GRAND FORKS — Jodi Cook had the surprise of her life on Wednesday, Oct. 23, when her two sons took her to Rydell’s auto dealership in Grand Forks.
She thought they were going to check out a car her son, Shea Gaier, had been urged to come in and see before the owner picked it up — or so she was told.
In the showroom, her sons peeled back a custom-fitted car cover to reveal the first car she ever owned — a 1969 SS 396 Chevy Camaro, a graduation gift from her parents when she finished high school in Woodworth, N.D., in 1974 — restored to better-than-new condition.
“It looks like the one I had,” she said.
“This is it,” said her son, Shea Gaier, of Grand Forks. “This is the car. We had it restored.”
“It is beautiful,” Cook said, as she circled the car, peering in the windows and taking in the details of the gleaming two-door, orange “muscle car” with the black vinyl roof.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see it again,” said Cook, who lives in Charleston, S.C., and was in North Dakota for her nephew’s wedding. Her son, Nick Gaier, flew in from Durham, N.C.
“The color combination looks really cool,” Shea said.
“Yep, it always did,” Cook said.
She recalled that a few months before her graduation from Woodworth High School, her father, Robert Cook, took her car-shopping and she picked this car at a used car lot in Jamestown, N.D.
Her father didn’t realize how fast the car could go, she said.
“He had no idea what he was buying me. If he had, he might not have bought it," she said.
The flashy, one-owner Camaro had been well cared for, she said, and drew plenty of attention from police in Jamestown and Carrington, N.D.
“I used to get pulled over on a regular basis, so the cops could see the car,” she said. “I never got a ticket; they just wanted to see the car and know who the driver was.”
In December 1974, she and Craig Gaier were married; the next summer, the car was sold.
“Your dad sold it; I didn’t,” she told her sons. “I cried the whole weekend.”
“We used the money for a down payment on our first house,” said Gaier, now her ex-husband, when reached by phone while he was towing the car on a trailer from Bismarck to Rydell’s.
“We didn’t need a fancy hot rod; we needed a house more," he said.
Ten years ago, Cook located the owner of the car in Lincoln, N.D., but “she didn’t want to sell it then.”
Several years later, through the internet, Shea Gaier found the owner who had moved, with the car, to Missouri.
In 2015, “I drove to Springfield, Missouri, and bought the car,” said Craig Gaier, who offered it to Shea to restore it.
“It needed a lot of work,” said Craig Gaier, noting the car had been souped up for drag racing, including a different hood, but hadn’t been run for 23 years. “It was being pulled around.”
“Mice were jumping out of it when I was loading it up,” he said.
The restoration project, at Dale’s Auto Restoration and Performance of Bismarck, took a few years.
Because of the quality restoration, “it’s better than new now,” Craig Gaier said. “There are a lot of hidden changes — it has a different front end on it, so it drives better.”
Along with its “hugger orange” paint job, the car has been outfitted with black stripes, a “period-correct engine,” air-conditioning, the houndstooth custom upholstery, and a new console with drink-holders.
“My son is putting a fancy stereo in the trunk. It’ll be his show car.”
The previous owner had kept the original hood louvers in a box which she sent to Shea.
Now the Camaro is back in the family, with Shea, the fourth owner, planning to show it in area vintage car shows, he said.
“It’s kind of a family keepsake,” said Nick Gaier.
Reuniting with the car she owned in high school, and in such an excellent condition, was a little hard to process, Cook said.
“I just can’t even believe it. It’s amazing,” she said. “I had no clue.”
It mystifies her that her boys kept their project and plan under wraps.
“How do you keep a secret so long?” she said.
That wasn’t easy, her sons said.
“A couple of times it almost slipped out,” Nick Gaier said.
Through the years, he and other family members would often hear her talk about the car, he said.
Seeing it again brought back good memories, Cook said. “It was so fun.”
“Now I drive a Mini Cooper that I’ve customized with black and white houndstooth checks on the mirrors,” she said.
“It’s pretty fast, too.”