Though in 1997 $600 could go a long way toward buying groceries, paying rent and purchasing small electronics, who would've believed you could still buy a decent project car for that price? Even 11 years ago, a $600 car was more like a disposable camera. You used it and threw it away. But there were a handful of lucky individuals who were still able to find a buildable treasure. Some discovered them nestled away in barns, having sat since the Carter administration. Others were simply the beneficiaries of owners who were in over their heads and forced to let the car go for a fraction of its true value. For the rest of us-then and now-it's a dream. It's not every day you drive down the street and see a $600 '67 LeMans convertible sitting on the side of the road-but that happened to Bill Van Sickle in September 1997.
Air Ride suspension provides...
Air Ride suspension provides this Pontiac with flat cornering and a smooth ride, according to owner Bill Van Sickle. It also allows him to raise and lower the ride height at the flick of a switch, giving it major cool points. Besides the in-the-weeds stance, you may also notice that Bill cleaned up the exterior by removing all emblems and trim, except for the side gills.
Actually, his brother-in-law, Jimmy Efird saw it first. He was a driver for UPS at the time and was on his route through Marshville, North Carolina, when he spotted this LeMans ragtop.
Bill, then a commercial general contractor, was looking for a convertible, so he came by to take a look. "It was painted a faded Carousel Red, had a torn white top, was rusty, and didn't have any brakes, which made driving it on the trailer a thrill," he recalls. However, it did have a transplanted 400 and the asking price was too good to pass up, so he bought it.
After he got the Pontiac home, Bill began to visualize the build. "I like hot rods and customs, so I wanted to try to mix the two without one overpowering the other, and stay subtle." With this in mind, he began to tear into the A-body. The original plan was to build a nice driver and perform most of the work himself. He intended to freshen up the engine, fix the rust, paint the body in the original Champagne color, and put the stock black interior back in. It became clear after dismantling the LeMans that the wear and tear was much worse than he expected. "The rear quarters, rockers, floorboards, and fender patch panels all had to go," says Bill.
What initially attracted Bill...
What initially attracted Bill was the dramatic Coke-bottle shape of the '67 LeMans. The laser-straight body is the result of multiple body shop efforts to restore the clean lines. Adding some character to the rear are custom flat Lee taillight lenses for which Bill made his own gaskets.
He stripped the LeMans down to the bare body on the frame and rebuilt the stock suspension. The shell was sent out to a backyard body shop, which he later regretted. When Bill got it back, he sent it to Efird Pontiac's paint shop, a dealership owned by his other brother-in-law, Howard Efird. Bill noticed the body filler work on a rear quarter patch panel seam cracked on the way to the paint shop, so the the bodywork had to be repaired. While there, the jambs were painted Champagne.
In the meantime, his father-in-law helped him put a new cam and lifters into the station wagon 400, hoping the rest of the engine was still good.
Soon thereafter, Bill went through a divorce and the project stalled. He came out of it with his "shop, tools, and toys" intact, however.
He decided to start over on the LeMans with a new plan. His shop had an I-beam that ran across the width of the building. Originally intended to pull engines, Bill found it worked perfectly for lifting the body off the frame. "Then we were able to work on the frame more easily," he says.
When the ragtop was purchased,...
When the ragtop was purchased, the original 326 engine was nowhere to be found. In its place was a station wagon 400 on its last leg. Bill replaced this with a 400ci H.O. engine out of a '67 GTO, but it didn't last long, either. When it blew, he took the initiative to have a performance rebuild done with forged pistons, a Comp cam, an aluminum intake and a Demon carb. To add to the hot rod feel, a set of Cal Customs valve covers and an O'Brien Truckers air cleaner were added. Bill can keep cool, even with the top up, thanks to a Vintage Auto Air system.
Bill also made a new acquaintance, Wendi, who was willing to lend a helping hand with the Pontiac. "When she lifted her sandblasting hood in 95-degree heat and was smiling from ear to ear, I knew I had a keeper," he says. She sandblasted the frame on a rotisserie and sprayed it with epoxy paint. Together, they continued with the project.
They modified the front spring pockets and the fabricated rear bag perches for an Air Ride CoolRide suspension package. Large sway bars were used, 1-1/4-inch front and 1-inch rear. Stock 11-inch disc brakes in the front were mounted to Fatman dropped spindles, and stock 9.5-inch drums were retained on the 12-bolt Posi rear that was liberated from a '66 Chevelle. The '66 GM rears are roughly 1-inch narrower than the '67 units, which helped fit wider tires in the wheelwells and maintain a decent-looking wheel offset. Speaking of wheels, the LeMans wears 17x7-inch front and 17x8-inch rear American Racing Salt Flats. A set of 235/45-ZR17 front and 255/50-ZR17 rear Fusion ZRi tires add plenty of stick in the turns.
The engine was taken to Walt Hollifield, collector and restorer of multiple concours GTOs. Walt is well-educated in Pontiac powerplants as well. He determined the as-delivered 400 motor was junk, and suggested using the bone stock 360-horse '67 GTO 400 H.O. engine sitting on a stand in his shop. He mounted the 400 in the LeMans, along with a Turbo 350 transmission. His friend, Rich Brown, handled the wiring.
The Bonneville Salt Flats...
The Bonneville Salt Flats have a rich history with speed. These American Racing Salt Flat Wheels take their styling cues from historic cars that once took to the flats to break land speed records. They are 17x7 inches up front and 17x8 inches out back with 3-1/2-inch and 4-inch backspacing, respectively.
In 1999, Bill and Wendi attended the Goodguys show at Indy. They both went nuts over a burnt orange '55 Chevy with tan interior done by Roger Burnham. Bill spoke with the owner, Mike Alstott, who told him it was a '99 Ford F-250 color called Bright Amber Metallic. Bill was shocked. He owned a '99 F-250 in that color that also had tan interior. Seeing it on a car, he didn't recognize it. Immediately after this realization, the plans for the LeMans changed. Champagne was out and Bright Amber Metallic was in.
The LeMans was sent off for paint but poor bodywork reared its ugly head again. Each front fender featured a combination of butt welds, overlaps, and splices that didn't fit properly. Replacement fenders were purchased and installed, banishing the last examples of the backyard bodywork. Jimmy Brawley and Allen Bell at Janco in Mt. Holly, North Carolina, completed the bodywork and paint.
Application and sanding of five coats of Spies-Hecker primer was followed by a coat of its sealer. Jimmy and Allen shot four basecoats of Bright Amber Metallic, followed by three coats of clear, again using Spies-Hecker products. The finish was finally wet-sanded with 1500-grit paper and polished to give it a glass-like appearance.
The '67 upholstery was replaced...
The '67 upholstery was replaced with '66 interior. Bill feels horizontally-pleated seat covers capture the hot rod look better than vertical pleats of the '67, as does the new street-rod-like carpet and mother-of-pearl accents. A Billet Specialties steering wheel and pedals continue the interior customization.
Bill enlisted Robert McCarter to complete the interior and soon realized the cost of a custom tan interior would be prohibitive. Instead, he chose Parchment upholstery with the '66 seat covers for their horizontal pleats. The '67 featured vertical pleats, and Bill felt the horizontals had more of a hot rod feel.
To continue that theme, he intended to use a sheet of turned-aluminum to make a custom gauge cluster and console. Despite his best efforts, Bill wasn't able to make it work. Finally, the answer came from a mother-of-pearl guitar pickguard. Ultimately taken from a drum covering for its larger size, it was cut to house a set of Bonspeed Roulette gauges. He also had a set of air pressure gauges for the Air Ride system installed, as well as So-Cal Art-Deco knobs and a Vintage Auto Air control panel for the A/C system.
Fresh Engine And Trans
When Bill drove the car up to Hot Rod Interiors in Mooresville, North Carolina, for a Hartz cloth top, bad luck struck. On the way back, the engine blew up. The motor was taken out and when Walt tore it open to rebuild it, the only reusable parts were the block, crank and the rods.
Bonspeed Roulette gauges spice...
Bonspeed Roulette gauges spice things up and are surrounded by mother-of-pearl trim. This cluster also features a set of Classic Instruments air pressure gauges to monitor the suspension.
After proper machining and assembly, the current bottom end consists of a 0.030 over 400 block and a stock crank and rods pumping TRW pistons. The No. 670 heads were replaced with stock (2.11/1.77-valve) No. 16 castings and a 224/230-degree duration, 0.477/0.480-inch lift Comp Cam stick on a 110 LSA was installed with stock ratio Scorpion roller rockers. A Barry Grant Speed Demon 725-cfm carburetor atop an Edelbrock intake manifold provides the fuel and air and an MSD distributor and coil fires through a set of Taylor 8mm wires to Bosch Platinum spark plugs. For exhaust, Bill utilizes a set of Ram Air cast-iron manifolds, 2-1/4-inch pipes, and Flowmaster mufflers. The compression ratio is 10.5:1.
Bill took the opportunity to upgrade from the Turbo 350 three-speed to a 200-4R four-speed Overdrive featuring a shift kit and a Bow Tie TV cable assembly, as well as a 2,000-rpm stall torque converter and a cooler. This new setup allows for more comfortable cruising, and great fuel economy on the highway
Since its completion, Bill has attended several Pontiac events. In 2005, he took Second Place in the Custom Class at the POCI Convention in Greenville, South Carolina. He secured First Place in 2006 at the Mooresville Car Museum Car Show in the '64-'72 GM Division. There are many other shows in which this Pontiac has taken high ranks, something Bill is very proud of.
But don't think for a minute that a lot of show trophies means this A-body isn't driven rigorously. In fact, the LeMans even negotiated Road Atlanta during the YearOne Experience in 2005. "What should have been a 40-mph parade lap quickly turned into an 85-mph 'hold on' lap!" Bill recalls. It just goes to show what rewards come when determination, ingenuity, and some cash are applied to a $600 Pontiac.