The 1969 COPO Camaro ZL1 is the “crown jewel” of GM Muscle cars, an aluminum-block 427 racing machine with only 69 ever built in connection with a back-door deal between Chevrolet’s fleet division and an Illinois car dealer named Fred Gibb. It became the terror of the drag strip as it set out to blow the doors off the Chargers and Mustangs that had previously ruled. Today, the rarity of the purpose-built ZL1, as well as its stunning performance, makes this handful of very special Camaros some of the most sought-after Muscle cars in existence.
The silver COPO Camaro ZL1 that’s being offered at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction has been brought back to pristine original condition as it came from the factory, says the consignor, veteran car collector and new-car dealer George Lyons of Erie, Penn. After spending its early life as a modified drag racer, the car has undergone an extensive and expensive restoration using mainly new-old-stock parts rather reproduction pieces, resulting in a perfect time-warp Camaro ZL1 with full documentation.
“It is a spectacular restoration,” Lyons said, adding that he’s uncertain who performed the work before he bought it, but that it was done right all the way down the line. “It’s been driven only a few miles since it was completed.”
Unlike most Muscle cars of the era, the ‘69 Camaro ZL1 looks like something that Granny might drive, unadorned by special paint or graphics, sitting on steel wheels with dog-dish hubcaps and with a base-model interior that doesn’t even have a console or radio. “It’s the cheapest basic Camaro interior,” Lyons said. “They were pretty much made with the intention of turning them into drag-race cars.” The magic comes when you light up that huge powerplant and blast down the track or a deserted back road. The restorer stayed true to the original intent, Lyons added, resisting any urge to upgrade or modify.
COPO, which stands for the rather unexciting GM designation of Central Office Production Order, was a way for the giant automaker’s racing-enthusiast insiders to sneak high-performance option packages to selected dealers of similar bent, something that GM management frowned upon. The original function of the COPO group was to create special-order vehicles for government fleets, taxi companies and the like, not to produce outrageous factory Hot Rods. But it became a way for the gearheads in the shop to get around the official word from on high at General Motors, which had established engine-size and horsepower limits for any non-Corvette cars other than full-size.
Tapping into the COPO system required some inside knowledge, and former AHRA drag racer Gibb knew how to get it done. The way past the GM bureaucracy was by placing an order through COPO for 50 Camaros with the all-aluminum, 425 horsepower 427 V8s, plus GM’s new cold-air hood, heavy-duty cooling, transistor ignition and a special rear axle. The cars were equipped with performance tires and could be had either with the then-new Turbo Hydromatic 400 automatic transmission or a variety of Muncie 4-speeds. Thus was born the legendary ZL1 Camaro.
“Fred Gibb is the reason these cars were built, there’s no doubt about that at all,” Lyons added. But Gibb was in for an unpleasant surprise when he found out how much these cars would cost his customers, something he had neglected to determine before he ordered them.
“He was absolutely bowled over by the price,” Lyons said. “That price was around $7,000, which was almost double the price of the Camaro. It was a $3,500 car with a $3,500 engine option. The most loaded Corvette at the time was $6,000. These things were $7,000 for a Plain Jane Camaro.”
So Gibb sold only 18 of his special Camaros out of the 50 he ordered — including the one being sold in Scottsdale — and wound up selling the rest to other like-minded dealers around the country. But it didn’t take long after that for the racing crowd to discover how special the ZL1 was, and 19 more were ordered through COPO by other dealers bringing the grand total to 69.
Lyons is pretty confident that his ZL1 will be a hotly contested auction item that should fetch a strong price at Barrett-Jackson.
“These have been blue-chip collector cars for about 20 years or more, recognized for their uniqueness and how rare they are,” Lyons said, noting that it’s unlikely that this Camaro will ever be driven in anger again. “They could be vintage drag raced, and there are still a few. But for the most part, they’re going into car collections. This would be the crown jewel for any Muscle car collection.”
– — By Bob Golfen