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2018 Woodward Dream Cruise: Cruising With Mr. Camaro, Al Oppenheiser

Al Oppenheiser, Camaro chief engineer, is at home in his 1968 Camaro SS convertible

Al Oppenheiser, Camaro chief engineer, is at home in his 1968 Camaro SS convertible

Al Oppenheiser made sure he bought his sign for the 2018 Woodward Dream Cruise. It will go on the wall of his garage with signs dating back to 1988, his fourth year of cruising. He has only missed once since, when he was in Europe for work.

The Camaro chief engineer is a familiar face in a familiar car. We spent an evening cruising in his black 1968 Camaro SS convertible that he restored, and people along Woodward recognized both him and his car, shouting hi as he passed by.

Oppenheiser grew up in Flint, Michigan, where many families had multiple generations that worked for General Motors, and his family was no exception. He was a third-generation GM employee; his father worked at Fisher Body. Some of his friends opted to work in the plant after high school and were buying new Trans Ams when he was broke while getting his engineering degree and dreaming of new muscle cars.

His life has been filled with synchronicity. When he started at GM, he met Lloyd Reuss and told him someday he wanted to be the Corvette or Camaro chief. When GM brought the Camaro back for the fifth generation, it was Al who started working on the concept in April 2005. It was shown at the 2006 Detroit auto show and went into production in March 2009 as a 2010 model.

His first restoration, a 1969 Camaro SS, was already underway. “I was working on new Camaros as my day job and coming home and working on the restoration until I was ready to fall asleep on the cement floor.” Both were completed at the same time.

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1968 Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible

His 1968 Camaro SS convertible with the plate MY 6T8 was originally white with a black bumblebee stripe, but the original owner painted it red. Al bought it in 2004 and changed it to black with white bumblebee stripe. It has the original 250-hpm 350-cubic-inch small-block V-8, original transmission, original front disc and drum brakes. He has Cragars and Radial T/A Goodrich tires. It was his first rebuild from the ground up, a learning experience he wanted to share with his kids. He has a picture of his 10-year-old son under the car, working on it. For that reason, “I’m never going to sell it.” He drives the convertible as much as he can and has only had the top up three times: to test it when he bought it, when he put the car together, and once when he got caught in a deluge during the Woodward Dream Cruise. “I’ll be buried in this car,” he says.


 1970–1971 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

“I was always a Camaro guy.” His first car was a 1970½ Camaro SS, second-generation pony car, blue with white rally stripes and a split chrome bumper. He was shocked when his father let him use his summer job money to buy his dream car when he was only 18, and he put his paychecks into parts. It did provide the family with a second car until three years later, when someone hit and totaled the car. Needing a car, he spent $150 USD on a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale in school bus yellow. Meanwhile, his totaled Camaro was still in an impound yard, racking up daily bills. The yard owner liked his wheels and tires, so he made a deal to sell them for time served. Cruising Woodward he spots this Z28 with a split-chrome bumper like his first SS and adds that his ample garage has a VIN1 2014½ Z/28, 2018 ZL1 1LE, and a 1931 Model A with a small-block that he picked up a couple years ago. At one point in his career, he worked on the Geo Metro—he does not have one, and none, unsurprisingly, was spotted on Woodward.


1950 Chevrolet pickup

The 1950 pickup Al spotted is similar to his current project: a flat black 1949 five-window Chevy pickup—so named for its three windows in the back—with a 350 small-block engine. It is running, so he takes it out as the work continues and often gets notes stuffed in the door or windshield asking if it is for sale.


1965 Chevrolet C10 pickup

C10s are so hot right now. Al points out that this mid-’60s C10 has the same trailing arm he’s putting into his 1949 truck. And he says the trucks have become so popular that their price has skyrocketed, in some cases going from $8,000 USD to $30,000 USD.


1971 Chevrolet Vega wagon

Al is surprised to see this Vega wagon in the wild, knowing they had a lot of bare steel–they were known for thin sheetmetal and little primer, making them a tasty target for rust—and many have disintegrated. The Vega had its moments: It was the 1971 Motor Trend Car of the Year.