Gary Lambert Memorial  5       10/14/06

Building my Camaro

A short time later, the year was 1976 and I was about 20 years old when I finally bought my first car. It was a 1971 Camaro SS, which had a big block Chevy in it, (402 cubic inch) a four-speed transmission (M21 model) and a ten-bolt rear-end (which shouldn’t have been in there). The car had some extreme body damage handed down by its previous owner but that wasn’t a big deal because we were going to fix all that. I drove the car for about a month and then the clutch went out. This was the time I stuck it in the garage and started working on it for the next year.

Gary showed me how to take my brand new LT-1 engine apart, do a few tricks to it and then put it back together. We also took apart the trans and put a few new parts in it too. I ended up putting a 12-bolt rear end in it (the previous owner broke the original 12-bolt) with 3:73 gears along with a posi unit and Henry’s axles. Henry’s axles were made out of good steel, (not cast steel like factory cars had) which Gary had told me about. I had the rear end narrowed a few inches, which allowed me to get some larger tires under the fenders. 



When it came time to paint the car, Gary came over to teach me how to spray it. The painting process was going to be a hand rubbed lacquer paint job (like on his 55 Chevy) which is a lot of work, but sure does look good when your finished. Back in the 70’s, painting a car didn’t break your wallet like it does today as it only cost me about 150 dollars total and that covered sandpaper, primer, color and clear. We were going to paint the car in my garage and to keep some of the dust down; we wet the floor with water first (better than nothing). Once we had the garage all prepped, we were ready to go. Now to give you a little history about paint back then, lacquer wasn’t a two-part mix like most paints are today. It was just thinned a little with lacquer thinner and then you started painting. To make sure you didn’t inhale any paint fumes, we used those small white masks with a single rubber band that didn’t fit very well. After a few hours of spraying, we finished applying the color and clear and were ready to take a better look at our handy work.

I opened up the big door so we could see the car a little better but we were so drunk on lacquer thinner and paint fumes that we could barely see it. We were laughing at anything and everything once we were outside and didn’t ever care about how the paint came out. The next day we unmasked everything and had our first real look at how it came out, which was fine. I guess those cheap masks didn’t work very well for spraying paint but they sure did work good for letting in all those fumes and getting wasted.

Bang’n gears

With my new/first car on the road, I was on cloud nine. It was fast, looked good, handled well and was safe. For the first few months, I was still getting use to it and tweaking things along the way. One of the things that I wanted to learn was how to shift like Gary did. He would mat the throttle (hold it to the floor), leave it there and then shift, which was called “speed shifting”. Now if you missed a gear doing this, the engine RPM would end up in the stratosphere so you better do it right if you wanted to keep all the connecting rods in the block. I would practice this at a low RPM in case I wouldn’t do it right because it was more forgiving on the engine. I got better at it as time went but you had to be quick on that clutch or everyone knew you missed a shift.

One day Gary and I went out of town to buy some car parts (our favorite thing to do). On our way home, we would take the side streets till we were at the end of town and then get on the freeway. The town was Redlands and when you were heading east, the freeway onramp was two lanes with a stoplight. It was like a legal drag strip, and once the light turned green, hold on because it was time to let it rip. Once the tires stopped spinning in first gear, it was time to grab second and when I did, I made the perfect speed shift. Yeehaa...that was the good news, but the bad news was that the car quit running.

This all happened right at dusk and there was little or no light now. And do you think I had any tools with me? Or a flashlight? Nope!! Why should I, the car was brand new…. right? While we sat there on the shoulder of the road, Gary started talking out load and went through the whole thing again. It sounded like the engine came apart to me (doesn’t it always when it makes some terrible noise). He said it sounded like it was cross firing. But how could that be? I’ve never heard that kind of noise before so I had no clue.

I got out, popped the hood and took a look but everything seemed to be fine. By fine I mean, no oil on the ground or any parts of any kind. Gary told me to remove the air cleaner so we could get to the distributor. Cross firing, distributor…what the hell!!  



With no tools at our disposal, Gary happened to have a Boy Scout knife in his pocket (like a Swiss Army knife of today). The guys use to tease him about that knife because not to many people carried them. He used the screwdriver tip on the knife and removed the distributor cap. He felt around with his hands (remember it was dark by now) only to find that the rotor was broken. The brass contact on the top of the rotor has molded plastic on both sides of it and one of the pieces of plastic broke off. How did that happen? Well here's the deal.

When I put the car together I mounted the coil on the firewall, which was close to the distributor. When I grabbed second gear, the motor torqued over enough (moved) and hit the coil, which lifted the distributor cap enough to get in the way of the spinning rotor. The rotor ended up hitting the inside of the distributor cap breaking the piece of plastic causing the engine to fire at all the wrong times, hence the term “cross fire”.

Gary straightened the brass contact the best he could and then put the cap back on. The engine fired right up and we were back in business. I couldn’t believe that he diagnosed and fixed my car that night with only a pocketknife. That was truly amazing. 

Playing in the garage

It seems like a garage is one place that you can escape to. As soon as you step inside them, the whole world is just different. It might be the different smells, the different look or the fact that competition starts here. A lot of guys build engines in them, to which they find out how fast they can go. Some guys might make projects out of wood that might be a little better than there neighbors project. Whatever it might be, testosterone reeks from most of them and Gary’s garage had plenty of it too.

One day I went over to Gary’s house and he had a new ping-pong table. Now a lot of people don’t know this but Gary was a very good ping pong player. When guys would come over and see his table sitting there, they wanted to get in on some action too.

I remember playing for hours over there and also playing a bunch of different guys over the years. It got so bad that Gary would roll his racecar outside in the rain so we could play. Now that’s a true sports nut right there.

One time I was playing this guy and the game was very close. I ended up winning him and he told Gary and I that the only reason he lost, was because he didn’t have his ping-pong shoes on. Now I’ve heard a lot of excuses in my time, but this one was pretty good. That's all Gary needed because he would raze this guy every chance he'd get for years to come.

Test driving my car

The years seem to just fly by and while raising my kids, I didn’t drive my Camaro very much. In 1999, Gary called me one day to ask if I wanted to sell my Camaro to which I asked, who wants to buy it? He said that he wanted it. I couldn’t believe it. He said that he hasn’t had a hot rod for a few years and that he wanted one again (you know…the itch).

Gary wanted to test drive it and I told him that I needed to put a battery in it first (you know hot rods, batteries don’t last very long if you don’t drive them). Once that was taken care of, we were ready to go for a drive. As we left my house, he said that the car ran great but he also told me something else. Gary said,  “I never told you this before but you did a great job when you built your car”. Right then and there, the whole world was right to me. Those words that Gary told me meant so much that it’s hard to put them into words. It had been over 20 years since I finished that car but that didn’t matter because “God” told me I did a great job. 

I ended up selling my car to him that day and I couldn’t think of a better person to sell it than Gary. He enjoyed the car for a year and a half till he sold it to Larry, (a guy he went to school with). Larry still owns the car today and that’s the guy my wife and I go to car shows with. I guess Gary knew that whomever he sold the car to, would have to be a person that would take care of it, and Larry was the right choice. Thanks go out to both Gary and Larry!

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