If the typical enthusiast had as much common sense as Michelle, they’d stretch their bucks much farther. Upon realizing that her first ’68 Camaro required very costly body repairs, she decided to buy a more solid Camaro to replace it. As such, she didn’t have to spend a penny on bodywork, and started enjoying the new car right away.
Car chicks have it rough. On one hand, they have to deal with egomaniacs stricken with wee-man syndrome refusing to believe that a woman can actually build or drive a car better than they can. On the flip side, there’s no shortage of creepy bald dudes who are too busy ogling them to fully appreciate their wrenching or driving talent. A certain open-wheel-turned-stock-car racer of GoDaddy.com fame comes to mind. Michelle Harvey has been dealing with this kind of nonsense her entire life, so she gets a kick out of sticking it to the boys in her ’68 Camaro. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, the fact that this F-body is owned by a woman has nothing to do with why it’s getting featured in the pages of PHR. To the contrary, it’s a homebuilt, autocross-ripping, big-block–powered g-Machine worthy of the limelight in any arena that just happens to be owned and driven by a woman. And whether you have one X chromosome or two, it’s a muscle car from which everyone can take a few pointers.
Growing up in a working-class family, Michelle didn’t get a free pass on anything. “Girls in my family were not treated as precious little beings who can’t do anything. If something needed to get done, whether you were a girl or boy, you pitched in and did it,” she recalls. “My dad was a logger, sawyer, and farmer, so we weren’t wealthy, and the cars we drove usually needed some work to keep them running. My parents, brothers, and sisters gave me direction, but the independent girl in me wanted to do things on my own. My sister, Denise, taught me how to change spark plugs, and my mom showed me how to change oil. When I was 10 years old, my dad and I pulled the old six-cylinder out of his ’80 Chevy Cheyenne pickup, and we dropped a big-block in it.”
You can distinguish real hot...
You can distinguish real hot rodders from posers by listening to their future mod list. The Camaro’s interior is a place of business, so Michelle wants to add grippier seats, five-point harnesses, and a rollcage.
Although that’s already a pretty cool story, it gets even better, as working on cars in Michelle’s family wasn’t limited to routine maintenance and occasional engine swaps. “My dad, brothers, and cousins always had some sort of hot rod, race car, or modified truck around the house. Cool cars that go fast and have great sounding motors make me smile,” she gushes. Her first project car was an ’83 Olds Cutlass she bought from her brother, Darryl. It had a 350 small-block and a lumpy cam, but what she really craved was some big-block power. Unfortunately, someone convinced Michelle to sell it and she still regrets that decision to this day. “After I sold the Cutlass, I felt an emptiness inside that could only be filled by another hot rod. I always loved first-gen Camaros, and my cousin had a yellow ’68 with a 427 big-block that I volunteered to wash all the time just so I could get near it. My younger brother, Chris, called me up one day and said he found a nice ’68 Camaro that I might be interested in. The paint and interior were nasty, but the motor ran and it fit my budget, so we hauled it home.”
Before digging into the bodywork or chassis, Michelle’s top priority was building a motor. “Where we come from, if it rolls you put a motor in it. Who cares about the rest,” she quips. Of course, the trendy thing to do would have been opting for an LS small-block, but Michelle is a woman who feels that size does matter. “Who the hell wants to push around a big, heavy, iron big-block in the land of those cute little LS motors that make ungodly horsepower? Well, I do. Growing up, my family spent a lot of time at tractor pulls, and the only small-blocks at a tractor pull are the ones in the spectator parking lot. After being exposed to tractor pullers with six big-blocks in them singing like an exploding opera, nothing compares. I always say that when you stand near a big-block running, you know it because it radiates through your body.”
Determined to go big-block or bust, Michelle’s brothers scrounged up a perfect 402 block and a set of iron heads off of a 396. Here’s the cool part. They say that hot rodders are the ultimate recyclers, and the block in question came from the same motor that Michelle swapped into her dad’s old truck when she was 10 years old. Since the goal was to have fun, not set lap records, she kept the engine build simple. After treating the block to a .030-inch overbore, Michelle cleaned up the factory crank and rods, then slipped in a fresh set of Keith Black 10.0:1 pistons. The factory oval-port cylinder heads were topped with an Edelbrock Air-Gap intake manifold, and a Barry Grant 750-cfm carburetor. To take advantage of the freer-flowing induction package, Michelle installed a COMP 230/230-at-.050 hydraulic flat-tappet camshaft. Not surprisingly, she assembled the entire combination herself, and only needed an extra set of hands to swing heavy pieces like the crank and heads into place. At an estimated 450 hp, the combo isn’t a fire-breathing beast, but that’s not what Michelle wanted. “I didn’t want to build something that was so aggressive that it wouldn’t be driveable around town. Even so, hot rodding is about always wanting to add more, and now I’m thinking about going with a bigger cam,” she admits.
With the motor finished and ready for action, Michelle finally turned her attention to patching up the Camaro’s body. While disassembling the body panels in preparation for mediablasting, she didn’t like what she saw. “The more I looked, the more I realized how much work the body needed. I didn’t have the time or money to fix the body, so I decided to find another Camaro to put my motor in,” she explains. As luck would have it, Michelle tracked down a copper ’68 Camaro in a nearby town, which just happened to be the color she planned on painting her other Camaro. “After I drove it for the first time, I decided it would be mine. It came with a 400 small-block, a Turbo 400 trans, a 2.73:1 one-wheel-peel rearend, and the car’s original 327 motor. The sellers said that they were so glad a girl was buying it since that meant it wouldn’t be raced. Two weeks later, the right-rear tire was getting a tad smoother than the left rear.”
After running around town for about a month, Michelle installed the big-block and swapped out the one-legger differential for an Auburn Posi with 3.73:1 gears. At this power level, the factory drum brakes were a liability, so she came up with a budget-friendly solution by adapting a set of four-wheel discs off of a fourth-gen F-body. Although these updates made the car much more pleasant to drive around town, Michelle just wasn’t content hanging out at shows and at cruise night. “After a while, I decided to check out the autocross events at the Goodguys shows. This was much more fun to watch than people staring at you from their lawn chairs,” she says. “I ended up getting behind the wheel of a friend’s car on the autocross and loved it. I knew I wanted my car to handle like that, and I thought it would be so cool to get my Camaro to drive like a modern sports car. Plus, my car sat like a 4x4 truck, so a new suspension system was suddenly high on my priority list.”
To address the situation, Michelle opted for a complete RideTech air suspension. It boasts tubular front control arms, a triangulated rear four-link, fat sway bars, drop spindles, air springs, and adjustable shocks. “It was very easy, and very exciting, to rip out all the old worn-out hardware and replace them with state-of-the-art components. It’s like my car has been baptized in RideTech suspension and reborn a completely different car, and I just love it,” she raves. “I have run a few more autocross events with the new suspension, and the car is a blast. I might not be the fastest car out there, but at least I’m not sitting around in a lawn chair or polishing all day. My car is driven hard, and I like it that way. I hope to participate in more local SCCA events to get more seat time and improve my skills.”
We first spotted Michelle...
We first spotted Michelle tearing through the Goodguys autocross in Nashville. For a self-proclaimed beginner, she posted very respectable mid-pack lap times.
Just like any other hot rodder, Michelle is always looking to improve her ride, and the current short list of wants includes an overdrive trans, ’cage, bigger wheels and tires, and A/C. As she divulges the highs and lows she’s been through with her car, and where she wants to take it, the passion in her voice and the genuine knowledge with which she speaks makes you forget that you’re talking to a woman. All of a sudden, gender becomes irrelevant, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“Having a little BMW boy trying to show off in a corner in front of me, then catching up to him in my Camaro, tickles the crap out of me.” —Michelle Harvey
To All The Ladies Out There …
As someone who’s dealt with ignorant bigots with too much testosterone her entire life, Michelle has some keen words of wisdom. “To all the girls who like hot rods of any kind, be firm and ignore anyone who tries to tell you ‘no.’ If a guy tells you that you shouldn’t or can’t do something because you’re female, ignore his insecure dumb ass and find a more mature man who is willing to teach you whatever it is that you want to learn,” she retorts. “If your girlfriends try to make you feel stupid for liking cars, tell those jealous and fake little ones to move out of your way and go play with their hair or purse or something. I could go on and on. In the meantime, I’ll be running through the hills of Tennessee in my Camaro with the radio cranked. That’s what makes me a very happy girl, at least as happy as a girl with a large future parts list can be.”
Michelle Harvey, 41 • Hixson, TN
Type: Chevy 408ci big-block
Block: Chevy iron bored to 4.155 inches
Oiling: Melling pump, stock pan
Rotating assembly: GM 3.760-inch steel crankshaft and rods; Keith Black 10.0:1 pistons
Cylinder heads: GM oval-port castings
Camshaft: COMP 230/230-at-.050 hydraulic flat-tappet; .520/.520-inch lift; 110-degree LSA
Valvetrain: COMP Cams lifters, pushrods, valvesprings, retainers, and locks; Cloyes timing set
Induction: Edelbrock RPM Air-Gap intake manifold, Barry Grant 750-cfm carburetor
Ignition: MSD distributor, coil, and plug wires
Exhaust: Hooker 1.75-inch long-tube headers, dual Flowmaster 2.75-inch mufflers
Output: 450 hp and 450 lb-ft (estimated)
Transmission: GM TH400 trans, TCI torque converter
Rear axle: GM 10-bolt rearend with 3.73:1 gears and Auburn limited-slip differential
Front suspension: RideTech control arms, drop spindles, sway bar, air springs, and shocks
Rear suspension: RideTech four-link, sway bar, air springs, and shocks
Brakes: fourth-gen Camaro rotors and twin-piston calipers, front; fourth-gen rotors and single-piston calipers, rear
Wheels: Billet Specialties Qualifier 17x7, front; 17x8, rear
Tires: Nitto NT555; 235/45R17, front; 255/50R17, rear
Who says family values are...
Who says family values are a thing of the past? We got to hand it to Michelle’s dad for passing down an appreciation of big-blocks to his kids. Michelle says she might swap it out for an LS motor one day, but the current combo is a cylinder-head-swap away from cracking 600 hp.
Looking for ways to improve...
Looking for ways to improve lap times, Michelle plans on adding bigger wheels and tires in the near future. She recently upgraded to RideTech’s Tru Turn system, which pulls the tie rods up and in to make room for 10-inch-wide meats.