Losing And Finding His First Car: James Otto’s ’72 Chevelle Malibu

The one that got away. That statement could be aimed at a past girlfriend or a large-mouth Bass. For a car guy, the phrase directly correlates to a particular car. Typically, it is referring to a person’s first car. The memories created in the vehicle that first propelled us into adulthood and helped us create lasting memories – both the kind you can speak of in public, and those you can’t – can deliver mixed emotions. Our friends at Original Parts Group (OPGI) gave a lead about just such a story.

“This ’72 Chevelle is much more than its grandma’s grocery-getter-green patina might imply”, says country music singer/song writer James Otto. “It was my first car. A teenage dream machine that freed me from the doldrums of walking back-and-forth to school and work. It also gave me something to cruise the strip on Friday nights with my buddies.”

72 Chevelle

It’s 1992, and James is ready for Prom.

When my old man first threw me the keys, there were 30,000 original miles showing on the odometer. The paint was still almost perfect and there wasn’t a blemish to be found in the interior. Although the stock 350 engine only had a two-barrel carburetor and was far from a powerhouse, it got reasonably good gas mileage.”

Although the Chevelle's interior will be receiving a few upgrades, James says it will have a mostly stock appearance.

When James graduated high school in ’92, he left his hometown and moved four hours away to Seattle, Washington. “The ’72 Chevelle was rock-solid-reliable daily transportation to-and-from work, and back-and-forth over the mountains to get home,” says James. But, when the winter of ’93 rolled around, he hadn’t found any country bands to join (go figure, it was Seattle in the ‘90s) and was struggling financially.

His dad was serving this country as a drill sergeant in the Army, and James recalls, “he told me I had two choices, I could either join the military or move home and go to college. I was never a great student and knew college wasn’t for me, so I joined the Navy.”

72 Chevelle

A happy James Otto has gotten his car back after roughly 20 years.

That experience gave James the opportunity to see the world and save enough money to eventually help him relocate to Nashville. Unfortunately, his ’72 Chevelle would be able to make the trip. “While I was away, my dad assured me he’d keep the car for me,” said James. “When I returned from overseas with some money in my pocket and some much-needed discipline, I discovered he had sold my ’72 Chevelle to my best friend. Neither one of them told me while I was in the Navy, and I was pretty ticked-off about it.”

72 Chevelle

The body was in overall good shape, but did need some minor repair work.

For roughly twenty years, James tried to reacquire the Chevelle to no avail. As it turns out, his friend was the perfect steward for his beloved ride. “He drove it until 1997, and then parked it in his garage. That’s is where it sat until 2018,” quipped James. “I asked him on multiple occasions if he’d sell it back to me, but he always said he planned to build it one day. As often happens when an enthusiast has a family to care for, the car took a backseat to bills and adult obligations. One day, my friend decided he needed money and offered to sell it back to me for a reasonable price. I couldn’t pass it up.”

72 Chevelle

Underneath that A-body sheetmetal, you’ll find a Roadster Shop chassis and a stout LS3 engine.

James immediately arraigned to have the car hauled to Nashville, and now he finally has the opportunity to build his ’72 Chevelle the way he has always wanted. “Over the years, I’ve imagined building it a dozen different ways,” James affirmed. “I’ve imagined everything from a Pro Street dragstrip monster with a wild paint scheme to a Pro Touring autocross machine with a more refined and modern paintjob.”

In the end, James has decided to upgrade his first car into a modernized hot rod that can terrorize the streets of Nashville, and any autocross track he wants to take on. The project is currently underway, and James has enlisted the capable hands at Hilltoppers Speed Shop in Dickson, Tennessee, to help create his vision. The car is in really good shape with only minimal rust repair needed. But this is a ’72 Chevelle, and since original parts do eventually wear out, finding replacement pieces was a high priority.

'72 Chevelle

The wheels are designed to pay homage to the factory SS wheels.

To replace many of those worn parts, James reached out to OPGI to help bring the body back to life. With the help of the restoration-parts gurus, James will be replacing the white vinyl top, glass, exterior trim, and a lot of small, miscellaneous items like emblems, door handles, and window cranks.

Many of the interior pieces like the dash pad, armrest bases, sunvisors, and seat backs have – as you can imagine – deteriorated and also need replaced. OPGI was also able to supply a new dash bezel that will be filled with a set of Classic Instruments gauges. “The interior will appear stock, but have many, mostly hidden upgrades,” James stated.

“The old 350ci engine might have been acceptable in the early ‘90s, but not anymore. It is being replaced by a 610hp LS3, dressed to look like a traditional small block. The Turbo 350 will also be replaced by a row-your-own-gears T56 Magnum six-speed transmission. The original chassis and worn suspension were definitely in need of upgrading, and James went big in this area. He decided to replace the stock underpinnings with a far-more-capable Roadster Shop Fast Track Chassis. James plans to hit the autocross as often as possible, and this is a solid foundation for that task. Baer six-piston calipers will bring it all to a quick halt.

72 Chevelle

Although a new new tunnel had to be made throughout the car, the factory console is slated to remain. This time- however, a manual shifter will be present.

If you like the wheels, they are one-off Forgeline-designed pieces called the JO3C (James Otto 3-Piece Concave. The design creates a modern interpretation of the original-style Super Sport wheels. They are 18×11 (on all four corners), wrapped in 315/30/18 BFG Rival S tires.

“I will be unveiling the car at SEMA 2019 and taking it to many other car events around the country,” said James. “It will be used at many major autocross events (Goodguys, Cruising the Smokies, etc.) and will be the grand-marshal vehicle for an event that I’ve hosted for the last several years – the FM3 Road Trip.

72 Chevelle

If you want to follow along with James’ Chevelle build, you can check back with us here, and follow along on OPGI’s Instagram Feed and Facebook page.

About the author

Randy Bolig

Randy Bolig has been working on cars and has been involved in the hobby ever since he bought his first car when he was only 14 years old. His passion for performance got him noticed by many locals, and he began helping them modify their vehicles.
Read My Articles

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