Car of the Week: 1969 Camaro Z/28

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Dr. Gerald Bucholtz has a pretty simple explanation for why he’s hung onto his 1969 Z/28 Camaro since he bought it new as a college kid.

“I guess I could never see not having it,” opines the resident of rural Mosinee, Wis. “When I bought it, I wouldn’t have thought about having it for 50 years, but I never wanted to get rid of it. I guess I always just wanted to keep it.

So has he ever considered selling it?

“Never,” he answers flatly.

Of course, his choice to keep the hot Camaro is vindicated every time he turns the key and the dual exhausts rattle the windows of his garage. The Lemans Blue Z still looks great, is loads of fun to drive, and still packs all the appeal it had when Bucholtz scraped up all his nickels and bought it new — with a little help from his dad.

“I was going to college, and I had worked a few summers at Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee, trying to save a little money,” recounted Bucholtz, 68, an allergy and asthma doctor at the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wis. “I always liked the looks of the Z/28 Camaros. When they first came out … they didn’t make very many of them, and I liked the looks of them, and their performance. Well, when I finally got a little money, my dad agreed to pay the remainder of it — actually it was most of it [laughs] — and we went down to Braeger Chevrolet in Milwaukee. The salesman was our namesake – I think his name was Ron Bucholtz — and he gave us a deal on it. We got a big discount of $307, but at that time, anything counted. The car wasn’t on the lot yet. At the time, it was en route. We didn’t order it, but we selected the one we liked, and that was the blue with white.

“I remember the first time I drove it off the lot. I couldn’t believe how close the gear ratio was. It seems like shift, shift, shift. And that was just on the ramp to get out!”

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That was 45 years and about 125,000 miles ago. The car has never been off the road or in hibernation for long. For about 17 years, Bucholtz lived and practiced in Florida, and the Z/28 came with him. In 1991, he returned to Wisconsin, with the car still intact except for a suspension upgrade that included bigger shocks and some stiffer springs.

The car might still be a largely untouched original survivor had it not been for a meeting with a deer about 12 years ago. That fast-forwarded a restoration project that Bucholtz probably would have gotten around to eventually anyway, given his affection for his Z/28. “It was at dusk and we were driving from Marshfield to Medford and I clocked a doe,” he says. “It came from the left side of the road, which is Marathon County up here, and it ended up on the right side of the road, which is Clark County!” The deer’s landing place added to a little confusion over which county cop should have been handling the accident report, but in the end, Bucholtz nursed his Camaro home and decided it was time the car got the restoration it deserved after so many years of service. “It just broke a headlight and damaged the little plastic grille. It wasn’t much damage, but the bill was $1,700 and I took that money and put it towards the restoration – which turned out to cost a lot more than $1,700!” he says.

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Bucholtz had previously had the engine balanced and blueprinted during his Florida days, so he didn’t mess much with the drivetrain when it came time to do the restoration. The Camaro did get a new coat of Lemans Blue paint, though, along with a new headliner, driver seat covering and carpeting. When the car was reassembled, Bucholtz left off the chrome trim around the wheel wells. “Water gets under there and doesn’t drain, then you have to worry about rust,” he says.

Bucholtz didn’t go overboard seeking a concours-quality remake. He knew that he was going to keep racking up the miles on his favorite car — and only hobby vehicle — and there was no point in trying to make it perfect. Actually, he was more interested in simply making the Z/28 less attractive to rodents. “I had some problems with mice in it,” he laughs. “The restoration took care of that problem and got rid of any kind of reminder or scent with the mice.

“It cost me about $17,000 to get rid of the mice!”

Bucholtz was exactly the kind of guy Chevrolet had it mind when it decided to market a Camaro that could qualify for the Trans-Am Cup racing series. Guys who wanted a performance car that wasn’t too hairy to drive and didn’t cost an arm and a leg found a pretty sweet option with the debut 1967 Z/28.

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1969-Z28-2 Trans-Am Cup competition at the time required that engines be no bigger than 305 cubic inches. Chevy’s entry was a maximum-output small-block V-8 with 302 cid. This RPO Z/28 option had other high-performance parts, like a giant four-barrel carb, an aluminum high-rise intake and L79 Corvette heads, that squeezed out about 350 hp and 320 lbs.-ft. of torque at 6200 rpm. The general consensus was that the Z/28 was more potent than the 290 hp and 290 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4200 rpm that the company advertised.

The basic Z/28 package listed for $358, but other options were mandatory and jacked the price up north of $4,000. The price included a heater, but air conditioning was not available. And for those with serious racing in mind, even the heater could be deleted.

The Z/28 performed very well. It had plenty of straight-ahead acceleration, and could handle and brake with the best cars on the market. The 1967 first-year model could move from 0-to-60 mph in 6.7 seconds and did the quarter-mile in just 14.9 seconds at 97 mph. Its top speed was 124 mph.

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Chevrolet Motor Division built 602 Camaros with the Z/28 package in the first year and 7,199 cars in 1968. Things really picked in showrooms after that when 20,302 Camaros went out the door as Z/28s.

The restyled 1969 Camaro body featured more defined sculpturing and a squarish, race-car-like look. The 302-cid engine featured a 4.002 x 3.005-inch bore and stroke, big-valve heads, forged steel crank, new four-bolt-mains block with larger webbing, nodular iron main bearing caps, new pistons, 30/30 solid-lifter camshaft, 11.0:1 compression ratio and numerous other performance goodies. The engine exhaled through dual exhausts with deep-tone mufflers. There were special front and rear suspensions, rear bumper guards, a heavy-duty radiator with a temperature-controlled fan, quick-ratio power steering, 15 x 7 rally wheels, E70 x 15 special white-lettered tires, a 3.73:1 rear axle and special hood and trunk stripes. Chevrolet mandated a four-speed manual transmission and power disc brakes and recommended a positraction rear axle.

Bucholtz says his only real lament about his Z/28 is that it was equipped with disc brakes only in front. If he had his druthers, he’d have the discs at all four corners. Beyond that, he’s always loved the car, even its manual steering. “Hey, I never have to worry about my wife driving it,” he chuckles.

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Bucholtz added some extra gauges under the dash during the car’s early days, when it was his daily transportation during non-winter months. The extra dials weren’t for looks. “They’re just to know what the engine is doing. I just like to know,” he says. “I put in a left and right temperature gauge — the V-8 is actually two different engines. The left and right actually run at a little bit different temperatures.

“I disconnected the gas pressure gauge… It’s also got a more sensitive oil temperature gauge and a vacuum gauge. These things weren’t on the car. All it had was a speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge. That was it. The rest was just idiot lights. And I don’t want to rely on idiot lights. I want to know what is going on.”

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Later, Bucholtz had to swap out the original steering wheel after it cracked – perhaps from the heavy stress on it every time Bucholtz has to wrestle the car into a parallel parking spot.

The aftermarket suspension setup has been in place for many years and continues to give the car a stiffer ride. “I didn’t want to race it. I wasn’t going to do that, but I wanted something stiffer than the stock suspension, and it was just about right,” Bucholtz remarked. “It does ride a little more like a truck, and my wife will attest to that.”

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The four-speed floor shifter has a Hurst handle, but it controls the original factory manual transmission. Bucholtz isn’t shy about using that performance shift handle to wring the high-revving 302 out occasionally and make sure it’s still in fighting condition.

“I do open up the secondaries. I don’t let that gas sit in the secondaries forever,” he says with a grin. “I do get fresh gas in there, otherwise you’ve got troubles with it!

“I’ll open it up, for just a brief period. Responsibly and safely, of course.”

Bucholtz will occasionally drive the Camaro to work at the hospital, but most of its trips are short jaunts for fun around the north-central Wisconsin countryside. Scenic, winding and hilly roads abound — a perfect test track for a car with plenty of giddyup remaining and an owner that never tires of driving it.

“Sure you do (get a charge out of it). I still do,” Bucholtz concludes. “It’s not the fastest car around. It’s not the best road car in the world, but for the money, it’s a pretty good deal. It’s a pretty good package.

“You pull into a gas station and half the people at the gas station are going to come over and look at it. You always get thumbs-up no matter where you go.”

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