Here’s What Everyone Forgot About The 1969 ZL1 Camaro

Chevy brought back the Camaro ZL1 in 2012, there’s even a 2021 model, but these new Camaro ZL1 cars are not the most popular and sought-after Chevy Camaro ZL1’s. The highly unsafe, powerful, and untamed 1969 ZL1 Camaro takes that crown. Most Europeans were surprised when the 2018 Camaro ZL1 1LE got banned on the continent for safety reasons, but if the 1969 Camaro ZL1 was made today, it would be banned worldwide. It was raw, with no safety features, and under the hood was a big block engine that GM had made illegally for Chevrolet to include in production cars.

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Some cars get affected by recency bias as they age, but the 1969 ZL1 Camaro isn’t one of those. As the 1969 ZL1 Camaro was Fred Gibb’s brainchild – he was a leading Chevrolet high-performance car dealer – he got the first batch of 1969 ZL1 Camaros. Very deserving, as he is the man who had figured out how to make the Camaro a street-legal car with a big block ZL1 racing engine without upsetting GM, who had placed restrictions on Chevrolet. What happened next is the story of the 1969 ZL1 Camaro, what it did, and what it is now.

10 Most Expensive Camaro Ever Sold At Auction

When a buyer coughed up a stratospheric $840,000 for a Camaro ZL1 (Car #18) in 2005, it set a new sales record for a Camaro. Surprisingly, the same car couldn’t do it again when it sold for $600,000 in 2016. A Camaro ZL1 equipped with a Rally Sport package with only 7,700 miles on the lock was the car to break that record in 2008. It sold for $848,000 via Mecum Auctions.

A decade later, Car #59 – Hugger Orange-painted – sold for $770,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale. But this Camaro ZL1 is the one that sticks out a sore thumb. It again commanded a $1,094,500 price in 2020, becoming the most expensive auctioned Camaro. It still has a copy of the original Window Sticker; its original engine mated to the legendary M22 Rock Crusher 4-speed manual transmission – only 12 ZL1 cars had this transmission. Unique to car #59 only is an NC8 chambered exhaust.

9 The Most Sought After & Collectible Camaro

The Camaro model has been one of the best muscle car specialties since getting introduced in a media blitz in 1966. But the limited-edition 1969 Camaro ZL1 is still the car that ticks many boxes in most car collector’s hearts. It’s an exclusive that commands widespread respect and admiration. Some even come with the original bill of sale and dealer order sheet. The unfortunate part is not many got produced, and even fewer still exist.

Being a rare pony car purpose-built for racing, when an authentic Camaro ZL1 goes up for sale, a 7 figure sale is the target, and buyers have no qualms paying it. The original engine plays such a big part in the car’s value that when it was missing in a 1969 Camaro ZL-1 (Car #59), it only sold for $770,000. Fast forward to when the same car’s unique one-year-model body got reunited with its original ZL1 engine, the value skyrocketed to a staggering $1 million.

8th Extremely rare

The Chevrolet Camaro Zl1 is pretty rare due to its low production numbers, which Chevrolet only reached for the NHRA to homologate this muscle car to the Super Stock class. 50 units were the minimum number of production cars required for that to happen, and Chevrolet decided to go with the bare minimum at first.

But later, other Chevrolet dealers like Nickey and Berger ordered additional ZL1 Camaro’s, bringing the total number to 69. It’s no wonder this car has become one of the most sought-after in the car collector’s world.

7 Had Engines Ordered Only Via The COPO System

In the late 1960s, GM placed a corporate racing ban on Chevrolet to avoid government scrutiny over high-performance production cars. Chevrolet had to limit production car engines to 6.6 liters of displacement and only 396 horsepower. Cars dealers found the COPO system – short for Central Office Production Order (COPO) program – the smart way to go around the set restrictions.

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Originally, the COPO program conceived by Vince Piggins – the then Chevrolet’s product manager – was for facilitating commercial fleet vehicle orders with special paint and options like police cars, school buses, and taxis. With Piggins teaming up with faithful dealers like Dick Harrell and Fred Gibb and using COPO, factory-built muscle cars like the Chevy Nova and Camaros could get big-block engines they deserved, and their owners wouldn’t be exempted from warranties. That’s how the 427-ci aluminum V8 ZL1 engine ended up in the 1969 Camaro.

6 Unmovable Out Of Showroom Floors

Camaro ZL1s now sell for six figures; it’s hard to imagine they were a tough sell back then, but here’s why. In 1969 Chevy Camaros had a base price of $3,600-3,800, but the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 had a bumped-up sticker price of $7,200! That was a significant difference, but it was because of the car’s top-of-the-line engine package. Despite making the car a racing monster, the engine came with a high MSRP as the sting in the tail.

Many gearheads were not willing to pay up; only a few well-heeled drivers could. Why would they, when the 1969 Corvette with an L88 427 CI big-block racing engine and an M22 four-speed transmission, was $1,000 cheaper? Fred Gibbs managed to sell the last of his 13 units (repossessed) in 1974 – that’s 5 years later.

5 First Chevy Car Mass Returned From A Dealer

The automaker hadn’t been upfront about the cost of the ZL1 engine package that hard forced Gibb to put a nose-bleed sticker price on the 50 1969 Camaro ZL1s he had in his showroom. Chevrolet had quoted Gibb approximately $400 for each COPO order engine package but had excluded research and development costs.

Previously, Chevrolet covered those costs for COPO order engines. But the cost got transferred to Fred’s because of new corporate laws, and they upthrust the required payment to $4,160 per car engine. With the 1969 Camaro being a low-volume yet turning a hard-to-sell sports car and Fred Gibb shouldering a substantial GMAC floor plan cost, he was forced to negotiate a mass return of new 37 Camaro ZL1 cars. Chevrolet redistributed the Chevy Camaro ZL1s to other high-performance car dealers in the US

4 Engine – A Highly-Specialized Forbidden Fruit

It would be a mistake to talk about the ’69 Camaro ZL1 and fail to deep dive into its 427ci V8 engine – the first aluminum big block engine ever used by Chevy. Codenamed the ZL1, this engine was originally developed for Can-Am racing, featured an open-chamber cylinder head and 12.0 compression. Notably, these features made the engine costly. At least 12 engines got removed from Camaro ZL1’s and sold separately.

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Despite being rated for 430 bhp, the same as the L88 racing engine, this engine was much lighter, coming in at 500 pounds because of the aluminum material used. For context, a Chevy iron-block 327-ci V8 engine weighed about the same. But the 430 horsepower and 450 lb.-ft figures were later found out to be farcical and criminally underrated to avoid scrutiny from GM Dyno tests revealed the ZL1 engine could manage about 550hp!

3 Offered In Only Five Colors

The 1969 Camaro ZL1 cars were painted in 5 different highly desirable factory color combinations – Hugger Orange, Cortez Silver, Code-51 Dusk Blue, LeMans Blue, and Fathom Green. Each 10 of the first 50 cars had one of the five colors. Six same-colored Camaro ZL1 cars would include an M21 transmission, with the other four getting an M40s transmission.

Despite many Chevrolet Camaro big-block engines getting painted orange, the ZL1 aluminum engine was left bare for its reflective surface to shine. On the outside, the 1969 Camaro car had a Blue Chevrolet Bow Tie emblem on its rear panel and on its Argent Silver-colored grille. Camaro badges were installed on the deck lids, head panel, and fenders.

2 A Racing & Drag Strip Monster

To be eligible in 1969 NHRA races, the first Camaro ZL1 had to be produced before that year. Chevrolet made sure 2 of them arrived in Fred Gibb’s dealership on the eve of New Year’s Day. With a modified chassis, heavy-duty F-41 suspension, and a relatively lightweight fire-breathing 427 ci ZL1 engine, these Camaros started dominating the NHRA Pro Stock class races with pros like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins behind the wheel.

And guess who took notice? Drag racers. Soon, ZL1 Camaro’s were drag racing, setting low 11s quarter-mile run records and achieving up to 122mph. It was the fastest production car built by Chevrolet then. Of all the 69 produced, around 20 went into organized drag racing.

1 Almost Didn’t Have A Warranty

With the Camaro ZL1, Fred Gibb had shot himself in the foot as the costs associated with turning 1969 Camaro’s to ZL1s were stupidly high. Even worse for him, he had built a racing monster – the ZL1 engine enabled these Camaros to run circles around most Chevy Corvettes on tracks and streets.

The 1969 Camaro ZL1 car’s top-dollar price would mostly make sense to professional racers who could try to recover the big bucks spent through prize winnings. Upon realizing this, Gibb ensured the 13 cars he sold wouldn’t include any warranty. But customer complaints reached Chevrolet. Fred gave in and provided his ZL1 buyers with a standard 5-year/50,000-mile GM warranty.

NEXT: 10 Things People Forgot About The Chevy El Camino

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