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1967 Camaro owned by Patrick Ryan . (Patrick Ryan)
1967 Camaro owned by Patrick Ryan . (Patrick Ryan)

Classic Car

The Lightweight legend lives on Add to ...

It will be easy to recognize Chevy Camaro true-believers attending the Canadian International Auto Show, they'll be the ones genuflecting before the acid-dipped, blue-and-yellow bodywork of the 1967 Sunoco Camaro referred to reverentially as "The Lightweight," one of the true warrior gods of 1960s Trans Am racing.

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From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, the heavyweight division of Trans Am racing was an all-out punch-up between auto makers producing the era's "Pony Cars."

Chevy Camaros, Pontiac Firebirds, Ford Mustangs, Plymouth Barracudas, Dodge Challengers, Mercury Cougars and AMC Javelins fought it out on road courses across the United States and Canada for race-on-Sunday sell-on-Monday supremacy. Chevrolet had been a little late arriving on this scene but when its Camaro (and Pontiac Firebird) finally arrived in 1967, the gloves definitely came off and Trans Am became a bare-knuckle brawl.



Back in 1967

Canada celebrates its 100th anniversary by staging Expo 67 in Montreal and names O Canada its national anthem.

The Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup - for the last time.

The Beatles release their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which tops the charts in the "Summer of Love."

American drivers A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney - piloting a GT40 Mark IV - win the Le Mans 24 hour race for the second time for Ford and Gurney invents the now traditional victory champagne shower.

Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu get married in Las Vegas.

And the first points punch by a Chevy was thrown by the Canadian-owned car that show goers will see under the spotlights in the History Room on the show's 700 Level Classic Concours, where it serves as the focal point for a display entitled Icons: The History of Camaro and Firebird, featuring examples of the cars through five generations including some very special editions.

"The Lightweight" is the 14th example of the Camaro Z28 to roll off the assembly line (in December, 1966) and was purchased by Terry Godsall from Gorries Chevrolet-Olds in Toronto. The car was race-prepped by Doug Duncan at Gorries, which was no stranger to road racing, and readied for respected Canadian racer Craig Fisher to drive in the 1967 Daytona Trans Am event, held as part of the 24 hour race. Fisher brought it home second in the Trans Am, scoring the first points for a Camaro in the series.

Z-28 number 13, meanwhile, had been procured by Roger Penske, then a racer and Chevy dealer in Philadelphia, to be developed and driven by the now legendary Mark Donohue. The current owner of the Sunoco Camaro, American collector and vintage racer Patrick Ryan of Montgomery, Ala., takes up the story:

Ryan says the Penske/Donohue car got off to a slow start, but after acquiring special tinfoil-thin body panels specially stamped by General Motors, began to fly. Unfortunately, when it landed after being crashed by Donohue, these trick panels didn't survive.

Fisher and Donohue then co-drove the Godsall car in a race at Marlborough and Fisher joined the Penske team. Number 14 then got the full Penske/Donohue treatment. The body panels were acid-dipped, it now ran 302-cubic-inch TRACO V-8 engines and was painted in Sunoco's yellow-and-blue livery. It was driven to a pair of wins in two of the last four Trans Ams of 1967.

After lapping the field in the final event, a post-race weight check revealed it to be 250 lbs lighter than the 2,800-lb minimum, but some fast-talking by Penske resulted in the win being allowed to stand, although pre-race weigh-ins became the rule thereafter.

Camaros were restyled a bit for 1968 and Penske built one into a racer, which suffered a mechanical failure at Daytona, leading GM to urge a second team car be added for the Sebring 12-hour race.

Without time to prepare a 1968, Penske and Donohue borrowed The Lightweight back from Godsall and "fooled the tech inspectors by putting a 1968 grille and taillights on it and painting both cars identically." They then sent the legal 1968 car through tech inspection twice, once with its own racing number and then with The Lightweight's number.

The same trick was used in qualifying with The Lightweight - actually setting qualifying times for both. No wonder Donohue's later book was called The Unfair Advantage.

Ryan says The Lightweight went on to win the Trans Am and finish third overall at Sebring that year (behind a pair of factory Porsche 907s) and the team won 10 of the 13 Trans Am events, claiming the championship. They won the championship for Chevy again in 1969.

The Lightweight returned to Canada after the race and was sold to Bob Gagnon of Montreal and raced by Fisher in the 1968 Trans Am at Lime Rock. Fisher finished the year racing a Firebird for Godsall. And The Lightweight won the Eastern Canadian Touring Championship in the hands of Francois Favreau.

It then went through the hands of Larry Gilbride and Jean Hrab before finding a home with Francois Guertain who ran it in the Trans Am in 1970, 1971, 1972 before putting the now-aging battler into storage.

The Lightweight was discovered in the 1980s by vintage racer Jack Boxstrom sitting on sawhorses in a warehouse minus engine and wheels. After buying it and refurbishing it, he entered it in its first historic race at Road Atlanta. "I was the first guy to bring a historic Trans Am car to historic racing," says Boxstrom. "Then all kinds of people came out of the woodwork with them."

Boxstrom sold it and it again went through a number of hands before ending up with Ryan, who with son Sean make up "Unfair Advantage Racing." The Lightweight has been restored as closely as possible to 1968 Sebring appearance and specs and since 1989 has competed in 120 vintage racing meets.

2011 Ford Edge
READ MORE: Click here for full coverage of the Canadian International Auto Show

*****

Corrections: The spelling of Francois Guertain's name has been corrected.

The Godsall/Fisher car was No. 14, incorrect information appeared above.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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