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."
Once the responsibilities of raising a family relented just enough to get the GTO project back on track, Russell attacked the project full steam. The first order of business was fixing up the shoddy bodywork, and he dropped the car off at Vintage Restoration (The Woodlands, Texas) to set the body straight. "We probably removed 200 pounds worth of body filler," Russell jokes. After performing the appropriate sheetmetal repairs, the GTO was sprayed in a fresh coat of PPG orange paint. Next on the agenda was replacing the floppy stock underpinnings with some modern Pro Touring hardware. To do so, Russell fully revamped the stock suspension up front with SPC adjustable control arms, ATS spindles, VariShock shocks, and Global West springs and sway bars. The rear suspension makeover consists of Global West springs, VariShock shocks, and a Chassisworks sway bar and control arms. Braking performance got a huge boost as well with Kore3 twin-piston calipers squeezing 13-inch rotors up front, and single-piston clamps and 12-inch rotors getting the job done out back. Sticking it all to the pavement are BFGoodrich meats wrapped around 18-inch Bonspeed GTB wheels. Needless to say, Russell is thrilled with the results. "The GTO actually handles and stops better than my G35. There is less body roll, and the brakes are more responsive. The suspension is firm, but doesn't beat you to death. With the stock suspension, the car would float down the road, but now it's much more connected to the road."
With the new g-Machine suspension begging for abuse, it just didn't seem right to leave the engine untouched. As such, Russell yanked it out once again for an extra dose of cubic inches and power. The block was bored to 4.155 inches, then fitted with an Eagle forged steel 4.250-inch crankshaft to bring the displacement total to 461 ci. The crank swings a set of Eagle steel rods and Ross 10.0:1 pistons, while a Canton road race oil pan and a Melling pump provide an uninterrupted supply of oil under cornering loads. Airflow comes courtesy of ported factory iron cylinder heads fitted with 2.11/1.77-inch stainless steel valves, an Edelbrock intake manifold, and a Rochester Quadrajet carb modified to flow 850 cfm. Managing the valve events is a Crane 230/238-at-.050 hydraulic roller cam that provides a good balance of performance and streetability, but Russell credits the Q-jet for the engine's pleasant street demeanor. "People give Quadrajets a bad rap, but once you learn how to tune them they drive great. Their small primaries give you great gas mileage and driveability, and their big secondaries give you a big kick in the pants," Russell opines. Managing the big gobs of Pontiac torque are a Rutland TH400 transmission and an 8.5-inch GM 10-bolt rearend. Although the budget 461 doesn't boast a long list of fancy parts, it flat out gets the job done, pushing the Goat to 12.39-second e.t.'s at 112 mph.
Like all hot rods, the GTO isn't entirely finished just yet, as future plans call for a five-speed overdrive swap, aluminum heads, an EFI upgrade, and a 'cage to stiffen up the chassis. Even so, for Russell the GTO is far more than just another project car. The 11 years it took to finish the GTO represents just a fraction of the 30-plus years it took him to climb back on top of the muscle car totem pole. All the hard work that went into the second go-around merely makes the journey that much sweeter.
By The Numbers
1969 Pontiac GTO
Russell Wells, 50 • Spring, TX
Type: Pontiac 461
Block: factory 400 block bored to 4.155 inches
Oiling: Melling oil pump, Canton pan
Rotating assembly: Eagle 4.250-inch steel crank and rods; forged 10.0:1 Ross pistons
Cylinder heads: ported factory iron castings with 2.11/1.77-inch stainless steel valves
Camshaft: Crane 230/238-at-.050 hydraulic roller, .528/.548-inch lift, 114-degree LSA
Valvetrain: COMP Cams lifters, timing set, and 1.65:1 rocker arms
Induction: Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold, Rochester 850 cfm Quadrajet carb
Ignition: MSD billet distributor, coil, and plug wires
Fuel system: Carter pump and pressure regulator
Exhaust: Indian Adventures 1.75-inch long-tube headers, custom X-pipe, dual 2.5-inch Pypes mufflers
Cooling: stock water pump, radiator, and fan
Output: 342 rear-wheel horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 409 rear-wheel lb-ft at 3,900 rpm
Built by: Russell Wells
Transmission: Rutland TH400 three-speed automatic trans, Hughes 2,500-stall converter
Rear axle: GM 8.5-inch 10-bolt rearend, 28-spline axles, 3.42:1 gears, and limited-slip differential
Front suspension: Global West springs and sway bar; SPC adjustable control arms, ATS spindles, VariShock shocks
Rear suspension: Global West springs, VariShock shocks, Chassisworks control arms and sway bar
Brakes: Kore3 13-inch rotors and twin-piston calipers, front; 12-inch rotors and single-piston calipers, rear
Wheels & Tires:
Wheels: Bonspeed GTB 18x8, front; 18x10, rear
Tires: BFGoodrich 245/40R18, front; 295/35R18, rear
By starting at the base of the fenders and extending into the quarter-panels, the stripes
Although they can be little demons to tune for the uninitiated, those in the know swear by
To smooth out the rear profile, the bumper has been narrowed and tucked into the quarter-p