John Hooper remembers his first Camaro – a red 1968 Rallys Sport Z/28 with a white stripe.
“It had a 327 engine with four speeds,” he said. “I used to put a lot of model cars together when I was young. It was like one big model.”
He drove it for three years before trading it in – for another Camaro – and his passion for the car has lasted a lifetime.
Particularly for the Z1 – the original muscle car, he said.
He finally bought one for his own in 2012, only to have it wrecked by a car dealership employee months later.
“This has been difficult to say the least,” Hooper said. “This car could've been a collector's item.”
The Z1 is built for speed, he said, with a proven track record after it won a pro-stock championship in 1971 before Chevrolet took the model out of production.
Hooper's love for car engines started early when he was growing up in Baltimore. He helped his grandfather and father with their lawnmower repair shop and at 15, he took his passion for cars to a gas station. There, he saw just about every engine made as he checked oil and fluids and looked under the hoods.
“Not like it is today,” he said.
Hooper graduated from Randallstown High School in Baltimore County in 1972 and earned an electrical apprenticeship soon after.
All the while, he continued to work on car engines. He also bought and sold car parts – a hobby he turned into a full-time business.
Hooper and his wife Debbie, who he met in Baltimore and married in 1978, opened U.S. Muscle in 1986.
Through his business, he met car enthusiasts like himself from all over the world – from Hawaii to Sweden.
With his young family in tow – daughter Stephanie was born in 1983 and Laura in 1985 – the Hoopers traveled to car shows across the country.
His expertise on Camaros has earned him notable jobs as a concourse judge at car shows and other locales, Camaro authenticator and, in one court case, an expert witness.
“I was considered a who's who in the country,” Hooper said. “For example, if you have a $100,000 car and you want someone to tell you how much it's worth or what you can do to improve the value, that's what a concourse judge would do.”
Hooper said he's worked for baseball legend Reggie Jackson, who asked him to authenticate a Camaro in Jackson's car collection. Another friend flew him to Hawaii to testify in a trial during a dispute over the value of a car.
“He basically had a car sold out from under him that he paid for,” Hooper said. “I testified to how rare it was and the parts. “He won the case and got all his money back.”
In the 1980s, he visited Sweden at the invitation of some business relations and Swedish Camaro club members.
“Sweden has the second largest Camaro club in the world,” Hooper said. “I was their guest for a week.”
But probably his greatest memory was meeting Fred Gibb, the force behind the original 1969 Z1 Camaro, he said. Gibb was a car dealer who talked GM into building the powerful Z1 model. If it wasn't for Gibb, Hooper said, the Z1 would never have been made.
“I went to Fred's home a couple of times to talk about Camaros,” Hooper said. “He was a good friend.”
In 1994, Hooper said he sold his car parts business in order to spend more time with his active family. He continued to sell car parts – and still does – but stopped taking his family cross country to attend car shows.
“It wasn't too much fun for them to go to car shows for the family vacation,” he said.
In 1991, Hooper tried his hand at something new. He wrote his first book, “The 1969 Camaro reference book.”
Iconic Camaros grace the cover of the 400-page book with 35 chapters and 32 pages of color. Copies sell for as much as $149 on eBay.
“I kept getting asked a lot of questions, and I felt inspired to write it,” he said.
Hooper said he followed up the reference book with five other Camaro-related books, selling tens of thousands of copies. Some issues were self-published, but others are still published by Motorbooks International, which pays bi-annual royalty checks.
At home in Long Neck
John and Debbie moved to Long Neck in 2005 to be closer to family.
“We came down for slower, lower,” he said.
Lower, maybe, but slower seems far from it as the 59-year-old Hooper juggles three jobs. The silver-haired Hooper takes his likeable personality with him when he works – in the electrical department at the Millsboro Lowes, in the produce section at Harris Teeter and at Sussex Tech Adult Education where he teaches first-year apprenticeship for electricians.
In his spare time, he still goes to car shows and is a member of local car club, the Millsboro Cruisers.
While at an Ocean City car show in 2012, Hooper said he saw a car that reminded him of the original muscle car – a Z1 Camaro that General Motors had recently released in limited production.
He was hooked.
“I decided I'd sell my '69 and get the 2012,” he said.
He ordered a black Z1 with no options similar to the original Z1 models.
“That was the car that was going to be left to my younger daughter and given to my granddaughter,” Hooper said. “In 30 to 40 years, it could've been a big deal.”
Then the bottom fell out.
While the car was at the dealer in December for a minor repair, a dealership employee took the car for a spin and crashed it into a pole.
The would-be collectors item was totaled.
“This whole thing has been very stressful on me and my wife,” Hooper said.
So much, he said, a doctor ordered him to take a week off of work at his three jobs.
Ever since the accident, Hooper and his wife have wrangled with the car dealership, trying to get a proper replacement for the collector's item ruined by the dealership employee.
A replacement car offered to them was found to have been in a minor accident, had three previous owners and no original documents to authenticate the vehicle. After Cape Gazette accounts of the Hoopers' dilemma, the story went viral, drawing the attention of GM executives.
The Hoopers expect a new car soon.
“It's a victory red Z1 coming from Michigan,” he said. “After all this, victory seems appropriate.”