Not Your Typical Camaro: 50 Years of The ZL-1 Camaro
Over the years, there have been all kinds of packages and sub-models for GM’s answer to the Mustang and the champion of all pony cars, the Camaro. From the base model to the RS, SS, RS\SS, Z\28, IROC, and Berlinetta, the pinnacle version is the ZL-1. Unlike the others, the ZL-1 Camaro was never actually supposed to be available to the public; in fact it was never supposed to be built at all. ZL-1 was the GM factory code for the aluminum 427 cubic-inch big-block designed only for use in Corvette race vehicles.
Special Order Shenanigans
The ZL-1 engine is a 427-cubic-inch engine with aluminum heads and block. Compared to the similar L88 427, which had an iron block, the ZL-1 weighed over 100 pounds less, which in the world of racing is a huge advantage. The ZL-1 was intended for use in the Can Am race series, until Fred Gibb figured out a better use, via the COPO order form.
Much like In n Out’s secret menu, GM’s COPO (Central Office Production Order) system allowed dealers to special order cars with specific options, such a bucket seats in a convertible, or a 4-speed manual transmission with a 3.73:1 rear gear, but the system was intended for simple things like specific colors on fleet vehicle purchases. Through the COPO loophole, a few dealers managed to order factory installed, thus creating the ZL-1-optioned Camaro. Gibb’s dealership ordered 50 ZL1-engined Camaros through the COPO system in 1969, and even though it was never intended to be used in a Camaro, the orders were honored. When we say the orders were honored, that comes with a huge grain of salt. In fact, there was quite a bit of lobbying of the GM top brass by the originator of the Z\28, Vince Piggins, to actually let them be built. The 50-car order was crucial in this process, as one or two would not be legal for most racing sanctioning bodies. In order for a vehicle to be considered a production car, at least 50 have to be built by the original factory. Gibbs knew he would have to order at least 50 to make any of this happen, so he did. By the time the orders were being built, a few other dealers heard about what Fred Gibb pulled off, and 19 more were ordered, for a total 69. Unfortunately for Gibbs, that original order of 50 was simply too much for his dealership to handle, so he eventually returned 37 of them, which were then redistributed around the country to dealers who wanted in on the secret-menu Camaro.
None of this came without a price, a hefty one at that. In 1969, a ZL-1-option in a Camaro added $4,200 to the price, which basically doubled the price of the car. Your average V8 Camaro sold for about $3,000 in 1969, so a nearly $8,000 version was not going to sell very quickly. The most expensive American car at the time was a Lincoln Continental, which topped out around $6,700. In 2019 dollars, that ZL-1 Camaro is closer to $55k, which in reality is not uncommon to see on a sales lot, but is still substantially more than a 2019 Camaro coupe with the optional 6.2 liter LT1 engine, which sells for $37k. Of course the 2019 ZL-1 Camaro will set you back at least $63k. In 1969, most cars purchased with financing were done with a 3-year note with nearly 10% interest, so you can imagine that those payments on an $8k auto loan were not affordable at $258 in 1969 (that is $1,777 in today’s dollars!).
Capable of 11-second quarter-mile times, the original ZL-1 is legendary. Unfortunately, most of the 69 units that were sold we bought by drag racers, which means that very few are left, and of the ones that are in one piece, even fewer retain the factory-installed ZL-1. When an actual 1969 ZL-1 rolls over the auction block, they command a hefty price, easily hitting a half-million dollars.
The Legend Continues
Even though GM never intended to sell a ZL-1 Camaro, the dealers forced their hand a little bit, creating a legend in the process. There have been several factory concept and show cars with the ZL-1 badge, but the name would not be used in production until 2012, when GM released the first regular production ZL1 model, featuring the already-legendary LS engine platform. Concept vehicle versions include a 1971 Camaro with molded fender flares, hood tach, bulged hood, and euro-style fog lamps. Designed by Bill Mitchell, this ZL-1 concept showcased the Can-Am racing heritage with a US and Canadian flags on the grill emblem. In 1977, an updated Can-Am ZL-1 hit the auto show series, painted crimson red with gold stripes. The last non-production GM ZL-1 concept was designed by Jon Moss (who also designed the infamous 94-96 Impala SS). This 4th gen ZL-1 concept went gonzo from the beginning, with an aluminum V8, but it was not a 427. Instead Moss opted for a custom 572 cubic-inch monster built with a Donovan block, with a side-by-side dual throttle body intake.
The 2012 production ZL1 was designed for both the road course and the drag strip, featuring an all-aluminum 6.2 liter supercharged LSA VB, capable of producing 556 horsepower, catapulting the 5th Camaro to 12.1 second 1/4-mile times. Astute readers will note that this is slower than the 69 version, which could run the quarter in 11 seconds, you might also notice that the name changed from “ZL-1”, which is the official code for the original aluminum-block 427, to “ZL1”, eliminating the hyphen. In 2016, a new ZL1 hit the dealerships, this time with the newest GM engine, the LT4. This direct-injected V8 is supercharged and builds 650 horsepower, which is enough to slingshot the ZL1 Camaro from 0-60 in just 3.6 seconds. The 2019 ZL1 features the same LT4, but adds magneride adjustable suspension, better aerodynamics, and is even faster than previous versions, 0-60 in 3.56 seconds, 11.4 second ¼-mile times, 1.02g cornering capability, and can go from 60-0 in just 107 feet.
Back To The Track
The ZL1 is not just limited to production street vehicles either because in 2018 GM took the ZL1 to the hallowed ground of NASCAR. When GM discontinued the Chevrolet SS in 2017, the replacement was a Camaro ZL1. Unlike some of the most NASCAR bodies, the ZL1 actually looks more like a production body. In fact, Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports said “from a baseline standpoint, the Camaro ZL1 is the best race car, the best preparation that Chevrolet has ever put into a race car.” Those are strong words from a race team on a new body style. There have already been several podium finishes and a win with the ZL1, with lots of races left in the 2019 season. NAPA’s own Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott drives the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet ZL1 Camaro on race day. It was the ZL1 that gave Chase his first Cup Series wins in 2018. Switching to the iconic ZL1 in 2018 also came with another iconic change for Chase: adopting the same #9 that his father Bill Elliott raced into the NASCAR history books.
One odd difference between the ZL1 street car and the NASCAR Cup cars is that in certain race trims the street car produces over 100 more horsepower. The Cup Series cars are restrictor plate limited to 550 horsepower for certain tracks.
All of this brings us to today, which marks the 50th anniversary of the original 1969 ZL-1 Camaro. Without the ingenuity of Fred Gibb and Vince Piggins, there would have never been a ZL-1 Camaro in the first place. Of course, the chances of this type of thing ever happening again are non-existent, as it is very difficult to customize your new vehicle order. Guess we will just have to settle for massive horsepower, killer styling, and blistering speeds from a regular production ZL1.
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Image courtesy of Chevrolet.