America is a country of doers. We have the unused gym memberships and still-wrapped-in-plastic college textbooks to prove it. As a society that demands using things for their intended purpose, it’s no wonder high-end street rods have a way of bunching up people’s undergarments. Some would say that spending a decade’s worth of mortgage payments on a car that’s never actually used as transportation is just nuts. Naturally, those quick to judge how another man spends his hard-earned money must be chronic practitioners of hitting the treadmill and driving their project cars. Hypocrisy aside, posers have always comprised at least a small percentage of every branch of the enthusiast population, whether it’s street rodding, Pro Street, or Pro Touring. As a hobby that’s in a perpetual state of flux, recent years have seen a convergence of two distinctly different build styles with the street rodification of muscle cars. Nathan Powell’s big-block–powered ’69 Camaro—built by Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop in Gadsden, Alabama—is one of the latest examples. Although it is yet another ’69 Camaro, you’ll probably end up liking the car more than you care to admit.
For Nathan, his car-building proclivities have come in a series of phases. As a kid, it started with Tri-Five Chevys and bubbletop Impalas before his tastes shifted to muscle cars. During that time, he owned everything from ’69 Camaro SS 350s to Chevelles, to a variety of Chevy IIs. “When I was 13, I pulled the straight-six out of my ’63 Nova and dropped in a small-block. I caught the muscle car bug after that and was always on the lookout for Camaros and Chevelles,” he says. For a short while, Nathan defected to the street rod camp, but eventually came to his senses and got back in the muscle car game. “I was at a muscle car show 15 years ago and saw some cool street rods so I thought I’d give them a try. I had Alan Johnson build me several ’32 and ’33 Fords, but after a while, street rods just weren’t as interesting to me anymore. I always wanted to build a ’69 Camaro like the one I had in my younger days. It’s like going back to your first love.”
JHRS’ custom bumpers look like an integral part of the Camaro’s design rather than afterth
In a world where the bar is set so high, street rodders expect perfection and nothing less. As such, Nathan’s goal was simple. “I called Alan Johnson and told him that I wanted to build the baddest ’69 Camaro that had ever been built that could actually be driven on the street. It had to have a big-block with at least 700 hp, a six-speed manual trans, and modern suspension and brakes,” he says. A legend within the street rod community, Johnson was more than up to the challenge. Whenever Johnson crosses over into the muscle car arena, the results are truly spectacular. Who can forget the ’71 G-Force ’Cuda, a JHRS creation that rocked the Pro Touring community with its 870hp Hemi, aluminum C5 Corvette suspension, and custom carbon-fiber body panels? Finding the builder was the easy part, however, the path to locating the ideal Camaro was littered with jalopies and cars that had been modified the wrong way. Finally, he found a stock RS/SS four-speed car in South Carolina that fit his needs perfectly. “The car was in outstanding condition. All it needed was a small patch panel on the left quarter-panel.”
It’s hard to tell with the engine in place, but the firewall has been stamped with the sam
The mint body enabled Johnson to focus all his efforts into executing his creative vision for the build. “Nathan made it very clear that he didn’t want any froufrou stuff on the car. He wanted something very subtle that you’d have to look over several times before noticing the small details while retaining the essence of a ’69 Camaro,” Johnson says. “Although Nathan has many street rods, he’s not into polish or chrome. This Camaro is all business, and that’s how the car is supposed to look.”
As intended, the Camaro doesn’t look much different from the typical high-end Pro Touring build at first glance. The car boasts big wheels, a mean stance, and nice paint, but so do lots of other Camaros. It’s not until walking around the car a second or third time that all the small things start catching your attention. Take the bumpers, for instance; they just blend so much more seamlessly into the contours of the body panels than the stockers, complementing the car’s lines instead of clashing with them. The front and rear bumpers aren’t merely reshaped stock pieces, but rather completely new units that were fabricated from scratch. “The bumpers are recessed into the body, and their ends tuck up tightly into the fenders and quarters. They fit like enduro bumpers,” Johnson says. In addition to the custom bumpers, JHRS built a one-off rear roll pan and relocated the fuel filler to in between the taillights.
Underhood, the subdued elegance persists, with shades of silver, gray, and black highlighting a distinctly mechanical theme. Powering the Camaro is a 540 big-block featuring a Dart block, Callies crank and rods, and Wiseco 10.5:1 pistons. Matched with Dart Pro 1 aluminum cylinder heads, an Edelbrock intake manifold, and a COMP solid-roller cam, the Rat puts out 712 hp and 693 lb-ft of torque through a Tremec T56 six-speed stick. That’s some mighty impressive hardware, indeed, but in true street rod fashion, it takes a back seat to the stunning craftsmanship surrounding it. Johnson transforms even the most insignificant and utilitarian of parts into works of art. The air cleaner is a custom-formed, dual-snorkel piece that draws air from beneath the cowl like a ’60s road race machine. The valve covers, oil cooler bracket, and upper radiator mount are all custom CNC-machined with a recurring triangle theme tying them all together. Even the valve cover breather and hood hinges are custom machined items.
Like any proper Pro Touring machine, Nathan’s Camaro packs all the right stuff in the suspension department. Up front is a hydroformed Detroit Speed and Engineering front subframe assembly, control arms, spindles, and sway bar. In the rear, the stock leaf springs have been dumped in favor of a DSE four-link setup. Bilstein shocks and Hyperco springs are situated at each corner, and six-piston Brembos and four-piston Wilwoods clamp the front and rear rotors, respectively. Getting it all to stick are Forgeline wheels measuring 19x10 in front and 20x12 in the rear wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport rubber. For now, Nathan plans on logging as many street miles as possible before taking the Camaro out for a road course thrashing.
Like the exterior, Nathan wanted to keep the feel of a stock ’69 Camaro, but enhance it wi
As a man who has applied the street rod formula of fastidious attention to detail to muscle cars, Johnson is extremely well versed in what that arduous process entails. He’s keen to point out the little things that the average enthusiast may never notice. “The hardest thing about a build of this caliber is making everything fit properly, like the grille inserts, bumpers, windows, and moldings. We had to go through six different rear windshields on this Camaro in order to get one that fit right, so the factory tolerances definitely leave a lot to be desired,” he says. “In the ’30s, cars were merely transportation and people didn’t care about body gaps. After WWII, people were just excited to be driving cars again so the gaps were even worse. For a while, people just wanted to restore their muscle cars, but now people are willing to spend some money on them and go all out. We keep all the body gaps on our cars at less than 1⁄16 inch, and it’s the little things like this that are taking muscle cars to the next level. Things have definitely changed, and you’re not going to build a street rod that drives as nicely as a muscle car.”
Nathan intends to use his Camaro for more than just cruising and showing, but even if he weren’t, it’s still a damn impressive piece of work. Considering hot rodders as a whole are all fighting the good fight against hybrids and ethanol-diluted gasoline together, can’t we all just get along? Ultimately, regardless of how they’re used, everyone wants to make their cars as cool as possible, and that’s something at which Johnson and the JHRS team are second to none.
By the Numbers
1969 Chevy Camaro
Builder: Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop
Owner: Nathan Powell • Chelsea, AL
Type: Chevy 540ci big-block
Block: Dart Big M bored to 4.500 inches
Oiling: Melling pump, Stef’s road race pan
Rotating assembly: Callies 4.250-inch forged steel crank and rods, Wiseco 10.5:1 pistons
Cylinder heads: Dart Pro 1 aluminum castings
Camshaft: COMP Cams solid-roller
Induction: Edelbrock RPM Air-Gap intake manifold, Holley 850-cfm carburetor
Fuel system: Fuel Safe fuel cell; Holley mechanical pump and regulator
Ignition: MSD billet distributor, coil, plug wires, and 6AL box
Exhaust: custom by Johnson’s 21⁄8-inch long-tube headers and X-pipe, dual 3.5-inch inlet/outlet Flowmaster muffler
Cooling: Walker radiator; Stewart water pump, custom electric fan
Output: 712 hp at 6,000 rpm and 693 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm
Built by: Automotive Specialists Racing Engines
Transmission: Tremec T56 six-speed, Lakewood bellhousing, Tilton triple-disc clutch and pressure plate
Rear axle: Currie 9-inch rearend with 3.70:1 gears and Posi differential
Front suspension: Detroit Speed and Engineering front subframe assembly, spindles, control arms, and sway bar; Hyperco springs and Bilstein shocks
Rear suspension: Detroit Speed and Engineering four-link, coilovers, subframe connectors, and sway bar; Hyperco springs and Bilstein shocks
Brakes: Brembo 14-inch rotors and six-piston calipers, front; Wilwood 13-inch rotors and four-piston calipers, rear
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Forgeline 19x10, front; 20x12, rear
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 295/30R19, front; 335/35R20, rear
The door panels were custom-built, but are now available for purchase through JHRS. They b
Since the Camaro will be raced on the road course, JHRS built a custom 12-point rollcage.
Since the Camaro will be raced on the road course, JHRS built a custom 12-point rollcage.