First in Camaro lovers’ hearts

If there are wallflowers among vintage pony cars, they would be the bare-bones six-cylinder coupes with three-speed column-shift manual transmissions. We’re talking about the cars in demure colors with scant options that are panned by collectors, who tend to obsess over big-block engines, scoops and stripes, bright paint and rare features.

That makes Corey Lawson's 1967 Camaro all the more extraordinary. This relatively plain-Jane Chevy not only has an exceptional history – it was the first Camaro ever built – but it is now enshrined in the National Historic Vehicle Register. It has been painstakingly photographed and documented for long-term preservation in the Library of Congress, becoming a reference standard for posterity.

The Lawson car’s recognition is even more striking because of its lost-and-found provenance and a restoration undertaken by amateurs, not by an automaker with unlimited resources or by a billionaire collector who has white-glove marque experts on speed dial.

Still bearing its VIN plate of N100001, the first Camaro has been repainted in its original Granada Gold with a restored gold interior. It remains equipped as simply as it was on Aug. 25, 1966, the day General Motors unveiled its new line of sporty cars at the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit: whitewall tires, push-button AM radio, front antenna and deluxe seat belts.

The car's long, strange trip from a G.M. factory in Norwood, Ohio, where it was assembled by hand in secret, to a triumphant Detroit homecoming, is a tale worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. In August, Camaro No. 1 reigned over the Woodward Dream Cruise, viewed by tens of thousands who passed by its Jewel Box enclosure.

Lawson's son, Logan, was instrumental in the rediscovery and resurrection of the first Camaro. In 2009 when he was just 13, Logan came across some online posts about a car for sale that hinted at the possibility of being the first Camaro. He and his father, who owns a carwash business in Hutchinson, Kan., went to Oklahoma for a look. After noting various signs that the car had been hand-built – and that holes for nameplates hadn’t been drilled – Corey bought the car.

His teenage son set out to trace that car’s history and the other preproduction "pilot cars," receiving help from Philip Borris, author of a book, "Echoes of Norwood," about the plant where Camaros were assembled as of August 1966. Logan's research is recounted in detail at pilotcarregistry.com.

According to Logan's research, of the 52 Camaro prototypes, a dealer in Yukon, Okla., R.T. Ayers Chevrolet, bought Nos. 1, 36 and 49 for marketing purposes, and the first Camaro remained on display in the showroom for more than two years. Ayers sold VIN N100001 in April 1969 to a woman who may have been a family friend – for the full original sticker price. The car then passed to a used car dealership in Frederick, Okla., which sold it to a local man who bought it for his teenage son.

After the son died in 1982 at age 23, the car ended up with Al Tepke of Oklahoma City, and it was pressed into service for drag racing. Although he removed many of the stock parts, Tepke carefully tucked them away – a measure that proved a godsend in the car's eventual preservation.

As a race car, the Camaro was "driven and owned by multiple participants," according to the registry, and its historical significance appears to have been overlooked by the time it went into storage in the 1980s.  A man in Norman, Okla., bought the car for $2,500 in 2009, and a VIN check for an insurance agent provided a clue to its unique status.

But hard times forced the owner to offer it for sale before long. After taking possession of the Camaro, the Logans tracked the missing original parts to a packed warehouse; they bought the entire inventory, then sorted through the contents to find the pieces that belonged to their car.

The Camaro’s exhaustive restoration, begun in late 2012, was finished in 2014.

Camaro VIN N100001 is the 15th car recognized on the National Historic Vehicle Register, a program developed in conjunction with the U.S. Department of the Interior that celebrates specific automobiles with historic and cultural significance.

Among the 14 cars previously accepted to the registry are the 1947 Tucker 48 Prototype, known as the Tin Goose; a 1918 Cadillac Type 57 that served as a support vehicle in World War I; President Taft's 1909 White steam car; and the 1964 Meyers Manx dune buggy known as Old Red.