Liberty, Texas, is a long way from Grand Rapids, Michigan,
but the Michael Rileys (Senior and Junior) from that east-Texas town have made
a strong connection to that small city "up north."
In fact, they've made the two-day journey between Texas and
Michigan several times during the past few years as they've become acquainted
with Grand Rapids-based Berger Chevrolet and the unique Camaros that have come
out of the dealership. Recently, the Rileys have taken delivery of a Berger
Chevrolet 75th Anniversary Camaro SS to complement the family's restored '69
Berger-sold COPO Camaro.
Berger Chevrolet gained a reputation in the '60s and '70s as
a haven for hot Chevy parts and power packages. The dealership sold numerous
COPO Camaros and Chevelles, including one of the 69 ZL-1 Camaros built in 1969.
"I never even heard of Berger before we found the
'69," says Mike Riley (the elder Michael of the family). "Back in
1994, we decided to find a rare Camaro, like a Yenko or Nickey or something
like that. My son Michael came across an ad in the Old Car Trader for a '69
Berger COPO Camaro. We didn't know really what a Berger was at the time, but we
did some research and found out they're more rare than even a Yenko."
With that, the Rileys brought their transporter to Lowell, Michigan.
It's a village near Grand Rapids where, apparently, the super-rare Camaro had
"lived" most of its years-not even 20 miles from the dealership.
Like most COPOs, this Daytona Yellow example had been bought
to race. Its overall condition was rough, but complete. The Rileys made their
deal with the owner and hauled the rare F-car back to Texas.
The COPO's singular lifestyle, though, presented some pros
and cons to the restoration process. Because it was primarily a race car, it
wasn't subjected to the harsh, salty Michigan winters that consumed so many
native musclecars. It was also stored indoors. This combination preserved the
body exceptionally (for a rust-belt car), but its lack of sheetmetal cancer was
apparently an accident of its overall care because none of the previous owners
did much to prevent dings and dents.
"Every single body panel needed attention," says
Riley. "There was body damage everywhere. And one of the previous owners
said he was sure the car had once scraped its entire passenger side along the
guardrail at the dragstrip."
The car had also suffered the ignominy of a '80s makeover
that was as trendy as an episode of Miami Vice.
"Somebody took off all the chrome and badges,"
Riley says. "What brightwork was left, they painted black. It was so
That, and a pair of phony Z28 stripes were laid down the
hood. But years of building street rods had given the Rileys all the experience
they needed to smooth the '69's flanks. They even tackled the engine and
interior work at home.
The car's interior was "trashed," in Mike Riley's words, but filled
with "wonderful trash," too.
"We found receipts and paperwork that had just stayed
in the car over the years," he says. "We even found old timeslips.
The car was running mid-12s on street tires back in the mid-'80s; which is
pretty much when it was taken out of circulation."
That the car ran on street tires points out another
interesting fact: The Riley's COPO, unlike others, was never cut-up, despite
its many years of dragstrip duty.
"Nobody ever cut the fenders or narrowed the
axle," Riley says. "We checked all the codes and numbers; this car
still has the original engine, transmission and BE-coded 4.10 rearend."
Some hard launches on wide slicks had worn down the insides
of the rear fenders, but this COPO was never butchered in the name of speed. Of
course, all those quarter-mile blasts took their toll.
by Barry Kluczky
YOU ARE NOT JUST BUYING PARTS – YOU ARE GETTING OUR CAMARO EXPERTISE
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