Some of the less obvious things that we build into our projects are the memories that are formed in the midst of milestones, engineering challenges, and busted knuckles. Justin Arias came from a family of racers, as you would expect, being the grandson of Nick Arias, the founder of Arias Pistons and later Arias Performance Engines.
Justin borrowed money from his grandfather to purchase this El Camino in 2014 with the intention of building the car with him. He figured it would be a great way for them to bridge the generation gap in a way they both enjoyed. As with many projects, the needs of family life and daily concerns soon overcame the hope of bright chrome and banging gears.
Sadly, Justin’s grandfather passed away on January 2, 2017, and as you can guess, Justin was devastated. “I didn’t even want to look at it,” he says. The car languished on a property in Beaumont, California, for a few years until Justin started working on the car again as a form of therapy after a recent divorce. But, instead of building memories with his grandfather, Justin decided to build the car as a tribute to the man who invested so much into him, his family, and the automotive realm.
Building The Hemi Head LS El Camino
One of Nick Arias’ famous quotes was, “It takes a Hemi to beat a Hemi!” and that’s exactly what he did. Anyone who has had the pleasure of laying eyes on an Arias Performance engine quickly notes the massive Arias hemispherical heads atop the block. Many folks don’t know that Arias was a Chevy guy at heart and used that same hemispherical technology for those LS-based engines as well. You could say that Justin’s ‘Camino is an LS-swap, but since it was going to be a tribute to Nick, there was only one set of heads that would do the project justice.
The heads were designed by Nick to mate onto an LQ9 LS engine, a 6.0-liter Gen-III small block engine used in GM trucks between 2002 and 2007. In Justin’s case, the heads were to be the star of the engine compartment, so when it came time to source a block, he went to the folks at World Products for one of their cast-iron Motown/LS small-block castings. The Motown/LS block features all the goodness of the LS-based intake tract with the bolt-in ease of a small-block Chevy V8.
The transfer from memory-maker to tribute included many other facets from the bygone era of drag racing. Justin sums it up by saying, “I just wanted to experience something as close as I could to the real deal, which was just ‘the deal’ back in the day.” You could look at the car and say that it still does both tasks quite well.
The Camino’s high-nose stance, fender headers, and pie-crust cheater slicks give the car a solid ‘60s vibe and the list of performance stickers act more as a summation of friends than an indicator of horsepower. Down deep in that block resides an Isky cam and lifters, just behind it is an Ansen scatter shield. That Vertex mag was built by Tom Cirello and drives the tach that once documented the revs in his father’s (Nick Arias III) dragster. The diaper clip on the mag only deepens the memories amid the tribute truck.
Justin set a completion date of January 20, 2022, his grandfather’s birthday. With a deadline in sight, Justin had a new-found drive to see the car completed in time. He says, “Every day I woke up thinking, ‘What can I do today?’ It’s what got me out of bed.” The Hemi-headed engine came to life in September of 2021 and went to the dyno for a few shakedown runs. In the end, the “little” 406 engine churned out 678 horsepower.
Justin’s El Camino moved under its own power for the first time just one day ahead of the deadline. The next day, Justin drove his creation to the cemetery for a formal introduction to the man who inspired the build. Justin intends to continue visiting Nick’s final resting place every year on his birthday with the El Camino. “I miss the hell out of him,” Justin says, and while nothing could ever replace spending time with his grandfather, these moments give Justin a way to still share moments with the man.
We first heard about Justin and his awesome 1966 El Camino through a YouTube video posted by Four Speed Films. Do yourself a favor and check out the video. It’s not only a documentary on the build of a way-cool, Hemi-Chevy, but it also gives you insight into the history of hot rodding and the families that grew up around it. Our thanks to Ben and the folks at Four Speed films for putting it together.