Like a lot of hot rodders I’ve talked to for Garage Hot Rods, Crystal Murray has spent several years balancing her time and money to restore her really sharp 1980 Camaro Z28.
There is one big difference, however. Crystal’s put in about six years of work on her Chevy, and she’s just 19 years old.
She was 12 when she got the Camaro. With such an early start, you might have already guessed that she comes from a hot rod family.
“My family has always been into cars,” Crystal told me. “My mom also has a 1980 Camaro. My dad had a ‘67 Chevelle. My brother Ryan has a Dart and a Camaro.”
Interestingly, the acquisition of her Z28 and Ryan’s Dart were both tied to their birthdays. But not the way you’re probably thinking.
“My brother got his Dart on MY birthday,” she said. “So I got kind of jealous of that. Six months later, near the time of HIS birthday, he found an ad on Criag’s List for my car.”
And there’s another birthday connection for Crystal and the Z. They have the same birthday. Last year, the Camaro turned 40 the same day Crystal turned 19.
Ryan thought they should fix up the Camaro and just resell it and make a profit. But Crystal had other plans. “I saw it and I kind of fell in love with it,” she said. “I made a deal with my mom that if I worked on it myself and I restored it, then I could keep it.”
Crystal’s mom agreed. And although Crystal had grown up watching her dad and brother work on their cars, it was a pretty courageous deal for her to make because her personal experience in mechanics was pretty limited.
“It was just small things,” she recalled. “I think I helped bleed brakes. The whole idea behind me getting the car was for me to learn how to do everything on my own. That way I’d have the experience. And I knew if I had any questions I could count on my brother and dad.”
In addition to being responsible for doing the work on the Camaro, Crystal was also responsible for paying for the restoration. She didn’t have a lot of money left after the purchase of the car, so the Camaro sat at her Grandmother’s house for about a year.
Once she’d saved up enough money to get started, she and Ryan went to their Grandmother’s to drive the Camaro home. When they tried to start the car, a huge puff of smoke billowed out from under the hood.
“We found out that the guy who had it ran the starter wires through the headers,” Crystal told me. “But he didn’t put any heat shielding around the wires. The heat from the headers melted through the insulation.”
From that point on Crystal’s brother called the car “Fireball”. Crystal prefers to call it “Ruby”.
They fixed the starter wires and drove the Z28 home. After some minor mechanical work, Crystal’s first big job was to repair the leak that was coming from the Turbo Hydramatic 350. She didn’t have a lift, so with the help of her brother and dad, they removed the transmission with the car just on jack stands. She described it as “a very interesting experience.”
Crystal rebuilt the TH350, but unfortunately there was still a very minor leak. She learned to live with it for a little while, but eventually that leak got worse and she dove into fixing it again. Turns out the fluid was leaking from the dipstick. Crystal tried to reseal it with a new O-ring, but that didn’t stop the leak. Then she installed a new grommet-style dipstick. Problem solved.
The transmission was rebuilt with standard GM parts, and drives the stock rear end. Crystal says she knows the rear end is not a Positraction unit because “it only spins one tire.”
Ruby’s 350 small block was in good shape when Crystal got it. It is largely stock with the exception of an open element air cleaner on top of the GM four-barrel, and headers that feed the dual exhaust system with an X pipe. There’s another birthday connection with the Thrush mufflers Ryan gave her for a birthday present a couple of years ago.
Crystal’s Z-car is still using the factory A-arm and coil spring front, and rear leaf springs suspension. The front suspension has been completely rebuilt, and Crystal’s recently installed air shocks on the rear. The Z still uses the factory power steering and brakes, with disks up front and drums in the rear.
While the Chevy was in pretty good shape overall, that was not true for the interior, which to date has been Crystal’s biggest project. She replaced the carpet, headliner, door panels… well, pretty much everything. Although the seats are original, Crystal’s put new seat covers on them.
One thing Crystal didn’t replace is the dashboard. “It would have been really expensive and I didn’t have the money for it,” she said. “I got Dupli-Color Vinyl & Fabric Coating and sprayed it black. It came out really, really nice.” The refurbished dash contains the stock Chevy gauges.
When I asked if the paint was in good condition when she got the car, Crystal answered with a resounding “No! I liked the color but the old paint had clear coat peeling everywhere. If you brushed your hand on the car a bunch of clear coat would just fall off.”
Another problem with the paint was the Camaro was completely red when Crystal got it. Completely. Everything was the same color and Crystal didn’t like it. She got a can of black spray paint and painted the spoiler and hood scoop grill and headlight bezels. That helped the looks immediately, and then Ruby got a new coat of new paint, with a color very similar to the original.
The finishing touch for the exterior were the Z28 stripes Crystal applied in March. “I’d been waiting for that for so long,” she told me. “Most of the stripes have the three stages of color. I wanted solid black. I finally found them on Etsy.” A set of factory Z28 wheels complete the look of the exterior.
Crystal has kept her Chevy very close to factory original in appearance and mechanics. And that’s the way she wants it. “I made a deal with my grandma before she passed away,” she said, “that I would keep the car the way it is. I like the old school look.”
With her desire to keep the Camaro largely stock, Crystal says it’s pretty much done except for the regular maintenance it will need. With no major modifications planned, she’s free to work on, show, and drive her Chevy, all while she’s settling in as a freshman at the University of Arizona, where Crystal is starting her second semester as an Animal Science major.
Crystal really enjoys working on the Camaro. I was struck by the photos she’s posted to Instagram showing her up inside wheel wells, underneath the dashboard, and stretched across the engine to do the work that needs to be done. “I try to do as much as I can by myself,” she said.
Amazingly – in a bad way – Crystal’s high school wouldn’t let her take the automotive class they offered. Pretty much everything she knows about working on cars has come from her brother and dad. Unfortunately, her dad now has health issues which prevent him from actively working on cars, but Crystal still has Ryan to count on if she needs assistance. “Every time I have a question,” she says, “he’ll come over and help me.”
Crystal and Ruby are very involved with the local car show scene, winning some awards along the way. “I would take the car to every show we had,” Crystal said, “even when it just had the driver’s seat in it. I even took it up there when the interior was completely stripped out of it. Everyone got to see the progress as it came along.”
But she doesn’t just participate with her Camaro. She’s been helping run car shows around her town since she was 12, about the same time she got the Z28. She started out doing registration, and after doing that for a few years, got promoted to being a judge.
Of course, when you have a classic muscle car, the best thing to do is drive it. “When I was in high school I drove it every day I could,” Crystal said. “It actually had its own little spot at school where I would try to keep it away from everyone else.”
There’s been lots of work over all these years, but Crystal says, “I still love it. I feel so comfortable in it. It just has a good feel to it. Going down the road, there’s nothing that compares.”
That sounds like the wise perspective of an experienced hot rodder.
All photos courtesy of Crystal Murray
Click here to see more photos of her Z28
You can follow Crystal on Instagram via @crystal1980z28