Starting out on top is great while it lasts, but unfortunately, the only way to go from there is back down. For Russell Wells, scoring one of the most coveted muscle cars of all time as his first car made the journey to the bottom an excruciatingly painful affair. "My first car was a '69 Camaro, and I regret it to this day. When you're 16 years old, you just don't appreciate the things in life you worked very little to obtain," he admits. "I wrecked that car three times in six months. My mom got fed up and sold it, so I went from driving a '69 Camaro to a driving a Mazda RX-2. It was a huge blow to my ego." Talk about tough love, but we can't blame mom for making the right decision. Destroyed but not defeated, Russell clawed his way back up the muscle car totem pole until his efforts materialized in the form of a homebuilt, Pro Touring '69 Pontiac GTO. As it turns out, the trip to the top is much sweeter the second time around.
Russell's first car may have been the most iconic of Chevys, but he grew up a Pontiac fanatic courtesy of his grandparents. His grandmother putted around town in a 326-powered '67 LeMans, which Russell was supposed to inherit on his 16th birthday. As bad luck would have it, he broke his leg while riding a motorcycle three months before he turned 16. "I couldn't get a job to pay for the insurance, so my parents said ‘no job, no insurance, no car,'" he laments. After his brief Camaro experience, Russell slummed it for two years in the Mazda before saving up enough money for a '78 LeMans. A long stream of Pontiacs came and went over the years, including a '79 Trans Am and a '77 Can Am, but the car Russell always longed for was a '69 GTO. "I've always wanted a GTO, and I think that the rounded Coke-bottle styling of the '68 and '69 models are sexier than all get-out. Back in 2002, I found a nice '69 GTO online at a used car dealer in Las Vegas. After talking on the phone with the dealer over the next several weeks, I did something I normally wouldn't recommend and bought the car sight-unseen. The car had been in a hailstorm at some point, so just about every body panel had some kind of ding in it. That didn't stop me from using it as a daily driver for the next five years."
After six months of commuting duty, Russell suspected that the GTO's 400 motor was on its last legs. A compression test revealed an ailing No. 8 cylinder, and a teardown pinpointed the culprit as a broken piston ring land. Around the same time, Russell noticed that a small section of the A-body's frame had sustained a crack. All signs pointed to a pending restoration project, so he picked up a more sensible daily driver and got to work on the GTO. "My intention was to restore the car to stock, and I found a frame off eBay to get the process started. Before swapping it out in my garage, my wife made sure I took my cell phone so I could call for help just in case the car fell on me," Russell jokes. With the new frame in order, he freshened up the 400 with Ram Air III heads and a solid-lifter camshaft, and also rebuilt the suspension back to stock specifications.
Since he was having so much fun working on the Goat, Russell decided that it was the perfect time to give it a fresh coat of paint. Unfortunately, that led the project down a long path of frustration and stagnation. "I gutted the car before I took it to my body guy, who blasted it down to bare metal. After he finished, the car looked good for a year and a half, but then the paint started bubbling," he recalls. "I got curious one day and started grinding the problem spots down in my garage and found body filler everywhere. The body guy I hired got lazy and laid down filler everywhere instead of fixing the sheetmetal the right way. I was putting my son through college at the time, so the car sat for the next three years."
During this time, Russell hatched up a plan to restore the Goat back to glory, and he drew inspiration from a very unlikely source. "I started driving an Infiniti G35 for daily transportation, and I fell in love with the handling, braking, and ride quality you get from a late-model," Russell says. "I wanted to make my GTO drive like a newer car, and I thought it would be cool to have an aggressive stance, a modern suspension, disc brakes, and the comfort of a late-model in an older body style. I started hanging out on various Pro Touring websites to figure out exactly how I wanted to build the GTO. Since it's not a numbers-matching car, I didn't care about keeping it original."