The Legend of the Camaro ZL1
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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