Owning a 1984 Chevy El Camino for 33 Years Means a Lot Can Change
The 383-cubic-inch stroker isn’t the only thing far from stock.
In 1987, 16-year-old David Axsom and his dad pulled into a car lot in Elkhart, Indiana to buy a powder blue 1971 Chevy Camaro that had caught his eye. As they got out of the car, however, he ran into a friend’s parents, who were in the process of buying the Camaro for their daughter, Cori.
Axsom’s dad pointed out a glossy white vehicle nearby and said, “Hey, how about this El Camino instead?”
His son wasn’t really into the 1984 Chevrolet, but the desire for a car to replace his 1981 Chevette with “something cooler” won out. He sold the Chevette and plunked down the money he earned from the sale toward the $4,500 cost of the El Camino and his parents co-signed to finance the rest.
Later that year, Axsom started dating classmate Tracy McLaughlin, and they took the El Camino to prom. Here’s the fun twist: Axsom and McLaughlin married a couple of years after high school, and they still own that El Camino.
Axsom worked to pay it off at a G.L. Perry variety store, then Shakey’s pizza (which was the post-football-game hangout for his high school class), and then an auto parts store.
The auto parts job came in handy; Axsom had grown up working on cars and had already rebuilt the engine of a 1972 Chevrolet Nova on his own. That experience, along with several years as his dad’s garage helper, led him through the upgrades and renovations he made to the El Camino through the years.
“I was five or six years old and fetching wrenches for the old man,” Axsom recounted to The Drive. “I was around cars my whole life.”
Created as a retort to Ford’s Ranchero in 1957, the El Camino wasn’t a hit straight off the line. It struggled to compete with Ford’s coupe pickup utility vehicle and was discontinued after disappointing sales. The Ranchero continued to be a solid product for Ford, and Chevrolet tried again a few years later with a new, Chevelle-based El Camino.
Axsom’s wasn’t a typical El Camino, either—it was a Choo Choo Customs conversion with a Monte Carlo SS front end, hood scoop, and captain’s chairs in place of the standard bench seat. Choo Choo sold to Honest Charley’s in the early 2000s, and the company still sells the El Camino SS/Malibu SS front nose assembly. The fiberglass front nose assembly retains design elements of the original SS fascia and bolts on with a simplified installation than Choo Choo used to sell.
The standard 5.0-liter V8 was under the hood of Axsom’s El Camino when he bought it, and he has since replaced it twice. Currently, a 383 Stroker powers it with a bit more torque and horsepower than it did when he bought it 33 years ago.
In its heyday in the late '80s, Axsom’s El Camino saw a lot of action on the Osceola Dragway, which has been operating in Elkhart since 1957 with neighborhoods sprouting around the fringes of the property. Nearby residents tried to shut it down recently when the dragstrip went up for sale, but it stubbornly remains, continuing to fuel the dreams of fast-driving automotive enthusiasts. Even Axsom’s dad raced at the dragway when he was younger, and his son took up the mantle. Every Friday night was test and tune and every Saturday was race day. Axsom drove every chance he could.
Back then, race organizers gave the drivers until noon on Saturday to run the trials to determine their speed, and they’d write the time on their windshields. With that format, any car could race any other car by staggering the tree. The starter would dial in the time on the tree, and the slower car’s light would turn green first. The toughest part, Axsom says, was sitting in the car waiting for your light to turn green when in the faster car.
If the driver ran faster than the time on the windshield, they would be disqualified, so getting the trial times right was critical. It was all about getting the jump on that green light; as the day went on, the El Camino would be a little lighter and faster, and Axsom took his best guess for his time for the day.
Around 1996, someone keyed his white El Camino all the way across the side and down to the metal. Axsom started taking it apart and decided it was a good time to repaint it. It sat for 10 years while life happened around him and he was consumed with his twin girls, who were toddlers at the time. Finally, in 2006, he finished it up, rebuilt the engine, and took it to a specialist to paint it.
Today, his El Camino is resplendent in Dodge Viper Blue. He had wanted the Monte Carlo SS blue, but when Axsom arrived at the paint shop, a PPG color rep was inside. The salesman was doing his best to get the paint shop to switch to PPG products and offered Axsom the paint for free. On top of that, he threw in a can of Harlequin for the tri-color flames that lick the sides of the car. At certain angles, the flames are purple and others reveal a coppery-gold hue.
Now, Axsom only takes it out of the garage once or twice a year. The El Camino is retired from the street, for the most part; Axsom jokes that now he gets gallons to the mile, not miles to the gallon.
“I grew up with a lot of people who used to drag race back in the '50s and '60s,” he says. “My parents and father-in-law often said, ‘Man, I had this car and I wish I still had it.’ I didn’t want to be that person who said ‘I wish I still had that car.'"
The Axsoms now take their 2010 Jeep Wrangler camping and off-roading anywhere they can get sideways, testing out the articulation and climbing rocks in old quarries. And guess what? It’s blue, just like the El Camino and the Camaro that first turned his head in 1987.
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