Camaro No. 1 comes home for Woodward Dream Cruise

This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press, written by Mark Phelan, on August 17, 2016. Photo by Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press

Chevrolet Camaro No. 100001 is a simple car that took a complicated road to its place of honor on Woodward Avenue this week.

The first Camaro ever built was secretly put together with handmade parts in a WWII-era warehouse in Norwood, Ohio, almost exactly 50 years ago.

The world got its first glimpse Aug. 17, 1966, when the Free Press and other newspapers ran an oh-so-1960s teaser photo of a pretty woman in a top hat, heels and a  tuxedo jacket pointing a magic wand at one headlight and the front corner of GM’s new muscle car, developed in haste to compete with the smash-hit Ford Mustang.

The car was so completely unknown that a Free Press caption writer advised readers “Camaro … which rhymes with arrow.”

“This car launched one of the most important rivalries in automotive history: Camaro versus Mustang. Where better than the Woodward Dream Cruise to bring it home and share it with people?” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. “It’s one of the most collectible cars of all time.”

As he spoke, a trailer carried Camaro No. 1 to the grassy triangle on Woodward in Birmingham just south of Maple road, where it will sit in a lighted glass case Wednesday night through the end of the Woodward Dream Cruise on Saturday night.

Despite its value, the Camaro was lost for decades. Logan Lawson was a 13-year-old boy living in Hutchinson, Kan., not far from Wichita when he saw a reference to the Camaro online. It was for sale in Oklahoma and it had that weird 100001 vehicle identification number. He thought it just might be the first Camaro, but nobody was sure. Logan was curious and his father Corey knew a bit about old cars. He’d judged car shows and had a collection of Shelby Mustangs he sold during the Great Recession to save Coach Lite Carwash Co., the family business he’d built.

There was something unusual about the Camaro, but its owner didn’t have the time or resources to research it. He’d lost his job and house and needed money to start a new life.

“I was convinced it was something special,” Corey Lawson, now 46, said this week. Walking around the car that day, he noticed there were no holes in the body for nameplates. It had been built so early that Chevy hadn’t even decided to call the car ‘Camaro’ yet. The body panels, welds and many parts were clearly made by hand.

“We rolled the dice,” beginning years of work for father and son, Corey said. Logan buried himself in research, accumulating material that eventually made him an expert on the car and 51 other Camaro prototypes hand built in that Ohio warehouse. The GM Heritage Center in Warren helped with the factory history.

To test parts and the assembly process, Camaro No. 1 had been the simplest, least expensive version of the car. It had the base V6 engine and no options.

When Corey saw the car in 2010, “It had an Earl Scheib paint job, but there were places where the original paint peeked through.” The car has now been restored to its original Granada Gold color, a hue GM reserved for early versions of some cars in the 1960s.

Just 10 of the 52 prototypes still exist. R.T. Ayers, a Chevy dealer in Yukon, Okla., bought Nos. 1, 36 and 49. He used them to attract customers. He sold No. 1 to a friend after a couple of years. It passed through more hands, eventually becoming a drag racer on the local circuit. That owner stripped off every unnecessary part — seats, carpet, you name it — to reduce weight and saved them in a warehouse.

The Lawsons were sure they had the first Camaro, but that meant little without its original equipment. At least two more owners had raced the car, but Corey tracked it back to the warehouse packed with the original equipment and countless other parts. He bought the whole warehouse and went through it piece by piece to find every handmade Camaro part.

Logan’s research led him to create, a website that exhaustively documents all 52 Camaro pilot cars and the F-car program that created the Camaro. Along the way, he caught the eye of GM Product development chief and Camaro fan Mark Reuss, who wrote a letter of recommendation to California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, where Logan, now 18, begins study as a software engineering major this fall.

Until then, father and son are enjoying the ride that Camaro 100001 takes them on.

Starting Wednesday night, the car will be on display in a lighted glass case the Historic Vehicle Association used to display presidents’ cars on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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