It was in late 1969 when the last first-gen Camaro rolled off the GM assembly line. Today, original sheetmetal examples are some of the most highly sought-after classics of all American muscle cars. Even a garden-variety six-cylinder Camaro with its body panels in decent shape can fetch huge dollars online and at the big-name classic car auctions. But as any vintage muscle car collector or enthusiast knows, the crème de la crème is the '69 ZL1 COPO (Central Office Production Order), of which only 69 were produced. Fifty of those went to Fred Gibb Chevrolet in LaHarpe, Illinois, while 19 more made their way to other various Chevrolet dealers across the country. Today, it is believed that approximately 50 are still in existence (is there one in a barn near you?). With an original price tag of over $7,200 (almost double the price of an iron-blocked 427 COPO), selling the aluminum-blocked hot rod back in 1969 was actually quite a challenge, as only 13 of the quarter-mile monsters sold out of the Fred Gibb dealership. The remainder were returned to Chevrolet or exchanged with other dealers. In fact, it wasn't until 1972 that the last ZL1 sold off the lot.
In a freakish contrast to today, the rarity of a documented '69 ZL1 COPO makes it one of the most sought-after American muscle cars on the planet and has fetched upwards of $800K.
Father and son duo, Pete and Nick Toundas were in the hunt to build a muscle car and were fully aware of the ZL1's rare status and immense worth, but the car's style and history made it overwhelmingly attractive to them. Fully engaged in the hot rod industry—Pete owns Championship Auto Shows, the company that puts on the Detroit Autorama and World of Wheels car shows, while Nick started Detroit Customs, a shop of talented local car guys who build high-end custom cars.
Pooling their thoughts, they decided it would be cool to build their own version of a ZL1. Yes, it would be as close to a restoration as one can get, but far from an average resto—more of an immaculate show piece featuring the build quality never seen in a factory-built COPO … or any other classic muscle car for that matter.
"We found an unrestored small-block car in Dallas through a friend of legendary custom car guru George Barris. The previous owner was a drug runner who used the Camaro to traffic dope back and forth across the Mexican border. The guy got busted and there was a mechanic's lien on it, so the car sat dormant in a barn for about 10 years. This thing had a 2-inch thick layer of dirt and dust on it, and Texas-size spiders were living in it, too," recalled Pete. "We started the long process of replacing about 70 percent of the sheetmetal, and with my son Nick wanting this to be the world's most beautiful ZL1 Camaro ever, he knew Fred Mull at Drayton Motors was a whiz with an English wheel and had the experience to master flawless hood and door gap fitment—nothing like how the cars originally came from the factory. In our world we call this ‘over-restored.'"
Fred's meticulous bodywork paid off when he applied the Summit Racing black pigment into a mirror-like finish. John Paul, at John's Classic Repair, with the help of Jim Swain, handled the Camaro's ground-up assembly process.
With the body in check, John Paul got busy and started the engine build. Although a newer casting numbered aluminum block was used, the rest consists of original GM ZL1 goodness: aluminum heads, 12:1 pistons, rods, crank, lifters, and the cam comes in with a .580 lift on both the exhaust and intake side. A Holley 850-cfm carb perched atop the GM aluminum intake gulps the fuel/air mixture fed by the mechanical ACDelco fuel pump. The familiar chromed GM valve covers and stock air cleaner confirm the big-block's presence and that this ZL1 means business.
Conservatively rated by GM at 430 hp, with some tuning and exhaust changes, the original ZL1's horsepower number jumps to over 500 ponies, but for this build, the father and son duo kept it true to its roots and employed the stock exhaust manifolds, exhaust, and mufflers.
Per the original plan, shifting duties are handled by a Muncie four-speed M21 assembled by the folks over at The Gear Box. The clutch, pressure plate, and bellhousing are all factory GM. The stock driveshaft manages twist while the 12-bolt rearend with 3.55 gears force the issue to the pavement.
Built with the pure intention of quarter-mile attacks, the ZL1's straight-line favored suspension would throw a fit of resistance should an aggressive turning task come into play, while the stock brakes (disc up front, drums out back) would raise the proverbial the white flag after just a few hard braking instances.
With today's Pro Touring genre of big brakes and large-diameter wheels, the COPO's 14x7 steel wheels are a significant contrast in performance but offer a healthy dose of nostalgia while the period-correct Firestone Poly rubber (F-70x14) can only attempt a futile battle for traction during acceleration, deceleration, or a slightly spirited lateral request.
The radio-delete dash upholds the car's drag-only intentions, and although slight in comparison, non-existent stereo and speakers contribute in keeping weight to a minimum. As if the output of a 4-inch dash-mount speaker could override the big-block's thunder at any rpm. The white vinyl bucket seats retain the sporty theme. With an air-conditioning system a bulky nuisance, the ZL1 forewent interior climate control and employ the Astro vents for ambient air intake only.
At the end of a three-year long journey, the duo was rewarded with a hot rod unparalleled in capturing the spirit of classic muscle car performance and preservation. And even though it's not a "real deal" ZL1, or even a big-block COPO for that matter, here is an unlikely car that carries a visual dynamic comparable in attention to detail as the car it sits next to at the Detroit Autorama. The only difference is that the car it's parked across from is in contention for the coveted Ridler Award.
Unfortunately, Nick passed away in 2010 and wasn't able to see the car in its completed state, but the amazing outcome is a constant reminder to Pete of a great father/son relationship he and Nick had, along with the everlasting bond they built by working together on one of the most amazing Camaros ever.
"Yes, some may see this Camaro as a tribute car," said Pete. "I, too, see it as a tribute car … a tribute to Nick."