5 January 2017

Joe Oldham gets his Baldwin-Motion SS427 Camaro back after 43 years

It was the coolest car my dad ever owned: a brand new 1969 Baldwin-Motion Chevy Camaro SS427. He custom ordered it through Dave Bean at Baldwin Chevrolet in Baldwin, N.Y., and Joel Rosen and Motion Performance built it. Those Baldwin-Motion muscle cars were among the meanest street cars in the U.S. Think Yenko, but for the New York City area.

Back then my father, Joe Oldham, was a writer for Hi-Performance Cars magazine in New York City as well as an active street racer in Queens, N.Y. And he needed a new automotive fix: something so hot it would blow everything else into the weeds. He was ready to ditch his still-new '68 400-cid 360hp High Output four-speed Pontiac GTO, which he said never ran right and was a huge disappointment.

So in August 1968, he ordered a new '69 Baldwin-Motion SS427 Chevy Camaro, and took delivery just after Thanksgiving.

It was a triple black L78 396-cid 375hp Super Sport with a Turbo 400 three-speed automatic and 4.10 gears. Then Motion Performance took over, converting it to my father’s specifications. The 396 was replaced with a brand new 427/425 L72. A fiberglass hood with open Stinger scoop was added, the suspension was beefed up for a high stance, a shift kit for harder shifts, and huge wheels and tires for a tough look.

The result was so striking that Rosen used it in the company's 1969 advertising. The car appeared in three Motion ads: Outrageous, The Moment of Truth and the famous "Wanted" poster ad. It was even featured on the cover of Motion's '69 product catalog. My father and Marty Schorr, editor of Hi-Performance Cars, took lots of photos and the car also appeared in several magazine features.

Six months later, it was stolen out of my parent’s garage, never to be seen again.

It all happened about a year before I was born, but I’ve heard my dad tell the story about a million times. It goes something like this:

“I saw them the moment I entered the underground garage of our apartment building. They were already at the car, one guy shoving a piece of wire hanger through the driver-side weather stripping, the other looking on. I ran at them screaming, made a flying leap and hit them both simultaneously. At the time, I weighed 280 so I took them both down. I got in two or three good punches to one of their faces. Then the other guy clocked me with something, probably a wrench or tire iron. I went down. They both ran out the open garage door. I got up and chased but they were gone.

For the next two months, I went down to the garage to check on the car about every half hour, armed with a bumper jack.

Then it was gone. One morning in spring, 1969, I came down to the garage and its space was empty. They had returned for it and I wasn't there.”

The car was gone, but it never really disappeared. Due to all the exposure in magazines and books, including his own called Muscle Car Confessional: Confessions of a Muscle Car Test Driver, my dad’s Baldwin-Motion Camaro became famous in the muscle car world (Google "Joe Oldham's Camaro"). Also, in the last 15 years, clones (tribute cars, replicas, call them what you will) have become very popular, so my younger brother Steve and I began talking to our father about building a replica.

And that’s what we did, just as it appeared in that “Wanted” magazine ad in the winter of 1968. Right down to the hose clamps and the license plate.

But before we began we had to find a car. We needed a '69 big-block four-speed 12-bolt car. Even better if it was a black SS. Numbers-matching originality didn't matter since we were going to change everything anyway.

After years of searching, we found this car in Glendale, Ariz. It was a black on black SS clone with good paint, a clean standard interior that featured a tired 454, a newly rebuilt Muncie M21 and a 3.73 geared 12-bolt. It was perfect. We drove it back to my dad’s home in Southern California and began gathering parts. Six months later the Camaro and the parts went to Starlite Rod and Kustom in Torrance, Calif., the shop that would do most of the work, including the engine swap and paint. My dad’s extensive photography of the original car would prove invaluable during the build.

Although an L72 427 rated 425 hp powered the original car, that engine’s high compression wouldn’t get along with California’s 91 octane fuel and we were building a driver, not a trailer queen. So we got a ZZ427 crate motor from Chevrolet Performance Parts complete with aluminum heads, a more pump-gas-friendly 10-to-one compression ratio and hydraulic roller lifters. Plus, it’s rated at 480 hp at 5800 rpm and 490 lb.ft. of torque at 3900 rpm – a nice upgrade over the original L72.

Of course, the ZZ427 had to look like a vintage 1969 L72. So Jack Fields filled the “GM Performance” embossing in the front of each cylinder head and secured a set of screw-in freeze plugs to complete the illusion. He then painted the engine POR-15 Chevy Orange, swapped in a reproduction Winters Foundry aluminum intake manifold from National Parts Depot, a Holley 780 cfm double pumper carb, a points distributor and reproduction date-coded ignition wires from Classic Industries. Vintage chrome valve covers with the correct 1968 Impala "SS427" emblems and a vintage Motion Performance "fly eye" air cleaner, found on eBay, topped it off.

Completing the under hood masquerade is a correct-appearing GM Restoration battery and deep-groove pulleys, which GM installed on all solid-lifter engines back in the day. Hooker Super Competition headers from Summit Racing were painted white just like on the original car and they dump into a reproduction chambered exhaust system, from Classic Industries. Man, is it loud.

The original car used a Mallory Magic Box, which was essentially the first capacitive discharge ignition. It’s so rare and obscure most people have never even heard of it and obtaining a vintage unit proved impossible. After a year of searching I was able to track down a single surviving unit, but its owner made it clear that it was not for sale at any price. Fields, working from photos, fabricated a nonfunctioning cosmetic replica, right down to the correct artwork, and bolted it to the inner fender.

Aside from the crate engine, we did make one concession from total authenticity. My father ordered his original car with a Turbo 400 automatic since it was to be his daily driver in New York City. Not a concern this time around, we went with an M21 four-speed so he could have some fun throwing shifts and getting rubber in all four gears.

We ordered up a fiberglass "Stinger" hood from Summit Racing, exactly like the one Motion Performance installed on his original '69, plus a correct silver grille assembly and a VE3 urethane bumper to replace the chrome unit on the car. Back in the day my dad ordered his Camaro with no spoilers, so the rear spoiler had to go. After filling some decklid holes, everything was painted black to match the rest of the car. Then, because my father has some inexplicable bias against hood pins, hood locks were installed just like the ones he used in 1969. We also installed a vinyl roof.

Lastly, Impala SS427 emblems were added to the sides of the hood scoop and another between the taillights, just as the Motion boys did 45 years ago. And check out that 1969 New York State license plate.

Rear springs with an extra leaf on each side, and new big block front springs with aluminum spacers deliver that hardcore 1969 street racer stance. A real set of Motion SuperBite traction bars could not be located, so Fields welded up an exact duplicate set from bar stock, scaled from photos of the old ones. A set of Coker Pro-Trac bias-ply tires and American Racing Torq-Thrust Original wheels, seven and eight inches wide, front and rear respectively, complete the authentic vintage look.

Inside, the seat covers and console were replaced and fitted a Grant steering wheel identical to the one they made in ‘69. A Sun Retro Super Tach was fixed to the steering column.

After a six month thrash the car was complete and included in the Baldwin-Motion Madness display at the 2013 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in Chicago. The MCACN show doesn’t usually allow replicas to be displayed, but made an exception since it was my father recreating his own car. And there, among a dozen surviving Motion built Corvettes, Camaros and Chevelles, each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, it fit right in. In fact, Joel “Mr. Motion” Rosen, the man that built the original car 45 years before, and Marty Schorr, were so impressed with the build they each signed the Camaro’s visor.

“That was a thrill,” my father says. “Of course I wish I still had the real car, it was the coolest car I ever owned. But this is the next best thing. Every time I drive it, every time I drop the clutch at 6,000 rpm, heck, every time look at it, I’m 26 again.”

12 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Marv and Linda Colorado January 11, 2017 at 19:34
    Can appreciate his pain, I had my 63 impala convertable, 350 4spd stolen twice, didn't get it back the second time. That was in the 70's, now I can't afford one done, still looking for a good candidate to build. Thieves are the scum! right along w/scammers! Glad he got it done!
  • 2
    Bob Davis Sidney , O. January 11, 2017 at 19:38
    A really good story . Made me smile .
  • 3
    Tom Kaye Wilmington, DE January 11, 2017 at 20:15
    I worked one full time electrician apprentice job and one part time evening job at the Post Office to get $1000 for a down pymnt on a new car. That was my Dads rule for me. Five months out of Wilmington High School I received my new '67 Chevelle SS396/375 Borg Warner close cut 4sp w/ 4:10:1 12 bolt in Oct 1966. I now have a beautiful black '55 hrdtp 350/425 BW 4sp w/3:73 12 bolt. But I still dream about my SS396 Chevelle and wish I still owned it. It had so much torque that I brought the wheels up with 9" M&H slicks when I hit 2nd gear. That was 50 yrs ago so I know how Joe feels. Gosh I miss my SS. I still have some great pics of the '67. What a sleeper, what a screamer. Capri Cream w/stock hub covers.
  • 4
    Bill Maloney Wilmette, IL January 12, 2017 at 01:18
    That is a story with a great ending!
  • 5
    Vince Chicago January 12, 2017 at 15:30
    Very cool, I had a "69" too, but a 350. I loved the car and wish I still had it.
  • 6
    Charles Braunstein Melville, New York January 13, 2017 at 05:59
    Brought back great memories. I raced 1969 Camaro (396) with Joel. Had several cars stolen when living in New York .. 1967 427/435 Corvette 1968 Shelby GT500 with 427 Tunnel Port Engine. Great times back then.
  • 7
    Joe Failla Coxsackie, NY January 15, 2017 at 10:40
    It's not a Camaro story but a happy ending. I bought a '67 Mustang 4 speed Coupe on 07/06/67. During a bitter divorce my X sold it. I found it some 13 years later in San Diego and bought it back. I'll send pics when resto is completed.
  • 8
    Joe Failla Coxsackie, NY January 15, 2017 at 10:40
    It's not a Camaro story but a happy ending. I bought a '67 Mustang 4 speed Coupe on 07/06/67. During a bitter divorce my X sold it. I found it some 13 years later in San Diego and bought it back. I'll send pics when resto is completed.
  • 9
    MARK Downtown,OH January 17, 2017 at 16:32
    I had that "WANTED" ad on my wall for years. Wonder if I still have it?
  • 10
    Sharon C NJ April 1, 2017 at 11:11
    Loved reading the story. My brother is looking to get in contact with Joel Rosen. Does anyone know how to contact him? He purchased a car that he believes is one of his originals and wants to get it confirmed. Any help would be appreciated. My email is babywiggles@msn.com
  • 11
    Tim W MO May 12, 2017 at 20:37
    I think I just saw a unicorn! Lord, that car has got to be an animal!! Great story...
  • 12
    John Alonis Pennsylvania May 21, 2017 at 17:01
    Boy i remeber those cars super fast i wish i was 1969 again

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