Very few historic cars continue to live on and evolve into a living legend. The Camaro ZL1 is one of those cars and certainly was not your conventional production car. It had the 427 cubic inch ZL1 engine hence the name. Originally the ZL1 engine was only for the cars that raced in the Can-Am road racing series under Group 7 and was never meant to be used in any production car. Fred Gibb who was an Illinois dealer pulled some string to make this happen, through Chevrolet’s Central Office Production Order (COPO) the legend of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was born.
For almost 50 years, the legend of the high performance ZL1 still continuous today. The debut of the 6th generation ZL1 further raised its status with 640 horsepower supercharged engine and an array of driver support technology that made it a modern beast you need to watch out for in the road, drag strip, and race track.
The legend began with the special order #9560 by Fred Gibb. Although Gibb was not the only one who made use of the COPO system to have a special high performance car that was never available through the regular production, such as the famed 1969 Yenko Camaro, an earlier COPO car. But Yenko Camaro only had the regular production Corvette 427 engine, Gibb had a crazier plan to the all-aluminum ZL1 427 which weigh less than 100 lbs. than the regular iron big-block. This gave the Camaro a better weight balance that improved its performance on the strip. Gibb wanted the ZL1 to compete in the Super Stock.
Although Chevrolet was not too eager to accept the crazy request, Gibbs was adamant to build his dream car. He was finally able to convince Vince Piggins who was the one who approved the Camaro Z/28. The biggest problem was that they needed to build at least 50 Camaro ZL1s for it to be accepted in the Super Stock competition, and each ZL1 was not cheap. The ZL1 engine doubled the base car’s price which meant that not many could afford it. Gibb was able to order the 50 ZL1s but had difficulty in selling all of them and eventually 37 ZL1s was returned to Chevrolet. The 37 ZL1s were sent to different dealers and other dealers heard the news and ordered the special Camaro for their own. At the end, a total of 69 Camaro ZL1s were made in 1969. Even though they were very hard to sell, the legend of the Camaro ZL1s began. Chevrolet saw the potential and several 2nd generation ZL1s with the same engine was produced.
The value of the 1969 Camaro ZL1 as a collector car as a Detroit muscle car grew. Due to its rarity and undeniable high performance, the ZL1 became one of the most expensive stock supercars. It has travelled a long road as COPO dragster and now has become a regular production supercar that even beats the high performance sports cars.
The picture below shows the assembly parts of the ZL1 engine that includes the aluminum block and heads. It had a heavy 12.0:1 compression, a mechanical flat-tappet camshaft the could give a total lift of 0.580 inch at the intake and 0.620 inch at the exhaust valve, and a 1.7:1 ratio rockers. The aluminum, open-plenum high rise intake was just similar to the stock L88 427 big-block. A Holley 850-cfm double-pumper carburetor gives more power to the ZL1 engine.
The design for the pure aluminum cylinder ZL1 block that had four-bolt main caps was the same with as the iron big-block but had larger bulkheads to improve the strength supported by cast-iron cylinder sleeves. Longer bolt holes and stud threads, and Screw-in freeze plugs were used to improve the clamping strength.
The “snowflake” logo of the Winters Foundry is proof that it is an authentic ZL1 block.
The headers were similar to the open-chamber L88 but has a bit larger exhaust ports the pushed the camshaft’s 0.620 inch exhaust-side lift. The cast-iron exhaust manifolds was barely not large enough to handle the power and was officially measured to have a 430 horsepower and a torque of 450 lb-ft but it is believed to max out at 550 horsepower. A more street friendly design that had less compression and a small cam was made by Vince Piggins but never saw production.
This is the #1 Camaro ZL1 that was released together with ZL1 #2 on December 31, 1968. It had problems starting in cold weather so it was shipped to Dick Harrell’s shop located in Kansas City, Missouri. There it was modified to be ready for the 1969 AHRA Winter Nationals. It was modified again for the AHRA Pro Stock series in 1971. Bill Porterfield, former General Motors engineer, bought the car around the 80s and had it restored. It had several owners after and in 2012, it was auctioned for $400,000.
The ZL1 engine alone was priced $4,200 which double the Camaro’s price. The ZL1 was sold for more than $7,000, much more expensive than the Corvette with their L88s. The very expensive ZL1s were very hard to sell like this Golden ZL1 that was in the showroom of Berger Chevrolet for over a year. This one is one off the most original ZL1s out there.
Bill Mitchel was the chief designer for the 2nd gen Camaro Zl1 that started the evolution for Chevrolets designs. The 2nd gens had 1971 plates, the design included molded front and rear lower fender spats, bulging hood, hood tach, and European inspired fog lamps which was a trademark for Mitchell’s design. The molded fender and fog lamps options were only available after its debut.
You can see the molded fender spats in this 2nd gen ZL1 viewed from the rear, which became the inspiration of the Firebird Trans Am design. Although you can’t clearly see it, the tail lamp panel has a badge that match the grille badge which you can see on the previous picture. The badge has the American and Canadian flags, and the words “CAN-AM ZL-1”. This is a heads up to the original plans for the ZL1 which was to compete in the Can-Am series.
This ZL1 came out in 1977 at an auto show circuit. It is a “Can-Am ZL-1” that had several modifications that includes a newer roof design with the wraparound rear glass. It still had the molded fender but also has a distinctive front fascia that was later shown in the Camaro’s 1978 design. 2 molded-in pods were placed on each side of the original singular hood tach. The hood still had the original CAN-AM ZL-1 badge.
A 4th generation Camaro ZL1 concept car was made by Jon Moss, chief of Chevrolet’s “toy box”. Moss was the one who made the Impala SS concept car that eventually made in to regular production due to its popularity. The 4th Generation ZL1 was released in 1944 and was redesign in 1999. It still had the trademark all aluminum big block but is now a bigger 572 cubic inch and uses an aluminum block from Donovan. Originally, it had a pair of intake plenums and throttle bodies placed side by side but was eventually replaced by a single throttle body-type EFI system.
The ZL1 was revisited by Chevrolet Performance a few years back and introduced the Anniversary 427 crate engine, it had specs almost the same as the original ZL1 but with a lighter camshaft and valve train. The cast used for the aluminum block was the same one used for the original ZL1’s tooling. Although the Anniversary 427 is no longer available at Chevrolet Performance, there are still brand new ones available at other dealers. Only 427 Anniversary 427 blocks were made.
In 2012, the Camaro ZL1 was made an official production model. It was designed to be a high performance supercar that excels in the drag strip, it also performed well in the road tracks. It had a record of 3.8 seconds for the 0-60 time and a 12.1 second e.t. with 117 mph. From 2012 to 2015, a total of 14,213 5th Gen Camaro ZL1 were produced.
The Supercharged LSA 6.2L engine mounted in the 5th generation Camaro ZL1, the LSA was also mounted on the Cadillac CTS-V but the ones used on the Camaro had unique features that includes specific pipelines for the heat exchanger placed on top of the supercharger, exhaust manifolds, accessory drive system, and an idler pulley that replaced the standard power steering pump which was only possible because of the electric power steering system. The 5th Gen ZL1 was measured to have a 580 horsepower.
The latest 6th generation Camaro ZL1 boost to have a far superior performance due to its improved power to weight ratio. 200 pounds lighter than the 5th gen and is said to have an added 60 horsepower. It has the latest 10-speed automatic transmission and better driver-control system. It will be released at the last quarter of 2016.