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Low Mileage Beauty

The racer that never was

John Machaqueiro - July 11, 2013 10:00 AM

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Magazines will often print amazing stories of low-mileage collectible muscle cars that have survived their racing days.

Almost as good as the barn find, the lost-and-found dragstrip warrior story ranks right up there in terms of automotive folklore. However, the idea of any motorsports activity as a means to preserve a car may sound like a contradiction.

Racing has never been the best environment for preserving anything in a pristine state. Engines are easily trashed, bodies often cut up, and anything that adds weight is tossed out. You could say that it is actually a miracle that any survived at all.

Most of these stories, the ones that can be traced back that far, usually start when these cars rolled off the dealer’s showroom floor. They were often purchased with, or without, certain options to facilitate their transformation. Some individuals ordered models loaded with all the heavy-duty performance equipment, while some opted for a stripped-down non-performance version.

The latter scenario was the case with Terry Gillis’ 1974 Camaro. Acquired in 2011, it had only 61 miles on the odometer when it was towed to his shop. You might be thinking, 61 miles, maybe a quarter mile at a time? Not so. His car never logged any of those miles at the track. It’s also not what many would consider a rare and desirable muscle car specimen from our automotive past.

Instead of buying a hi-po model stuffed with the biggest engine available, the original owner had other ideas in mind. This Camaro was ordered with GM’s reliable 250 cubic-inch six-cylinder engine mated to a three-speed manual, no radio, sound deadener, or power steering. It had zero options.

According to Gillis, the original owner “fell in love with ’74 Camaros.” He purchased one for his wife. He ended up going back to the same dealer, Moorehead and Sons Chevrolet in New Hope, Pennsylvania, to buy the ’74 you see here. The car was purchased, driven home, and parked in the garage on a Friday. On Saturday, he pulled the inline six, the three-speed, and all the emissions controls out of the car. That following Monday, the pieces were sold back to the dealer. His goal was to build an all-out NHRA class car and those pieces didn’t quite fit into the equation.

The empty engine bay was soon stuffed with a heavily modified L88 that had been previously put together. The engine was assembled and installed, but never fired.

Sometimes, life gets in the way. At one point, the marital bliss went sour and he ended up getting a divorce. As a result, he decided to sell the car. Ads were placed in a number of national publications, but it was never sold. Faced with having to keep the car, he opted to store it. The divorce also forced him to move back into his parents’ house, which actually ended up being a blessing in disguise. As a result, the Camaro never saw a drop of rain and was stored in their heated garage with a dehumidifier.

Eventually, the plans changed, which according to Gillis, is part of the appealing history of this car. The idea of building an NHRA class car soon gave way to something less ambitious and street legal. The L88 was sold in favor of a ZZ3 crate motor. The goal shifted to building something with some civility. The extra ponies for this new combination would come from a Procharger blower. Same as before, everything was assembled and put in place. The issue that ground that combination to a halt was the blower. He realized that it was using the engine oil for lubrication. Not content with that set-up, he tossed it and replaced it with an F1R unit that was self-lubricating. Apparently, that combination didn’t appeal to him either.

On the third go at it, the ZZ3 was replaced with a 383 cubic inch crate engine mated to a Richmond four-speed. The F1R blower was kept, but yet again, everything was put in place and nothing was ever installed, or even bolted down.

The story stood at 37 years, and three engines later, and he never turned the ignition key and fired up the Camaro. Gillis had been aware of the car’s existence at least 25 years ago. As the years passed, his interest in it grew. At one point, the owner lost his storage location. Gillis stepped up and offered to help him with a place to park the car.

“When I saw the car, we had gone to his house to pick it up on a rollback to get it to the shop,” he recalls. As the owner of Terry Gillis Automotive, he had free rein to move things around to accommodate this Camaro. Once it was at the shop, Gillis told the owner, “I want to buy this car.” The reply was, “well, maybe.” As the months went by, the owner would call or come by and see the car. After much persuasion, a deal was cut and Gillis assumed ownership.

When Gillis and business partner Bill Hahn started working on the car, they quickly realized the monumental task facing them. The list of work needed just to fire up the engine was deceptively long. As an example, over the years, all the wiring had been systematically removed. Many of the interior parts were also missing. One thing that Gillis points out that was a blessing was the fact that the original owner was fanatical about keeping everything that was taken from the car. Every part removed over time had been stored in labeled containers.

Even with all the needed pieces, getting everything hooked up was a major task. Also a plus was the fact that the original paint and interior was as fresh as the day it rolled from the dealer’s lot. It took both of them six solid weeks of wrenching to get the car to move under its own power. Gillis also points out that, “Everything that was done was over the top. Every part was top shelf.”

By now, you might be wondering where the 61 miles came from. According to Gillis, the car was actually delivered to a different dealership in Reading, Pennsylvania. From there, it was driven to Moorehead and Sons. The 61 miles were from dealer to dealer and the original owner’s short drive home. When it was picked up, the owner had a fit because they put the miles on the car without telling him.

Currently, the odometer shows 179 miles. The additional miles have been logged by Gillis. He occasionally shows the car at local shows. Ironically, after all these years, the Camaro still hasn’t turned a wheel at a dragstrip … and maybe never will.

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