Classic 1964 El Camino drag racer goes fast in style

by Sam Barer

As a child, Bret Swearingen raced his friends on tricycles.  He cannot recall losing, explaining why he spent much of his teens at the drag strip piloting his self-modified VW Beetle to eleven-second quarter-miles, a mark besting stock modern Dodge Vipers by a full second.

Like most weekend warriors, work and family soon took priority and Swearingen stopped racing, although he never stopped restoring and hot rodding cars. Three years ago car-crazy Swearingen left his job at Boeing to open Madrona Autoworks in Olympia, WA providing him the opportunity to make racing a part of his life. So when Swearingen found a 1964 Chevrolet El Camino for sale, he jumped at the opportunity to use it as a starting point to create a classic muscle car dragster.

Long before modern sport trucks like the Ford Lightning, the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino proved the demand for combining performance and light-duty hauling in a stylish package.  During the height of the 60s muscle car era, gearheads found that tuning the lightweight Chevelle-based El Caminos resulted in ultimate sleeper stoplight and quarter-mile bandits.

At 38, Swearingen is too young to have been racing down Main Street in the 60s, but he knows all the old hot rodder’s go-fast tricks, not to mention a treasure chest full of new ones.  With the help of his wunderkind chief mechanic Adam Cummings, he transformed this 1964 El Camino from a stock vehicle with no drivetrain or electricals, into a classic dragstrip monster.

The black car, mini-truck, truck-car, car-truck, trar, cruck, or trucklet, or whatever you choose to call it, maintains its cool lines with mostly stock panels, but shows its intentions with titanic 28.5” by 18.5” drag tires and fuel cell consuming the rear bed and a high-rise hood up front.  There’s no doubt, this ain’t your grandpa’s yard-waste hauler.

The classic 283ci V8 originally motivating this 1964 El Camino has given way to a gleaming 476ci big block V8 engine running 13.5:1 compression.  Expensive racing fuel is sucked-down like it’s nickel beer night through the Holley Dominator 1050CFM carburetor.  All told, this combination puts out over 700 horsepower.

Swearingen and Cummings finished the vehicle late this summer, and only have one drag strip session on the engine.  On its maiden voyage, Swearingen piloted the El Camino to an eleven-second-flat quarter mile.  Not bad, considering that he was running conservatively to learn the car.

Climbing through the rollcage I plop into the wide flat seat in the largely stock interior.  Swearingen even decided to keep the thin, large diameter steering wheel.  Aftermarket racing tachometer, oil and water temp gauges have been added. 

With a turn of the key, the engine growls to life.  The whole car shakes as each cylinder fires.  I clip the competition seat belt as Swearingen slides the two-speed Powerglide transmission into gear.  The car rumbles out of the large bay door and out on the street. Yes folks, this ten-second capable quarter mile car is 100 percent street legal with full mufflers and lights.

Onto the road we go.  The ride is very compliant, but the car understeers heavily due to skinny front tires and lack of a differential.  With no warning, Swearingen lays his foot into the throttle just a little, which produces enough force to slam my cranium back into the rollcage.  I scoot down in the passenger seat to produce more headroom and grab the rollbar at my knees for support.

On Swearingen’s favorite strip of safe, private road, he demonstrates the raw power of this monster machine.  After instructing me to take my “courage pills,” he drops the floor-mounted shifter into low, applies the brake and proceeds to warm the tires with a smoky burnout.  The engine revs with a thunderous roar and the car slides sideways.  He punches the throttle, and in what can be described as the closest thing to being the human cannonball, the car surges with a dragon’s roar from the engine.  My whole body is propelled into the seat springs.

In a matter of seconds Swearingen lifts from the throttle.  I feel the need to call my wife to say: “I survived”…and describe the feeling of having 700-plus horsepower shove you squarely in the backside.  

Sam Barer writes for Apex, an Olympia, WA based freelance writing company. To submit a car for a future “Sound Classics” story, email

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