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History in the Making - Chevy COPO Camaro

The Rebirth of the COPO Camaro

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This was an important day. You could feel it in the air. It was early August 2012 in Detroit, and we'd been invited by Chevrolet Performance to be present as the first few COPO Camaro owners officially took delivery of their cars. As COPO Camaro numbers 3, 5, 7, and 8 went home with their new owners, a crowd of Chevrolet Performance engineers gathered to watch as the cars were loaded onto their trailers. These four cars and the remaining 61 yet to be assembled represented several years of work on their part. "This is history in the making," was a phrase that was repeated several times over that day by nearly everyone we spoke with. As a rule, we strive not to use clichéd expressions as our article headlines, but in this case, it seemed unavoidable.

COPO is an acronym for Central Office Production Order. It was a vehicle-ordering process intended for fleet buyers like police departments or trucking companies looking to buy a group of cars optioned a certain way. Among other things, the form allowed certain drivetrain combinations that were not available in the list of regular production options for that particular model.

Back in 1969, Fred Gibb was a Chevrolet dealership owner and drag racer who was tired of seeing Cobra Jet Mustangs and Hemi Darts beating up on Camaros, so he worked with insiders at Chevrolet Performance using this ordering process to create COPO 9560-a '69 Camaro with Chevy's aluminum ZL-1 427 engine, a heavy-duty cooling system, transistor ignition, front disc brakes, a strengthened rear axle with 4.10:1 gears, and either a TH400 automatic or one of three Muncie four-speeds. With the ZL-1 rated at a laughable 430 hp, everyone knew the engine would easily make more than 500 hp by simply removing the AIR pump and emissions nonsense, tweaking the carb jetting and ignition timing, and ditching the cast-iron manifolds for some properly sized long-tube headers.

There were several cars built in the '60s using the COPO process, and some of them were Camaros with iron-block 427s, but just 69 of these special ZL1 Camaros were built, and this is the car referred to today simply as the COPO Camaro. Of them, Fred Gibbs is said to have taken delivery of at least 50. It's reported that the first COPO Camaro hit the dragstrip at the AHRA event in Phoenix, Arizona, in January 1969. We searched our archives to verify this fact and found the following excerpt from an article entitled "AHRA's Best-Yet Winter Meet" by John Thawley in the Apr. '69 issue of Hot Rod:

"The SS/E entry belonged to Fred Gibb Chevrolet. Mr. Gibb had the foresight to have an L-78 engine installed in the Camaro. The car is fresh and some way from being a finished race car but does show strong possibilities."

We suspect that, unbeknownst at the time, Hot Rod was documenting the first COPO Camaro, misidentifying the engine as an L-78, a 375hp 396. But this article does jibe with various reports we've read stating that the COPO was out of competition early in the event at Phoenix.

Closer to home, the Jun. '69 issue of Car Craft contains an article entitled "600-HP ZL-1: How it's done with stock parts." In it, author Bill Jenkins (Yes, that Bill Jenkins) mentions the mythical Camaro in the following passage:

"Incidentally, the only two different current offerings of the aluminum 427 Chevrolet engine are the ZL-1 Corvette and the COPO (Central Office Production Order) 9560-ZL1 Camaro. It should be noted that currently the only dealer who is selling the aluminum 427 Camaro is Fred Gibb Chevrolet in La Harpe. Illinois, so don't be surprised if the Dubuque area dealers never heard of such an animal."

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