flexplate, which required a different starter than our old junk. We walked right back in the store and handled it. Our new HEI distributor meant our new/old plug wires wouldn’t fit, either. Easy. We found hose clamps, brackets, flexplate bolts, thread sealant, engine mounts, tools, and everything else we needed, in stock. There literally wasn’t anything we needed to swap the old engine for the new engine that Summit didn’t have.
Filming the fun slowed us down. Rounded-off bellhousing bolts, accessories that didn’t quite line up with the new engine, and the snow all stole time, too, but didn’t put the brakes on the swap. In the end, it took 19 hours of legit wrenching to finish the job. We took scenic Highway 395 to and from Sparks and had another memorable road trip by leaving our comfort zone. The Elco actually smokes the tires (OK, only the right one) now and sounds like a real muscle car instead of a sewing machine. We no longer have to worry about treehuggers hucking hemp dolls at us when we drive it. Problem solved and mission accomplished.
Original Parts Group; Seal Beach, CA; 800/243-8355; OPGI.com
Summit Racing; Sparks, NV; 800/230-3030; SummitRacing.com
YearOne; Braselton, GA; 800/Year-One; YearOne.com