LS-Heaven: Steve Fenimore’s LS7-Powered ’65 GTO

You know, there are many great pairings in life — chocolate and peanut butter, tank tops with bikini bottoms, and a Brady-to-Gronk pass, to name a few. In this article, we offer another great combo: a 1965 GTO with an LS7 motor. Although its owner went to hell and back twice, he ended up in LS heaven.

So It Begins

Like all car people, 65-year-old Long Island native Steve Fenimore’s automotive journey didn’t just materialize out of thin air. It began long ago, when he was an impressionable red-blooded American teen, with dreams in his heart and cars on the brain. Steve gives credit for his horsepower-indoctrination to his uncle Johnny. As Steve recalls, Johnny was always a big car guy, buying and wrenching on muscle cars his whole life.

At the ripe age of 18, Steve was able to buy his first car, his grandfather’s ’65 Pontiac LeMans. Grandpa’s decade-old daily steed was a 326 cubic-inch V8 car with a two-speed Hydra-Matic transmission.

With a wealth of wrenching experience from his uncle, Steve restored grandpa’s Le Mans, installing a proper four-speed manual in the process. Over the next decade, Steve put 100,000 interstate miles on the odometer before rebuilding the bulletproof 326-inch powerplant. He then tacked on another 130,000 miles before his tenure would end.

Life

Steve’s life wasn’t just all fun and engine builds. He attended Farmingdale State College on Long Island, majoring in the lofty field of automotive engineering. His academics were shortened, however, when Johnny helped land a very promising job. For 10 years, from 1980-90, Steve honed his skills as a technical writer, focused on early satellite communications for military contracts. Steve eventually became a general contractor and started his construction company, a venture that he continues today.

Over the years, Steve had many machines, including a 1973 401 cubic-inch V8 AMX and a plethora of Japanese café racer motorcycles. Steve’s need for speed was ever-present, but as the story goes, his family and career came first.

By 2006, his affairs secure, Steve felt it was time to embark on a new pursuit. With visions of his grandfather’s Le Mans in his head, Steve was ready to go one-up on his past. So he began looking for a ’65 GTO.On a still young eBay, Steve first found a yellow ’65 Goat but was quickly outbid and lost it. Undeterred, he went back to the drawing board, or in this case, the computer. His next leads required flying to the buckeye state of Ohio, where he investigated not one but two ’65s, both for naught.

Batting cleanup, Steve flew to Oklahoma, where he laid eyes on a two-owner, 265,000-mile example. Originally a factory Iris Mist, the 389 cubic-inch engine, four-barrel carburetor, four-speed car had a 3.36:1 axle rear and no power steering. The second owner had fully restored the Goat in 1998, including stunning Torch Red paint, adding power brakes, and dropping in a RamAir III 400 cubic-inch Pontiac V8.

The Truth Hurts

Steve wasted little time getting behind the wheel after slapping down $22,000 and waiting three weeks for the Reliable Carrier to arrive from the midwest. Although the ’65 GTO was a restored car in excellent condition, Steve was less than impressed with its old-school driving characteristics. Specifically, the archaic manual steering, which required Schwarzenegger-like strength to maneuver. Thus, by his own skilled hands, Steve installed a power steering box. Unfortunately, no NOS or aftermarket kits were available at this time, so he scoured and sourced all period-correct GM componentry from a nearby salvage yard. In addition, he utilized some Chevy Chevelle pieces, which shared the GTO’s A-body platform.

Next on the list was the Ram Air III Pontiac mill. But, again, Steve felt the legendary motor wasn’t pulling its weight. So, he brought the GTO in for a dyno test/tune. Initial numbers were lackluster, to say the least, with only 185 horsepower at the wheels. But After a little hot-rodding magic, the dyno found an additional 100 ponies, putting 285 horsepower to the wheels.

After restoring the Goat’s lost mojo, a more distressing issue persisted: the Poncho’s powerplant was leaking oil from its front harmonic balancer seal. Steve repeatedly tried to fix the problem but to no avail. At this point, he recruited help from his GTO-expert friend Perry, who helped Sherlock Holmes with the engine serial numbers. But, unfortunately, it seems the Ram Air III motor was not that at all. Instead, it was a 400-cube Pontiac V8 out of a ’70 Catalina, dressed with RA III cylinder heads, and it was still leaking.

With these truths apparent, Steve waxed nostalgic. He remembered how he always yearned for a vintage muscle car but fitted with a modern, fuel-injected powerplant. So, after only six months of ownership, Steve pointed his iconic arrowhead towards resto-modification and never looked back.

Out With The Old, In With An LS2

Initially, Steve purchased a tried-and-true 5.7-liter LS1. But soon after taking delivery, he discovered the same site was offering a 1,200-mile LS2 married to its Tremec close-ratio T56 six-speed out of a wrecked ’06 GTO. A quick call secured the return and exchange. So now, Steve had a modern 6.0-liter with 400 horsepower 400 lb-ft of torque and modern manual tranny, straight out of the 40-year successor to his classic ’65.

Steve tackled the installation himself, including cutting and fabricating a new tranny tunnel and installing the necessary electronics, ECU, and harnesses. Steve was hands-on with every aspect of his ’65, except for bodywork and paint.

Steve didn’t stop with the motor and tranny swap — he lowered the potent Poncho on its stock suspension with the aid of 2-inch drop spindles. He also ensured the LS power got to the ground, via an aluminum driveshaft, a heavy-duty Moser, Ford 9-inch Truetrac Posi rearend, with an aluminum center section and 3.89 axle gears.

To haul the new hardware down from speed, Steve fitted a Baer C4 Corvette brake kit to the front and rear wheels, consisting of 13-inch slotted/drilled/vented rotors with two-piston front and single-piston calipers in the rear.

On the inside, Steve applied an appropriate upgrade by installing power front buckets from an ’06 GTO wrapped in leather and had the stock rear seats recovered to match. As a final step to increase structural rigidity, Steve box-welded the front section of the frame back to the transmission crossmember.

Catastrophe

By late 2007, Steve’s tenure with his ’65 GTO was only a year-in and barely six months since resto-modification. He loved his modernized rendition of Pontiac’s great one. And then tragedy struck.

On the way back from a cruise, Steve exited the highway, decreasing his speed from 75 to 35 mph. Taking a backroad home, he recalls hitting a patch of uneven pavement and hearing a disturbing noise. The following seconds were any driver’s worst nightmare, as the driver’s side front drop spindle snapped, allowing the wheel to back off of the hub and rise into the wheel well. As the GTO continued its forward momentum, the loose wheel found its way beneath the car, where it fought to make its exit under incredible force.

Still able to steer with one front wheel, Steve pulled the car to the shoulder. Just as the renegade wheel shot free, it somehow began to roll back toward Steve and his wounded GTO. Like a linebacker, Steve stepped to the side of the oncoming wheel, shoving it away before more harm ensued.

Dreading to look, like at an opened wound, Steve inspected his GTO. The damage was extensive. The incredible pressure and weight of the car at speed, and the rolling resistance of the trapped tire and wheel, compressed between the vehicle and the road, had shifted and unbalanced the entire body. Every single panel was out of alignment, causing jammed shut lines and frayed edges. Yet, remarkably and unexplainable, the underside of the car was undamaged.

The Saviors

Once the insurance gave the OK, Steve began his reconnoiter for a shop. He moved on a recommendation for King O’Rourke Cadillac in Smithtown, New York. Here, body shop wizards Brian and Joe applied their talents and expertise. They realigned every panel, sanded the entire body, and reshot the single-stage Torch Red paint. After four months of work, Steve’s ’65 GTO was restored to its recent glory.

Now, Steve got back on his horse, or his Goat, so to speak, and enjoyed his new-old GTO to the fullest. He put on miles with smiles for the next decade, cruising with modern muscle in vintage style.

Go Big or Go Home: The LS7

Steve’s youthful aspiration drove him to install the LS2 into his vintage Pontiac. But like most car folk, Steve wanted more….namely, the omnipotent 427 cubic-inch big-block from GM’s muscle car heyday. Steve contemplated supercharging his LS2, but he wanted to stay naturally-aspirated.

The answer came as if it were destiny. While trolling online, Steve discovered a 4,300-mile LS7 out of a 2006 C6 Z06. Bargaining down the $12,000 asking price, Steve grabbed the LS masterpiece for $10,000.

The hand-built LS7 is legendary and exclusive to the 2006-’13 Z06 Corvette and 2014-’15 Camaro Z/28. Although the all-aluminum LS7 is technically a medium-displacement motor, it’s bored to big-block proportions of 7.0-liters or 427 cubic inches. In stock form, it has 11.0:1 compression and puts down 505 horsepower and 470lb-ft of torque with an incredible 7,100 rpm range.

A Match Made in Heaven

After moving the LS2 to a guy with a 1965 Chevelle project, Steve began his labor of love. First, he beautified the firewall, preparing it for Brian from King O’Rourke to apply paint. Next, he installed and married the mighty LS7 to the existing T-56 transmission. Then, over the next six months, he toiled-re-wiring the entire car with the appropriate ECU/electronics, adding Vintage A/C, a larger radiator, heat-coated Hooker Blackheart 304-S/S mid-length headers, and a full 3-inch, mandrel-bent exhaust with Magnaflow mufflers.

It seems this exceptional Chevy motor was the perfect fit for Steve’s resto-Poncho. With a full liter more of displacement and 105 horsepower more than his LS2, Steve boasts the ability to cook the rear meats at 85 mph in third gear. Needless to say, he was in heaven.

Knockout Blow

The power of the LS7 is both exhilarating and quite the handful. Unfortunately, Steve became aware of the latter one spring day in 2019. He was on the service road of the Long Island Expressway when he down-shifted and tapped the throttle to pass a Jeep. Of course, tapping the throttle in a 500-plus horsepower stick-shift car is kind of an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. Anyway, Steve describes hitting a divot in the road – all too common in New York. Then, the front wheels jerked violently to the right, careening the GTO into the steel guard rail. It was over in a flash, and this time Steve was not unscathed. He hit the steering wheel on the way to the windshield. Thankfully he only incurred a few facial stitches and a sore torso. His GTO, however, fared much worse.

The Goat’s front end was smashed. Detailed inspection revealed a bent frame – crumpled 18-inches, a damaged firewall, and misaligned body panels. Even so, the first Hagerty adjuster on scene felt $17,000 would get the GTO rolling again. Steve knew this was wishful thinking and quickly requested another agent who rationally totaled the car.

Now, Steve had a decision to make: lick his wounds, move on and start over or, rebuild the car he loved that he had put countless money, time, and passion into. So, without a second thought, he bought the car from the insurance company for $11,000 and had the boys at O’Rourke start working on straightening the frame.

Pandemic Project

Even with all their experience, skill, and equipment, Brian and Joe quickly realized the frame was lost. So, Steve’s first rebuild task was sourcing a new frame from a ’65 Le Mans. He then box-welded the entire structure, installed a tubular frame-brace kit, and appropriately modified the front cradle so that the dry-sump-oiled LS7 would sit properly.

Then, he went about installing all-new front suspension components, including Global West upper control arms and Viking double-adjustable front shocks. He then sent the body-on-frame back to the boys at O’Rourke so that they could work their magic.

Once the GTO was straight and gleaming again, Steve took possession for final assembly and added a new Dakota Digital analog gauge cluster. Steve estimates working on the ’65, 12 hours a day during the height of the pandemic.

The Comeback Kid

After four months of blood, sweat, and lockdowns, by May of 2020 Steve’s ’65 GTO was back on the road with its LS7 roaring like a tiger. Since that fateful spring, Steve has enjoyed his red resto- Goat to the tune of 7,000 miles so far.

Steve’s ’65 draws a crowd wherever he goes. But when onlookers see what’s lurking beneath that long hood, eyes widen and faces strain under the pressure of accepting smiles.

The story of Steve’s ’65 GTO is one of perseverance. It’s a dream, with some nightmarish happenings — very high ups and low, low downs. But in the end, after a couple of trips through hell, Steve’s 427 powered GTO keeps him cruising in LS Heaven. 

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About the author

Andrew Nussbaum

Pontiac possessed by Smokey and the Bandit at 6 years old, and cultivated through the '80s by GTAs, IROCS and Grand Nationals, Andrew hails from Queens NY and has been writing freelance for ten years.
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