Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Mich., was known back in the '60s as a drag racer and musclecar aficionado's best friend. Anyone with a handful of cash and the need for speed could walk off the lot with one of the famed special order COPO Camaros, and most recently this tradition was revived with a series of special edition Berger Camaros made in conjunction with GMMG, Inc of Marietta, Ga. The two combined to create (among others) the 2002 ZL1 Camaro supercar, which appeared to be the swan song of the defunct F-body platform. However, when Berger managed to scrounge up 30 Camaros lying around on various dealership lots in 2003, the means was provided for one last and very special project.
This go-round, GMMG owner Matt Murphy insisted things be taken yet one more step further than the high-dollar ZL1s. Remembering the widebody Sunoco-blue/Penske show car, which was modeled after Mark Donahue's '69 Camaro race car, Matt contacted John Heinricy of GM Performance Division to see about obtaining the same frontend pieces that gave the Sunoco car such distinction. Heinricy agreed to help out and push things along as quickly as possible with the stipulation that this new special edition car would have to carry the complete body kit (including the wing and quarter-panels). Since the Sunoco car was a one-off, GM did not have the means or ability to reproduce the panels and hood, but it did have the specs as well as designers Kip Wasenko and Randy Wittine at hand to recreate the process. Using GMMG technician Ron Mowen's red Z28 as the donor pilot car, clay was used to mimic the contours of the Sunoco show car, which sat next to it in the shop. The altered pieces were removed and used to make molds of the new fiberglass front fascia, fenders, quarter-panel extensions, and spoiler. The cowl extension on the hood was made from carbon fiber and bonded to the rest of the stock hood, as was a new gas cap designed to fit the curves of the more shapely quarter-panel. By summer of 2004 a prototype had already been completed, but Murphy had to find a place to reproduce the panels and to do the rest of the bodywork. Ultimately, he added a body shop to GMMG's repertoire and did virtually all of the work on the entire car in-house.
Quite a few lessons were learned in the production of the ZL1s, which would be taken into account on this new project, such as the impracticality of relying on outside body shops. Though the ZL1s were wildly popular and had no problems selling, Matt was still concerned with the rapidly inflating price due to the body kit that was expensive to reproduce. In an effort to keep costs under control, Koni shocks (not the pricey Penskes) and a mostly stock suspension would be employed unlike the ZL1's 1LE suspension. Eibach lowering springs, rear lower control arm relocation brackets, GMMG subframe connectors and front sway bar were the only deviations from stock. The savings in suspension are more than accounted for in the gargantuan Fikse 18x11 front and 18x12 rear wheels with meaty Michelin Pilot rubber, which fill out the wide body kit nicely. A BFG G-Force front and drag radial rear combo is also available. Just like the ZL1, a base model (LS6, bolt-ons), Phase II (heads, cam), and Phase III (427 ci) were available. Cam specs were revised on the Phase II and Phase III models, as were the heads. Total Engine Airflow now supplies the ported LS6 heads with stainless 2.05 intake and 1.60 exhaust valves, in addition to port matching the Holley aluminum intake. In combination with a revised COMP Cams hydraulic roller and 427 cubes in the Phase III, the heads help raise output to 630 horsepower equaling about 520-530hp at the wheels. Improved tuning capabilities allow complete streetability with the 244/248 duration, .612/.615-inch lift cam (for six-speeds), as well as the use of pump gas with the high 12.5:1 compression. The short-block is unchanged from the ZL1 iteration, consisting of a C5R block stuffed with a Callies forged crank, Oliver rods, and JE pistons as assembled by Roberts Racing Engines in Mooresville, N.C. The fuel system is upgraded as well, with a BBK high flow fuel pump and Accel 36-pound injectors. This time GMMG opted for high quality stainless steel long-tube headers from Kooks with 1 7/8-inch primaries, a 3-inch Y-pipe and high flow cats. A QTP electric cutout and GMMG chambered cat-back are mounted aft for optimum flow. The result is a complete package that Murphy says gives you plenty of power and super handling without the unreliability or drivability issues normally associated with highly modified cars and strokers.
When it came time to put a name to these 30 highly tuned Camaros, Matt could think of no better namesake than Mr. Chevrolet himself, Dick Harrell, who worked with several dealerships to shoehorn in some of the first 427s into Camaros in the late 1960s. A conversation with Valerie Harrell, the daughter of Dick Harrell, a few years ago had brought to Matt's attention the similarity between his efforts with the Berger ZL1s and Dick Harrell's pioneering work back in 1967-68. Harrell managed to run a successful business converting Camaros, Chevelles and Novas for Yenko, Nickey and Fred Gibb Chevrolet while juggling a busy drag racing career. When he moved his shop from St. Louis to Kansas City, Harrell began selling 427 conversions from coast to coast through a network of dealers, and became one of the first and most noteworthy tuners in the country. His expertise was demanded by a broad range of customers, setting up street cars and full-on race cars alike, and had he still been alive, "his shop would have evolved into exactly what Matt's shop [GMMG] has," according to Dave Libby, a former employee and family friend. Amidst the height of this business in 1969, Harrell managed to capture AHRA Driver of the Year, and the following year he was named Driver of the Decade. This was to be the pinnacle of a dominant racing career spanning Stock Eliminator, Super Stock and Funny Car classes. His life was cut short in a tragic Funny Car crash in Toronto, Canada in 1971, however, his daughter was happy to lend his name to the project, as it was certainly worthy.
Valerie was also happy to take possession of her own Phase III Dick Harrell Edition Camaro, which was originally the first of three prototypes. Along with about 20 other owners, Valerie's also sports a Wolfe roll cage and Strange 12-bolt rear with 33-spline axles, 4.10 gears and a posi. This option has allowed an NHRA-legal 10.94 pass at 125 mph with a staggering 1.46 short time on slicks. The 4.10 gears, torquey motor, and good grip will actually lift the front tires on launch despite no attempts at weight savings, says Murphy. Around half of all Dick Harrell Edition Camaros also sport a T56 such as Valerie's with a stock clutch and pressure plate, which is said to be equivalent to the Z06's. Meanwhile SPEC lightweight flywheels are used to keep from slowing the pistons' 4 inches of travel. Since Berger had only a limited selection of leftover Camaros to choose from, GMMG had to convert a few automatics to six-speeds. The rest were outfitted with Art Carr-built 4L60Es, high stall converters and tranny coolers (in Phase II and III, optional with base model).
Outside of the 30 Dick Harrell Edition Camaros slated for sale in 2005-2006, the three prototypes, and the Pilot car, Valerie's is perhaps the most unique due to its custom mixed paint. The glowing Butterscotch Orange is a concoction developed by family friend Bill Carter, a renowned painter in California. Her unique paint job is rivaled perhaps only by Ron Mowen's pilot car, which was used for the clay modeling of the body panels (test fit on Valerie's car). Though Ron's Camaro does have a gorgeous two stage custom red metallic paint job with House of Kolor's Orion Silver flake, what makes it unique is that Ron took the acquisition of the widebody kit as an opportunity to transform the nitrous-powered solid-roller street racer into a purpose-built drag car. GMMG Lead Painter Joseph DuBroc helped Ron apply the body kit along with three coats of silver-flaked ICI dark red paint and two coats of clear. He then went to work at tearing apart the interior and removing any unnecessary weight. A Wolfe 10-point roll cage and a set of mini-tubs were welded into place (to run a larger set of slicks). Using a lightweight Kirkey racing seat with the radio, rear seat and A/C deleted, the Camaro manages to weigh in at a svelte 2,920 pounds with driver.
A PA Racing tubular K-member and A-arms also slim things down, with Hal double adjustable coil-overs helping to dial in the suspension. Global West subframe connectors and a Wolfe anti-sway bar add a few pounds back on, but with the kind of power Ron planned on making, you'd be a fool not to stiffen the chassis. Only solid rod-ended rear suspension components from Wolfe are used including lower control arms, Panhard bar and torque arm. Hal adjustable shocks and V-6 Camaro springs enable optimum weight transfer from the Mickey Thompson skinnies to the 28x10.5 slicks mounted on lightweight Bogart drag wheels. Strange drag brakes and a manual steering rack also give the Camaro extra incentive to lift the front tires.
Much like the production Dick Harrell Edition Camaros, Ron also opted for a Strange 12-bolt to solidify the driveline. A spool, 4.88 gears, and 35-spline axles are some things you wouldn't find in any street car, though. The same can be said for the Rossler Turbo 400, which is negotiated by a B&M Pro Ratchet shifter. The SFI-approved flexplate and 6200-stall converter are from TCI. This gear ratio and converter combo is optimized for a naturally aspirated Futral Motorsports solid roller 347-cube LS1. After abandoning any hopes of driving his Camaro on the street, Ron called solid roller guru Allan Futral to revise his setup with a stouter .724/.704-inch lift, 259/267 duration cam. A 14:1 compression is assured with Diamond forged pistons and highly modified LS6 heads. Meaux Racing hand ported the heads to flow up to 362 cfm at .800-inch lift with Manley 2.055 and 1.60 valves. The heads are made to accept the Futral pushrods and solid lifters as well. A heavy set of K-motion springs and T&D 1.7 ratio rockers are needed for valvetrain reliability with this high-rpm screamer. A stock crank was lightened and balanced before being bolted to the mains, and attaching Lunati Pro Mod billet rods. Kooks stainless 1 3/4 to 1 7/8-inch stepped long-tube race headers do the exhaustive honors, as a FAST intake manifold and Nick Williams 90mm throttle body inhale unfettered fresh air thanks to the Speed Density tune from Allan Futral. Ford Motorsport 42-pound injectors and a Walbro 255lph pump are currently the only things the intake is plumbed to accept, however, Ron says he may go to a direct port nitrous setup this fall to hit high 8s in the quarter. So far, he has run a best of 9.72 at 137 mph with a 1.36 short time, and his goal is to continue to campaign the car the way Dick Harrell would have if he were alive. This is a fitting homage to not only a legendary drag racer and tuner, but for the Camaro and all those who ever turned a wrench on one in the pursuit of speed.