“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is an axiom that’s been bantered about by car manufacturers for some time now. In short, it’s a correlation between winning at the racetrack and sales at the dealership. After all, everyone loves a winner, and even guys (mostly) who don’t plan on hitting any sort of track, like the idea of driving a ride that is capable of running on and kicking ass at the track.
This concept of adapting race car type parts to “average Joe” cars has been around a long time. Heck, it’s the reason we have a Z28 Camaro, and in that same vein, there’s the 1LE option. It started back in 1985 with the Canadian Players Challenge racing series where they ran all out for 30-45 minutes. No pit stops, no excuses. The cars were showroom stock, which meant that other than wheels, tires, and shocks, they had to run the way they were sold from the dealership. The bad news for the third-gen Camaros was that from the showroom they had brakes that could politely be considered awful, which were lucky to even be functional after 40 minutes of racing. Due to this, GM of Canada began begging the corporate office to offer up some sort of track-capable braking system. Here in the States things weren’t much better, with the Camaro routinely getting trounced by Mustangs in the IMSA and SCCA autocross, road racing, and Pro Solo events.
It was GM brake parts engineer Phil Minch who got things rolling. He figured out the Camaro shared the front wheel bearing package with the Caprice. This meant that its heavier 12-inch rotors could easily replace the anemic 11-inch rotors on the Camaro. It was this epiphany that eventually led to the Regular Production Option (RPO) code of 1LE. Minch later teamed up with the Camaro’s chief engineer Chuck Hughes and powertrain manager Ray Canale to grab a Camaro and toss on the Caprice brakes. What they found was a need for a better caliper. After digging around, the best candidate was an aluminum twin-piston PBR piece from the Corvette. Unlike the rotor, it wasn’t a bolt-on deal and the Camaro’s spindle had to be tweaked for everything to work. Rear disc brakes were already a factory option, so they also became part of the 1LE package.
A company called Special Vehicle Developments, owned by Bill Mitchell, was given the cars and told to take them to Road Atlanta’s 2.5-mile course. These F-cars were bone stock, with items like air conditioning and power accessories removed. After a few laps, it became apparent that the braking bias was off and the non-adjustable stock proportioning valve was useless to fix it. A new proportioning valve with the proper bias was added to the package and the braking became good, very good.
The race teams loved the new “stock” option, but new chinks in the armor were found. Better brakes meant more negative g’s, which caused the Camaro’s fuel-injection pump, mounted inside the tank, to become fuel starved. Stalling under hard braking is a buzz kill, so GM totally redesigned the fuel tank. New baffles and a new pickup kept gas around the pump, even below a quarter tank. Sometime in the early ’90s, the revised tank design became standard on all Camaros. Prior to that it only came in the 1LE package.
As the Camaro got faster, more changes were made. First up was a change to Fifth gear to address the painful lack of torque. There wasn’t much racers could do about power since the only engine mods allowed were basic blueprinting and balancing work, as well as some massaging of the fuel system. Unlike other “stock” style racing, these cars really were. On the straight sections of tracks the Camaro had zero chance of passing the lighter Mustangs. Part of the problem was that GM switched to a 0.62 Fifth gear so that their everyday car buyers could get better mpg and pass ever-increasing emissions standards. This gear was simply too tall and GM swapped to a 0.74 Fifth gear in all transmissions slated for 1LE Camaros. To this they also added in an aluminum driveshaft.
So now, rather than just a brake upgrade, the 1LE coalesced into a full-on performance package. But Chevrolet didn’t want non-racers buying these hopped-up Camaros so they mandated that 1LE cars would have to forego air conditioning and all power amenities. This had the desired effect. In 1988 only four were produced and in 1989 111 1LE Camaros were sold. Eventually, gearheads caught on that the 1LE option would make their Z28 way faster on the street, and 478 1LEs were sold in 1990. By 1992 the yearly tally was up to 705 units; obviously, these weren’t being snatched up by racers alone. The stripped nature of the cars kept cost down, and in 1990 you could get a 1LE Camaro for under $16,000. The lack of T-tops, stereo, power leather seats, air conditioning, power door locks, power trunk, cruise control, and power windows kept the weight low as well, somewhere around 3,100 pounds.
In 1993, the fourth-gen Camaro hit the scene and was a big hit. GM still offered the 1LE, but only a few were bought. To generate more excitement, GM sweetened the package to appeal to the everyday driver. A six-speed Borg-Warner trans with better ratios was one of the major changes. After 1993, the cars came with an ABS system far more capable than what preceded it. Post ’93 1LE cars had Koni shocks on all four corners. GM even went so far as to sneak a small, unmarked instruction sheet into the glovebox detailing how to tune the shocks for various track surfaces. Higher rate bushings and stiffer 32mm front and 21mm rear sway bars joined the package. Eventually, GM decided to start marketing the package to performance drivers and not just to racers. To make the package more enticing for the guy wanting a 1LE for the street, air conditioning became standard in 1996. The 1LE option was now branded by the marketing department as the Performance Suspension Package and GM started really making an effort to sell the option to performance enthusiasts—odd, considering the 1LE’s “track-only” beginnings. For profit reasons GM scrapped the 1LE program in 1999, but SLP did offer a 1LE option (RPO Y2Y) in 2001, although given all the weight-adding power options and T-tops, it was really just a shadow of the original track pack first offered on the third-gens.
01. This ’92 1LE Camaro was one of only 30 cars built for the last year of the Canadian racing series, but it never ended up hitting the track. Tom Hollinsworth found this sweet ride while cruising the Internet and scooped it up. Only 5 of the 30 cars were painted in Quasar Blue, so it’s a pretty rare example. Tom confirmed the car’s lineage with GM of Canada and found out that his was the first 1LE/R7U car built in 1992.
02. The SCCA had a Showroom Stock Racing series and Canada had the Motorsports Division Players Challenge/GM Motorsports Race Series. Both were more than happy to take advantage of order code R7U. This added a hand-built LB9 305 to the 1LE. The engines were run on the dyno at the factory and the bolts were paint-marked to discourage creative tampering by the race teams.
03. If you love 1LE cars, thank a Canadian. It was pressure from the racers north of the border that got the performance upgrade package moving forward and into the winner’s circle.
04. A specially geared five-speed manual transmission helped racers get the most from their stock powerplants.
05. The 1LE option continued in the fourth-gens, but it was no longer considered a “racer” option and was marketed towards performance enthusiasts.