2006-08-28 by Patricia Grames Pollock
Reuniting a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro with its original motor can be a daunting task at best, but Darrell Johnson proved it can be done.
Thanks to persistence he has not only managed to obtain the coveted motor, but he made a new friend in the bargain.
Johnson, who works for the Knoxville Police Department, purchased the 1969 Camaro RS SS L-78, restored to its original color called Daytona Yellow, from Vermont in the spring of 2005.
Co-owner Nikki, Darrell's wife, said when she first saw the flashy car it reminded her of a big Easter egg because of its vivid yellow color.
The Johnsons had gone all over the United States looking for a documented L-78 1969 Camaro for a number of years.
Darrell was ready to give up the quest when he saw a promising listing online, went to a Web site known as the Super Car Registry, and saw some comments posted about it from a former owner, Bruce Hershberger, who knew the history of the car prior to his ownership.
The rest is history.
The original owner of the car was Grady L. Thomas of Alaska, who had purchased the car at a dealership in Anchorage.
Hershberger knew that Thomas, who had subsequently moved from Alaska, had sold the original engine to someone in Idaho.
Since Hershberger was unable to locate Thomas, he restored the car with a so-called date code correct motor.
Darrell said that the car remained in Alaska for years, until Hershberger sold it to the man in Vermont that Darrell bought it from.
Darrell never expected that he'd be able to find Grady Thomas, who had returned to Alaska, to, as luck would have it, the same city shown on the original Protect-O-Plate.
Eventually, after many phone calls, he and Thomas connected.
That marked the beginning of a promising friendship, which led Thomas to Blount County to meet the couple who purchased a car that he said had been a special part of his life, and that he still thought about frequently.
He was 25 at the time of his purchase, and had a young family. He not only used it for transportation, he raced it every weekend, put a trailer hitch on back that pulled a snowmobile, and hunted game such as caribou in it.
Grady kept the car until 1976, pulled the motor out, and sold it to his brother-in-law, replacing it with a small block 350.
The reason he sold it was because his family was growing, necessitating a larger vehicle.
``It was hard to get rid of it,'' he admitted, ``because I wanted my muscle car, but you have to do what you have to do.''
Thomas put the motor in his pickup truck, where it remained for several years. Eventually after it started burning oil, he took it out of the truck and kept it in his garage.
``They're rare motors,'' was the reason he gave for keeping it. ``They only made about 3,000 of them.''
However, Thomas ended up selling the motor to a co-worker in Idaho, who in turn sold it to someone else, who also sold it yet again.
However, all was far from lost.
Since the sellers all knew the names of the buyers, it turned out that Darrell got the name of the last buyer who still had it, and a fortuitous swap for the 1969 Camaro 375hp/396 Chevelle (JD coded) in Darrell's car was made with that buyer for the original motor, which has since been rebuilt by David Cooper, minister of New Life Ministries.
Darrell had promised Thomas that if he helped locate the original motor, he would be the first person to drive the Camaro when the motor was back in the car.
Accordingly, Thomas flew the 4,000 or so miles to get behind the wheel of the car he'd never forgotten.
It was the first time he'd seen it since 1977.
Thomas estimates that the motor has between 250,000-300,000 miles on it.
``Owner history is the most important thing, because documentation can be faked,'' said Darrell.
Nikki, who gave the name Jezebel to the Camaro, doesn't expect to drive it, because it doesn't have an automatic transmission.
``It's also too valuable,'' she added with a laugh.
It is the third muscle car for the Johnsons.
``None of the others were like this one,'' Nikki said.
The car piqued the interest of a reporter from the magazine ``Muscle Car Enthusiast,'' published by Amos Automobile Publishing in Lakeland, Fla. An article along with pictures will appear in an upcoming edition.
The deluxe houndstooth seat covers that Thomas said were sometimes spattered with caribou blood look nearly new. The wood grain was a special order.
The car is special to the Johnsons not only because of its rarity and documentation.
``This car has given me and my wife a really close friend in Alaska,'' said Darrell.
Asked if it was his dream car, Darrell replied: ``My wife is my real dream come true, because without her none of this would be possible. But second to her, this car would definitely be my baby.''