Saturday, Chevrolet will unveil the next-generation and Michigan-built 2016 Camaro with a big celebration on Belle Isle. But while waiting to see what’s next, have you ever wondered what happened to the very first Camaro to roll off a Chevrolet assembly line?
Well, serial number N100001, the very first of the 49 “pilot-build” Camaros to emerge from the line at Chevrolet’s Norwood, Ohio, assembly plant, has been restored and will be on Belle Isle as an honored guest at the new Camaro introduction.
The car, a coupe — 36 of the pilots were coupes and 13 were convertibles — was rediscovered by Corey Lawson of Kansas City, who did extensive research to verify the car’s amazing history. Lawson and his wife, Logan, since have launched the Pilot Car Registry with its own website (www.pilotcarregistry.com) and also have acquired two other original Camaro pilots, No. 10 and No. 49, and are in pursuit of others.
General Motors “F Car” Pre-Production Unit No. 1 was produced not only to help assure that everything worked along the Norwood assembly line, but to become the “Detroit Convention Unveil Car,” the Camaro that would be the first shown to Chevrolet dealers and to the news media.
It wore Granada Gold paint and carried very few options, both for ease of assembly as the first car down the line and to demonstrate that this sporty new Chevy would be affordable. It was powered by a standard 230-cid straight six engine. However, it did have a special 110-volt internal lighting system to show off the interior (that system later would be removed before the car was sold to a customer).
At one of those early Chevy dealer showings, the car caught the eye of R.T. Ayers. Originally from Tennessee, Ayers had been among the pioneers in the manufacture of nylon belting and later advised GM on seat belt installation. He moved to Oklahoma to join his brother’s Pontiac dealership and later bought out the Chevrolet store on Route 66 in Yukon, Oklahoma.
Because of his relationship with GM executives, Ayers was able to obtain the No. 1 Camaro pilot car for his dealership and he parked it on his showroom floor for 21/2 years before finally selling it, for the full sticker price of $2,550. That original owner drove the car for some six years.
The second owner bought the car for his son, and kept it six years, but sold it when his son, in his early 30s, died.
The third owner was Al Tepke, who stripped out the car to take it drag racing. However, Tepke saved the original parts and put them away in storage. The car went from Tepke to other racer owners and in the late 1980s the car was put into storage until 2009, when Jobin Sims of Norman, Oklahoma, bought it as a project car to work on with his sons.
It was Sims’ insurance agent who pointed out the car’s unusual serial number. Suffering from the economic downturn, Sims decided to sell the car. When Lawson heard the car was available, he bought it and launched into an extensive and four-year research effort into the car’s history, research that was aided by several others, including Phil Borris, who was writing “Echoes of Norwood,” a history of the assembly plant.
Lawson traced the car’s history and found, through a tip at an auto parts store, the original parts Tepke had stripped and stored decades earlier. Working with Dave Hanna of Sterling Classic Auto Restorations in Wichita, Kansas, Lawson completed the car’s restoration to the way it was when it left Norwood.
The completed car made its debut at a Norwood retirees gathering and was in Scottsdale, Arizona, recently, where it spent a few days at the Barrett-Jackson Showroom and was reunited with Herb Leitz, who had been the Norwood plant manager when the car was built.
The car will be on Belle Isle this weekend and then goes to the big Carlisle GM Nationals car show and gathering in Pennsylvania in June.
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.