1969 ZL1 COPO
The 1969 Camaro 427 COPO's are famous for their raw power and low production volumes. They were specifically made to get around the limitations on performance cars that General Motors had imposed on Chevrolet. Only a limited number of people knew enough to order them. Many years went by before their very existence became public knowledge. This article provides the details of how these cars came about and what they were.
In the early days of racing, select racers enjoyed, in varying degrees, a mutually beneficial relationship with Chevrolet. These racers include Smokey Yunick, Roger Penske, Jim Hall, and Fred Gibb, to name a few. Fred Gibb was a veteran AHRA drag racer and owner of a Chevrolet dealership in La Harpe, Illinois. Due to his direct involvement in drag racing, Fred was no stranger to key people at Chevrolet, including the famous "Product Performance" department. But his closest ally was no less than Chevrolet General Manager and GM Vice-President Pete Estes, who could be considered the godfather of the Z/28.
The Camaro was Pete's baby and when it did not perform well in the 1967 Trans-American Series the resources of Chevrolet's massive engineering department were tapped. Photographs exist of the Penske-Donohue Trans-Am Camaro undergoing testing at the GM proving grounds. Soon "Heavy Duty" driveline, suspension, and braking components appeared along with virtually unstreetable engine parts. Camaro went on to win the Trans Am series in 1968 and 1969.
In 1969, Pete's baby was under attack again, but on a different front. Drag racing sanctioning bodies had a simple rule:
If at least fifty units of a particular engine/platform combination had been produced, such combination would be considered legal for stock-class racing.
Ford was building Mustangs with 428 Cobra Jet engines, Chrysler had commissioned an outside firm to build Hemi Darts and Barracudas, and even lowly AMC was having 401 engines placed into AMXs.
Fred Gibb thought a Camaro with the new, aluminum block 427 engine slated for the Corvette (RPO ZL1) would be perfect. But Camaro could not participate, for GM had a corporate policy forbidding the production installation of an engine larger than 400 cubic inches in any non-Corvette passenger vehicle smaller than "full-size". A proposal to management for a production 427 Camaro would take significant time for approval, and even if accepted, would be politically unpopular within the higher levels of GM.
Time was wasting and Fred Gibb wanted to race the car at the AHRA opener in Phoenix, January, 1969. There was an easy way around the corporate bureaucracy: a special fleet order procedure, known internally as the Central Office Production Order, normally used for special paint or equipment on commercial vehicles. In fact, Fred Gibb had used this trick in 1968 to have fifty COPO L78 Novas built for drag racing with special automatic transmissions. Fred and Pete decided on equipment that would become part of their new 1969 Camaro package: The aluminum ZL-1 engine, the new cold-air hood, heavy-duty cooling, transistor ignition, and a special rear axle. Additionally, the cars would require mandatory options of F70x14 RWL tires, power front disc brakes, and either a new Turbo 400 automatic or any of three Muncie 4-speed transmissions. Thus Central Office Production Order (COPO) 9560 was born.
The cars were emissions-certified, carried both the 12/12 and 5/50 warranties, and were street-legal. Gibb received verbal assurance that the option price would be around $2000. During October 1968, fifty 1969 ZL-1 Camaros were ordered for delivery to Fred Gibb Chevrolet: Four automatics and six M21 4-speeds each in the five colors of Dusk blue, Fathom green, Cortez silver, Le Mans blue, and Hugger orange. No other options were specified, not even radios.
The AMA specifications filed for COPO 9560 listed horsepower at 430 and shipping weight at around 3300 pounds.
Fred and Pete probably did not realize they had just created the most powerful passenger car Detroit ever built.
The Gibb Chevrolet ZL-1 Camaros
There were difficulties immediately. Chevrolet dealers were ordering far more Camaros than the plants could build. Normal production scheduling would have meant the first ZL-1 cars would be produced mid-January, too late for Fred Gibb to prepare his car for the first AHRA meet in Phoenix. Concern was expressed to the right people and on December 31, 1968, two identical Dusk blue ZL-1/automatic 1969 Camaros arrived at Gibb Chevrolet.
The #2 car was sold to a private individual. Gibb and partner Dick Harrell prepared the #1 car in three short weeks and arrived at Phoenix only to fail technical inspection. Chevrolet had built the car with a carburetor that did not match the part number listed in the AMA specifications. Once again some calls were made and soon a Chevrolet engineer arrived in Phoenix with the correct carburetor. Although it did well this first time out, it did not win its class. It had a successful racing history, winning the AHRA Pro Stock Championship in 1971. The car was sold at the end of the 1971 season.
The telling blow for COPO 9560 was the price. Gibb is quoted as saying he believed the cars would list for around $4900. Unfortunately for Gibb, the new edict at Chevrolet came through that options had to be priced according to production costs. Just the "High Performance Unit" option was priced at $4160.50. The mandatory power disc brakes and transmission option pushed sticker prices over $7300. This was far more than a well equipped 1969 Corvette and would be roughly equivalent to today's Z06 Corvette. Not only would the cars not sell, Gibb likely was unable to pay for them. Gibb plead his case, and in an unprecedented move, Chevrolet agreed to the return of many ZL-1 Camaros. The cars were shipped back to Norwood, Ohio beginning in May 1969 and Chevrolet began to shop the cars around. Gibb also wholesaled cars directly to other dealers who would soon learn what he knew: they were sale-proof. Many dealers removed and sold the ZL-1 engines, replacing them with iron 396 or 427s, adding stripes and mag wheels, doing whatever it took to sell the white elephants. Several were stolen and never recovered. Despite that, Gibb sold his last new 1969 ZL-1 Camaro in 1972 with the aid of a $1000 rebate from Chevrolet. It was re-possessed and returned it to Gibb in 1973.
Possibly because the racing sanctioning bodies required proof, Chevrolet retained a list of ZL-1 Camaro vehicle identification numbers. The linked file contains a listing of the 50 cars initially shipped to Fred Gibb Chevrolet. All the built-for-Gibb cars had the standard interior in black; the automatic cars were column-shifted. Most of these cars were ultimately sold by other Chevrolet dealers.
Fred Gibb may have believed the ZL-1 Camaro was his exclusively. Compounding his difficulty in selling the cars was the fact that other Chevrolet dealers had learned of the COPO and ordered 19 additional ZL-1 Camaros. Some of these cars had more optional equipment. Many of these Camaros found the same cold reception as the Gibbs' cars and suffered the same fate: engine swaps, theft, modifications.
Several production ZL-1 Camaros were raced by Dick Harrell, Shay Nichols, Ken Barnhart, Malcolm Durham, Lamar Walden, and others. It should be noted that some 1969 Camaros raced with ZL-1 engines in SS/C were not part of the production run. Bill Jenkins and Jungle Jim Liberman retrofitted engines into their racecars.
For a car with a total production run of only 69, the enthusiast magazines of the era took notice. Super Stock was the first, featuring the #1 car in full AHRA trim, and another of Gibb's, believed to be #5, in the May 1969 issue. The street version ran an incredible 11.64/122 mph with open headers and small 6-1/2 inch slicks. The #1 car ran 10.29/132 mph. Popular Hot Rodding covered the same test in the July 1969 issue. Hot Rod reviewed this test in the July 1998 issue. Hi-Performance Cars August 1969 tested the now-famous #3 ZL-1 and ran 13.16/110 mph on E70x15 tires with closed exhaust and an AIR pump. Drag Racing magazine had Baldwin-Motion build them one and it ran 11.48/122 mph.
The potential was certainly there. But the car that should have become a dominant force in drag racing never quite lived up to its promise. High cost was certainly a factor, making the production run low. Durability issues also came into play. Many cars were sold without the ZL-1 engine. Perhaps an "L-88" Camaro may have been a better idea.
By late 1969 there was little corporate interest in the ZL-1 engine program. The aggressive people that made it happen were moving out of Product Performance due to the increasing need for emissions and accident protection development. The driving force behind the Camaro, Pete Estes, left Chevrolet in February 1969 to become a GM Group Vice-President. He was replaced by John DeLorean from Pontiac, oft credited as the father of the GTO. DeLorean was a performance enthusiast but he was on a mission. Chevrolet was losing market share and was marginally profitable. Budgets were tightened, tougher controls put in. By 1970, Product Performance was no more.
Fred Gibb placed the first COPO 9650 order, for fifty units, and except for units #3 and #51, which went to other dealers, his order was the first fifty units built. However, Fred Gibb was only able to sell thirteen of these fifty units himself. The remaining units were either returned to Chevrolet for redistribution or directly exchanged with other dealers.
2002 Chevrolet Camaro 427 ZL1
Reborn of a Legend
Among the Camaro faithful there is little doubt that the '69 Camaro ZL-1 is a legendary musclecar, with a level of performance (and mystery) that all other F-Bodies have failed to attain. The '69 ZL-1 owes its top-dog status to its lightweight aluminum 427 big-block engine which provided tremendous Rat motor power with the handling characteristics of a small-block.
The reason there were only 69 ZL-1s produced in 1969 was due largely to the fact that the option price of the engine alone was more than the rest of the car itself. There are still thousands of Camaro lovers around that believe the best Camaros built ended along with the end of the First-Generation production run. This belief can almost be justified. Performance started to fall shortly thereafter with tighter emission regulations and a more watchful insurance industry. But even in the performance heyday of 1970, the number of big-blocks put between the fenders of the newly restyled Second-Gens was never anywhere near the number of First-Gens.
But as anyone who has taken the time to drive the newest LS1-powered Camaros surely knows, performance isn't dead even though the Camaro is said to be.
It's always a risky move to badge a new model with a moniker that carried such a high level of esteem, but in this case the new '02 ZL1 just may live up to the ZL1 emblems it carries on its fenders. It has some big shoes to fill, but with its long list of performance mods and some of the best pieces to come out of the General's parts bin, it's a model that carries the name honorably.
2002 ZL1 - Test Drive
by Terry Cole
My first thought when I learned that my good friend Scott Settlemire - GM Camaro Brand Manager - was going to hand me the keys to the only new ZL1 in existence was, "Wow, I can't wait to see how they fit the all-aluminum Rat motor under the cowl of a late-model Camaro." When the reality set in that there was no oversized big-block residing under the F-Body's curvaceous hood, I must admit that I was a little disappointed. Well, let's say a lot! Why would GM expend one of its most hallowed nameplates on a warmed-over Camaro, I wondered? Besides, I own a supercharged Fourth-Gen, so this car wasn't going to be a big deal.
Well, I've never misjudged anything as much as I did here by jumping to the wrong conclusion about this car. To sum it up: This potential-production supercar is a throw-back to the big-block-powered machines of the late-'60s-only better in every way! From the moment I pulled out of the race track in Las Vegas until I reluctantly handed over the car to my staff for their evaluations, I experienced nothing but ecstasy behind the wheel of this boulevard bruiser. It is powerful, fast, sounds great, and handles with the best of them. It's not a ZO6 Corvette in Camaro wrappings, nor is it a cushy driver. It is a perfect mix of raw performance and hot rodding ingenuity.
Super Chevy Magazine
Back << Level Up >> Next