Father And Son COVID-19 Le Mans Project

They say, “When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade!” But Dean Burris and his 15-year-old son Gavin, have added a slight twist to that age-old saying. Like everyone else pretty much around the globe, they are dealing with their fair share of lemons during this face-mask covered calendar year. But, unlike many who choose to use this time to grow beards and attract flies, this family is committed to not only creating something they can be very proud of but also building some life-long memories in the process.

The car was basically pulled out of a field (top) and in a few short weeks, was well on its way to becoming the low-buck street sweeper Dean envisioned (bottom).

Instead of using lemons as the main ingredient, the Burris family instead started off with a Pontiac variant in a 1971 Le Mans. For many, this type is much tastier, but just like the tree-grown type, the Burris’ Le Mans was also found in a field. “We found the car on Marketplace in Odessa, Texas, about five hours away, Dean recalls. “It was in a big field with a house and lots of projects sitting around. It was UGLY and very rough looking, but super-straight and rust-free. Every door and trunk opened and shut perfectly. I asked my wife Emily to trust me. ‘It’s ugly but solid. I can make it work,’ so off the next day we went to get it.

When everyone started looking suspiciously at anyone who coughed, fearing they might bring something home they didn’t want, the Burris family brought home this project with the intent that it would give them something to do while social life took a bit of a sabbatical. The car would be something they could all work on, and in the past 13 weeks, they have transformed it into a low-buck hot rod the entire family can enjoy.

One of the keys to a successful, low-buck build is knowing what to keep and what to toss. The ol' Poncho motor has served the car well, but it was soon replaced in the name of simplicity, expediency, and PERFORMANCE! On the other hand, most of the interior was simply cleaned, hemmed, and dyed a darker shade of black, ready for its new lease on life in the Burris' hot rod.

Dean explained in a post on the Sloppy Mechanics Facebook page the goal was simply to build the car to drive and have fun. “My son and I started this COVID broke-boy build about 13 weeks ago,” he says.  “Everything was done on the tightest budget to get it on the road to have fun. Being out of work due to COVID has sucked but getting this time with my son has been amazing and probably one of the best moments ever!!”

The project started out as a way to make use of the spare time the Burris family found themselves dealing with, just like so many others. Turning wrenches soon turned into life-long memories for the entire family and they’ve got an awesome street cruiser to enjoy!

They say, “There are three ways to build a car; cheap, good, or quickly. You can pick only two!” The car that came together in the Burris garage in only 13 weeks would definitely get the “quickly” checkmark from us, and with a judicious choice of new parts and re-use of many old ones, budgeting was definitely a consideration. And, if the comments in the Facebook post are any indicator, the Burris’ may have even proven that in our modern age of mail-order parts, the old saying is no longer relevant when planning a build.

Dean explains, “The first thing, we had to make it not look like a turd in the driveway, to keep from pissing off the HOA. That started with doing the necessary bodywork in a single weekend, pulling two 14-hour days. I had a buddy help us with the vinyl wrap, which is Avery’s Charcoal Metallic (gunmetal) matte, which helped hide bodywork.

Something Old Something New

The only way such a plate tectonic shift around the laws of car-building physics could occur is from a careful consideration when filling the trash bins with old parts. Making use of what the car already had was key to keeping the costs low, but sweat equity is the secret ingredient that brings in the additional value where the sum is more than the parts of the equation. Dean explains the situation perfectly. “I was quoted $4k to have it painted and $2k for interior and $1200 to redo the vinyl top,” he said. “That would have been $7200 in body and interior, so yeah, the budget was stitching seats and dyeing, rattle cans, and wrapping it myself at a 1/10 of the cost.”

After the bodywork was complete, the car was wrapped instead of painted. A new set of springs keep the rear from sagging and the interior was refreshed with rattle-cans and Dean's custom woodworking skill for the center console. Wheels are a set of 18x9.5 and 18x8 Riddler Boss knock-offs that Dean acquired for $450.

Dean’s wife spent about 5 hours using a fishing line and a needle to pull the split seems back together in the seats before he dyed both them and the interior panels black with Dupli-Color vinyl and fabric dye and matte-black plastic paint, respectively. He also installed a $150 dash cover and some new carpeting he purchased on Amazon. To keep heat and noise down, he bought roof seal rolls from Home Depot and “dyno matted” the whole inside. Altogether, Dean says he has about $250 in all the interior, minus the console and shifter.

While going through the car they found a stack of paperwork, including the original assembly line build sheet and contract from the dealership. Someone traded in a 1969 Impala for the Pontiac in 1971. They also found receipts from 2012 for machine work done on the original 350. “We knew the car was parked in 2013. I told Emily, ‘This thing may run then!’ We put some radiator hoses on it, a new battery, and gas in it. Sure enough, it fired up! We drove it all over the neighborhood that day.”

The snazzy center console was created through CAD (Cardboard-Aided-Design) and hand-fitted by Dean to the final shape using sandpaper. He reports there is about a week's worth of work in getting everything how he wanted it.

The one place where Dean didn’t scrimp was on the center console. Being a woodworker, he hand-fabricated a custom piece out of wood, finishing its final shape by hand-sanding to the desired form. Dean reports that he has about a week’s worth of work just in the console, which was then covered in black vinyl. Then, it was stuffed with blue LEDs, which came directly to him, thanks to his wife’s Prime membership. A non-negotiable item centered around gear selection. “The B&M ratchet shifter was a must-have for me in a muscle car. That was a big cost at $300.” The fun is well worth the investment.

Mailbox Powerhouse

Okay, when you’re looking for something to do on a budget, using readily-available performance parts on a proven platform, how many of you instantly defaulted to using a 1970s Pontiac V-8? Yeah, neither did Dean. Instead, he opted for the tried and true 6.0L LS family as a starting point. He explains his decision, “I used to work with LS motors years ago.” Familiarity is also, definitely a consideration.

“I bought a ‘good running’ 6.0L off Marketplace for $700,” he begins. “The plan was to tear it down to just the short block and build it back up again with new gaskets and a cheap Amazon turbo kit. When we went to remove the cam, we found two cam bearings were seized to the cam. Good running? My neighbor works weekends at Morgan & Son Machine Shop. He said they build a lot of the street outlaw motors. They did all the machine work with new rod bearings, upgraded rings, and crank bearings for $820.”

There's no doubting the LS family of engines are favored for their power potential. When you add goodies like a turbo and front-mounted intercooler, things get interesting in a hurry!

To round out the package, Dean then went to the world-renowned, performance-parts warehouse called Amazon. They say you can get about anything from this mail-order mogul, and you’ll even get it quicker with your Prime membership! That’s exactly what Dean did while decking out this engine for street duty. We could sit here at the keyboard and keystroke in each line item, but thankfully, Dean and Gavin made a short video that explains it all pretty well.

“I spent some money where I needed so we could run boost safely, like the 350lph fuel pump, 60lb injectors (wish I had gotten snake eaters), and the Holley Terminator X EFI unit,” he said. “Everything else is Amazon (china) stuff, like the 92mm throttle body, TBSS intake, a catch can, turbo kit, and so on. I figured I could upgrade to the good stuff down the road.”

Dean was able to sell the car’s original engine for $1,000, which paid to get the TH350 transmission rebuilt and bought a TCI, 3,200 rpm stall converter.

And the road is exactly where Dean intends on putting this fine ride. When asked if this car is for him or his son, he laid it out pretty clearly, “Oh hell naw! This is dad’s! We are going to start a build for him next. We’re thinking maybe a ‘74 to ‘79 Nova, Omega, or Arcadia. Something you can still find pretty cheap and do a 4.8L or 5.3L swap with. Something we can add parts to as he learns to drive and show responsibility.”

Even though Gavin’s dad may do the bulk of the driving in the Pontiac, he can be proud of what his family has accomplished. The experience gained from their first build will make his ride even better!

Dean wrapped up the project’s success, “I don’t know what we would have done these last few months with all the downtime,” he said. “Everything for this has simply fallen into place like it was meant to be. Connecting with a teenager is hard but this car has been one of the best things ever for us. He is hooked and a hardcore car guy now. He just soaks in all the info now and wants more. Next, we will build him a first car!”

With the speed and awesomeness this hands-on family churned out their first project, and with the memories and experience gained by doing it, we’d bet it won’t be long before there’s another car sitting in the Burris’ garage. We don’t know how long this current situation will last, but at this rate, the Burris family should be able to churn out another cool car or two before we put all the masks away for good.

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About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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