Kyle Tucker was fully aware that entering a 1969 Camaro in the world’s largest auto trade show was like entering a Stars and Stripes float in a Fourth of July parade.
But he was convinced his team’s three-year mission at Detroit Speed in Mooresville would yield something special.
That confidence was rewarded when its customized classic was judged the winner among more than 125 entries in the first Specialty Equipment Market Association Battle of the Builders. The finals were televised in Las Vegas this month on the Velocity cable channel, and will re-air at various dates through April 18.
“There are a lot of ’69 Camaros that have been built about every which way you could think of,” said Tucker, founder of Detroit Speed. “For us to be able to be in the running for that – from the top 10 to the top three and then to win it with a car that so many people have built in different ways – it was definitely a challenge to overcome the judges, to even get them to look at it at first.”
The six-member customizing crew from Detroit Speed, an auto parts store, left the judges with little choice via a creation that’s part super car, part race car and part creature comforts behemoth.
The winning Camaro’s hood is dominated by functional air inlets that push airflow to the custom intake that feeds a Mast supercharged LS7 engine. The interior is fabricated with aluminum panels and wrapped in leather.
“From a visual standpoint, I would probably say the front of the car stands out the most,” said Tucker, 45, who started his business 14 years ago in Detroit. “It’s more aggressive body modification than what we typically have done, but that’s what the customer wanted.”
That customer is Angelo Vespi of St. Augustine, Fla. Vespi walked into Detroit Speed one day and told Tucker of his vision for a tricked-out ’69 Camaro. When automotive illustrator Eric Brockmeyer’s sketch was done, the build team got to work.
They started by rebuilding the chassis to stiffen the car for superior handling. Then it designed and built a hydro-formed subframe, adding a Quadra-link rear suspension, frame connectors and other special parts.
Bodywork was a special challenge, given the number of different looks of customized Camaros in the past.
A new front lower spoiler and valance were fashioned from aluminum, incorporated LED turn signals and driving lights. Both bumpers were tucked in and shaved; door handles were filled in and replaced by recessed electric switches.
“The ’69 Camaro is such an iconic vehicle in the industry – so much so that it can be difficult to make it stand out,” said Peter MacGillivray, SEMA vice president of communications and events. “But the judges were extremely impressed with the bodywork of Kyle’s car. … These are modifications that require a great deal of skill and craftsmanship.”
What’s under the modified cowl induction hood really wowed the judges: an LSX small-block engine prepared by Mast Motorsports with 427 cubic inches, force-fed by a Magnuson supercharger. Behind that is a Tremec TKO 600 six-speed transmission.
The car’s estimated horsepower is more than 800. Asked how fast the car can go, Tucker laughed: “It’s probably two or three times the speed limit. It’s capable of a lot.”
The Camaro’s modern technology includes Bluetooth navigation, a backup camera and fiber optics interior lighting. “The electrical was really a monster from that standpoint, with all the options,” Tucker said. Among the other challenges were the custom sheet metal work on the outside of the car, the hand-fabricated aluminum interior and some intricate paint work.
Vespi keeps the car in Florida, but it’ll be well-traveled with appearances at several East Coast events this year. One will be the Charlotte Good Guys 22nd Southeastern Nationals, where the car will appear at Charlotte Motor Speedway Oct. 23-25.
Meanwhile, Tucker focuses on building two custom cars that will debut at SEMA this year – a 1969 Charger and a ’70 Chevelle. It’s pretty much all he’s wanted to do since he was 12.
“My dad was into cars – hot rods, things like that,” he said. “I grew up on a farm, so I always learned to break things, fix things or both.”
Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.