The BLOCK Crew had the distinct pleasure of meeting James Harris, co-owner of D&J's Muscle Cars, at last year's PRI Show in Orlando, Fla., and from the moment we started speaking with him on the floor of the Orange County Convention Center, we knew were dealing with a really talented, down-to-earth guy whose passion for Chevrolet Performance could not be tamped down. Ever since he began wrenching on his grandfather's '55 Chevy pickup as a kid, his destiny to become a serious engine builder seemed clear-cut.
That's not to say James' road hasn’t had its challenges, but he along with shop partner, Doc (The "D" in D&J's Muscle Cars) have been quietly (sometimes not so quietly!) and steadily grinding away in their small Northern California speed shop.
James Harris first met Gene "Doc" Teasley about 20 years back and the two became fast friends. Known in west coast Pro Stock drag racing circles, Doc's unique firsthand insight on high-horsepower motors for drag racing applications has enabled D&J's Muscle Cars to cater to a wide range of customers. And together he and James concentrate on building some of the baddest, most powerful Chevrolet Stroker motors around.
In fact, one of the heads they've managed to turn with their uniquely crafted powerplants has been that of, guru engine builder, David Vizard, with whom they've been working on some very cool projects. For those that may not immediately recognize that name, David Vizard has been authoring books on performance engine modifications and ways to increase horsepower for over 40 years, and continues to tour the world conducting seminars for race engine builders.
In addition to his engine-building prowess, we'd be remiss if we didn't tell you that James Harris is also full-time, veteran firefighter with the Oakland, Calif. Fire Department at Station 20. Most days you can find him rolling around the city of on Truck 7, serving the community, but whenever James has a day off – you can rest assured you won't find him wasting any time. No way. In fact, on those days, you can find him at the shop working on one his many build projects, such as his '72 Chevy Nova Pro Touring car that he's hoping will one day take him all the way to the Optima Challenge. We had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with James recently and here's what he had to say…
James, between you and Doc – D&J's Muscle Cars wields over 50 years of combined experience. What would you say inspired you both to get into building muscle cars?
Just a passion for the cars, really. Though we both come from different eras, we both started working on bikes. I went from bikes to Go-Carts and then on to cars, and the same for Doc. My grandfather had a variety of old, classic cars in the backyard that I would always tinker with. But one in particular was a '55 Chevy pickup truck with a Corvette engine in it. That's how I started. Doc, he came up drag racing, won some championships, he's pretty well known in the drag racing community.
Any particular builders who inspired you?
For me, I'd say watching Horsepower TV, just watching those guys put cars together – it gave me the opportunity and made me think that I could actually do this. Not so much being inspired by any one builder, but more of an entrée into believing that if I set my mind to it, I could make it happen. And we took off from there.
What was the first car you really started wrenching on?
Well, again, I'd have to say my grandfather's '55 Chevy pickup truck. It was a 4-speed with the Corvette 350 engine. It was also the car I learned how to drive in. That was "the" car. But, I also have a '65 Chevy Impala SS that I've had for a long time. I took that car to auto shop class in high school. We built the 350 motor and converted it back to 4-speed, I cut my teeth on that. My grandparents gave me that car when I first enrolled in auto shop class. I still have it, actually.
In your opinion, what's the best engine for a bracket racer to get started with?
I would say that if you were a Small-Block Chevy fan, the 383. That engine gives you great range as far as horsepower, and it'll get you in the playing field to be a very confident competitor. At the same time, it's a good engine to get your feet wet with, and get a feel for the handling of the car. Now, if you were a Big-Block Chevy fan, I'd say you have to go with the ZZ454 crate motor.
One of things we noticed from looking at your website is that you build really "period correct" muscle cars. With all the customization options out there for builders, what drew you and Doc to building these proper muscle cars?
We just love the passion that comes from that era of pure muscle. Pretty much anybody could have put something cool together – heads, cams, etc., and you could just go out and have fun. And just that whole era, the way they sounded – it's so distinct. You can still build a car to look as it did back then, but with today's technology, and that's what we like to do. If they had today's technology back then, they would have used it, trust me. So, in essence, nowadays you can create the ultimate muscle car – technologically – but still maintain the old school era feel. Chevrolet Performance does a great job providing the parts and components to do that.
Okay, tough one: Restomod or period correct?
Personally, I like them somewhere in between. I prefer the car be kept somewhat original, but I definitely like to drop an LS motor in it, of course. If you want to keep it more traditional in the engine department, you can go with a Small-Block Chevy or a Big-Block, either of those are always an excellent choice. The cars from that period were already so distinct, just the way they were stanced and looked. I just don't like anything too wild as far as a build goes.
What would be your dream Chevy to build?
My dream Chevy would be a classic Camaro, somewhere between the years '70-'73. My dad had a '70 Camaro. It was crazy. I used to love riding in that car. The way it sat, the stance… I love the projection you have over the hood during those years; it's just a whole different feel. To start, I'd have to go with an LS Motor, supercharged and paired to a 6-speed transmission. From there I'd go with a 14" disc brakes setup. I think for the exterior color, I'd choose a burnt orange/red, similar to the new Camaro, and add some black powdercoat trim.
Inside, I'd keep the panel original, but throw in some aftermarket gauges. Then I'd like to do a completely custom column, for some more gauges, and a nice stereo – nothing too crazy. Then some power windows on the console. The interior would be black and orange, and maybe some checkered detail in the middle of the seats.
Sign us up; we'll take one, too! In your opinion, what makes D&J's Muscle Car stand out as a shop?
Well, it starts with our stroker motors, based on a Small-Block Chevy or Big-Block Chevy. We spend a lot of time and effort putting these motors together. That's where we really shine as a shop. We pick the right parts – that's the key. We carefully select the right heads, the right compression, all the way down to the oiling system. From rings to pistons, we go step by step, putting emphasis on the parts we choose while making sure everything is covered – and we use as many Chevrolet Performance blocks, heads and components as possible.
Tell us about some of the applications you build these motors for?
We really have a motor for any individual, whether you're on a budget, or you want to build something crazy. We have our street and strip division, where we focus on LS, Small-Block and Big-Block Chevy motors. We've been building motors for Pro Touring, drag racing, and even more specialized, blown motors and nitrous-based engines. Those have custom cams, the works – we go the whole nine yards on the nitrous and supercharged motors. We like to give our customers a wide variety of engines to choose from. If a certain client wants to race and they have certain specs they need, they can send us those and we'll build the motor to those precise specifications.
We've heard you've been working with engine builder extraordinaire, Mr. David Vizard?
Well, David Vizard has become a really good friend and instrumental in what we're doing. I can't express how much gratitude we have for him. I talk to him every other week or so. We talk about different motors and ideas we have. He's actually going to be doing a seminar at our shop. We've been discussing head porting, actually we're sending him some heads this week, so he can flow test them and write a statement on them. Again, we're so appreciative that he's opened his doors to us, so that we can be a part of his world, too. He's phenomenal, he's the "guru" you want to talk to in the engine building world.
Tell us about the '72 Chevy Nova you've been building with hopes of getting to the Optima Challenge.
Well, we're trying to get to the Optima Challenge – there's a lot of talent out there! We've got a RideTech suspension we really like that we've put on the car. And it’s a system you can install in your garage. I'm going to get to drive the car, which should definitely be fun.
How do you feel about the Pro Touring movement?
I really enjoy the sport. It's attracting a whole new audience. And you don't have to spend a ton of money to get into it and be competitive. Yep, I've been doing the Pro Touring stuff, and Doc stays focused on our drag racing stuff.
Sounds like a lot of cool stuff on the horizon for you and Doc! James, we know that you're a full-time Firefighter, so how did you wind up with a second job building these incredible motors?
Yep, full-time firefighter for the Oakland, CA Fire Department for 7 years. Took a lot of hard work to get here, but I'm enjoying every minute of it.
Well, let's see... I gravitated towards cars early on; I already had a love affair with them from when I was very young. Then, when I got a bit older, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia. And in doing research, I uncovered an interesting documentary about it. As I was watching it, one of things that stood out was a part that mentioned that people with Dyslexia shine in certain areas, and one of them was working on automobiles.
And then it dawned on me, I could watch Horsepower TV, see something they did, and found that I could just go and do it. And I would say to myself, "Hmmm… that wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be." I literally could watch something and go do it. And that was the day that the missing piece of the puzzle sort of came together for me.
That's really interesting and inspiring, James. To that end, what would you say to a young kid coming that may have a similar learning disability that's thinking about getting into building cars, but perhaps is discouraged?
Well, I'd tell them don't get discouraged, because if you put in the hard work, dedication and perseverance, you can do anything you want to do. And that's one of my beliefs at the shop: There's no "I can't do it." It's more like, "Okay, let's see how we can do it – and achieve and get where we need to go."
So James, tell us – what's next for you, Doc & DJ's Muscle Cars?
Doc and I have been talking about doing something for the kids in the community; maybe putting together a small race team, educating them on what we do in the shop, etc., but they'd have to maintain good grades to be involved. Beyond that, like every other business, the shop has its ups and downs, but we've got some great projects on deck and we're seeing the light at the end of tunnel. We're just blessed to be here.