Photos via Jon Mello collection.
On track it didn’t do that well. Over its one-year racing career, it DNFd as many times as it finished and only recorded one podium. But it’s not the racing record that distinguishes Jon Mello’s 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, nor any connection to any famous driver. Instead, the Camaro will take a place of honor at this month’s Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals due to its documented status as the first Z/28.
Built on the first day of Z/28 production–December 29, 1966–the homologation special didn’t go to any of the big-name supercar-oriented dealerships or to any of the Trans-Am racers with household names. Rather, it traveled from the Norwood, Ohio, factory to Aero Chevrolet in Alexandria, Virginia, which in turn sold it to a Volkswagen dealer named Hugh Heishman. Heishman, according to the Alexandria Times, had seen a Mustang race earlier that year and believed the Z/28 would provide ample competition, so he recruited his service manager, Johnny Moore, and picked the Z/28 up in January.
(For the record, the destinations of the first dozen Z/28s had been known since the late Seventies, when Michael Lamm published them in his book The Great Camaro. Yenko got the second, third, and fourth cars; Alan Green got the fifth, sixth, and seventh; Nickey got the ninth, tenth, and eleventh; and Penske got the twelfth.)
Over the next month or so Heishman and Moore prepped the Camaro for its first race, the Daytona 300. DNF. They took it to Sebring for the Trans-Am 4-Hour. 17th. Then at the Cumberland SCCA National in May it placed first. And then a DNF at Mid-Ohio in June and another at the Marlboro 300 in August, interspersed with a fifth at the Paul Revere 250 in July and the Bryar 250 in August. The Camaro would only race once more, at the 1968 24 Hours of Daytona, where it again DNFd.
Heishman and Moore then replaced the Z/28 with a 1968 Camaro Z/28 and sold the ’67 to their mailman, who requested they paint it Rally Green over the original Granada Gold and convert it to street trim. Not long after, the mailman moved to California and took the Camaro with him.
After that, the car didn’t show up again until 1999, when Mello went to check out what was advertised as just another 1967 Camaro for sale in the Bay Area. A friend of his Back East asked him to check it out as a potential parts donor, and Mello, who had a 1969 Z/28 as his first car and has owned one Camaro or another ever since, was happy to oblige.
When he found indicators that the car had been professionally raced at some point–roll-bar mounts, patched-over hoodpin holes, few factory options–he decided a year later to buy the car for himself and start stripping it down to see if he could determine its history. As he wrote on Yenko.net:
From the build date of the car, I knew it was around the time when the first Z/28s were built. The cowl tag didn’t offer much help as it had the 4P code on it. This would work for a very early Z/28, but could also indicate an SS350 or 327 4bbl/4-speed. I did scratch around on the paint job and saw some evidence of Z/28 striping so I spent some time looking at pictures of old Z/28 race cars.
A photo of Moore with the car at the Marlboro 300 showed the car from the rear, with the fuel filler on the left and a vent line poked through the upper portion of the right quarter panel–in the exact same places where his Granada Gold mystery Camaro had patches to cover old holes. So Mello tracked down Moore, at the time still living in Virginia, who put Mello in touch with Heishman, who still had the original invoice for the car and confirmed via matching VINs that Mello indeed had Heishman and Moore’s old Trans-Am racer.
Not until 2015 did Mello–with help from Hot Rod Ranch in Lompoc, California–finish the Camaro’s restoration to race trim, which he debuted at Laguna Seca.
With 2017 marking not only the 50th anniversary of the Camaro and Firebird, but also the 50th of the Z/28, this year’s Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals will feature a class dedicated to the latter, which Mello will curate and that unsurprisingly will include Mello’s Z/28 #1.
This year’s Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals will take place November 18-19 in the Donald E Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois. For more information, visit MCACN.com.