The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Every car guy is more than familiar with this proverb, especially when it proves itself true time and again. The premise was simple: Bring together three '69 COPO cars and use the Raceway Park (Englishtown, New Jersey) quarter-mile to see how badass these cars really are.
The cars came together, the track at Englishtown was prepped, and we were ready to burn some rubber. But when the board at top end showed a 17.016 at 69 mph for our first run, we knew there was trouble brewing. The second run gave us a 16.758, and trouble was thus brewed and served to us in a big steaming mug. Unfortunately, one of the dangers of trying to drag test old cars is they seldom are running as well as they look. While not regularly driving a car is good for the body and structural pieces, it can wreak havoc with the drivetrain. From fouled plugs to out-of-tune carbs to dried-out gaskets, not driving a car can be worse than driving it.
Our test cars were examples of the best that Chevy had to offer in 1969. We had one Camaro, one straight COPO Chevelle, and one Yenko S/C Chevelle going head to head for dragstrip supremacy. For readers not familiar with "COPO," this was an acronym for "Central Office Production Order," the secret code that could be used to order the tire-shredding 427 big-block in Camaros, Novas, and Chevelles in 1969. Unlike its Chevelle brothers, the Camaro had two COPO options: COPO 9561 got you an iron block 427, while COPO 9560 would get you an all-aluminum 427. To get a COPO car, you either had to supply the code to the salesman at the dealership, or find a Chevy dealer familiar with the "backdoor" options who had such cars on the lot. At one time in 1969, Indian River Chevrolet in Cocoa Beach, Florida, had a ZL1 and two COPO Camaros on its lot, along with an assortment of L78-powered cars.
For those not familiar, the L72 427 big-block was the heart of the COPO cars. This engine was a fire-breathing, cherry-popping brute. High revving and built like a tank, the 427 could take just about anything thrown at it. Essentially, the 427 was a 396 with an extra 0.125-inch bored out of the cylinders. Featuring the same high-performance rectangular port (referring to the intake port shape) heads that first debuted on the L78 in 1965, this engine could suck more air than a jet engine.
Here are the specs on the L72:
Displacement: 427 cid
Bore/Stroke: 4.25 bore x 3.76 stroke
Short Block: four-bolt mains, forged crank, forged steel rods with 3/8-inch rod bolts, forged aluminum pistons 11:1 compression ratio
Heads: High Performance Rectangular-Port design, 2.19 Intake valves / 1.78 Exhaust, semi-hemispherical design, stud-mount stamp steel rocker arms 1:7 ratio, 3/8 dia. heavy-wall pushrods, dual valvesprings
Camshaft: Mechanical (solid) flat-tappet camshaft, 0.520 lift int./exh. with 1:7 ratio rocker arm, 114-degree lobe separation, 242 duration @ 0.050"
Ignition: Delco Single-Points type ignition
Intake: High-rise aluminum single plane manifold
Carb: Single 4bbl vacuum secondary Holley, 780-cfm, PN#R-4346
Rating: 425 hp @ 5,600 rpm ; 460 lb-ft torque @ 4,000 rpm
The weather at the track was fairly hot, about 88 degrees and muggy, so we were figuring on losing some time due to street tires on a slick surface, and there was a decent headwind. We gave each driver a few "practice" runs down the strip to get a feel for the track and how their car was acting. After a cooldown, we started running the cars again. Round two saw most times go down and speeds come up, but we were still disappointed with the results. This left the questions begging: Were these cars really that spectacular and fast? Could they take a modern musclecar?
In 1969, both types of COPO cars were drag tested in street trim in magazines. The Chevelle posted a quarter-mile time of 14.10 e.t. at 101 mph, while the COPO Camaro posted a 13.16 with a 110.21 mph. Because our tests didn't exactly follow the scientific method, we're just going to go ahead and throw the past/future comparison in the river. But it's good for our readers to know what these cars were capable of back in the day.
Just seeing these three cars making passes unleashed a flood of nostalgic dreams. Imagining a day when you could go to any local AHRA/IHRA/ NHRA track and see these cars duking it out with the best iron from Ford and Chrysler, the hot dragstrip girls in tight shirts, guys driving their racecars to the track, pulling slicks from the trunk to go racing with, the smell of track food on the breeze intermixed with burnt rubber and burning leaded high-test--it ranks up there with the first time you kissed a girl or when your dad threw you the keys for the first time and told you not to wreck the car.