Other than a lot of really bad haircuts, it’s hard to imagine that the IROC-Z Camaro inspired much of anything. After all, it’s just a gussied up third-gen F-body for cryin’ out loud, right? In truth, although the demographic of the owners these cars appealed to—particularly on the second- and third-hand market—forever ruined their reputation, the machines themselves were actually ahead of their time. Even the elitist, import-humping mainstream car rags of the day loved their balance of acceleration, braking, handling, and affordability. As someone who had lived through both the glory days of the ’60s and the smog-choked doldrums of the late ’70s, Rocky Stephens openly admits to digging those old IROC Camaros. He dreamed of a day when he could integrate the modern technology and driveability of a late-model into a muscle car, and 20 years later, the aftermarket enabled turning his fantasy into a reality. Rocky’s reward for waiting things out has culminated in a homebuilt, LS1-powered ’65 Olds Cutlass that tears up the dragstrip and autocross in addition to knocking down 23 mpg. Apparently, inspiration can indeed come from odd places.

For a kid destined to catch the hot rodding bug, Rocky’s parents couldn’t have timed things any better. Born in 1960, Rocky entered his formative childhood years just as the muscle car wars started heating up. His first car was a ’55 Chevy 210, which was superseded by a ’70 Charger, a ’66 Chevelle SS, a ’73 Camaro Z28, and a ’55 Bel Air. Then the late ’70s hit, and Rocky couldn’t bear to own any of the hideous, underpowered performance machines of the day. That all changed in 1985, when he picked up a brand-new IROC-Z Camaro. “After my experience driving the Camaro—which I feel is the first American performance car other than the C4 Corvette that would do more than just go fast in a straight line—I dreamed of owning a ’60s muscle car that would start, stop, drive, and handle like the IROC-Z,” he says. “I wanted a muscle car with fuel injection, overdrive, and modern suspension and tires. I remember telling my friends how cool it would be to merge ’60s styling with modern technology, and I wondered why no one was making the parts to build cars like that. Nearly 20 years later, the aftermarket had made it possible, so it was time to make my dreams come true.”

The first order of business was finding a suitable project car, and in 1998, Rocky picked up a ’65 Cutlass for $3,500. “I knew nothing about the car other than the fact that it reminded me of the ’66 Chevelle I had in high school. It was a regular F-85 car with a 330ci small-block, A/C, and power steering and brakes,” he says. For the first five years of ownership, Rocky used the Cutlass as a daily driver while he restored it back to original condition. After fuel prices spiked, the Olds sat in storage until 2007 when Rocky started building the Pro Touring machine he had always envisioned. “At car shows, you rarely see other ’64 or ’65 F-85s, which is a good thing, but unlike with Chevelles, finding reproduction parts is very difficult. After some research, I realized that my car had a front clip off of a ’64 Cutlass. I considered putting the correct clip on it, but decided to leave it alone. To me, the ’64 front end looks more muscular, like a mid-’60s Impala.”