In the late 1960s, a cottage industry had developed within the automotive dealer network to build and market high-performance street/strip cars. Among Chevrolet dealers, some of the most prominent were Gibb, Berger, Baldwin/Motion, and Yenko. Dealers like these were converting Novas, Chevelles, and especially Camaros from 396ci to 427ci engines, and designing accessory packages around this engine swap. In 1969, Chevrolet facilitated sales of these ultra-high-performance cars by building a series of low-production offerings designated by the acronym "COPO," which was short for Central Office Production Order, followed by a series number.
One of these COPO offerings was tagged "9561," and was developed by Chevrolet Engineering for Yenko Chevrolet. COPO 9561 supplied a 425hp/427ci L72 engine in place of the 375hp/396 L78 engine. The L72 received a four-bolt main block, forged steel crank, mechanical camshaft, single-point aluminum distributor, and 11:1 forged aluminum pistons. A Holley 780-cfm carburetor with vacuum secondaries was mounted on an aluminum intake with an open element air cleaner with a chrome lid. The valve covers were also chromed.
Also part of the COPO 9561 package was the ZL2 cowl induction steel hood, and a heavy-duty four-core radiator. The F41 high-performance suspension was fitted with heavy-duty multi-leaf rear springs, heavy-duty shocks, and a 4.10:1 ring and pinion gearing in a 12-bolt housing. Mandatory options with COPO 9561 were power front disc brakes, and either a four-speed manual gearbox or Turbo 400 automatic transmission. COPO 9561 was available to any Chevrolet dealer by special order, and cost $489.75, with the obligatory power front disc brakes ($64.25) and transmission choice ($195.40) adding $749.40 to the Camaro's $2,727.00 window sticker.
The Dick Harrell Connection
In 1967, Dick Harrell, a prominent Chevrolet drag racer and tuner (known to his fans as "Mr. Chevrolet"), had opened his own shop in the Kansas City area and established a successful business building high-performance Chevrolets, not only for customers, but also for dealers like Yenko. In early 1969, Harrell ordered four 9561 Camaros, all with automatic transmissions, from Bill Allen Chevrolet in Kansas City, with the idea of offering his own version of the 427 Camaro, much like other tuners and dealers were doing across the country. The colors Harrell chose for the four COPO Camaros were Glacier Blue, Frost Green, Rallye Green, and Cortez Silver.
Dave Libby worked for Harrell and remembers the four COPO Camaros that were ordered by Dick Harrell Performance Center. "They were done sometime in early to mid spring of 1969," Libby said. "We did some minor modifications to the distributor and carburetor and gave the engine a thorough tune-up. According to Dave, Harrell's shop could legally modify the engine since "we were a small manufacturer and had an exemption." The L72 was making 450 horsepower when the Dick Harrell badge was affixed to the left-hand valve cover.
Inside, a Sun Super Tach was mounted on the dash and a set of direct reading gauges were installed just above the ashtray. The exterior received Harrell badges on the front header, the quarters, and the decklid. A set of hood locks was installed, and Libby custom painted the top of the hood black. On the rear decklid was an aluminum airfoil designed and sold by American Racing Equipment. "The spoiler was installed to make the car distinctive," Dave said. "It was a real eye grabber!" Also added was a set of 15x7 Ansen wheels with a pair of M&H Racemaster slicks at the rear. "We put our signature on the cars," Dave said. "They were unique and they were drag race ready."
Harrell had built an excellent reputation in the Midwest, and his Performance Center was always crowded with customers. To give potential buyers an idea of how well a Harrell 427 Camaro performed, the Glacier Blue car was kept as a demonstrator. Harrell sold the Cortez Silver Camaro to Bill Jacobs Chevrolet in Joliet, Illinois. Randy Krnac of Plainfield, Illinois, wandered into the Jacobs dealership and lusted over the gleaming silver Camaro sitting alongside the Impalas and Chevelles. "I remember the salesman, his name was Swede Lindstrom," Randy said. "I happened to be in the showroom and saw the Camaro and liked it. I was 20 and had never heard of Dick Harrell. Swede explained to me that it was kinda like a Yenko, but was built in Kansas City."
Early Life & Times
Randy put a deposit on the Camaro and went home. He told some of his buddies about the car, and he took them back to the dealer to show it to them. "There were four guys sitting in my car, right in the showroom. I had Swede lock the car up since they couldn't get it out of the showroom till Monday."
The Harrell Camaro wasn't cheap; the bottom line on the window sticker read $5,071.05. The MSRP was $4,430.95, which included Camaro's base price and the COPO 9561 and Dick Harrell packages. The list of options was brief: Tach ($68), AM radio ($61.10), Spoiler Equipment ($48), Special 7x15 Sprint mags ($185), Hi Performance traction tires ($175), and Special Exhaust system ($28).
Like any gearhead back then, Randy yanked the performance-choking emissions equipment off the 427 when he got the car home. He did some minor engine tweaks, and with the stock 4.10 gears, he'd run the car at U.S. 30 and Oswego dragstrips, turning a best time of 14 flat at 140 mph. Randy also did some street racing in Plainfield and nearby Aurora. "I had my share of tickets," he laughed.
While he was at the 1970 Indy Nationals, Randy spotted a chopped Riviera sporting a supercharger and towing a funny car. "I thought that was so cool," Randy said. "I decided that I had to have one of them."
Randy returned home and began working on bolting a GMC 6-71 blower to the 427 in his Harrell Camaro. "I took off the cowl induction hood," Randy said, "and put it away. I installed a regular Camaro hood. I put in lower-compression pistons and changed the valves and valve springs. A friend of mine fabricated all the parts needed to mate the 6-71 blower to a big-block street engine. I used a pair of Holley 660s. Later on, I slipped in a Crane roller cam. That cam made the engine bark like a dog!"
Randy never had the chance to run the blown Harrell Camaro on the track. "I put a set of 4.88 gears in it," Randy said, "and took it to U.S. 30. I was sitting in the staging lanes when I was called to the tower. When I got up there, I was told I wouldn't be able to run. They said their insurance for supercharged streetcars was cancelled, so I never got to run with the supercharger."
Eventually, the huffer came off, and Randy sold the Camaro in 1974 to his brother-in-law's cousin in neighboring Big Rock. In the course of a couple years, the Camaro passed through several local hands, all within the local farming community, where it was street raced, never wrecked, and always stored indoors for the winter months. It was sold again in 1978, and once more in 1982 to Jim Thurow. Jim kept the Harrell Camaro for 24 years until he passed away. That's when Rod Bushnell of nearby Naperville, Illinois, entered the picture.
Second Time Around
Rod purchased the Harrell Camaro from the estate with just 36,000 miles on the clock. Buying the car had extra meaning from Rod. "I rode in this car in 1978 when I was 8 years old," Rod said. "It's a local legend. For a car that was always driven and raced hard, it was in remarkably good shape."
Rod contacted each of the owners and got as much information as he could about the car's history. His big surprise was when he talked to Randy, who had found the original window sticker that he had tucked away years earlier in a dresser drawer and gave it to Rod. "Valerie Harrell was also a great help in gathering information about the car from her dad's records," Rod said.
To handle the restoration, Rod commissioned Perfection Autosport in Grafton, Wisconsin. The car was stripped and the body placed on a rotisserie. "The body panels were all original and in good overall condition," Rod said. "We were able to use the original metal, bumpers, trim and the same badges that Dick Harrell had installed on the car himself in 1969."
Steve Grafton in Butler, Wisconsin, did the rebuild on the vintage 427. He gave it a clean-up bore, and matched it to the stock crank to get 433 total cubes, and then balanced the assembly. Most of the internals are stock components; however, Steve chose a set of 11.25:1 Speed-Pro pistons to give the big Chevy some extra bite. To put some extra twist in the venerable Rat, Steve installed an Iskendarian .530-inch lift mechanical stick with ?-inch Crane pushrods. The iron heads were modified for 2.25-inch intake valves and 1.88-inch exhausts, and then port-matched with the intake manifold.
The remainder of the restoration brought the Camaro back to its original form as it rolled out of Harrell's Performance Center in 1969. Having the opportunity to trace the car's lineage back to the first owner has given Rod a sense of the Harrell Camaro's legacy and how it touched so many people in the community. "This car never left a 15-square mile farming community," Rod said. "Over the years, two of its owners parked the Harrell Camaro in the same student parking lot at Hinckley-Big Rock High School. Can you image this big 427 Camaro in a tiny farm town? Car guys in ten surrounding towns feared this car!"
There's a sense of continuity here; a thread that connects six young men, the heartland of America, and a very unique car together. And while the young men have aged and the farms have given way to suburbia, the car remains as it did in 1969-a thundering testament to the handiwork of Dick Harrell. "It was a car they'd go out and drag race on a Saturday night," Rod said. "Everyone called it the 'Dickie Harrell Camaro,' and they still remember the car today. It was built to go down the track. There were no frills; it just went fast."
From the February, 2009 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Paul Zazarine
Photography by Robert McGaffin
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musclecar By Mike Yoksich, Photography by Mike Yoksich