The Journey Begins
Story and photos by Al Rogers with Zach Straits
Zach Straits’ adoptive father was a transmission shop owner and, at an early age, Zach was bitten by the car bug. From that beginning in the transmission shop, Zach has nearly done it all in the hobby. He’s spent his life racing, restoring and showing cars while working in the building supply industry. His wife, Brenda, often works on projects alongside him. Zach’s varied automotive experience includes drag racing, autocross and showing not only his own cars, but two that he’s restored for hot rod and Bonneville legend George Poteet. In addition, he’s a part-time social media contributor. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s set two land speed records driving the Jesel Land Speed Team Dodge pickup on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Even with that lifetime’s worth of experience, the hard-core Ford lover had his world forever changed with a 2006 trip from Virginia to California, where he was born.
One Adoption Leads to Another
Zach was adopted at birth and until 2006, he’d never met his birth mother or father. Unfortunately, he lost his adoptive parents at a young age and, after marrying Brenda, decided to search for his biological family. After many years of searching without success, he traveled with a friend to Los Angeles in 2006. Armed only with his birth mother’s first name and her address and his adoptive parents’ address at the time he was born, along with knowledge of an older brother — all taken from adoption records he found after the passing of his parents — Zach went searching.
Zach’s first stop in California was the address in Anaheim where his birth mother, Darlene, had lived at the time of his birth, but that lead turned up nothing more. He then arrived at the home where his adoptive parents, James and Clarice Straits, lived when he was born. He met a very nice couple that had heard of a lady approaching the former owners of the home about adopting her child, which she was financially unable to care for. Zach was encouraged. His next stop at the LA County Library proved fruitful when he was directed to the local Mormon library. Public records, beyond the ones found on the internet, were housed there and available for review. This lead was crucial, and, through a library volunteer, Zach was able to find his birth record and solve the mystery of his birth mother’s maiden name. He also found that his older brother was named Greg. Zach then learned he had a younger sister, who was also given up for adoption at birth. He found her birth date, but not her name.
Armed with this information, Zach used peoplefinder.com and found a recent address for his brother, Greg. Zach drove to the address on Anaheim Boulevard where he met a nice lady who had purchased the house from Greg’s mother. She did not know where Darlene had moved, but she had a file from the purchase. In that file was a piece of paper with only a phone number.
Zach thanked the woman and then took a chance by calling the number. A man answered, and Zach asked if his name was Greg. The man replied that it was, and Zach then asked if his mother was named Darlene. Again, Greg said, “yes.” Zach told Greg they might be related. He then asked if Darlene had ever lived at the Anaheim Boulevard address. Greg said, “Hold on, let me ask her.” Zach says his heart fluttered as he realized this woman was still alive. Greg returned and told Zach that yes, she had lived at that address. Zach then told Greg that they might not simply be related, but that they might be brothers. Greg put Zach on hold. It seemed like hours, but in just a few minutes, Greg returned to the phone and said, “Hello, brother, and by the way, we have a sister, too.”
Zach could not believe he had found his birth mother, Darlene, and brother, Greg, within 24 hours of arriving in California. Greg and Darlene wanted to meet him as soon as possible. Zach was hoping they were just around the corner, but they were now 320 miles away in Kingman, Ariz. Zach started driving through the Mohave Desert that Saturday night.
Sunday morning could not arrive soon enough. One can only imagine Zach’s emotions leading up to his first meeting with his biological family. Zach was welcomed with open arms by his birth mother, Darlene, and brother, Greg. Darlene asked what Zach’s life had been like for the past 45 years. He opened his laptop and shared photos of his life. His mother asked, “Why is there a car in every photo?” Zach replied, “I’m a car nut.”
Darlene smiled and began to tell Zach about his grandmother, Betty, a true “little old lady from Pasadena.” After they talked a while, Greg took Zach to the backyard and revealed Jenny, Betty’s old Camaro. Jenny’s story began unfolding during that visit and subsequently through papers that had been stored for 39 years.
Jenny the Camaro
In 1967, Betty wanted a fast car, so she sold her 1959 Ford station wagon and special-ordered from Courtesy Chevrolet in Los Angeles a 1967 Camaro SS/RS with the 295-hp 350-cid V-8 and Powerglide transmission. She opted for air conditioning, power steering, tinted windows, a deluxe interior and the very rare front bench seat. No one knows why she passed on power brakes. She named her new Camaro “Jenny,” and drove her new ride all over the west. The car was always well-maintained and remained mostly original. She kept all the purchase documents, right down to the handwritten entry in her diary from the day she ordered the car. Zach also found the dealer order form, salesperson’s business card, check stub and receipt for $3,508.68 and even a letter from the salesman thanking her for her purchase.
Also saved was a citation from 1982 when Darlene was pulled over in South Gate, Calif., for the Camaro’s excessive smoke. The Camaro had always been serviced by the same mechanic, and upon explaining to a judge that the mechanic had been ill and unable to repair the Camaro, she was granted leniency. Had the judge not agreed to let her keep Jenny until her mechanic could complete the repair, Jenny certainly would have been impounded by California due to emission law restrictions.
All of these documents were stored in an old suitcase, along with all the maintenance receipts and two speeding tickets that Betty received from the same police officer in one month. It proved to Zach that his birth grandmother had the same need for speed and appreciation for cool types of cars that he had.
After Betty’s passing, Zach’s mother, Darlene, and brother, Greg, drove the Camaro until Greg parked it. He set it up on blocks and covered it in their Arizona backyard in 1992.
In October 2007, through an internet site called Adoption Connection, Zach found his adopted sister, Suzy, in Oregon. Zach, Greg and Suzy spent as much time as they could with Darlene until she passed away in April 2008. Darlene left Jenny the Camaro to her son, Greg. In 2011, Greg decided to sell the Camaro to Zach, and Jenny’s new journey began. She made it from Arizona to Virginia on an open car carrier without getting rained on, arriving with all of her Arizona dust intact.
The Barn Find Tour
After acquiring Jenny the Camaro from his brother, Zach made plans to eventually restore it. He was just beginning the restoration of a 1972 VW Westphalia bus for his sister, Suzy, so Jenny was placed in dry storage. He saw the barn-find craze was gaining popularity, so he thought, “Why not join in with a muscle car that had an interesting story?”
With one quick post on the Barn Finds Facebook page, Jenny the Camaro went viral and was voted “Barn Find of the Year” on the Barn Finds site. Then came a call from an author who was working on a new book on barn finds called “Fifty Shades of Rust” who wanted to feature Jenny and Zach’s story on the forthcoming book’s pages, and it eventually appeared there.
Jenny was now a bona fide automotive celebrity for her barn-find state and story. Zach began showing Jenny in her barn-find condition, and after years of detailing show cars, it was refreshing for Zach to only need to air up Jenny’s right rear tire and load her in the trailer for her next appearance. He says the toughest part was keeping all the dust intact and watching out for rain clouds.
Jenny — in all her dust-covered glory — was displayed at the Carlisle GM Nationals, where she was featured on the Australian TV show “Classic Resto.” In 2014, Jenny then traveled to the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in Chicago for display in its very popular Barn Finds and Hidden Treasures section. Wherever she has traveled, Zach’s focus was on sharing her story. That continued in 2017 when he received a call from the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles. They were looking for a special Camaro to display while celebrating the 50th anniversary of Chevrolet’s pony car. Jenny became a feature display for two years while she awaited her next appearance.
In 2019, Zach received a message from Brett “Big Schwag” Wagner, the voice of “Jessie James Monster Garage” and host of the racing TV show “Pass Time.” Wagner explained that Jenny would be perfect for the new Discovery TV series “Sticker Shock.” The new show featured unique cars with a story, and Jenny fit right in. Hosted by Dennis Pittsenbarger, the premise of “Sticker Shock” was like that of “Antiques Roadshow,” and Jenny was hauled back to her original home in California for the show. Dennis discussed the vehicle’s story with Zach while a professional appraiser evaluated the car in hopes the appraisal would “shock” the owner. Jenny’s appraisal did shock Zach, as he thought she was worth $10,000 to $12,000, but the appraiser said $18,000 to $22,000 as she sat, with all her dust and in non-running condition.
After retuning home, Jenny received a special invitation to go on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke with her barn-find dust still intact. The museum volunteers had a hard time not being allowed to clean off any of her long-term dust!
Jenny Finally Gets Restored
The decision to complete a concours-correct restoration for Jenny was a difficult one. As car folks say, “they are only original once.” While the California and Arizona weather had been kind over the last 50-plus years, they were still not ideal for Jenny. The dry, hot climate eliminated the typical rust issues, but the desert heat took its toll on everything that was not glass or metal. To escalate matters, Jenny never lived inside until she arrived in Virginia during 2011.
Jenny really deserved a return to the condition in which she was originally delivered on Feb. 24, 1967 — the entry noted in Grandma Betty’s diary as the day she “got my car.” That made Zach’s decision easier. So, on Jan. 30, 2021, Jenny was picked up from the Virginia Museum of Transportation, where she had last been displayed, to begin her restoration.
Four days later, Jenny received her first car wash in 29 years, and at that point, there was no turning back. Disassembly began the next day with help from several friends. The “photograph, bag and tag” process began, and within 24 hours, Jenny was just a shell. Zach and Brenda both have full-time jobs, so it was all-hands-on-deck during weekends and evenings.
Due to pandemic-related supply chain issues, restoring a car proved more difficult than before, but Zach quickly focused on sourcing the best reproduction parts where original parts could not be reused from Jenny’s hard miles and time in the sun. He turned to friends Alan Hutcheson, who manages the George Poteet collection, and well-known Camaro restoration expert Alan Pound, of A&R Classic Restoration in Emory, Texas. It was decided that Firewheel Classic and Heartbeat City would be the best restoration parts partners. Ordering parts very early in the process proved to be a good decision. Zach experienced very little parts-availability issues when it came to reproduction parts. He found the toughest parts to source were original, date-coded hard parts. Being a Los Angles-built car, plus an air conditioned car with smog equipment, made the hunt even harder. Zach used several first-gen Camaro Facebook pages to post the parts he needed, and the Camaro community came to Jenny’s rescue. In a matter of two months, Zach had the correct distributor, carburetor, coil, alternator, starter and water pump. Next came the air conditioning system. Zach was fortunate that Jenny still had all her original parts, so after one call to the Original Air folks, the system was on its way to their restoration experts. Zach was also fortunate that Grandma Betty did not follow 90 percent of California Camaro owners and remove the car’s A.I.R. smog system. He was able to ship the system off to restorer Bill Hodel, and its restoration was completed well ahead of schedule.
Zach was now on the search for concours-restoration mentors with 1967 Camaro restoration experience and reached out to Camaro Nationals Judge Dale Murphy, who took an interest in Jenny and was Zach’s go-to guy for those items not covered in the 1967 Camaro Assembly Manual. Dale was also Zach’s resource for the phosphate coating on the hood hinges, latches and pulleys. His long-time friend Andy Snetselaar, the manager of the Albaugh Chevy Collection in Iowa, was of great help, sharing detailed pictures with Zach of some of the best original and professionally restored 1967 Camaros.
As we all know, in restoration, you need to know your limitations, and Zach admits he is lacking skills in body work and paint. Literally by accident, he met the team at Autobody Pro Shop in nearby Harrisonburg, Va. Kip and Isaac Hall immediately took an interest in Jenny’s story and Zach’s goal of unveiling Jenny at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in November 2022. Zach’s aggressive schedule did not scare Kip and Isaac. Instead, they pulled their team together and said, “Let’s get this done.” Isaac and Kip exclusively use PPG Refinish products from Blue Ridge Color Co. and received their support in Jenny’s high-profile restoration. Jenny’s original Code GG Granada Gold exterior finish and factory-correct, semi-glass black on chassis parts is shot over PPG’s DP50LV epoxy and 246 polyester primers. Continuing with Jenny’s unique journey, her base-coat colors are water-based. PPG’s Envirobase brings out the metallics in the gold color to perfection when covered with the PPG DCU 2021 clear coat. Key employees Willie, Trenton and Travis treated Jenny the Camaro with extreme care, and they’re proud of how well she turned out.
Jenny’s rare bench seat upholstery was sourced through Firewheel Classics, and leading local upholsterer George Folks worked his spring-and-foam magic in getting the upholstery to fit the seats as well as it did in 1967. Zach turned to his friends at Atomic Speed to rebuild Jenny’s original 3:31 12-bolt rear-end. Zach himself rebuilt the original Powerglide with parts from Greg at Advanced Transmission, and he turned to Jeff Burns in Tupelo, Miss., for the rebuild of Jenny’s original, matching-numbers 350-cid V-8. Wes at Augusta Glass installed the windshield and back glass.
All the pieces came together with Auto Body Pro Shop meeting its commitment to have the shell completed and the engine and transmission installed on schedule, giving Zach, Brenda and their team of volunteers 45 days to have Jenny completed for her unveiling at MCACN on Nov. 19.
What is so important about the unveiling? As mentioned earlier in Jenny’s journey, she appeared in all her dusty glory at the 2014 event, and she has now become one of the very few cars that have returned to MCACN in restored condition.
Jenny’s Journey Continues
After Jenny’s unveiling in November 2022, she will travel to many more shows, sharing her story of long-lost family. Zach never had a chance to meet his grandmother; but through Jenny, he will forever be connected to his family in a special way.
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