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The Legend Began In 1969

Last week we met the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Although many thought the model designed to compete with the Mustang GT500 would be the next Camaro to wear the famous Z28 badge, Chevrolet opted for ZL1. Here's why.P

The ZL1 Camaro is likely the most legendary vehicle in a long and storied history of Chevrolet muscle cars. Although only 69 ZL1s slipped out GM's doors, the ones that did were the fastest cars GM would sell for decades to come. The name of the all-aluminum 427 V8 became synonymous with what remains one of the most potent Camaros to ever leave the factory.P

The ZL1 Engine was never intended to be put into a street legal production car. Chevrolet had developed the engine primarily for Can-Am racing and other track use under the hood of a Corvette. Featuring aluminum heads used on the also potent L88 iron block 427, the ZL1 also featured an entirely aluminum casting of the 427 engine block. The combination resulted in an engine that was rated at 435hp and weighed about the same as a small block 327.P

The Legend of the Camaro ZL1

General consensus among those knowledgeable about ZL1s is that the engines actually produced in excess of 500hp. The engine could easily propel the Camaro in "stock" form to low 13 second ¼ miles. With minor modifications the cars were able to run deep into the 11s. In a time when muscle reigned supreme these kinds of numbers were unheard of.P

The ZL1 Camaro came into existence through an exploitation of a Chevrolet factory process. The Central Office Production Order, known as COPO for short was a process that allowed vehicles to be specially ordered from the factory. The original intent was for specialty commercial vehicles, such as taxicabs or possibly trucks, although the process remains best known for the rare and special muscle cars it allowed Chevrolet dealers to produce.P

The Legend of the Camaro ZL1SEXPAND

Fred Gibb owned Gibb Chevrolet and was one of the dealers who were well versed in using COPO to produce rare muscle cars. Gibb Chevrolet was well known as a high performance Chevrolet dealership before Fred Gibb even conceived the Camaro ZL1. Dick Harrell, a longtime Chevrolet drag racer, had already been tuning COPO cars that Gibbs ordered for several years. The drag racer, who was already familiar with the ZL1 engine, had a hand in encouraging Fred Gibb to pitch manufacturing ZL1 Camaros to Chevrolet. Both men believed the ZL1 engine in a Camaro would prove dominant on the street and more importantly on the track for the 1969 NHRA season.P

With this in mind Fred Gibb contacted Vince Piggins, who was the head of product performance for Chevrolet engineering, in the late summer of 1968. Piggins was the man with final approval over what could be ordered through the COPO system. ZL1 Camaro production would be approved, Piggins told Gibb, as long as the dealer placed an order for at least 50. Gibb said yes, Piggins approved the COPO 9560 package, and the stage was set for the production of one of the most serious Camaros Chevrolet ever built.P

The Legend of the Camaro ZL1

When the first two Dusk Blue 1969 ZL1 Camaros arrived at Gibb Chevrolet in La Harpe, Illinois neither of the cars would start due to the cold weather. That wasn't close to the worst of it for Gibb though. The sticker price on both cars, which has been previously unknown to the dealer, was over $7200. The price was significantly more than what a comparable iron blocked 427 COPO car cost. Not surprisingly, selling the expensive ZL1 turned out to be fairly sizable task.P

Although 50 of the first 52 ZL1 Camaros made were shipped to Gibb Chevrolet, the dealer was ultimately only able to sell 13, with the rest being returned to Chevrolet or exchanged with other dealers. After being prepped by Gibb Chevrolet, the ZL1s were tuned by Dick Harrell. The dealership sold their last ZL1 in 1972, although it was actually repossessed and returned to them a year later. Some of the other dealerships who ended up with the now legendary cars pulled the ZL1s and replaced them with less expensive engines in order to sell the cars.P

In the end, a total of 69 ZL1 Camaros were built. Even though the cars were barely street cars, they were supported by a 5 year/50,000 mile warranty. Chevrolet actually considered a regular production option ZL1 at one point in 1969 but wisely decided it was not a good idea. The ZL1 engine was also put under the hood of two Corvettes before leaving the factory. Although the cars didn't sell well when new, they certainly do now.P

The low production numbers combined with the high performance potential make the ZL1 Camaro on of the most sought after rare muscle cars ever made. Before the collector car market burst, it was thought the ZL1 would be the first Camaro to sell for a million dollars. The Grey ZL1 seen at the top of the page sold for $486,000 in 2006 and you can see the sale of Reggie Jackson's green ZL1 post market implosion in the video above.P

Taking into account the ZL1's reputation for being one of the fastest and most collectible Camaros ever made, it isn't hard to see why Chevrolet opted to bypass the Z28 name (for now) and name their new car the ZL1. Giving a production vehicle the name of what has until now been a Camaro legend for not only being the most powerful ever, but also for such a limited run, doesn't exactly sit right with us but it doesn't make the 2012 Camaro ZL1 any less cool. For now at least, the legendary 1969 will remain the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the term ZL1.P

(Photo Credits: Barrett-Jackson and Hemmings)P

The ZL1 option was $4,150.00 over base price. Well, in 2013 the ZL1 option is about $28,000.00 over the SS package, so some things never change.

COPO 427s[edit]

A GM corporate edict forbade Chevrolet from installing engines larger than 400 cu in (6.6 l). Requests from dealers (notably Don Yenko) who were dealer-installing 427 cu in (7.0 l) engines in the Camaro caused Chevrolet to use an ordering process usually used on fleet and special orders (taxis, trucks, etc.) to offer 427 engines in the Camaro. Two Central Office Production Orders (COPO), numbers 9560 and 9561, were offered in the 1969 model year.[12]

The COPO 9561 used the solid lifter L72 big-block engine, making an underrated 425 hp (317 kW) gross. Yenko ordered 201 of these cars to create the now-legendary Yenko Camaro. Other dealers also became aware of the L72 engine package and ordered it. Around 900-1,000 Camaros were fitted with the L72 engine option.[13]

The COPO 9560 used an all-aluminum 427 cu in (7.0 L) big-block called the ZL-1 and was designed specifically for drag racing. The package was conceived by drag racer Dick Harrell, and ordered through Fred Gibb Chevrolet in La Harpe, IL, with the intention of entering NHRA Super Stock drag racing. Just 69 ZL-1 Camaros were produced, the engine alone cost over US$4,000 — nearly twice that of a base coupe with a V8. Though rated at 430 hp (321 kW) gross, the ZL-1 made 376 SAE Net HP in its "as installed" state. With exhaust changes and some tuning, the horsepower jumped to over 500.[14]

The ZL1 engines were hand assembled in a process that took 16 hours each, in a room that Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov described as "surgically clean".[15] All ZL1 engines were manufactured at the Tonawanda Assembly Plant before being installed in Corvettes, Camaros, or sold over the counter to racers.[16]

Chevrolet is ready to go back to the racing roots with the new Camaro line.

2103 Camaro C.O.P.O.,  4.0L supercharged 5.5 (327 cid)... 550 hp

2013 Camaro ZL1, 1.9L supercharged 6.2 (376 cid)... 580 hp 

2014 Camaro Z/28, 7.0 (427 cid)... 520 hp

2014 Camaro 1LE, 6.2 (376 cid)... 426 hp link about the origin of ZL1