The Camaro That’s Been To The Moon And Back. Sort Of.

No, the Camaro hasn’t ACTUALLY been to the moon, but mileage-wise, Dr. E.C. Krupp’s 1968 Chevrolet has been on quite a journey. Read on. It’s worth it.

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There are landmarks you won’t find in any guidebook. Get familiar with a town, and you’ll recognize cars that tell the city’s stories better than any cut-roof bus tour. Such is the mysterious Griffith Park Camaro, a faded Tripoli Turquoise 1968 Camaro that is as regular a Los Angeles sighting as the stars on Hollywood Boulevard or waves against the Malibu sand. The car is always parked in the same spot at the top of Observatory Road in the hills above Los Feliz, California. It sits there every day, headlights toward Hollywood, wheels turned hard to the left, employee parking badge dangling from the rearview mirror. Those in the know can tell you it’s a one-owner car, a daily driver with a half-million miles on its well-spun odometer, but its full story is one of rockets and moon men. It starts both in outer space and in the scrub brush of California.

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E.C. Krupp is the owner of the Camaro and the director of Griffith Observatory, three pleasingly symmetrical art deco scoops of vanilla stone against the wild green-gold hills of Los Angeles. The observatory sits in the hills on the south end of Griffith Park, L.A.’s wild, 4,310-acre answer to New York’s manicured Central Park. The land came as a gift in the late 1890s from millionaire “Colonel” Griffith J. Griffith. His gift was controversial. Although he was vocal and poetic about the importance of public land and support for the sciences, he suffered from alcoholism and delusions and spent time in prison for attempted murder—he shot his wife. She survived but sensibly left him. The resulting scandal meant that Griffith’s dreams of a public observatory and theatre in the hills over Hollywood wouldn’t come to fruition until after his death. During his life, the city council wouldn’t accept the donation, and he left it in trust as part of his will.

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None of this violent history is apparent when you visit the observatory. To the west is the famous Hollywood sign, and to the east is the strange mirage of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers rising from the suburban sprawl. In the dark, Griffith Park belongs to mountain lions and coyotes, but at sunset it’s a mass of tourists. Spend any time there, and you’ll know “Say Cheese,” or its national equivalent in 30 different languages. Although most photographers aim their lenses and selfie sticks at the famous remains of Hollywoodland or the observatory dome, some face in toward the parking lot, framing their pouts and smiles against a backdrop of blue Chevy F-body.

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They don’t know, these visitors, that the #oldcar in their Instagram shots is the daily mule of the science center’s big boss. Krupp bought the Camaro new in 1968, and it’s been his sole transportation up until 2004, when he bought a backup car—a 1994 Miata. Krupp describes himself as “not a car guy” because he hires a mechanic to wrench on his fleet. He’s a smart man, but he’s wrong here. There are many ways of being a “car guy,” and certainly keeping a classic on the road for half a century is one of them.

Dr. E.C. Krupp pilots the Camaro on its cislunar travels sometime in the mythic past when the Camaro’s rear seat passenger windows were still embellished with faux stained glass. The emblem on the driver’s side of the car is a muted posthorn, a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), embellished astronomically with the sun’s face. (photograph Dr. Bruce Bohannan)(U.S., California, Los Angeles, Dr. E.C. Krupp driving his 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, ~late 1970s)

For an academically minded hippie in the late ’60s, trading in a cool English sports car on something as “Establishment” as a Chevrolet was a bummer, man. A young Krupp attempted to reclaim his counterculture cred with painted “stained glass” graphics on the Camaro’s quarter windows. “It was a Thomas Pynchon reference, [the muted horn from the novel The Crying of Lot 49] with an added astronomy reference [the sun],” he said.

Krupp has worked at Griffith Observatory since 1970, and his enthusiasm for the place is undimmed. When we met to talk about the Camaro, he took me on a mini tour inside the observatory. We followed the curve of the dome to a conference room, where he went immediately to the window and raised the blinds, giving us a view of the city, dollhouse-small below. He looked out for several breaths, maybe retracing his morning commute up the twisting park roads, then sat down and adjusted his glasses. “Start at the beginning,” I said, and he told me about the Colonel, the building of the observatory in 1933, and his father—a mechanical engineer with a passion for the budding space program in the 1950s. “He told me he didn’t want to go to the moon,” Krupp said, “but he wanted to push the button.” When E.C. was 12, Krupp Sr. moved the family to Los Angeles in hopes of finding work in Los Angeles’ active space race scene. They settled in the San Fernando Valley, and as a kid, E.C. could see the glow of Apollo rockets being tested in the Santa Susana pass. As he got older, E.C. was also interested in the stars and studied astronomy at UCLA. While still a graduate student, he started working at the Griffith Planetarium. “I didn’t care for it at first,” he said. “But eventually I realized, ‘Hey, I drive through a park every day to get to work, and the work is hands-on. It’s immediate. It’s a small team. I can make things happen.”

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The drive might have done something to win Krupp over to his work, but it was hard on his car at the time, a 1963 Austin-Healy Sprite. After expensive preventative maintenance and numerous breakdowns that didn’t get prevented, Krupp’s dad laid down an engineer’s law of logic. “My father finally said, ‘You need a reliable American car.’” Reluctantly, the young Krupp traded in his sporty car. “There was a deal on Camaros,” he said. “I got the cheapest one, maybe $2,600. Straight-six, three-on-the-tree, manual everything. I hated it.” Compared to the Austin-Healy, the Camaro was a big, sloppy boat. “I called it the mushmobile. But I just kept driving it.” As the odometer turned, his dislike turned to acceptance and then affection for the F-body. “You keep something for a while for practical reasons, and eventually it becomes romantic.”

With an astronaut at the wheel, the Camaro Command Module took a test drive around the back lot at Global Effects. (photograph Dusty Church) (U.S., California, Los Angeles, Dr. E.C. Krupp in replica Apollo astronaut suit and driving 1968 Camaro in back lot at Global Effects, Inc, on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, 23 April 2014)

In 2014, E.C. Krupp’s one-owner Camaro had accrued 481,555 miles, the distance of a trip to the moon and back again. The timing matched up with Griffith Observatory’s 80th anniversary and Krupp’s 40th year at Griffith. He celebrated by driving the Camaro to the anniversary party in an Apollo 11 spacesuit replica. “I had to practice ahead of time to see if I could work the clutch in astronaut boots.”

One of Krupp’s priorities as director of the observatory is keeping it relevant. He modernized the planetarium and supervises new exhibits and technologies to keep the 80-year-old facility up to date in the modern space age. Knowing this, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect with the Wi-Fi in the Leonard Nimoy Theatre and the six-banger ’68 parked outside. “The key with technology is pushing the edge to do the job you need,” he said when I asked about it. “There is a big difference between style and need, and my personal ideas of style are more Luddite. I see no point in spending money or energy on things before I need them.”

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Even a long exposure can’t blur out all the action of a sunset at Griffith Observatory. Griffith is the most visited public observatory in the world, and it was the third planetarium ever built in the United States. Observatory director E.C. Krupp works to keep the facility cutting edge, while at the same time commuting in a bone-stock 1968 Chevy Camaro he bought new.

For almost 50 years and 501,189 miles (more since we shot it), this approach has kept the Camaro on the road, through two engine rebuilds, four clutches, brake jobs, steering repairs, tune-ups, new upholstery, and three repaints. The whole time, Krupp has always gone for stock replacements. No LS-swaps or even four-bbl carbs for his Camaro. Again, that’s a choice that started as sensible—why complicate a working system—and became emotional. “I don’t mind spending the money for repairs,” he said. “It’s just getting hard to find people who will work on it the way I want. At this point, I don’t have an interest in changing the car. You want as simple a technology as will do the job.”

Today

We asked Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser what he thought of Krupp’s odometer and he was pretty stoked to hear about it.

“As a ’68 Camaro owner myself, to think that someone has logged over half a million miles on their classic Camaro is unreal. It just goes to show that Camaros were meant to be driven. I sure hope someone with a 5th or 6th Gen Camaro lets us know when they reach the same milestone!”

 

Ricardo Antunez, owner of Rantz Auto Center, in Eagle Rock, and his son, Anthony Antunez, who now manages the business, both helped get Dr. Krupp and the Camaro back from the moon. (photograph Friends Of The Observatory, Jane Houle) (U.S., California, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, Stellar Evolution, 12 May 2014,astronaut Dr. E.C. Krupp with Ricardo Antunez (seated), owner of Rantz Auto Center, and Anthony Antunez, his son and manager of Rantz Auto Center)

One of Krupp’s concerns when he told us his story was that he didn’t count as a car guy because he didn’t do his own repairs. We don’t think turning the wrenches is a requirement for loving cars, but we did want to hear from the folks who helped Krupp keep the Camaro on the road. In the ’70s, finding a mechanic to work on a 1968 Camaro was easy—after all, it was still a new car. The trouble started when Krupp’s long-time mechanic, Del Stapp, retired in the early 2000s. How do you find someone to keep everything stock and humming on a nearly 40-year-old car?

Many of Stapp’s former clients were going to a new place in Eagle Rock called Rantz Auto Center, which was run by a father and son named Ricardo and Anthony Antunez. Krupp gave them a try and found kindred spirits. “We’re old-fashioned, too,” Anthony said. “We always tell him, ‘Keep it stock; don’t open that can of worms.’”

Since 2005, Ricardo, Anthony, and service manager Jesse Nuñez have been keeping the Camaro in tune. “It’s his baby,” Anthony said. “We always make it a priority when it comes in. He has a backup car now, the Mazda, but we know he prefers to drive the Camaro.” Anthony said the car is a sort of neighborhood celebrity, attracting attention whenever it comes in for maintenance and repairs. “We do whatever it takes: go to the junkyard, find a parts car, research for original parts. Mr. Krupp is an amazing person, and we want to get him back out there.”

Does Anthony have any advice for someone thinking of daily driving a classic? “Have a strong left foot if you want a manual car, stay out of traffic, and learn how to say no when people ask to buy it!”

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In 1968 you could get a “big” 250ci six-cylinder or the most base of base engines, a 140-hp 230ci mill. Krupp’s Camaro is the little one. “There was a deal on Camaro,” he said. The engine has been rebuilt twice but never replaced or upgraded.

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One of the biggest challenges for Krupp’s mechanic was finding a correct steering column for the three-speed column shifter. “For a while I had an aluminum brace around it,” Krupp said. “I didn’t think it would last, but I figured I’d just keep having the machinist make me a new one. It actually worked fine and was still in place when we finally found a replacement column.”

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A clutch in L.A. traffic gets a workout, especially climbing the steep roads surrounding Griffith Observatory. Krupp said the benefit to a manual car and parking on hills is being able to jump-start from a roll when the battery dies. He’s on clutch No. 4. That’s about 125,297 miles per rebuild.

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“I won’t drive it when it comes in. I don’t want to be responsible for putting one more mile on that clutch!”
– –Anthony Antunez, mechanic

 

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Krupp and his mechanic, Anthony Antunez, agree on keeping the Camaro as original as possible. The only place where they differ is on the subject of paint. Anthony thinks the car deserves to be shiny but says: “Mr. Krupp, he likes that vintage look.”

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Krupp said a lot of keeping the Camaro running is getting attuned to changes in the way it feels. “You get used to its idiosyncrasies, and then you know the feel of the clutch or the brakes. You can predict when it’s time to deal with them.”

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The first Camaro

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A six-cylinder column-shifted Camaro might not be the first combo you think of when you think of that most bitchin’ of cars, but the first Camaro of Camaros was exactly that. Camaro No. N100001 is known as a pilot production car, and it was used in press conferences and photo shoots to introduce Chevy’s new ponycar in 1966. It then was sold to a dealer, who kept it as a display car for two years, so the first production Camaro didn’t end up on the road until 1969. The Camaro went through numerous owners and was modified as a drag car until a 13-year-old kid named Logan saw it for sale and pointed it out to his dad. Logan and Corey Lawson bought the Camaro and restored it, building a database of Camaro history along the way. Spend some time on their site, www.pilotcarregistry.com, to learn more about Camaro numero uno.

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BONUS!

Can you see photographer Wes Allison’s blood pressure rising in this photo?

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