Until now, the ZL1 designation was never an official model
name, but the newest and most high-tech Camaro takes its name from the most
exclusive and elite Camaro in history – one that was never intended for
production. ZL1 was the code name for the 427-cubic-inch, all-aluminum
big-block engine developed for Corvette race cars in the late 1960s, but found
its way into a small number of 1969 Camaros. From there, a legend was born.
When the muscle car war was at its peak in the ’60s,
enterprising and racing-minded dealers did everything they could to get more
powerful cars from the factory. Some Chevrolet dealers discovered that the
company’s special order system known as COPO – the acronym for Central Office
Production Order – could be used for higher-performance powertrains. It was
intended for dealers to place custom orders for things like special paint
packages for fleet vehicles, not building factory hot rods. Nevertheless, Camaro-hungry
dealers used the system to request larger, 427-cubic-inch engines and other
equipment that wasn’t available in regular-production models.
The ZL1 427 engine was originally developed as a racing
engine for the Can Am series, where early all-aluminum 427 engines had
delivered encouraging results in vehicles such as the groundbreaking Chaparral
2F race car. It was similar to Chevrolet’s L-88 427 engine, which had an iron
engine block and aluminum heads, but the ZL1’s aluminum block reduced the engine’s
overall weight by more than 100 pounds. That was a tremendous benefit for
racing, not only because of the obvious weight savings, but it also enhanced
the race cars’ overall balance.
In 1969, Illinois-based Chevy dealer Fred Gibb stretched the
COPO system to its limit when he ordered 50 Camaros with the new ZL1 racing
engine. The idea was to pack the most powerful engine available from Chevrolet
into otherwise regular Camaros and sell them to racers. The ZL1 engine was
officially rated at 430 horsepower, but was known to produce more than 500.
Despite never being intended for use in a regular-production
car, Gibb’s COPO order was fulfilled – but not before a few other dealers got
wind of it. They ordered a few, too, and production totaled 69 Camaros (two production
Corvettes also were built with the engine).
Those original ZL1-equipped Camaros carried a special-order
price of nearly $4,200 for the engine package, essentially doubling the total
price of the car. Not surprisingly, those little-known and expensive Camaros
with the new engine didn’t sell quickly, although they were capable of running
11-second quarter-mile times. Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Mich., for
example, ordered a ZL1, but it sat on the showroom floor for more than a year
and required a significant discount before it finally sold.
More than 40 years later, the original ZL1-powered Camaros
are among the most valuable collector cars. Their exceptionally low production
numbers, exotic engine and “king of the hill” mythology fuels their demand. And
because they were ordered and used as drag racers, few of the cars remain
intact today – even fewer still have their original engine – making them all
the more special to enthusiasts and collectors.
The ZL1 option was not found in any 1969 Camaro catalog, but
the original cars hold a very special place in Chevrolet’s performance heritage
– thanks to a few clever dealers.
YOU ARE NOT JUST BUYING PARTS – YOU ARE GETTING OUR CAMARO EXPERTISE
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