Fast Talk with Jeff Smith: With a Little Help from My Friends

In a recent column on  Automotive Archeology I talked about helping my friends Doug Eisberg and Eric Rosendahl unearth a mutual friend’s collection of cars and parts after he passed away. That process is on-going and part of it entailed looking at several cars our friend had collected. One, in particular, caught Doug’s attention.

I first met Doug and Matt in 1979 for a Cruisn’ USA story I was writing for Car Craft Magazine. We all became friends that night in Escondido, California. Matt’s favorite car was a ’70 four-speed Z28 Camaro and not surprisingly, his mother drove a similar ’71 bronze colored Z28 – also with factory four-speed. Clearly, Matt’s mom was cool. Doug was working at Collins Motors owned by Matt’s dad that Matt would eventually come to manage.

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Doug did repairs and maintenance on the bronze ’71 Z28 but eventually the car was sold to one of Matt’s friends who transformed it into an autocross racer, fitted with a Doug Nash five-speed and four-wheel disc brakes. Sometime before 1998, Matt re-acquired the Camaro and was in the process of restoring it when he passed away.

Doug was interested in the Z28 because he used to work on it and I think it was a way for him to maintain a connection with his friend who we lost way too soon. We went to look at the car at the lot in San Diego. The car was inside a closed trailer and it the body and paint appeared to be in great shape. Doug later learned it had been painted only months before.

The short version is Doug bought the car from the family and had it flat-towed to my shop to transition it back to road worthy. Doug gave us three days – I wondered what we were going to do for the other two. Guess who was right on the money? It wasn’t me.

I won’t go through all the small trials. We replaced the starter motor and because the battery was in the trunk, it also needed a dedicated ground cable that once installed spun the engine like it had 24 volts. Other than what we could tell externally, we knew next to nothing about the engine. It appeared to be a 355ci small-block with stock iron heads and a mechanical lifter cam based on the 0.020-inch lash on all the valves.

We quickly learned it had domed pistons when it smashed two projected nose spark plugs that we had installed. So standard Autolite plugs went back in and the engine immediately smoothed out with 16 inches of manifold vacuum.

We were immediately rewarded by the engine quickly overheating. The driver side head measured 270 degrees with my heat gun while the radiator was almost cold. A look under the thermostat told the tale – a pile of corrosion that looked like crystallized Maypo (oatmeal if you’re not old enough). We cleaned and flushed the system and refilled the radiator with some HyperKuhl anti-corrosion additive from my buddy Jay Ross at Applied Chemicals. This stuff- along with No-Rosion is what I’ve been using for years and both work very well using straight filtered water instead of ethylene glycol anti-freeze for here in Southern California.

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Doug had previously installed new tires and stock Rally wheels and it turned out the clutch, trans, and rear axle were in great shape so for the purposes of a functioning vehicle, the Camaro soon was road worthy. We took it on a quickie freeway blast and then Doug left on Sunday after a solid three days of work on the car and made it home without incident.

Looking back, I’m surprised it took that long. We made some mistakes that required back-tracking and we were especially good at taking 90-minute lunches. I know I’m impatient so that’s probably the real reason. This also tells me I think I’m better at this than I really am. When we first tried to start the engine – it backfired with a nice fireball through the carburetor and I was chagrined. I have lately ragged on the TV car reality shows for doing the same thing. My stand was that this is amateurish and made them look bad yet here I had managed the same flaming result. It turned out at least it was partially due to the smashed spark plugs – but I’d also managed to switch a pair of plug wires. A rookie mistake.

Add up all those miscues and it equals a solid 2 ½ days. In retrospect, it was fun working with my friends and I like being able to loan out use of my shop to help. Otherwise it ends up being just storage locker. It makes it more fun when we have access to most of the tools and spare parts we need without having to run to the auto parts store 15 times a day. (This was a small-block Chevy after all – had it been a Mustang or a Mopar would really have just been chasing my tail!).

I get a kick out of making engines run right, so the initial tuning resulted in barely an above-average result. Doug decided to put some miles on it but the engine hesitates right off idle and I suspect a vacuum secondary 750 cfm would be better to tune that the 750 cfm HP style double-pumper that Doug installed because that’s all he had. I need to talk him into coming back so we can dial in the timing, jetting, and idle mixture.

I’ve fired up my old Sun emission tester and my friend Norm Brandeis is coaching me over the phone on how to tune using with CO and CO2 tailpipe emissions. We’ll save those details for a later tech story.

The gratifying part was watching the car leave under its own power and making the 120 mile drive back to Doug’s house with no issues except that it ran a little warm. I think the radiator is full of sediment. The good news is that Doug’s new Z28 is also riding with a cockpit full of positive sentiments – deposited with a little help from his friends.

Bad Poetry Corner

With apologies to Billy Shears

“What would you do, if I tweaked the carb out of tune?

Would you stand up and walk out of on me?

Lend me your ear and I’ll tune you a song.

And I’ll have this engine sing right on key.”

About Jeff Smith

A clue into how long Jeff Smith has been writing technical automotive stories might be his following of second generation readers. Writing continuously for nearly 40 years, his focus with Xceleration covers all things technical. His collection of cars includes a bevy of Chevelles and El Caminos. When not writing about cars, he likes to spend time with his wife Valerye, children Amber and Graham, and granddaughter Celeste.