Is this $2500 Camaro Z/28 a project car bargain or a total lost cause?

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 3/4 front passenger

We’ve all browsed used car ads on eBay and Craigslist faced a dilemma. So many cars and trucks that have just one or two things wrong and a tempting price attached to them. Is buying one of these projects a bad idea? We’re going to examine one to see what it would take—theoretically, and based on the information provided—to get it back to solid running condition.

The third-generation Chevy Camaro is not the most popular of the pony car lineage, but values have been rising recently. This example from a recent Craigslist ad local to me is a 1986 Camaro Z/28, with some modifications and few issues that prevent it from running properly.

The seller is only asking $2,500 for this red on red F-body, which falls well below even the fair valuation for this car and makes it an appealing fixer-upper. The seller does not list the exact spec of the engine other than the fact that it is a 305 cubic inch motor but it is fair to assume to that this is likely the 165 horsepower variant known as the LG4 since there were very few 1986 models with the higher powered L69 variant of that same V-8.

Gearbox

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 passenger interior
Craigslist
1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

DIY: $200

Right off the bat, the seller notes that the engine is mildly tuned, that the numbers match, and then follows with some of the other known issues. As usual with Craigslist ads, the crunching fifth-gear is the first issue the seller claims isn’t a huge concern because it does not affect driving. It sounds like the synchronizer for fifth gear is damaged which means that the gearbox is not operating as intended.

There are a few ways to approach this repair, and since the Camaro is equipped with the very common T5 five-speed transmission, none of them are extremely expensive. The fifth gear in this T5 uses a brass synchronizer and it’s common for the sleeve to get damaged, which would cause the crunch or grind. A free fix to try and get the gearbox operational again is to remove the tailshaft and to flip the sleeve around so that the good side is used. This of course won’t work in all cases and is a temporary solution even if it does.

The best way to repair the crunch issue for good is to rebuild the transmission, plus there are likely other components that are worn if a synchro is showing issues. An overhaul kit for this gearbox runs around $200 and although the rebuild is less complex than some modern transmission it can still be a laborious process for a beginner. The other option is drop the gearbox out and take it to a professional, where in most cases labor will run $300 to $500 to do the rebuild.

Carburetor

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 engine
Craigslist
1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

DIY: $50

Once our gearbox is fixed up we can move on to the next item on the list. The seller states that the car needs carburetor work and offers the recommendation to install larger jets in the primaries. This problem is likely related to the age and condition of the carburetor along with the modifications listed further down in the listing—a 268HE camshaft from Comp Cams, rebuilt and ported heads, along with a set of Hooker headers.

There are a few ways to approach the carburetor issues. We’ll start with the assumption that the carb needs some work due to its age and that it likely requires a rebuild. If we’re rebuilding the carb ourselves it will likely cost around $50 for the rebuild kit along with any supplies we might need. Buying an already rebuilt carburetor would run around $300. Once we have a properly functioning carburetor we’ll need to get into some tuning. One important thing to note on these carbs is that they are electronic or “feedback” carbs so there is some computer control which reacts to changes in air/fuel mixture and just cranking on idle mixture screws will probably not produce a good result.

Our main focus in tuning this car is probably not far from what the seller recommends. A good start might be to grab some larger primary jets from a carb that sits on top of a 350 and maybe to do some modifications to the air valves. Once those changes are made we might slightly adjust idle mixture screws at that point to finish everything off. In addition to the carburetor changes we might also consider doing chip work on the ECU to adjust timing to get the most performance out of our cam and better-breathing heads. Our other option is to throw an aftermarket carburetor on the motor, which might make things easier to tune, but would require disabling the ECU portion of the system. That option is likely not necessary with the mild modifications on this engine.

Exhaust Leak

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 3/4 rear passenger
Craigslist
1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

DIY: $30

Headers are a nice upgrade for these motors, but in this case the seller states that there is an exhaust leak at the headers. That type of statement usually points to a leak at the collectors, so it is possible that a gasket change could solve the issue. But there might also be a crack that could require some welding. If the leak is on the flange, which mates to the head, then there could be some warpage there that would require sanding down the flange to make it flat, plus spending about $30 on a new set of gaskets.

Cosmetic Issues

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 interior driver
Craigslist
1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

DIY: $450-$1100

The rest of issues the seller lists are mostly cosmetic: The paint is rough, the dash is cracked, and the driver’s seat is ripped. Based on the pictures, the paint is definitely faded but it does appear to have a nice patina, so driving it as-is could be a good option. The other option is to repaint the car—cost could be anywhere from $500 for a basic single-stage paint job at a budget auto body chain to $6000 for a quality multi-stage paint job that could be presentable at a show.

Fixing the cracked dash is a fairly easy task and can be accomplished in a few different ways. The quick and easy solution is to buy a custom matched overlay for around $150 and adhere it directly over the cracked dash. The other option is to spend closer to $600 and replace the whole cracked dash pad.

The driver’s seat cover has lost some material according to the picture and the first choice is probably to find a local upholstery shop to see if they can replace the side piece that is damaged. If that is not possible then a set of replacement seat covers might be an option and that will run from $300 to $500 depending on the style.

Summary

1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 advertisment screen shot
Craigslist
1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

Total estimated cost of repairs: $730-$1380

The seller closes out the listing on a more positive note, stating that the car has been driven daily and that the plan was to swap a 350 into it. Some previous general maintenance work is also listed: new clutch, center link, and tie rods, which are all signs that this car is a good driver and lowers chances that bigger problems lurk beneath the surface.

Overall, this Z/28 seems like a decent deal at the $2500 price. You could even maybe negotiate down a little due to the issues. Based on the items above, repairs and tuning can be accomplished for as little as a few hundred all the way up to thousands of dollars. The optimal investment in this car is likely in the $1500 range, yielding a well-driving car with some patina on the exterior. Even with that amount of money in it we would still only be at $4000 for a car with decent performance and an iconic nameplate.

In this case: Can we fix it? Yes.