Gerald “Jerry” Schmidt was a fixture at northern New Jersey car shows and cruise nights, where he would proudly park his blue 1969 Camaro SS350 and cheerfully answer the first question many spectators asked: “Why does it have Car and Driver decals on the doors?”
The car, Schmidt would eagerly explain, was the Blue Maxi, built as a Car and Driver magazine project by Roger Penske’s racing operation in a quest to create the ideal American GT. Some people recognized the car, including me. I wrote about it in 1987 for Muscle Cars magazine, which was based just a few miles from Schmidt’s Elmwood Park, N.J., home.
More than 20 years passed before I spoke with Schmidt again. I spotted the Blue Maxi at a car show in Ridgewood, N.J., its proud owner standing behind it. I re-introduced myself and looked the car over, amazed by its still-outstanding original condition. Offers to purchase the singular Camaro were common, Schmidt told me then. But he turned down every single one, explaining that the car will go to his nephew, Brandon, when he dies.
Sadly, that occurred earlier this summer, on June 6. Schmidt was 75.
This car matters, and so does the owner
How the Blue Maxi appeared at the 2017 Carlisle Chevrolet Nationals event two weeks after Schmidt’s death is a story about the passion of fellow car enthusiasts and the bonds of friendship. A year before, Schmidt made a plan with his friend, Mike Brienza, to bring their Camaros to the event. Brienza, also a friend of mine, owns the 1991 Camaro Z28 1LE-R7U showroom stock racecar that Ron Fellows drove in Canada’s Players LTD/GM Motorsports Series before moving on to Trans-Am.
News of Schmidt’s death reached Brienza while he was at a weekly cruise night in Wyckoff, N.J., with his Camaro. The news devastated many in the local car community. After some discussion, Schmidt’s brother, Fred, and nephew, Brandon, agreed that allowing Brienza to take the Blue Maxi to Carlisle would be the perfect way to honor Jerry’s memory.
Despite a series of expensive logistical setbacks—including the car transporter canceling at 5 p.m. the day before the event—Brienza and his crew of friends and fellow Camaro enthusiasts made it to Carlisle with the Blue Maxi, arriving only 45 minutes before the show-car admissions gate closed. It went on display inside the invitational building, flanked by Brienza’s Camaro and Carlisle owner Lance Miller’s 1959 Corvette racecar.
At the event, the Blue Maxi caught the attention of the Historic Vehicle Association team. After examining the car, the HVA decided that, indeed, “This Car Matters,” and honored the Camaro with the HVA National Automotive Heritage Award.
HVA historian Casey Maxon explained that the Blue Maxi met numerous criteria for historical significance, including educational value and the involvement of Penske, Donohue and Car & Driver. Phil Borris, author of the Camaro history “The Echoes of Norwood,” fully documented the car at Carlisle.
In the weeks before Schmidt’s funeral service, Brienza suggested to the family that, in lieu of flowers, friends might make a contribution to a scholarship fund at McPherson College in McPherson, Kan., which offers a bachelor’s degree in automotive restoration. He called the school, which was amenable to the idea and set up the Jerry Schmidt Auto Scholarship.
Building the Blue Maxi
To create its ideal performance coupe in 1969, Car and Driver secured a Camaro SS350 equipped with four-speed transmission, Rally Sport package, air conditioning, and other options. The car was sent to Penske Racing in Pennsylvania, where Mark Donohue and Sam Eckerd supervised the build. Chevrolet supplied an LT-1 high-performance 350-cid small-block V-8, which would debut in the 1970 Camaro Z/28 and Corvette. At Penske, the Camaro received tweaked suspension, racing brakes and Stahl headers.
At the time, Penske was successfully campaigning Camaros in the SCCA Trans-Am series, with Sunoco sponsorship and Donohue driving. The Car and Driver Camaro tied into that and received a Sunoco Blue paint job. Although the magazine suggested the car could be called a “Z/29,” the paint job inspired the nickname Blue Maxi, a sly reference to a German WWI fighter pilot’s medal, depicted in a 1966 movie starring George Peppard. After initial testing and further tweaking, the Blue Maxi eventually laid down a 13.7-second quarter-mile at 104 mph, and Car and Driver wrote that the car’s braking, handling, and ride were close to perfect.
The magazine, based in New York at the time, used the Blue Maxi as a promotional tool, taking it to East Coast tracks and allowing some drivers to try it out. It was also used for a driver’s school at Bridgehampton. The Blue Maxi led a tough life in the few months before Car and Driver gave it away in a sweepstakes. The winner, wary of the abuse the Camaro had endured during the 19,000 miles showing on its odometer, took it to Fahrenkopf Chevrolet in Garfield, N.J., and traded it in for a 1970 Camaro Z/28.
Schmidt, employed as a tech at the dealership, knew about the Blue Maxi and, without hesitation, told the sales manager he would buy it. He treasured the Camaro for the next 47 years, and it continues to be treasured by his family and the entire automotive community.