Reader’s Ride: Joe Haas’ 1981 El Camaro

Being torn between two loves can be frustrating. Joe Haas loved the utilitarian design of Chevrolet’s El Camino, but who can argue against the performance vibe emitted from Chevy’s go-fast Camaro line? What’s a man to do? In Joe’s case, he improvised and created his own El Camaro!

For the princely sum of just a “couple hundred bucks,” Joe purchased the store-more body of a 1981 Chevy El Camino that was the victim of an engine fire. Living in Arizona has some perks. For Joe, that meant the ‘Camino’s body was rust-free. But there was plenty of evidence of the brush fire that flared up under the vehicle’s hood.

1981 El Camino

The El Camino’s body was in great shape, but an under-hood fire turned it into a low-cost starting point for Joe’s El Camaro project.

The original V6 had a carburetor fire which melted down everything under the hood from the center of the firewall to the passenger side, including the wiring harness, and the HVAC unit. Work commenced converting the U.S.-based Ute into the sporty little hybrid that could haul in more ways than one by pulling the V6 and TH200 transmission and scrapping them.

The V6 engine and TH200 transmission went away almost immediately and was replaced with a more performance-based small-block Chevy V8 and TH350 transmission.

Joe had a rebuildable 350 cubic-inch small-block and TH350 transmission. The 350 was rebuilt .030-overbore with flat-top pistons at around 9.5:1 compression. Joe added a Comp Cams High-Energy cam kit, roller-tip rockers, Edelbrock Performer intake, Holley 4175 carb, and an HEI ignition. He rebuilt the transmission with a B&M performance kit including a shift-improver kit and performance clutches.

The original V6 had its fuel line on the driver’s side of the frame and a Chevy small-block’s fuel tubing is on the passenger side. Luckily, Joe was stripping out a 1979 Malibu to build as a stock car and it had a Chevy V8 in it! He removed its fuel line and installed it in the El Camino for a perfect, factory-appearing install.

The small-block V8 made a considerable difference in performance, but the rest of the vehicle still looked like a Malibu with a huge trunk. Joe began rectifying that from the inside, by completely stripping the interior and building it back the way he felt Chevy should have done it from the beginning.

Joe grafted a Camaro front end and a set of side skirts onto the El Camaro's body.

He installed a new dash pad, interior door trim, carpeting, and interior plastic trim; along with a pair of Procar by SCAT sport seats and new seat belts. The original dash came with a clock, so Joe converted it to a factory tach. While everything was out, Joe cleaned up some mild corrosion on all the electrical connectors and the fuse block. He also removed the melted HVAC unit and installed a firewall block-off plate.

The entire interior was cleaned and upgraded as Joe wanted it, including a new set of racing seats, performance shifter, and a tachometer in the dash.

On the outside, Joe infused some of that Camaro goodness by mating a third-gen Camaro nose kit and side-skirting and opted for a ’90s-style rear pan with Corvette tail lights. To clean up the overall view, he removed all the bed trim in the process. He had a local paint shop squirt some GM Silver paint with a Black lower accent color for some tasty contrast. To make this new color-combo pop, Joe ordered a set of American Racing Torque Thrust 15×8 wheels with 225/60-15 tires.

The process of bringing back Joe’s El Camaro has taken a few years. Joe’s wife was “less than enthusiastic’ about the project, but as the work progressed, she came to agree with Joe that the world needs an El Camaro. There are still a few things to do, like finishing up the dash with a new sound system and tidying everything up from all the garage time.

As you can imagine, both Joe and his wife are anxious to hit some shows with their El Camaro. So, if you happen to see what appears to be a third-gen Camaro with massive storage, chances are you’ll find Joe (or his wife) at the wheel. Be sure to wave and let them know that GM certainly should have built an El Camaro!

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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