Pride of Van Nuys: GM factory’s final car went to a Z28 superfan
Some people are determined to be first in line. Leonard Stevenson moved heaven and earth to make sure he was tail-end Charlie.
Thirty years ago this past Saturday, a flame-red 1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 with black Heritage stripes was the last of the 6.3 million cars produced at the massive but obsolete General Motors assembly plant in Van Nuys, California.
Stevenson kibbitzed with members of United Auto Workers Local 645 as the car rolled down the line, took possession of it immediately after it was completed, and owns it to this day. The car is a time capsule with a mere 125 miles on the odometer, and it bears the signatures of about 2000 of the 2600 employees who worked at the Van Nuys factory.
“A lot of people signed the part they installed, like the back side of the door panel,” Stevenson says. “But there are signatures everywhere—on the underbody of the car, the engine, the transmission. Everything under the hood is pretty well signed, and the interior was covered with signatures before they put the carpet in.”
Van Nuys Assembly, as the plant was officially dubbed, had opened in 1947, when Southern California was still a hotbed of automobile production and the San Fernando Valley was poised to become the epicenter of rambunctious hot-rod and street-racing scenes. Over the next three decades, UAW members knocked out everything from Corvairs and Monte Carlos to Oldsmobile Omegas and Pontiac Venturas.
But Southern California gradually became less hospitable to large-scale manufacturing. The Chrysler plant in Commerce closed in 1971, and the Ford factory in Pico Rivera, in 1980. By 1992, production at Van Nuys was reduced to third-generation F-Body Camaros and Firebirds. When GM decided to move assembly of fourth-gen cars to a newer plant in Canada, Van Nuys Assembly became a white elephant.
At the time, Stevenson was a 33-year-old Iowan who sold commercial and school buses for a living. He was also a lifelong Camaro junkie who was the vice president of his local chapter of the Camaro Club.
The previous year, in an effort to buy a very specific special-order Z28, he’d worked his way through contacts at a nearby Chevy dealership, two zone offices, another Chevy dealer in Van Nuys and Van Nuys Assembly before reaching—and relentlessly hounding—an executive high enough up the corporate hierarchy in Detroit to get him the exact car he wanted. “I guess I like a challenge,” he says.
Alas, the car was wrecked after a close encounter with a deer. In 1992, after reading that production of the third-gen Camaro was about to end, Stevenson called the same product manager in Detroit who’d helped him out the previous year. “You won’t believe the plan I came up with this time,” Stevenson said. The request was twofold: to buy the final car built in Van Nuys—a Z28—and to watch it roll down the assembly line.
Initially, the ask was met with cool reception. Tensions were running high at the plant, where workers were understandably unhappy that they were losing their jobs. Also, there was some concern that a high-ranking executive might want to claim the car for himself. Eventually, the decision was kicked upstairs to Chevrolet vice president Jim Perkins.
Perkins was a hard-charging, high-flying Texan who would later quit GM to help launch the Lexus brand before returning to the fold as general manager of Chevrolet, where he famously helped save the Corvette. When he heard about Stevenson’s pitch, he said, “If the guy wants the car that damn bad, he should have it.”
Stevenson flew to Burbank on Tuesday, August 25, and arrived at the plant at 5:30 the next morning. He was ushered to the head of the assembly line, where his car—just a body shell at this point—had just been painted. Just behind the rear seat was an inscription: “Good luck from the world’s best painters.”
Outside the plant, the mood was rancorous. Local media types were interviewing disgruntled workers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “GM Sucks” and “UAW Local 645 – Unemployed Auto Workers.” On the assembly line, however, Stevenson was treated like royalty; workers lined up to take photos with the guy who’d flown all the way from Iowa on his own dime to watch his car being assembled.
“They were passionate about their work,” he says. “The group doing the dash assembly just would not work on it until I had time to come over and watch them do it. They wanted me to see their whole process. Everybody was extremely careful, and they took care to make sure everything lined up properly, especially the vinyl nose and tail panel. I followed the car all the way until they drove it off the assembly line, did an alignment, put the stripes on and put it on a railcar to ship it to Kansas City.”
From the beginning, Stevenson asked workers to sign a notebook he’d brought with him as soon as they’d finished their task. But before long, he was having trouble keeping up with the car as it progressed down the assembly line. Eventually, somebody signed his name inside the engine bay, and then somebody else, and somebody after that. Pretty soon, everybody wanted to get in on the action.
“But by then, a lot of the people who had worked on the car had already gone home and turned in their [employee] badges,” Stevenson says. “That night, they heard about people signing the car. When they came in the next morning, they didn’t have their badges to get into the plant. So that was an issue for a little bit. But apparently someone in the office must have said, ‘Let them in,’ so they were allowed in and were able to sign the car then.”
There was a small snafu when the plant ran out of rear passenger window glass, but PPG flew in a special shipment and Stevenson’s Z28 rolled off the assembly line at noon on August 27, 1992. It was the last car ever built at Van Nuys Assembly. Although official records say that Chevrolet produced 70,007 Camaros in 1992, Stevenson’s Z28 carries a VIN indicating 70,008.
These days, Stevenson is retired in North Dakota. His collection includes a ’69 Z/28, a ’94 Z28 with 575 miles on the odometer, a ’99 SS convertible with 806 miles, and his most recent purchase: a 2023 ZL1 with the hot-rod 1LE package and a six-speed manual. (It’s been driven only 29 miles so far.) Of them all, the 1992 occupies pride of place in his heart.
“It’s my favorite because of its history and how involved I was with it,” he says. “I don’t drive it anymore, but nearly every week, I get an email or a text or have a conversation about that car.” And to honor the people who built it, the car carries a vanity license plate: “4UAW645.”
Two years after he bought it, Stevenson ran into the former Chevy VP, Perkins, during a layover at the airport in Detroit. Before Stevenson could introduce himself, Perkins said, “You’re the guy who got that last Van Nuys Camaro.” Later, Perkins mailed him a note as thanks for being a Camaro enthusiast. “Never paid in full,” the message read, “from the Perkins Bank of Appreciation.”
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