IROC-Z: This Radical Resto-Mod Third-Gen Will Take You To School

The IROC-Z has always been synonymous with cool. Just ask the dude that used to beat you up in high school.

Back in the ‘80s, when the IROC-Z first hit the pavement, there wasn’t a cooler car on the planet. In fact, in our minds, it usurped the Trans Am as the coolest ride a high schooler—or anyone really—could drive at the time.

But, much like the ‘80s, the third-generation F-bodies slipped into a state of disrepair with their glory days long since faded—just like that dude that used to take your lunch money.

And as the state of all third-gen F-bodies began to decline, oddly almost as if in unison, so did the prices. By the time the 2000s rolled around, you could pick up a decent example for $3,000-5,000, and thus they became the defacto ride of any 16-year-old gear head looking to pick up their first set of wheels, which actually just made the situation even worse.

Due to the general state of disrepair we find most third-gens in these days, it makes it all the sweeter when someone has taken care of, or lovingly restored, one of the best F-bodies to ever roll off the General’s assembly line. Better still when someone decides to go full resto-mod with one. Turns out Chris Kowalczyk knows the feeling and decided to go all out on this 1987 Camaro IROC-Z.

“I originally bought it because I was 16 and I had a bunch of buddies that had a ’71 Cutlass and all these older musclecars, and the IROC was just a little bit different,” Chris said. “It wasn’t exactly a car a lot of people jumped to for performance, but it just kind of caught my eye and I thought it had potential.”

The car became his daily driver as he lacked the funds to really make it into the screamer he wanted. After Chris graduated high school, he enlisted in the military and was deployed in 2010. This left the car virtually untouched from it’s high school glory days. When he returned, however, Chris now had some disposable income and came home to find his friend with the ’71 Cutlass had fit it with an LQ4 and a large turbo. Needless to say, this gave Chris the impetus to take the IROC to a a whole new level.


“My buddy built that ’71 Cutlass with an LQ4 and a big old turbo, and it was stupid fast,” Chris said. “That’s when I said ‘you know what? Let me just redo this old car.’ After that, I tore the car down to bare bones and rebuilt it from the ground up.”

Here you can see the custom work on the charge pipes as well as the TorqueStorm head unit.

Luckily for Chris, when he acquired his IROC, the car was still in pretty decent shape and only had 85,000 miles on the clock at the time—a rarity to be sure. This ended up saving him a lot of time and work on the body as well as the suspension. After blowing the car apart, every nut and bolt on the suspension was replaced and the entire underside of the car was given a coat of POR-15 to make sure it was spotless for years to come.

After he was done with the underside of the Camaro, he turned his attention to the interior. All the interior panels and carpet were removed and the entire cabin was given a Dynomat treatment to give the car a much more solid feel than the typically rattle-ridden third-gen. After the sound insulation was in, the car was treated to brand new carpet. The cloth seats were ditched in favor of some leather pieces pulled from a 2001 Camaro SS. However, the seat are just about the only update to the interior.

“I did a little bit of custom work but nothing too crazy,” Chris explained. “I like to keep the interior mostly stock, maybe a little bit of modernizing, but I think these cars look best with what came in them in the first place.”

The suspension was almost completely upgrade with tubular pieces. Spohn front A-arms were utilized and are attached to Koni double-adjustable shocks controlling Eibach Sportline springs up front. Out back, a UMI torque arm helps plant the rear end and a BMR Suspension pan hard bar keeps the rear end centered in the chassis. UMI lower control arms and relocation brackets also help provide traction and help keep the rear end from wrapping under heavy acceleration. A matching set of Koni double adjustables and the same Eibach springs were used to damp and spring the rear end respectively.

It’s Where The Heart Is

For the heart of the beast, Chris knew he had to have an LS. So he selected a 5.3, which was sourced in North Carolina from a local wrecking yard, to provide motivation. Motor mounts from Metal Tech Manufacturing bolt the LS to a stock third-gen cross member that was notched in order to provide clearance for the 5.3’s oil pan.

“I was actually looking for the seats for the car when I ran into the engine for it,” Chris said. “I went to this junkyard and the guy had just pulled in this truck and had it running and everything. I asked him if he was planning on selling the motor. He said he was and then I asked if he was pulling the engine that day, he said ‘yeah’ and I said ‘I’ll be back in an hour to pick it up.’”

However, since this was no junkyard build, Chris tore the engine down completely in preparation for the new build. After sending the block to be lightly honed and inspected at a local engine shop, Chris rebuilt the engine himself from scratch. The stock internals were used but an LS9 cam was selected to tickle the valves in anticipation of boost. The stock 5.3 heads were also used and an LS6 intake was given the nod for induction duties.

For boost, Chris turned to a local company called TorqStorm for one of their billet supercharger setups. The kit he fit to the car was actually designed to be used with an 05-06 Pontiac GTO, but when Chris saw the kit, he figured he could make it fit the 5.3. After turning the mounting bracket around, and modifying it slightly, the supercharger was in and fitting like a glove. Once the head unit had a permanent home, Chris fabricated the entire cold side piping himself. This includes a custom 4-inch front mount intercooler that helps keep the inlet air temperatures in check.

To keep the 5.3 flush with fuel, Chris selected a plastic fuel tank donated from a fourth-gen F-body. The sender has been modified to facilitate a Walbro 255lph fuel pump and the car has been fitted with a Racetronix hot wire kit to keep the pump at full steam. 3/8-inch stainless steel hard lines carry fuel to the front of the car where it transitions to -8 AN lines that feed Holley fuel rails which are kept at a steady pressure by a Holley regulator. 80-pound Deka squirters are used to get the go-juice in the cylinders.

To evacuate spent exhaust gases, Chris opted for a pair of eBay headers which he said were “actually pretty decent.” Although he admits this is one area where he opted to finish on the cheap. The rest of the exhaust was custom fabricated and uses a MagnaFlow muffler to keep the exhaust note reasonable while still providing enough rumble to let passerbys know that this isn’t your average third-gen.

Backing the 5.3 is a 4L60 transmission, which is basically just an updated version of the 700r4 that originally came with the car. Chris went with a torque converter from a Trailblazer SS to give the car a little more leeway on launch RPM while keeping the car street-friendly. A P01 computer, combined with the wiring harness from the ’03 Silverado the engine was sourced form, runs the entire operation and keep the 5.3 mill happy.

While the car has never seen a dyno, Chris estimates the car was making in the neighborhood of 500 rear-wheel horsepower. Not too shabby for a car that originally hit the road making an anemic 190 horsepower at the flywheel! Chris tells us it was enough to light up the tires making the 2-3 shift.

Chris also ditched the pathetic stock front binders in favor of a set of four-piston calipers donated by a Cadillac CTS-V. This provides adequate stopping power considering the grunt that the third-gen now possesses.

But, like all good thing, they eventually come to an end. Chris felt that he had achieved all he could with the project and recently decided to move on to something else—specifically an LS-swapped ’67 Chevelle. Luckily the car passed into good hands. You can now find “Jonny Iroc” behind the wheel, and since taking possession of the car, the 5.3 unfortunately developed a knock and was replaced with an LS3 short-block which has a forged rotating assembly. Jonny also re-wired much of the lighting on the car and replaced everything with LED bulbs. He says he’s currently looking for a T56 six-speed manual to take the slush box’s spot.

We dare say that this particular IROC-Z is even cooler than the day it rolled into its first high school parking lot, and it sure is a hell of a lot faster. The only thing left to do is light up the tires on the way out of the 30 year reunion while screaming “Who’s lame now, Brad!?”

About the author

Chase Christensen

Chase Christensen hails from Salt Lake City, and grew up around high-performance GM vehicles. He took possession of his very first F-body— an ’86 Trans Am— at the age of 13 and has been wrenching ever since.
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