Historians record every bolt, every curve on classic cars

This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press, written by Mark Phelan, on August 16, 2016

ALLENTOWN, Penn. — The first Camaro Chevrolet ever built sits on a turntable in a photographically perfect white room devoid of right angles and shadows.

After a long strange trip that began in a secret corner of General Motors’ Norwood, Ohio, assembly plant and included years as a heavily modified drag racer, Camaro No. 001 is back in the original gold paint GM used to launch vehicles in the 1960s and ready for its close-up.

The car is in the cyclorama room at the Historic Vehicle Association’s national laboratory in Allentown, Pa. Painstakingly lit and photographed from every possible angle, the photos will become the Library of Congress’s official record of the 1967 Camaro. The car is the latest addition to the National Register of Historic Vehicles.

“Our goal is to take one picture that documents the shape and what the car was,” HVA president Mark Gessler says, “So 100 years from now, a person can look at it and know what a Camaro is.”

HVA historian Casey Maxon takes hundreds of photos of every car that makes it to the National Register of Historic Vehicles, a list similar to the National Register of Historic Buildings. HVA works with the Department of the Interior and the Library of Congress to document every moment in the existence of specific vehicles of historic and cultural significance. It’s not enough to be an example of a popular model: vehicles on the register must have a story.


“The HVA lab in Allentown sets a new standard for documenting historic automobiles and will itself become an important automotive site over time,” said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collectible cars and supports the HVA.

About 25 photos of each vehicle will become part of the Library of Congress’s collection. HVA transfers super high-definition digital photos onto high-quality film, to meet the library’s requirements. That’s because digital formats change rapidly: today’s state of the art may be passé in five years and unreadable in 10.

“A film negative properly cared for will last at least 400 years, and to access it, you just hold it up to the light,” Maxon says. HVA also makes 3D digital scans of every millimeter of its vehicles, then transfers them to long-lasting line drawings on acid-free paper, another Library of Congress requirement.

Other vehicles waiting to be recorded and possibly added to the national register include the legendary 1959 Scaglietti-bodied Corvette, the car Carroll Shelby nearly built instead of the AC Cobra.

The long, low car is 400 pounds lighter than a stock ’59 ‘Vette. It was shipped sans-body from GM’s St. Louis assembly plant to Scaglietti, a coachbuilder that also built racing Ferraris. Carroll Shelby and fellow Texan Gary Laughlin convinced Chevrolet’s general manager that they should work on a super car with Corvette mechanicals, a lightweight aluminum body and Italian style. GM eventually pulled the plug on the off-the-books project, and Shelby went on to work with Ford on legendary performance Mustangs and the AC Cobra, which had a Ford engine in a body built by English coachbuilder Ace.

The register isn’t just for muscle cars rare exotics, though. A 1984 Dodge Caravan — the first year of production for the original minivan — also stands in the warehouse, as HVA seeks the perfect example of the grandfather of today’s leading family vehicles.

The HVA’s detailed research goes far beyond what the Library of Congress requires. It records exhaust notes and analyzes the steel and other materials used in vehicles, right down to paint composition with non-invasive X-ray fluorescence scans. It also produces a mini-documentary on each vehicle, explaining why it matters enough to be considered historic.

“America’s automotive heritage has not been sufficiently recognized,” Gessler said. “The automobile and auto industry have influenced every aspect of American life. We want to elevate that history to the level it deserves.”

Previous Post
Camaro No. 1 comes home for Woodward Dream Cruise
Next Post
First Camaro Lights Up Woodward Dream Cruise