Of all the automotive battles of the last 100 years, none comes close to the Mustang and Camaro rivalry. The original Mustang was unveiled at the World’s Fair in New York, on April 17, 1964, and the automotive world was forever changed. Lee Iacocca’s Pony was good-looking, affordable, and sold a million copies in 18 months. It was a huge hit that caught the General off guard and took the company two long years to field a competitor.
The antidote to all of this was deployed in the fall of 1966 when Chevrolet introduced the 1967 Camaro to the North American market. It was lean and mean with nary a line out of place. Best of all, it was a Chevrolet with a barrage of Bow Tie engine options ranging from a straight six to a walloping 396cid big-block V8.
In The Beginning
Shortly thereafter, Chevy scored a major marketing coup. Indy race officials anointed the Camaro as the official Pace Car of the 51st running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1967. Chevy outfitted two specially modified white Camaro convertibles for pace car duty. The GM work order #98168 originally called for three Pace Cars, but for whatever reason only two were built.
The rest of the basic Camaro contract commitment to Indy that year required 43 “500 Festival” replica committee cars, 10 more delegated for track usage called “Speedway Cars”, and all were used at the race by officials and emissaries. The entire Chevrolet-supplied fleet received track identifiers on the rearview mirror consisting of an assigned number specific to each car. Car #92 paced the race.
We attended the 2023 Piston and Power Show in Cleveland, Ohio, and caught up with the current shepherd of the “500 Festival” car #23. This particular car was one of the 1967 “parade” Pace Cars and we are excited to bring you the backstory.
Lost and Found
Car #23 was originally located in Michigan in 1992 and was purchased in 1993. As found, the car was in fairly rough shape but was original, and all the parts were there. What to do? Well, that’s easy, owner Phil Borris promptly gave it to his wife Viola. For the next thirty years, the car was lovingly and authentically returned to its original condition. Phil is a walking encyclopedia of Camaro data, and he employed every bit of that knowledge in this build. He restored the car in his garage, including rotisserie sandblasting of the body.
Back in 1993, the car was verified by the then USCC President Ken Morehead as the “earliest Body Number in the registry” and examination of the original rear-view mirror revealed the remnant tracing of the glue from the sticker placed there back in 1967, conclusively identifying it as Festival car #23.
A Game Plan Devised
This is where the usual plug and chug, “get her done” restoration got the brakes tapped. Phil and Viola knew they had a special car and that it needed exceptional restoration attention, which required extensive research. For the first 10 years of ownership, several other non-restored survivor Camaro Festival cars were located, photographed, and extensively studied.
Further research was completed in the Indy archives, as well as university searches to determine more about the pedigree of the car. Ownership history was traced, documentation was recovered, and NICB (National Insurance Crime Bureau) and NCRS database searches were completed. Finally, Norwood assembly plant managers were interviewed. A fascinating, accurate history of the car and the 1967 replica program was then revealed.
What became Festival car #23 left GM’s Norwood, Ohio assembly plant on March 16th, 1967. It was ordered through Central Office Production Order (COPO), Fleet and Special Order (FS+O) as an O50-A “Commitment vehicle.” In other terms, a show quality Ermine White RS/SS convertible, with a Marina Blue front stripe, a Custom Deluxe interior, and a 295hp, 350cid V8, backed up by a two-speed Powerglide transmission.
The modifications specified under the 050-A build order required several significant deviations from normal production SS Camaros. Because the car would be required to operate fully loaded in low-speed parade use, the cooling system required fortification including swapping in a bigger 23-inch radiator hose instead of the normal 21-inch unit. The water pump and upper radiator hose were the same PN as used on the Z/28, along with the special thermomodulating fan.
The brakes were different at the master cylinder, with the Pace Car build specifying a larger capacity Bendix style master cylinder normally found on the full-size Impala model that year. Additional attention was also paid to the interior of these COPO cars, with medium blue carpet, and an Impala steering wheel was used consistently on the fleet replicas.
Phil’s extensive search revealed that his car and one other Camaro Pace Car replica left Norwood assembly a week earlier than the release of the remainder of the Indy destined fleet and this remained a mystery. While interviewing GM plant manager Herb Leitz for the book Echoes of Norwood, Leitz specifically recalled himself and the plant comptroller being required to drive two advanced production replicas to Indy for the personal approval of Anton “Tony” Holman, the owner of the track.
Additional research revealed the car had a celebrity connection as well. During its time cruising in the 1967 Festival 500 a week before the big race, this very Camaro carried a young Michael Landon, aka, “Little Joe” from the hit TV series, Bonanza, through the parade. He was the Grand Marshall that year and caused quite a sensation as he was not just an actor, but a “teen idol” as well.
After the race, the Indianapolis 500 tradition is for the Pace Car to be presented to the winner. The winner in 1967 was A.J. Foyt, but he refused #92 and any Camaro Chevrolet immediately. The official excuse was that none of the cars had the air conditioning necessary to keep him cool in his Texas climate. The rumored reason was that it wasn’t a good idea for A.J. to be connected to Chevrolet’s hot new pony car when his main sponsor was the Ford Motor Company.
Phil and Viola show their rare Camaro often and take pride in keeping a meticulous record of the car’s provenance. They are also keeping alive a vivid snapshot of an America that no longer exists. The factories and the workers that built the First Gen Camaro are long gone, not to mention the Indy officials, fans, and drivers from that race almost 60 years ago. Like finding a 10,000-year-old arrowhead on a riverbank, this Camaro is now evidence of an extinct civilization.
Yet, every time the Camaro rolls into a car show and the limelight hits the sheet metal, you can almost hear the roar in the stands as the green flag falls. If you squint, you can see “Little Joe’s” reflection in the Ermine White paint, and for a moment, you can feel the reverberations of all the people who were there at the parade and the race on May 22nd, 1967.
This car could have easily gone to the crusher if it fell into the wrong hands, removing it from the living forever. Kudos to the Borris family for keeping this story alive and polishing this old F-body back to perfection.