A Fire-Hot ‘69 Camaro

Nov. 1, 2011
John Thill turned a fire-ravaged ’69 Camaro into a cool cruiser.

Fire does the worst things to cars. It warps engine components, fries paint and disintegrates interiors. Often times, a burnt vehicle ends up in the scrap heap.

But Joe Gracie’s ’69 big-block Chevy Camaro SS was lucky. After an electrical fire nearly totaled it, Gracie brought the car to John’s Auto Body in Santa Rosa, Calif., owned by Camaro devotee John Thill.

“As soon as I saw it, I cringed because burnt cars are one of the most difficult to work on,” says Thill, who spent 13 hours drafting an estimate for the crippled Chevy.

What he didn’t realize at the time was that he was writing an estimate for what would soon be his car. You see, Thill already had a ’67 Camaro, which immediately caught Gracie’s attention at the shop. Because Gracie didn’t want to wait the year or more it would take for Thill to fix the ’69, Gracie offered to buy the ’67.

After a little negotiating, the two Camaro diehards made an agreement: Gracie would pay $20,000 for the ’67 and give Thill the ’69. Gracie received more than $30,000 from his insurance company for the torched car, so he was more than happy with the deal. Thill ended up just as happy, with a big chunk of change and a new project.

“I wanted to keep the money in the shop, and I thought the only way that was going to happen was to sell him mine,” Thill says. “I feel like I have a better car now.”

Thill and his wife are the sole employees at his 3,500-square-foot collision repair shop, so finding time to work on the crispy Camaro wasn’t easy. But, as a passionate fan of the car and of restoration work, Thill made time.

“I’m one of those high-strung guys,” says Thill, 49. “I like to keep busy.”

So, he poured every free minute into the project. The 396-cubic-inch engine, which filled with water when the fire was doused, had to be yanked and rebuilt. The windshield, complete interior and wiring harness had to be replaced. And though the body was straight and the paint was just marginally damaged, Thill stripped the car for a re-spray. 

He came up with a two-tone paint design with blue metallic on the bottom and black on the top, with silver scallop stripes on the sides.  Everything was done in his shop, on his own. In the end, he spent roughly $10,000 bringing the car back to life, not including a few years of labor.

Now it’s a cruiser and occasional show participant. Thill even ran into Gracie at one of the restored car’s first show appearances. Gracie says he doesn’t share the same customization tastes as Thill, but there’s no questioning his talent. 

“All of the stuff he touches turns to gold,” Gracie says. “He does show-quality work.”

Thill says he drives the car regularly and can’t go anywhere without getting a thumbs-up. But he says the Camaro is an eternal work-in-progress.

“It’s fun and it’s time consuming, but it’s out of the ordinary for me, so when I get a chance to do something like that, it’s fun for me,” he says. “It breaks up the norm.”

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