The Ultimate Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – the 427 Copo Camaro
This was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing: the 427 Copo Camaro. During the muscle car years, you had to be pretty careful of who you messed with. For instance, that little Camaro with the hub caps, no stripes, and no engine badges might not be the pushover you think it is. It might just be one of the most fearsome muscle cars ever made: a Copo.
Copo – Central Office Production Order
Copo might sound like a pretty silly name for a bad boy muscle car, but to those in the know, those four letters were the keys that unlocked Chevy’s big toy box. Copo stood for Central Office Production Order, which meant if you had enough money and the right option numbers, Chevrolet would build you a car pretty much any way you wanted it. Explains Jim Mattison, the President of the Automotive Services Corporation: “The function of the Copo group, which was really the fleet and special order department was not solely for the purpose of building factory hot rods. Quite the contrary. We were there for the purposes of building things like taxi cabs, police cars, vehicles for municipalities, government agencies and there was an awful lot of business that came through Chevrolet at that time for vehicles like that. But then slipping through the cracks every once in a while was one of these factory hot rod programs.”
These Copo cars as they came to be known where mostly Camaros and most of them were equipped with the iron block 425 horsepower 427. But a few Copo Camaros escaped off the assembly line with Chevy’s ultimate weapon under their hoods: the all aluminum ZL1 427. The ZL1 transformed the Super Sport Camaro from a bonsai street machine into a full tilt factory race car. The stroke of genius that turned Chevy’s fleet car buying system into what amounted into a factory super stock program belonged to Chevrolet’s Director of Product Promotions, Vince Piggins.
Says Jim Mattison: “Vince truly loved his job and he was quite the visionary as far as seeing a need for a product and going back to the engineering group and seeing if, in fact, we could go ahead and satisfy some of these needs. Perfect example of it was the ZL1 Camaro.” The ZL1s and a few hundred Camaros built with a cast iron 427 became the speer head of Chevy’s attack on Super Stock drag racing in 1968 and 1969. A 427 Camaro would clean your clock like no other Camaro and they had an added advantage for the hardcore street racers. Copos were the ultimate stealth fighters.
The Ultimate Stealth Fighters
Unlike most muscle cars, which came loaded down with stripes, engine badges, shiny chrome wheels and a boatload of curb appeal, most Copo Camaros with downright dowdy. Even though they were some of the most expensive muscle cars ever made, practically all of them were delivered with just a single paint color, no go fast decals or chrome trim and base line interiors. In the Copo cars, the money was under the hood. Fewer than 1000 Copo muscle cars were ever built and that figure included about 300 427 Chevelles and 100 1970 Novas with the screaming 360 horse LT1 small block. Those 1000 cars never generated a profit for GM. In fact, Chevy probably lost a few bucks on each deal. But the mission of the Copo muscle cars wasn’t to make huge profits. It was to bring people into the showrooms.
One of these showrooms belonged to a man whose passion for high performance and his influence inside Chevrolet did more to create the Copo cars than any other person: Don Yenko. By the late 60s, the streets were filling up with hyper powered machines. Just a few years earlier, muscle cars and muscle car buyers had been a pain in the neck for most car dealers. But by 1967, muscle cars had become front room merchandise on the car lots. Some car dealers had even begun to specialize in muscle cars. Dealerships like Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan and Fred Gibb Chevrolet in Illinois had become well known as race team sponsors. And they always made sure they had the latest factory hot rods available for a test drive.
Yenko Chevrolet – Home of the Super Cars
In this horsepower race, one Chevrolet outdid everyone else. In his showroom, he had the fastest Chevys you could get from the factory but out back in his service department he was building faster ones. His name was Don Yenko and Yenko Chevrolet was the home of the super cars. Jim Mattison recalls Yenko’s influence: “Yenko was quite the visionary. Don did a lot of good for Chevrolet and never any bad and I think that kind of summarizes it.”
Don Yenko was a racer himself and his first love was sports car racing. His first venture into building his own performance cars was based on the 1965 Corvair: the Yenko Stinger. Road racing the little Stingers was a lot of fun but it wasn’t long before Yenko’s sports car passion was overshadowed by the brute power of big cubic inch Chevrolet muscle. Super Sport Camaros got peoples’ attention in a way the little Corvair never could.
When it was introduced in 1967, the Super Sport Camaro was equipped with a 350 cubic inch small block engine. Later in the model year, the 375 horsepower 396 rat motor became the Camaro’s top of the line power plant. With either one of these engines, the SS Camaro was a wild ride. But there were people out there who needed a bigger shot of horsepower and for them Chevy had another engine.
Chevy’s bad boy power plant was a bored out version of the 396, measuring 427 cubic inches and making 425 horsepower. This motor was one step away from being a full on racing engine. For 1967, the 427 was Chevrolet engine development at its finest. But except for the Corvette, which always enjoyed its own set of rules, GM’s corporate policy wouldn’t allow Chevrolet to put this motor in anything smaller than Impalas. But Don Yenko had a different policy. At Yenko Chevrolet, the rules were simple, if you could make it go faster, just do it. The first Yenko super cars were born by transplanting the L72 427 into SS 350 Camaros. Thanks to the little car’s ability to swallow any of Chevy’s engines, the 427 bolted right in, using off the shelf factory parts. Yenko added special rally wheels and a set of Corvette side pipes. And if you look closely, you could see the Super Sport flags on the car’s sides now said 427.
SS 350 Camaros had been exciting. SS 396s were thrilling. The Camaro with a 425 horse 427 was a genuine hold on for dear life experience. As the sales went, the 427 wasn’t a barn burner. Just 54 Camaros got the Yenko treatment in 1967, which wasn’t enough to make a dent in anyone’s sales figures. But two important things happened as a result of this little experiment. It started Yenko Chevrolet on a path to building some of the most exciting muscle cars ever built. And it sent the message to Chevrolet.
The Reality of the 427 Camaro
Thanks to Don Yenko, the ice had been broken. The 427 Camaro was a reality, if only in Chevy dealerships in Pennsylvania. But somewhere Chevrolet was watching who could have an impact on future products. That someone was Vince Piggins and he was about to make it a little easier to get one of these cars, especially if you were a super stock racer. By 1968, the 427 Camaro that Don Yenko had pioneered was a much imitated good idea. Chevrolet dealerships from New York to California were building their own version of the SS 427 and the magazines were full of ads for these special cars. Yenko had even started selling his super cars through other dealerships, letting even more people in on the excitement.
Soon, 427 Camaros from Nickey Chevrolet, Dana Chevrolet, Motion Performance and other go fast dealerships began to show up in numbers on the streets. But the really big stars in 1968 were the cars that took home the trophies in stock and super stock competition. Just about any car was legal, as long as it was available at your local dealership. This opened the door for some incredible cars. The 427 Ford Thunderbolt and the 426 Hemi Barracuda. Cars like these weren’t exactly like the ones you could buy, but they were close enough for NHRA’s rule book and every time they run a race they caused the Monday morning stampede at the dealerships. The 427 Camaro would be perfect but Chevrolet didn’t make one. The 427 Camaro that Yenko and others were turning out wasn’t a factory built car. To be legal, it had to be built on Chevy’s assembly line.
Vince Piggins was Chevy’s head of high performance development. He also enjoyed a close relationship with Don Yenko. Piggins wanted Chevrolet back on top in drag racing and Yenko’s 427 Camaros gave him that good idea. With Yenko’s 427 super cars as a guide, Vince Piggins ordered up a few non standard Camaros under Chevrolet’s central office production order system. These orders specified a plain Camaro with the L72 iron block 427, a cowl induction hood, heavy duty suspension, four speed transmission and the twelve bolt positraction rear end with 410 or 456 gears. This car became known as Copo 9737. By year end, 64 427 Camaros had been produced under the Copo program, bringing Chevrolet back to prominence in stock and super stock racing.
Details Jim Mattison: “These were cars that actually came down the assembly line by the men and women at Chevrolet division on the assembly line. They didn’t go elsewhere for upfits. They didn’t have to go to some of these outside companies like an ASC corporation or a Hurst corporation to be built as some of the other car companies were doing.” Joining the Camaro as the world’s newest big block terror weapon was the 427 Chevy Nova, a product of another racing Chevrolet dealer: Fred Gibb and the legendary bow tie racer, Dick Harrell. The 427 Nova took immediate control over the Super Stock automatic classes and for racers like Ray Morrison, it became not only a fun ride but a source of income. “At that time, the automatic classes were pretty soft and I won quite a bit of money with it the first year I had it. In fact, I borrowed $2700 on it and paid that off with my earnings.”
The 1969 Copo Camaro 427
Going into 1969, these 427 cars were making a lot of people happy. In the coming year, even more people where going to get happy because Chevy was about to let a few more of these cars out into the marketplace. And this time, they were really going over the top with an aluminum big block Copo car. The Camaro had sold nearly half a million copies in 1967 and ’68 and nearly 60,000 of these were big block cars. There was a lot of enthusiasm inside Chevrolet for the Camaro. Much of that enthusiasm came from the Camaro’s continuous improvement in its engines and drive train. Like the Corvette, the Camaro was becoming a rolling test bed fro the latest high performance hardware. One of Chevy’s gee whiz pieces for 1969 had gone through through testing and was a bona fide racing engine. This was the all aluminum big block engine code named ZL1. Chevy lovers from Don Yenko to Vince Piggins immediately saw this engine as the perfect companion for the ’69 Camaro. And since the Copo gag had worked once with the iron block 427 it would work again with the aluminum engine. For those in the know, this was Copo 9560.
The ZL1′s super strong aluminum block used cast iron cylinder sleeves with identical dimensions to the cast iron 427, the ZL1 could use the same indestructible cranking rods, but it used a special piston with pins and a much wilder cam with 579 lift on the intake side and 520 lift on the exhaust. The aluminum open chamber cylinder heads made 12.5 to 1 compression. The big difference between the two engines naturally was weight. The iron block L72 engine weighed over 700 pounds. The ZL1 tipped the scales at just a shade over 400. The small block revving ability and big block torque made the ZL1 Camaro a genuine thrill ride. The only downside to this was the ZL1 took your checkbook on a thrill ride, too. The ZL1 engine alone kicked the price of this car up by $4100. Only 69 of these cars ever made it through the Copo system but for the few people who did get their hands on one, the cost was just not an issue. Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, Don Yenko was still making his own brand of super Camaro. Thanks to the Copo system, 427 Camaros now came direct from Chevrolet. Complete with factory warranties. All that was left was for Yenko to give them the super car treatment adding his special touches inside and out and putting rally wheels and the Yenko SYC stripes and badges. Now Yenko decided to branch out and give Chevelle lovers the same thrill. Once again, the Copo system was worked, this time to create a 427 equipped ’69 Chevelle. Copo 9562 rolled off the assembly line with a Muncie M21 four speed our the turbo hydromatic 400 automatic transmission, front disc brakes, and a 410 gear twelve bolt posi rear end.
Even though the car wasn’t a Super Short Chevelle, the Copo package contained a few goodies from the SS appearance group and Yenko added his own SYC graphics and wheels to complete the car. Among the dozens of factory muscle cars on the streets, Yenko’s super cars joined a select few that were a cut above the rest. Included in this select few were the Copo cars from Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Berger was Chevrolet’s oldest dealership dating back to 1925. For Chevrolet high performance lovers in the Midwest it was Mecca.
Keith Maney details its significance: “No discussion of performance dealerships can be considered complete with special mention of Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Berger delivered a number of Copo cars, second only to Yenko Chevrolet. The absolute best part about Berger Chevrolet, however, is they’re still with us and they’re still building special Camaros. All Copos were born equal but some were more equal than others. In addition to Berger’s own special ID treatment, some of these cars even enjoyed dual Copo status. As the muscle car world roared into 1970 nobody foresaw the end of the era approaching. But time was drawing short for the muscle cars and some of the first to get the ax would be these awesome factory hot rods.
1970 – A Banner Year (But Not For the Copo Camaro)
1969 had been a banner year for muscle cars. 1970 would be even better for every car except the Copos. Ordering Chevrolet race cars like you were buying mail trucks had been a great scheme but the new year brought a few changes at GM which closed this loophole Camaro suffered the most with the change to lower octane unleaded fuel. The 1971 SS Camaro featured a 300 horse 402. And ’72′s even tamer 240 horse big block was the last gas for the rat motor in the Camaro. By 1973, the big block in the Camaro was history. Things were better for Chevelle lovers. In 1970, GM lifted its rule prohibiting engines larger than 400 cubic inches in intermediate cars which gave birth to the 454 cubic inch LS6 Chevelle.
The 450 horsepower Chevelle sitting on showroom floors meant there was no need to fill out Copo paperwork and endure the wait for a 427. But the hot rodders at Chevrolet weren’t quite done. The era’s last Copo muscle car was this car: taking Chevy’s meanest small block engine and marrying it to a no frills ’70 Nova body created a car that was every bit as exciting as the big block Copos. Even without the 427′s torque, its little 360 horse 350 cubic inch engine pushed the Copo Nova to high quarter mile times. It was a great way to go out and even left room for Don Yenko to do his magic on a Copo car one last time.
“In 1970 we did a Deuce for Yenko we also built a few of those Deuces for other dealers,” says Jim Mattison, “But then in 1971 when the compression ratios had lowered on the automobiles, GM switched over to all their cars running on unleaded gas so it became a bit of a different business so the Copo business, as you will, began to go away.” As the 70s progressed, Chevrolet continued to experiment with cars that offered fun and excitement while carrying the weight of increasing governmental regulations and, as you might expect, so did Don Yenko.
Yenko’s Last Super Car
In the early 80s Yenko Chevrolet produced its last super car a turbo charged small block Camaro. Today, the Copo 427 Chevelles and Camaros are among the rarest and most desirable collector cars. But even though their value was close to ten times the original sticker price the people that owned them and loved them still remember what they were built for. There is a yearly reunion for these super cars and every year more Copo owners show up to take these cars out to the strip for a little shot of that good old big block power. “Three years ago I started what’s called a super car reunion for the dealer built super cars and one of the unique thing about it is that we always go to the drag strip. We’ve had a Berger Camaro here, we have a ZL1 Camaro, a Yenko Chevelle, several Yenko Camaros. A little bit of everything here tonight and they’re all making passes. We do drive them, we do race.” Says Tom Clary, the organizer of the reunion.
Unlike most muscle car stories, there’s a happy ending to this one. Never one to let a good idea die, Berger Chevrolet built a new edition of an old favorite, a super powered Camaro with all the flash and dash of the ’69 Copo cars. Of course, building a super car in these days has to start with a car that’s pretty cutting edge. This Camaro offered the same gut level thrills as yesterday’s car and more. “We stayed to that true to that brand for almost 35 years. I mean, there’s three reasons people buy a a Camaro: the styling, the look at me styling, they want to go so fast in a straight line that their hair catches on fire when they hit warp speed and I want to pass out when I hit 4Gs and skid pad. Let’s face it, there are three big reasons to build a Camaro and we designed this car for the enthusiast.” Explains Scott Settle mire of the Chevrolet Motor Division. Just like the Copos of the 60s, this new Camaro was perfectly suited for its time and custom made for people who expect more from a car than just getting from Point A to Point B. Just plain cars can’t do that! That takes a super car.