How many enthusiasts have dreamed of owning the first-in-a-series muscle car? How would you feel if you discovered such a car by chance? For Jon Mello, who has owned Camaros since he started driving, such a dream came true. Now he owns the long-lost first 1967 Camaro Z-28.
In 1966, the Sports Car Club of America launched its highly successful Trans-Am racing series. That year the Over 2.0-Liter class was mainly populated by Ford's Mustang, Dodge Darts, Plymouth Barracudas, and other compact American sedans. In that inaugural season many famous drivers participated, including Jerry Titus (class champion in a Mustang), A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty, Jacky Ickx, Horst Kwech, Gaston Andrey, and Tony Adamowicz.
[Ed. note: Tony is fighting brain cancer and could use the support of enthusiasts who can help out with his medical costs. Please check out his Go Fund Me page at gofundme.com.]
With the Chevrolet Camaro about to be introduced for the 1967 model year, but with no factory-sponsored racing programs at GM, it took a clandestine effort to get a competitive Bow Tie entry to the 1967 starting grid. Enter Vince Piggins. A veteran Chevrolet engineer by way of Hudson, Piggins came up with the initial solution to get a small-block V-8 to slot in just under the 5.0L limit: combine the bore of the 327ci engine with the short stroke of the 283ci version. The result: the high-revving, 302ci version of the legendary small-block Chevrolet V-8.
Within Chevrolet, there was some discussion as to what to call the package, which would also include twin paint stripes, the stiff F41 heavy-duty suspension, a faster steering ratio, and 15-inch slotted Rally wheels with bigger-than-standard 7.35x15 rubber. What would be called the Regular Production Option (RPO) Z-28 would require such options as power-assisted front disc brakes and a close-ratio four-speed manual transmission. It was decided to call the homologation special (602 were built in 1967) the Z-28. With the exception of air conditioning and an automatic transmission (or a convertible body), it was possible to equip a Z-28 with just about every option on the extensive 1967 Camaro list.
Racing in his Blood
In late December 1966, the first batch of Z-28s rolled down GM's Norwood, Ohio, assembly line. The car you see pictured here is the very first, now owned by Jon Mello. Jon has sports car racing in his blood. His parents were tech inspectors for the SCCA and, as a family, all attended Can-Am and Trans-Am races back at Road America from 1970 to 1974.
"I had always dreamed of having a Trans-Am Camaro, as I really enjoyed watching the pony cars run on the race track and the great sounds the V-8 engines made," recalls Jon. "I never thought I'd actually come to own a car with real Trans-Am history, let alone the first Z-28.
"My parents belonged to a sports car club, and I remember testing a couple of old Mini Coopers and a BMW 2002 as a potential first car." Jon continues. "A guy at my first job had a 1966 GTO for sale with a 455 in it. I tried to talk my dad into letting me get it, but he picked the car apart. He said, 'Why don't you get something neat like a Z-28 instead?' and the rest is history. My first car was a Fathom Green 1969 Z/28 with headers and 4.10 gears. I've always had at least one Camaro ever since."
How the car came into Jon's possession is a story that started 16 years ago, when he agreed to examine a car in the San Francisco Bay Area for a friend living in Florida. He ended up purchasing the car without any knowledge of its significant provenance. Jon noted some telltale signs that the vehicle had likely been used for professional racing, including holes in the floor for mounting a rollbar that had been patched up over the years.
When the restoration started and he started sanding down the body, he discovered racing stripes and lettering that indicated that his initial hunch was correct. And he learned one of the car's drivers was named John Moore. That name is meaningful to students of Camaro racing history. In his book The Great Camaro, author Michael Lamm was able to list the recipients of the first 25 Z-28s to come out of Norwood, thanks to documents he received from Vince Piggins. "Z-28 #1 was shipped to Aero Chevrolet in Alexandria, Virginia," Lamm wrote, "where it was groomed as Johnny Moore's entry into the Daytona 24-hour Continental."
Jon hired a search service to research the name John Moore in Virginia, hoping that he still lived in the area. Through some deductive reasoning, figuring the ages of the John Moores that the search turned up, he selected the most likely candidate, someone old enough to have driven the car back in the 1960s. As luck would have it, the first call hit pay dirt.
Jon talked with Moore, who pointed him to Hugh Heishman, who owned the local VW/Porsche dealership and a racing team at the time. Heishman was the car's original buyer, purchasing the car through Aero Chevrolet. As unbelievable as it seems, when Jon connected with Heishman he still had the car's original dealership sales invoice in his possession—35 years later.
The sales invoice disclosed some very important facts about the car. First, it cost Heishman just $2,793, including the Z-28 package and all the mandatory options. But most importantly, confirmed through Chevrolet's production records, it was produced on December 29, 1966. That was also the day Lamm listed as the beginning of Z-28 production in Norwood.
It turns out Jon had received a copy of Lamm's book years before as a Christmas present. Before he owned this particular Camaro he took Lamm's information "at face value, but in 2003 I decided I ought to get confirmation from Michael Lamm as to where he got his first 25 Z-28 list." He contacted Lamm, who confirmed that Vince Piggins himself had given Lamm the list of the first 25 Z-28s.
Documentation doesn't get much more bulletproof than that, does it?
"The neat thing was that the original driver and the original owner were still alive when I bought the car so I was able to ask them a lot of questions and they were able to help me do a better restoration project," says Jon.
He learned the car's Trans-Am race history was limited. It was used for just six Trans-Am races in 1967 and 1968 in addition to several SCCA-sanctioned, nonTrans-Am events, a total of eight races driven by Moore and owned by Heishman.
Unfortunately, Moore passed away in 2006, before the restoration was completed. But as luck would have it, after the car was finished, Jon met with Moore's middle daughter, Kelly, during the 2015 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca. Jon learned that Kelly, born in 1972, had never seen her dad's Camaro. But she did have a child's pedal car that she and her siblings grew up with, which was painted to look similar. The pedal car was displayed with the Camaro at Laguna Seca.
Hot Rod Ranch
When it came time to commission the restoration, Jon turned to the Hot Rod Ranch in his hometown of Lompoc, California. Before work started, Jon embarked on intensive research to make sure that the restoration would be as accurate as possible.
"One of the hardest finds for the car were the proper J56 heavy-duty front racing calipers," he says. "In more than 10 years of looking I only ever saw a single caliper, and the person wouldn't sell it. I finally found someone who had an original GM blueprint. It showed how to machine a stock caliper for 11-inch discs to accept the L-shaped Corvette racing pads that used two cotter pins for retention, rather than the single pin the stock calipers use. I also had to find the proper brake pistons for the calipers that have the 3/4-inch-thick heat insulators on them. My car has an N.O.S. set of original J56 metallic brake shoes on the rear. It is the only known car running the original-style brakes that all Trans-Am Camaros used during the 1967 season."
Jon's research uncovered more information. "The block is a December 1966dated 657 casting, as it should be," he says. The ported camel-hump heads are by Crane Cams and are originals from the 1960s (ported by Crane in period). The intake manifold is a prototype of the original 1967 Z high-rise but with a December 1965 date and an experimental GM part number on it. The cam in the original car was an Isky Z60. It is now running an Isky Z50 because Isky changed its cam specs, and the current Z50 is closer to the cam's specs for the 1960s Z60. The headers are reproductions of the originals made by Bill Thomas Race Cars.
Other items unique to the Camaros that raced in the 1967 season include the Harrison (a GM subsidiary) oil cooler, an N.O.S. item Jon found with a mid-1966 date on it. The front sway bar is the optional factory 1 1/16-inch item and is a real rare piece. The Koni shocks are N.O.S. originals. "The front and rear springs are racing spec items I bought from Dick Guldstrand," says Jon. "The Muncie trans with M22 internals and rear axle are also dated correctly for the car. The 12-bolt has 4.10 gears in it with a Moroso Brute-Strength posi unit. The seat is an original item from the 1960s as offered by Yenko and Nickey in their catalogs and is the type of seat the car originally ran. The Holley 3910 780-cfm carb is hard to find because of its December 1966 date and is the carb that the car was required to use in Trans-Am back in the day. The Stewart-Warner gauges are 1960s dated originals, and so is the N.O.S. Sun ST-602 tach. The headlights are Cibie just as they were when it ran at Daytona."
As the photos show, the car has been restored to endurance racing trim, the way it was configured for its run in the 24-hour 1968 Daytona Continental. When photographing the car in Lompoc, we noted the light that illuminated the car's number on each door, not something typically seen on a car restored to Trans-Am configuration. "The light was something that could be found at an auto parts store back in the day," says Jon. "Like a Pep Boys."
Pep Boys, indeed.
At a Glance
1967 Camaro Z-28
Owned by: Jon Mello, Lompoc, CA
Restored by: Hot Rod Ranch, Lompoc, CA
Engine: 302ci/290hp (rated) Turbo-Fire V-8 (now approximately 425 hp)
Transmission: Muncie M21 4-speed case fitted with 10-spline M22 gears
Rearend: 12-bolt with 4.10 gears and Moroso Positraction
Interior: Racing bucket seat
Wheels: 15x7 American D-spoke
Tires: 9.20x15 Firestone Indy Goldline bias-ply
Daytona 300 (Trans-Am) 2/3/1967 DNF
Sebring Four Hours (Trans-Am) 3/31/1967 17th place
Cumberland (SCCA) 5/13/1967 1st place
Mid-Ohio (Trans-Am) 6/11/1967 DNF
Paul Revere 250 (Daytona) 7/4/1967 5th place
Bryar 250 (Trans-Am) 8/6/1967 DNF
Marlboro 300 (Trans-Am) 8/13/1967 DNF
Daytona Continental 24-hour DNF
Caught on Film
Though the Camaro's racing history was brief, Jon Mello has collected a few photos of it in competition. The Petersen Publishing Archive also turned up photos of the car. Here are a few of those scenes from its 1967 and 1968 racing seasons.
Photography by Petersen Publishing Archives, Owner