First Camaro reunited with one who helped build it

Retired GM plant manager Herb Leitz (with son Steve) climbs into the first Camaro | Bob Golfen
Retired GM plant manager Herb Leitz (with son Steve) climbs into the first Camaro | Bob Golfen

The very first Chevrolet Camaro ever built is not a car you likely would notice. It’s a plain-Jane base-model 1967 hardtop with a six-banger, stock hubcaps and a Grenada Gold paint job, the color of so many Chevys of its day.

But its place in history is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Built in secret as Chevrolet chased after the runaway success of Ford Mustang, this was “pilot car” No. 1, the first of 49 prototype Camaros hand-built in 1966 at GM’s Norwood Assembly Plant in Ohio as Chevrolet prepared to unveil its all-new pony car for the 1967 model year.

The first Camaro was used in Chevrolet promotions | Chevrolet
The first Camaro was used in Chevrolet promotions | Chevrolet

On Thursday, this first-of-its-kind 1967 Camaro that bears chassis number N100001 was reunited with one of the key figures in its legacy, 89-year-old Herb Leitz of Scottsdale, Arizona, who was plant manager at Norwood in 1967 and oversaw production of the pilot-car Camaros.

Leitz and the restored-to-original Camaro were brought back together in a ceremony at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale showroom. The retired manager seemed thrilled as he signed autographs alongside his wife, Joan, and then sat in the car amid the sparkle of camera flashes.

The event was orchestrated by the current owner and restorer of the historic car, Corey Larson of Kansas City, who wanted to pay homage to one of the major figures behind the first Camaro.

Though frail, Leitz spoke in a voice that is clear and strong as he recalled the exhilaration of building this new kind of Chevrolet in a separate structure at the Norwood plant. No one outside the designers, engineers and workers were allowed to see the car, which had gone around GM’s bureaucracy as it was rushed toward production.

Herb Leitz, Barrett-Jackson CEO Craig Jackson and Camaro owner Corey Larson | Bob Golfen
Herb Leitz, Barrett-Jackson CEO Craig Jackson and Camaro owner Corey Larson | Bob Golfen

“They (designers) had to bypass all the bosses to try to get it in,” Leitz said. “Ford had come out with the Mustang, and they had already sold 420,000 of them. So they had a big lead. We had a lot of catching up to do.”

He and the workers at the plant were enthused by the design and quality of the Camaro, Leitz said as he praised the inspired creativity of the GM design team.

“They really did a hell of a job,” Leitz said. “We had great designers and great engineers on the project. When you figure Ed Cole, Pete Estes and John DeLorean, that’s some combination.”

At the Barrett-Jackson showroom gathering, the guests crowded around for a closer look at the first Camaro, which appears to be in pristine condition after a restoration that was completed last year. The car has come a long way after a somewhat checkered past.

The Camaro originally served as a display car for Chevrolet to advertise the new model; one reason why it was built as an economy car was to showcase its affordability. After that it went to several owners who appreciated its historic value, but then it went on to a number of subsequent owners, including one who altered it to use as a drag racer. Fortunately, he did have the presence of mind to save and preserve the stock parts that came off the car, parts that would became crucial for its eventual restoration.

The Camaro is transported in a clear-sided trailer
The Camaro is transported in a clear-sided trailer

The car was left in storage for many years until 2009, when it was rediscovered. Current owner Corey Larson undertook a long restoration process that included preserving the original interior and other major parts. That was completed in May 2014. Larson has no plans for selling the car, so don’t ask.

The first Camaro’s next outing will be May 16 when it takes part in the unveiling of the all-new 2016 Camaro in Detroit. The car also will be featured June 26-28 at the GM Nationals in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

For Leitz, the reunion Thursday hit the spot. It was certainly not something that he had been expecting, he added.

“Really, I had no idea, especially after this length of time. Nobody has made much mention of it at all, and then all of a sudden, it’s excitement,” he said.

“And it’s like the original excitement. The stimulation that we got from the original announcement (of the new Camaro) was great, and now it’s coming all right back.

“I feel like I was just born again.”

For a video exploring the full history of the first Camaro, see Pilot Car Registry.

 The Camaro retains its original 1967 vanity plate| Bob Golfen

The Camaro retains its original 1967 vanity plate| Bob Golfen

Share your comments