Gage, prototype Camaro make the best of a light Cruise

Sep. 27—To everything, there is a season. and in August, with more than 2,100 cars in attendance, Somernites Cruise enjoyed its biggest turnout ever.

Perhaps there was an inevitable letdown due for the next show, as Cruise Executive Director Keith Floyd noted on Saturday that this September show was not quite one for the books.

"The car count is down a little bit," said Floyd on Saturday afternoon, noting 834 vehicles overall in attendance, and 240 Chevrolet Corvettes. "The rain (that) morning hurt us a little. ... It was raining in northern Tennessee earlier in the morning, so we basically lost the Tennessee crowd, and that cost us a couple hundred cars.

"But it's been a good day. Everybody's had a good time," he added. "Everybody's loved seeing the prototype Camaro. It's had a crowd around it all day long."

Certainly the Camaro was one of two stars at this month's Cruise, along with TV personality Dennis Gage.

While the featured car of this month's showcase was the Corvette — the Kentucky-produced sports car that typically brings in a healthy Somernites turnout — its Chevy sibling the Camaro stole the show. The original 1967 serial no. 1 prototype Chevy Camaro was be on display downtown on Saturday in Somerset.

"It's a very, very historically important car for Chevrolet," said Floyd. "It is literally the original prototype for all the Camaros after that."

A sign near the car, parked in front of the Pulaski County Courthouse, told the story: "This is #123377N100001, the first Camaro ever made. Fisher Body kicked off its production in secret on May 17, 1966.

"Five days later, it was handed off to Chevrolet to become the first of 49 hand-built pilot cars to emerge from the Norwood Assembly Plant in Ohio.

"The car was hidden under lock and key until August of 1966, when it was used for the official public introduction of Camaro.

"In 1969, the car was sold for $2,550. It passed through the hands of over a dozen owners and, nearly five decades later, was restored to its original factory condition."

Corey Lawson, father of Logan Lawson who is the present owner of the Camaro, spoke to the the Commonwealth Journal Saturday about their most unusual find back in their home of Hutchinson, Kansas way back in 2009.

"My son found the car when he was 13 years old, on the Internet," said Corey Lawson. "He was on a message board, and the guy was trying to get help. He had found something that was special. It had kind of fallen off the grid, and the only reason the guy even figured it out was because when he called to get insurance for the car, the agent had the state of mind to say, 'Are you sure you wrote that down right? Because that's a whole lot of zeroes (in the VIN).'"

Logan told the Camaro's locater that his dad knew "a lot of about cars" and that they were only a couple of hours away, so they could come help document the car. Corey drove to that location, south of Oklahoma City, and as he was going, the other party listed the car for sale on eBay.

"I didn't understand why, but when I got down there, every other house on this guy's street was being foreclosed," said Corey. "They had taken his furniture and the whole shooting match the week before. Long story short, he ended up wanting to sell the car. My son called his grandmother and borrowed some money from his college fund and bought the car and brought it home. I told him not to spend another dime of Grandma's money until he could prove that it actually was the first one ever built."

So Logan embarked on that mission, and after about six months, he got in contact with the General Motors Heritage Center in the Detroit, Michigan area by driving up there during Spring Break — he'd gotten nowhere on the phone to that point.

"At that time, he was 14 years old," said Corey of his son. "He walks up there, knocks on the front door, talks into this intercom. Next thing I know, he's walking inside.

"They ended up falling in love with the story, they helped find the original paperwork and photos of the car, and they gave him permission to have (those documents) in exchange for him doing a website on all the pre-production prototypes," he continued. "So that's how pilotcarregistry.com was founded."

The Lawsons don't drive the car — it's more a work of art or a piece of history now than an automobile — but they do show it off at a number of shows every year.

"We've had a lot of interested people," he said of the car's popularity out and about. "One lady, I asked her if she wanted to sit in the car and she started crying. But yeah, the car is considered a national treasure. All of its original paperwork and photos are housed within the Library of Congress. It's been given a Historic Engineering Award by the U.S. Government. It belongs to all of us, so we just try to share it with the people as much as we possibly can."

A few feet away from the Camaro sat the booth housing Gage. A "big hit" with Cruisegoers on the day, noted Floyd, Gage is the host of "My Classic Car," which airs on the Motor Trend television channel.

Gage is instantly recognizable with his distinctive look, driver's cap on head and handlebar mustache twirling around the edges, and dedicates his airtime to exploring — you guessed it — classic cars and the people who own them.

He took time on Saturday to sign autographs and meet fans in front of the courthouse. It wasn't his first time at Somernites, but he was happy to be back, after originally being scheduled to return last year before circumstances forced the Cruise to scratch the appearance.

"I came down to Somernites Cruise the first time in 2017, came down and shot it for an episode of the TV show," he said. "It was a real nice show, well-attended, nice layout. Made a great episode. When (Floyd) called me up and asked me to come back down for a meet-and-greet type of thing, I said sure. Another good day."

Gage said when asked about talking to fans like he did Saturday, "It's what I do." He says he's interested in people and he's interested in cars.

"That's what's kept my show on for 28 years," he said. "It's just a fun hobby. It's a whole family hobby, and it's just clean fun."

Fun, yes, but the love of classic cars goes much deeper than that for Gage and most other people, he noted.

"I think in the U.S. in particular, it's an emotional attachment," he said. "They're not just inanimate objects. Everybody's got a story. Like, 'My granddad used to have one of those,' or 'Me and Betty Sue dated in one back in high school.' But everybody's got a story and an emotional connection, and they change when they tell that. Their voices changes, their eyes change. It's real right-brained. It's something you can't teach somebody, you have to feel it."