How Jalopnik Reunited Papa John With His CamaroS

As we first reported yesterday, pizza magnate Papa John Schnatter has been reunited with his Camaro. This is the story of how Jalopnik made it happen and helped someone get $250,000.

The story really begins in 1983, when Papa John Schnatter's father was on the verge of closing his tavern because of a bankruptcy. Faced with few choices, Papa John sold the only asset he had to his name: A Bumblebee-striped black-and-gold 1971½ Chevy Camaro Z28.

View gallery »

Click on the gallery to walk through where the Z28 traveled over the years.

With the $2,800 he received for the Camaro he was able to save the family business and launch Papa John's, a business that now numbers at more than 3,000 pizzerias in 26 countries with a market value of three-quarters of a billion dollars. He had a lot, but Papa John still missed that Camaro. So Schnatter started looking for it.

"For 26 years I wanted the car back," said Schnatter. "[A friend] looked for that car for most of the 1990s and it surprised me when we couldn't find it." They even hired an ex-FBI agent to search for the car, turning up nothing.

Schnatter even went so far as to have a replica of the original 1971½ Camaro Z28 built to emulate the original, though with an upgraded sound system and A/C. Still, Schnatter was unsatisfied and hit the road in search of the car, first offering up a $25,000 reward, then upping the ante to $250,000 when the first sum failed to find the car. Even though many cars of the era have been sent to the crusher, he said he "never gave up hope, I never ever give up on anything. For some reason I didn't think anyone smashed it up."

When Papa John stopped off in Houston in search of the car he took me for a drive. All Schnatter could talk about was that original car, telling me:

"It had the split-bumper, sunroof, BF Goodrich tires with steel wheels, I swapped out the rear end with a Positrac differential - and now the speedometer reads 10 MPH over the actual speed. It had a velvet interior, unlike the vinyl one in this car, it didn't have A/C, and the ash tray in back is falling off."

These were helpful clues, but there was something else that struck us. He told the tale of watching the car drive away or, rather, about being unable to because he was so sad.

And this is where Jalopnik readers come in. After first hearing about the search on television, the Slones of Indiana found our original story and the details sounded familiar so they reached out to us on our Facebook page where our Commenter admin Al Navarro noticed it.

How Jalopnik Reunited Papa John With His CamaroS

Their story of a young man selling his car, unable to watch it go, instantly struck me as familiar to what John himself had told me in the car. After confirming some details it was clear this was the car so we contacted Papa John's people and let them know.

Sadly for the Slones, they'd sold the car to Jeff Robinson of Flatwoods, Kentucky. Fortunately for them, John has extended an offer of a finder's fee of $25,000 to the family for helping out with the tip. And fortunately for everyone, Jeff considered building a more tame street version of his Z28 so he kept many of the original parts, which helped them identify the car.

So how did the car go so long without being found? There are two reasons. First, the original sale occurred just across the border in Indiana, where there was no electronic record kept of sales transactions at the time. Second, the car was not a 1972 as remembered by John, but actually a 1971½, which is why Robinson didn't believe the car was the right one at first.

And what condition was the car in when John eventually drove out to Flatwoods to pick it up yesterday? Fantastic condition. Jeff had seriously upgraded the motor for drag racing and it was now putting out 825 HP.

According to Robinson it's now "Probably the fastest pizza delivery car in the world, it runs a 9.55 quarter-mile at 141 MPH."

How Jalopnik Reunited Papa John With His CamaroS

Despite the added power, newer hood and upgraded tires, the Schnatter family loves the car.

"Now there's a big old smile on my face, I like the car, I like the way it drives, it's fast," exclaimed Schnatter. "My wife's a redneck and she loves a muscle car. On one hand I want to put it back the way it was, and on the other hand i like the way he put it back together."

Though he's sad to part with it, Jeff Robinson made out okay.

"Jeff loved the car and he knows I'm going to take car of it and it'll take a special place in the hearts of the people at Papa John's," said John, adding "he was kind enough to sell it for $250,000."

Robinson isn't sure whether or not he'll build another Z28 of that era or try for something else. Either way, Papa John has promised to deliver the motor back if he decides to restore it to stock condition.

In the end, the story of a car that launched a global pizza empire has a happy ending not only for the young enthusiast who bravely parted with his dream car to pursue a different dream, but for another car enthusiast who was lucky enough to treat the car well. And really, isn't that what Jalopnik is all about?

UPDATE! In addition to helping reunite a Camaro lover with his car, Jalopnik helped enable this bit of generosity: Free Papa John's pizza for Camaro owners. Click here for full details.

View gallery »