Once A Backdoor Program, The COPO Camaro Wins With Factory Approval

Although 50 years separate them, the legendary ‘69 and 2019 COPO Camaros did — and do — serve primarily the same mission: to emerge victorious in drag races against potent Fords and Mopars. What could hardly be different though, is the official GM stance on each COPO Camaro program with how they came to fruition, and into racers’ hands.

The COPO Camaro of 50 years ago fulfilled the need to offer savvy dealerships a way to order street-legal cars that were factory-equipped with larger and higher horsepower engines. Until this time, the L78 396 big block was the largest engine installed in the Camaro. That was because of GM’s edict that only full-size vehicles and Corvettes could be equipped with an engine larger than 400 cubic inches.

By contrast, today’s COPO Camaro, is a pure race car and begins as a body-in-white. There is no VIN. It is not able to be registered for street use.

Stephen Bell begins his burnout in his 2019 COPO Camaro. Bell, of Shreveport, Louisiana, competes in NHRA’s SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown class against other COPOs, Dodge Challenger Drag Paks, and Ford Mustang Cobra Jets, all featuring supercharged engines. Those cars turn in quarter-mile times as low as high 7-seconds, with trap speeds exceeding 170 mph. (Photo courtesy of Sadie Glenn/SR Driven Media)

The Genesis Of The COPO Camaro
What we know today as the “classic” COPO Camaro was born in the late-’60s by enterprising new-car dealerships utilizing a system that allowed them to order options not readily available through the regular production option (RPO) system.

Jim Mattison, the owner of PHS Automotive Services, once worked in Chevrolet’s Fleet and Special Order group. His tenure during that time was to fulfill special requests using the Central Office Production Order (COPO) program.

“Our main function was not to build factory hot rods,” he said. “It was to build police cars, taxi cabs, trucks, and cars for the United States government and municipalities. But every once in awhile, one of these hot rods would slip through. Me being the youngest guy in the group, they’d give it to me. Some requests, such as special paint, would be processed immediately. Others, such as for a special axle or engine, would be sent to engineering to see if it was feasible. We also had to have sufficient volume to justify doing it. Once I got the answer back from engineering, we would approve or reject the order, or modify it.”

COPO Camaro

The L72 427 could be ordered as COPO 9561 and delivered 425hp at 5,000 rpm and 460 lb-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. It had a four-bolt-main iron block with a forged-steel crank, 11:1 forged pistons, mechanical camshaft, and was topped by a 780 cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor.

It was Don Yenko, of Yenko Chevrolet, who pushed for a factory program to install the L72 427ci big-block in the Camaro. Starting in 1967, Yenko ordered 396-Camaros and had his mechanics swap in 427 short-blocks or long-blocks. He reasoned he could save time and money — and provide a factory warranty — if he could get those engines factory-installed. He already used the COPO system to outfit 100 ‘67 Corvair Corsas for SCCA competition, and of course, he thought the same regimen would work for the Camaro.

A 427 COPO In ’68?
Don Yenko’s father, Frank, was the owner of the dealership at the time. Mattison said he was “very well connected at Chevrolet,” and the Yenko duo talked to Chevrolet executives about secretly offering them the L72 (iron-block 427), midyear in 1968 for that year’s Camaro, a model year before it was commonly known.

“We’ll go ahead and build some of these special engines for you, but we’re going to mark these engines with a special code so we can keep track of these things,” Mattison recalled. “We’re going to find out if you’re the hotshot salesman you think you are. If you are and it works out, we will go ahead and okay this thing for 1969.”

In 1968, Yenko Chevrolet was the first to order COPO Camaros, such as this Fathom Blue example. Yes, the Pontiac wheels are correct.

Mattison said the ‘68 cars earmarked for Yenko were ordered under COPO 9737, which included the special engine, E70-15 tires on YH Rally wheels, a 140-mph speedometer, a front stabilizer bar, and more.

At the time, Mattison understood those ‘68s would receive the L72, although later reports from the field were that some of them didn’t actually receive the L72 engine. Instead, they had a 396 stamped with a special code. Of course, the program was successful and was renewed for 1969. Soon, other dealerships caught on to its availability.

Built the first week of December 1968, this '69 COPO 9561, equipped with the iron 425hp 427, an M22 four-speed transmission and chambered exhaust, is believed by owner Chad Goertz to be one of only seven built at the Van Nuys, California, assembly plant.

For 1969, there were two models of COPO Camaros offered: 9561, with the L72, or the 9560, with the all-aluminum ZL-1. Either one could be ordered with the COPO 9737 “Sports Car Conversion” package, which added items such as E70-15 tires on YH Rally wheels, a 140-mph speedometer, a front stabilizer bar, and more. These came at an option-price that started at $126.40 early in the year, and ended at $160.10.

“Most people don’t know that all of the iron-block COPO Camaros were supposed to go to Yenko Chevrolet,” Mattison said. Once other performance-oriented dealers, such as Berger Chevrolet and Dana Chevrolet were in-tune with what was available through the COPO program, they soon ordered their own. The only requirement, Mattison said, was a minimum order of 10 cars. Smaller dealerships would work out a deal involving a dealer-trade of other vehicles so they could acquire a couple of COPO 9561 cars, at an option cost of $489.75.

COPO Camaro

The ZL-1 all-aluminum engine was developed jointly by Chevrolet engineers and Reynolds Aluminum. Adapted for street-use, it found its way into the Camaro as COPO 9560, at an option cost of $4,160.

Eventually, the all-aluminum ZL-1 engine — which Chevrolet had developed with the aid of Reynolds Aluminum for Can-Am racing — was modified for street use. Not only was it aluminum, but it also had a higher compression ratio and a wilder cam than the L72. It weighed just 500 pounds, which is about the same as a small-block.

“It was an idea that Vince Piggins and Fred Gibb came up with to give Chevrolet a competitive edge in a particular drag-race class,” Mattison said. Gibb, the owner of Gibb Chevrolet, agreed to order 50 of the COPO 9560 cars to satisfy NHRA-homologation requirements.

The cost of the option ballooned from first talks until delivery, as the added fees of research and development were tacked onto the option. Upon delivery, the option alone was $4,160, which pushed the car’s price tag north of $7,200. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $52,000 today. “It was more expensive than a loaded-up Cadillac back then,” Mattison recalled.

According to Mattison, Gibb was only able to sell roughly a dozen cars. The rest were dispersed to other dealerships. According to Mattison, this “unloading” was aided by Joe Pike, national sales promotion manager for Chevrolet. Pike called performance-oriented dealerships around the country to get them to take one of the expensive cars.

“To sweeten the pot,” Mattison said, “he allocated an extra Corvette to them. That was the equivalent of winning the Powerball. Joe rarely gets a lot of credit, but he was deeply involved in both COPO programs to make sure everything was a success.”

Racer and Camaro tuner Dick Harrell ran a fresh ZL-1 to a 13.16-second quarter-mile at 110 mph at Kansas City International Raceway. With some tuning and a few bolt-on parts, he later ran an 11.78 at 122.50 mph.

Early COPO Options Varied
Chevrolet literature shows that the 4.10-geared and Positraction-filled 12-bolt axle, dual exhaust, and a cowl-induction hood were standard on both the 9560 and 9561 COPO Camaro. Either could be had with a Turbo 400 automatic or Muncie four-speed transmission. (All 2019 COPO Camaros are equipped with an ATI Racing Products Turbo 400 transmission.)

According to Mattison, some options, such as power steering and power-assisted disc brakes, were actually mandatory for early COPO Camaros. Air-conditioning was unavailable, but power windows and AM/FM stereo radios were available.

“There was a free-flow on the options,” he said. “Very few of them got heavily loaded up, but there were a few. Most of them were stripped-down cars built for one purpose: to go fast.”

Modern COPO Is Destined For The Strip
In 2012, the COPO Camaro program was revived to compete in various NHRA Stock Eliminator classes. This time, with LS-based engines. Today’s COPO is a factory-built race car, but it is not built on an assembly line. Instead, a factory-issued body-in-white (available in a buyer’s choice of factory colors) is shipped to the Turn Key Automotive facility in Oxford, Michigan.

There, drag-race-specific parts like a Strange Engineering rearend with a spool and gun-drilled 40-spline axles, wheelie bars, and a carbon-fiber hood are installed. Other options, such as weight boxes, parachute (standard on the 350-supercharged model,) and dual batteries, are also installed.

These are race cars — period. As such, include manual brakes with lightweight rotors and calipers, and an integrated line lock. There is also a manual rack-and-pinion steering, fuel cell with an internal high-pressure fuel pump, and a racing wire harness.

Since 2012, engines offered have varied. The 2019 COPO is available with three engine options for various NHRA Stock Eliminator classes. Two are normally aspirated powerplants: an LT engine that is destroked from 6.2-liters to 5.0-liters/302 cubic inches, and a 7.0-liter, 427-cubic-inch LSX-based engine. There is also a 5.7-liter LSX-based engine, topped with a 2.65-liter Whipple supercharger.

Rear gearing ranges from 4.10 for the 350-supercharged model, 4.57 for the 427 naturally aspirated model, and 5.00 for the high-winding, naturally aspirated 302 cubic-inch model.

For 2019, the COPO Camaro can be ordered with one of three engines, from left: an aluminum LT-based 302-cubic-inch powerplant; 427-cubic-inch, LSX-based, 50th Anniversary Engine, with an orange engine block and polished aluminum valve covers; and a Magnuson-supercharged 350-cubic-inch, LSX-based engine.

Classified Power
Because of the variety of engine combinations offered since 2012, modern COPO Camaros run in a range of NHRA’s Factory Stock classes. For early cars, there is FS/AA (the quickest/fastest cars), and FS/L (for slower cars). The current COPOs run in FS/D (302), FS/B (427), and FS/AA (350-supercharged). In the SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown (FSS), specially prepared COPO Camaro, Mustang Cobra Jet, and Challenger Drag Pak cars (all supercharged) run as quick as a low-7-second quarter-mile, at a trap speed of more than 175 mph.

(Left): Ryan Priddy, of Chino, California, boils the hides in his Factory Stock Showdown COPO Camaro. (Right): Scott Libersher, in the left lane, lines up against Ryan Falcone in the Factory Stock Showdown. Photos courtesy of Sadie Glenn/SR Driven Media

Collectability — Then And Now
Prime examples of the most desirable 1969 COPO Camaro (COPO 9560 with the all-aluminum ZL-1 engine) commonly fetch six figures at auction. The record for a first-generation Camaro sale is one of two known ZL-1/RS combinations, which sold for $848,000 at the Mecum Indy sale in 2008. Another M22-equipped and with the rare chambered exhaust, sold for $770,000 at a January 2018 Barrett-Jackson auction. Recent prices for 9561 cars vary widely from around $100,000 to just over $200,000.

“In the Central Office — and throughout the company for the most part — we were not worried about what was going to be the next collectible car. That never crossed our minds back then,” Mattison said. “What we were trying to do was satisfy a market and get the vehicles to customers who wanted them. We were constantly listening to the customers at the drag strips and car shows for what they were looking for, and trying to accommodate it, where possible.”

This 2018 COPO Camaro Hot Wheels Edition, with Supercrush paint, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Mattel's popular die-cast car at the 2017 SEMA Show. Photos by Jay Sicht

Today’s cars have yet to earn the same collectability. But, Chevrolet top brass knows some of today’s buyers have that in mind, presumably buying their COPO and immediately placing it in climate-controlled storage. To appeal to collectors, a COPO Camaro can be ordered with any of the engines installed, as well as with the other two versions crated and serial-matched to the car.

You'll have to sign up for a chance to buy a 2020 COPO Camaro, or you can purchase this 2019 supercharged 350 COPO, finished in Anniversary Blue, from Chesrown Chevrolet in Delaware, Ohio. It's currently offered at the buy-it-now price of $140,000.

As a nod to the number of 69 ZL-1s sold in 1969, Chevrolet has held production to 69 cars per-year since reviving the program. The demand is certainly there for more, with many of them selling for six figures as equipped. At the end of each year, Chevrolet holds a registration lottery that attracts about 3,000 entrants. Names are drawn at random by a third-party company, and those winners have the opportunity to order a car from the Chevrolet Performance dealership of their choice.

Online auctions are another option. We found this 2019 350-Supercharged COPO finished in Anniversary Blue at Chesrown Chevrolet in Delaware, Ohio. It is currently offered at the buy-it-now price of $140,000.

This original numbers-matching Lemans Blue 1969 COPO Camaro, is one of 69 built that year with the all-aluminum ZL-1 427 big-block engine. It is owned by Davis Nelsen of Illinois.

Enthusiasm From Management
More than 50 years ago, the outlook for future collectability wasn’t as rosy, Mattison recalls.
“There were some people within the Chevrolet Division — mainly zone managers — who thought this program was going to be a disaster and hurt the company and dealers. They wanted our heads on a chopping block. They were not happy about this whole thing. As it turned out, it was an extremely successful program in 1969.”

The 2019 COPO Camaro’s available 50th Anniversary Special Edition package calls to mind the original Lemans Blue of the 1969 COPO Camaro.

Mattison describes those managers as being car guys, but not performance-minded. “I find it ironic that here we are in 2019, and we’re embracing the COPO to a point where Chevrolet has a racing model that they’re touting as a COPO to commemorate the program from 1969,” quipped Mattison. “Back in 1969, there were people who wanted our heads for doing this. Today, I sit back and shake my head and smile.”

About the author

Jay Sicht

Since childhood, Jay has been fascinated by planes, trains, and automobiles, and all things mechanical. He's been in the automotive aftermarket for 25 years, having written about it for 15 of those years.
Read My Articles

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