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Ron Cherry: A ‘69 El Camino that’s ready for snow

Ron Cherry
The third-generation El Camino (1968-1972) used a Chevelle station wagon frame and front group. The dual “power bump” hood came with the SS396 model in 1968 and 1969. Chevy never made an SS427 El Camino.
Photo by Ron Cherry |

Before any Chevrolet enthusiast says that there was never an El Camino four-wheel-drive, remember while Ford never put a 350 CID Chevy engine in their Deuce coupes, there are a lot of Deuces out there with those mills. Modification is a hot rodder’s middle name. The key is whether it was done right, is a sanitary job, or not. And Richard and Jackie Mayer’s ‘69 El Camino is sanitary.

The story begins with Jackie’s first husband, Howard. They owned a gas station in Tahoe that also had a mini wrecking yard of abandoned cars. In 1973, she bought a ‘69 El Camino SS396 in Sacramento. With power steering and brakes, as well as air conditioning and a tilt steering wheel, it was a fun vehicle. However, having a four-wheel-drive when living in Tahoe is not optional. So Howard decided to make the El Camino a four-wheeler. He took the running gear out of a ‘70 Blazer he had in the yard and put it in the El Camino. Although he kept the El Camino frame, he used the Blazer suspension, Turbo 400 auto transmission, transfer case, and front and rear differentials. The modified El Camino had enough ground clearance to handle Tahoe snow and the 390 HP 427 CID engine from a ‘69 Vette that he dropped in it gave it plenty of power. He did the job right and the El Camino did well in the snow. After he and Jackie divorced, Howard kept the El Camino.

Fast forward to 2013. Howard had moved to Joshua Tree, in the Southern California desert. He passed away that year and Jackie went to help with the funeral. There, baking in the hot sun, was the ‘69 El Camino. Howard had blown the trans in 1993 and had simply parked it. Time and weather had not been kind to it. The engine no longer ran. Desert winds had sandblasted the paint, all the windows were no longer transparent and the interior was completely shot.

“The headliner was hanging down and the dash was melted from the heat,” Richard recalled. “It was a mess. If you’d have seen it, you wouldn’t have wanted it.”

When Jackie found that it was still registered in her name, she discussed it with Richard.

“When she told me about the 427 engine, I wanted it,” he said. So he arranged to have it hauled up to Grass Valley.

To say it was a project car would be an understatement.

“Both the quarter panels and the front fenders as well as the tailgate were too rusted to fix,” Richard said. “I had to replace them.”

Darrell Lenox from Lenox Mufflers helped him weld in the quarter panels, as well as the mufflers. After some serious body work, Richard had it repainted in PPG Black, which says something about the quality of the body work. All the chrome had suffered too much from the desert winds for repair and Richard replaced all of it as well as the pitted glass. Inside, he installed a completely new interior kit, adding an AM/FM/CD for modern sounds.

Richard had the big-block Chevy engine gone through, basically keeping it stock except for a hotter cam, and Mel’s Transmission rebuilt the auto trans. B & F Auto Air swapped out the factory A/C for a modern Vintage unit. Since it had drum brakes all around and did not stop well, Richard installed discs in front. To help getting in and out of the El Camino, he put on nerf bars, tubular bars that mount just below both doors. After a lot of searching for wheels that would fit the 6-lug hubs, he located Flexx Offroad wheels that would and they looked great. After about a year of hard work and with a lot of help from friend Don Cubic, the El Camino was again roadworthy.

Since the El Camino was finished, Richard and Jackie have mainly driven around town and to shows in NorCal. It has often been seen at Cars and Coffee, which occurs every Saturday morning from 8 ‘til 10 in the K-Mart parking lot off McKnight Way in Grass Valley. Richard said that Jackie does drive it, but “not too much.” And both of them keep it on-road rather than off.

“I don’t want to mess up the paint job,” he said. “Too much time and money in it. One off-road trip could take it out.”

Although Grass Valley does not see a lot of snow, especially in the last few years, Richard and Jackie are ready. They have an ultra-rare ‘69 SS427 El Camino four-wheel-drive that survived the deep snows of Lake Tahoe and will have no problem around here. Perhaps if Chevrolet had built such an option for their El Caminos, they would still be made today.

Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His latest is a Celtic saga, Three Legs of the Cauldron. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.

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