The FREE Complete Bay Area Auto Enthusiast Guide

By KENNETH HALL – Motoring Tampa Bay correspondent
John Benitoa, of Lutz, has always loved older cars. As a young boy, he was infatuated with a photo of a 1963 Chevy Nova his father had once owned. When he was 10 years old, Benitoa used $40 he had earned mowing lawns to purchase a tunnel ram at a swap meet in Bradenton, telling his dad that it would go on a car he would build one day. That day came sooner than one might expect.
“When I was 13, my dad, two uncles and I went to look at a 1963 Chevy Nova SS that a guy in St. Petersburg was selling,” Benitoa recalls. “It was just a shell with no motor or interior. I paid $360 for it.”
There were no companies selling remanufactured parts 27 years ago so it took many visits to swap meets and junk yards to find all of the parts he needed to build the Nova. That did not stop Benitoa from continually working on the car.
“I would come home from school, do my homework and then work on the car every night,” Benitoa says. A lot of people chipped in to help make this my first car, including friends, my dad and my uncles.”
At age 14, Benitoa bought a 1976 Camaro Z28 for $500 because his dad had built the engine and he wanted it for the Nova.
“It is a 355 cubic-inch small block Chevy engine with a 30/30 Duntov cam, two Holley 600 carburetors and Hooker headers. With the tunnel ram, it produces roughly 500 horsepower,” Benitoa explains. “It is crazy that my dad let me have a car with so much horsepower at 14.”
Although Benitoa used his lawn mowing money to purchase most of the parts for the build, some essential elements were gifted to him, such as the nine-inch Ford rear end with a 4.56 gear from his father and the Turbo 350 automatic transmission from his uncle. His grandfather gave him $1,500 to outfit the interior.
Benitoa replaced all of the glass with original parts salvaged from junk yards and purchased spools of wire to painstakingly rewire the car. He installed the front end with salvaged original parts, reconditioned all four drum brakes, fabricated steel to replace rusted floors and installed a two-and-a-half inch, two-chamber Flowmaster exhaust system. He had Custom Classics paint the car Porsche Guards red.
“The interior is the same as the original except that I used tweed instead of vinyl,” Benitoa says. “I used Honda Prelude bucket seats because I did not want a bench seat in front, and all of the seats have a red Chevy bowtie logo embossed in the seat backs. The gauges are all original, although I added a three gauge cluster under the dash and a large tachometer on top of the dash. I cut a hole in the dashboard to install a digital radio and that is the one regret I have about the car.”
Benitoa finished the Nova 27 years ago and has since done only basic maintenance on the car, but he is planning to upgrade the car with a Muncie four-speed transmission, a new front end from remanufactured parts, a new gas tank, four Wildwood disc brakes, a vintage air conditioning system, a Griffin aluminum radiator and Vintique original style steel wheels.
The 63 Nova has sentimental value since it is the first car he and his dad built together. Although he jokes that he will be buried in the car, he has stipulated in his will that it will go to his 5-year-old daughter Tessa, who loves it just as much as he does.
“It only weighs about 2,300 pounds with almost 500 horsepower, so it is scary fast and fun to drive,” Benitoa says. “It gets a lot of attention, mostly because of how it sounds. It is like a member of the family.”

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