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Looking Back on 50 Years of the 1969 Camaro

Half a century of a design and performance icon

Barry Kluczyk Jan 17, 2019
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Collector Tim Schell has something like 40 cars in his expansive and impressive collection of muscle cars; and 19 of them are 1969 Camaros. Nineteen of them.

“The 1969 Camaro was always the car,” he says. “There were a couple that cruised our town, including a black one with Center Line wheels. It just had the look. It was the one I, and everyone else, wanted.”

Schell would be in his early 30s before time and finances allowed the purchase of his first ’69 Camaro; and his collection has mushroomed considerably in the years since, including a number of cars that have come and gone. “I got one as soon as I could afford it,” says Schell. “It’s not going anywhere, either.”

For the record, Schell’s 19 ’69 Camaros include nine original COPO models—one of them an authentic aluminum ZL1—a Baldwin-Motion car, and even the 1969 Indy 500 Pace Car. Note that we said the, not a. He owns the original, track-used pace car #1. We know what you’re thinking: “Wow!”

Exactly.

Schell’s collection is unquestionably enviable, but it embodies the passion most enthusiasts feel for the 1969 Camaro. He simply has the resources to express it better than most of us. It’s also a testament to the enduring popularity of the car 50 years after it rolled out of Chevy showrooms and into the hearts of enthusiasts.

Instant Classic
It’s true the original Mustang exploded like a Baby Boomer bomb on the marketplace, but its history-making popularity was due largely to its singularity. There just wasn’t anything else like it. Other automakers scrambled to push out their own so-called ponycars and, of course, the 1967 Camaro was Chevrolet’s response. It did very well from the start, too, selling more than 220,000 units in its inaugural year and a few more than that in 1968.

But it was the introduction of the face-lifted ’69 model that changed everything for the Camaro. Although still riding on the same Chevy II-derived architecture as the ’67 and ’68 models, it had a more expressive, optimistic appearance that triggered an emotional response, like the shape of a Coke bottle, a Swiss Army knife or, a few decades later, an iPhone.

Upon the introduction of the Gen 6 Camaro, and shortly before his retirement, former General Motors design chief Ed Welburn—whose personal ’69 Camaro was said to be used as in-studio inspiration and reference for the Gen 5 Camaro’s design—reflected on the importance of the first-generation Camaro’s design, singling out the ’69 model.

“[It] is the iconic Camaro to me,” he said. “From the dual-plane grille design and speed lines stamped into the fenders and doors, it was original and distinctive. It didn’t borrow from any other design and all these years, it still looks fresh.” He went on to call out the subtle yet effective elements that set the ’69 Camaro apart from the two previous model years, including the rear fenders that were pulled out to enhance the car’s muscular stance and the simulated vents ahead of the rear fenders that established a focal styling cue that became its signature accent.

Objectively, you can suggest that the ’69 Camaro is the sum of its styling elements, but design is a subjective concern and, as it is said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s more than X plus Y equaling Z. It just is. In that regard, the ’69 Camaro is the Ingrid Bergman of automotive design.

“It’s one of the cars that crosses all the lines for enthusiasts, no matter where their brand loyalties lie,” says Tim Schell. “You can be a dyed-in-the-wool Mopar guy and you’ll still admire the 1969 Camaro. It’s just beautiful.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, that’s exactly what customers thought 50 years ago. And let’s be honest, we’re not just talking the supercar jockeys seeking more cubic inches. The vast majority of sales went to “everyday” models with six-cylinders or 307 small-block engines.

Chevrolet dealers collectively sold an additional 1,750 Camaros every month in 1969 compared to the ’67, and the car’s popularity slowed the Mustang’s gallop to more of a trot. In 1967, Mustang sales led the Camaro by something like 200 percent. Two years later, the lead was reduced to a little more than 20 percent.

Performance Influencer
More honesty, here: As beautiful as the ’69 Camaro is, we likely wouldn’t be devoting all this space to it if it weren’t for its correlative performance influence. A Chevette might have been the Mona Lisa of design—keep in mind we said might—but there was never a cowl-induction hood, rally stripes, or 396 big-block offered with it.

That’s the duality of the ’69 Camaro: It performed as well as it looked. We’re not going to delve into every engine option here, but from the high-winding 302 of the Z/28 to the 427 engines of the special-order COPO models, the car had the horsepower bingo card covered.

More than that, its chassis and overall dimensions, like its design, were spot-on. “It’s just the right size,” says Pro Touring pioneer Mark Stielow, who’s built 10 ’69 Camaros over the years. “A Chevelle is too big and a Nova is too small. The first-gen Camaro has the right wheelbase and overall package. Nothing else looks like it. That single-year body style is a standout that will never go out of style.”

Of course, the ’69 Camaro’s performance legacy was forged before it even went into production. In the Trans-Am series, the Z/28 quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with in 1967 and ’68, but it all came together in 1969 with the dominating driving of Mark Donohue and his iconic blue Penske Camaro. He won half of the series’ races that year, including six of the last seven—and the only race he didn’t win in those seven races went to Ronnie Bucknum in another Camaro.

Likewise on the dragstrip. Racers such as Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins had already pushed the first-generation Camaro to the top of the Super Stock ranks and the ’69 Camaro extended the momentum. In fact, Jenkins experimented with a ZL1-powered ’69 Camaro in Super Stock the same year he was forging a path in the newly formed Pro Stock class. Through the ’70s and ’80s, ’69 Camaros were as ubiquitous as snorkel hoodscoops and Moroso tachometers in the Sportsman ranks at strips across North America. Everybody ran a ’69 Camaro, because, as Mark Stielow put it earlier, it was the right-sized car. It worked and looked good doing it.

The ’69 Camaro was even more of a fixture on the streets, supplanting the ’55 Chevy as the go-to platform for hot rodders and the burgeoning street machine trend. From Van Nuys Boulevard in California, to Woodward Avenue in Detroit, and the countless haunts in New York, New Jersey, and other cruise spots around the country, there were so many Camaro street machines that it would have been be easy to assume 6-71 blowers and slapper bars were factory options. And by the end of the ’80s, roughly three-quarters of the 243,000 ’69 Camaros built had been tubbed.

At least, it seemed like it. And as the performance trends evolved, the ’69 Camaro remained a constant fixture, with builders such as Stielow leading the way, supported in the aftermarket by companies such as Detroit Speed Inc., Holley, and plenty of others, all crafting components to adapt the latest powertrains and chassis components to contemporize the driving experience of a timeless design.

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The freshly styled 1969 Camaro offered a more detailed, expressive design that was an immediate hit with customers. Just look at the smile on the child’s face in this factory photo, as she hits the street with her mom in a big-block–powered SS 396. You can’t help but wonder how good mom was at speed shifting with a trunk full of groceries.

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The ’69 Camaro’s deep dual-plane grille added depth to the car’s design and made the headlamps appear larger. It was a brighter, more optimistic look for the car that even looked “happy.” A gray grille color was standard. SS models received a black grille. This example wears the VE3-code body-color bumper. Only about five percent of production models that year were ordered with that option.

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Choice was one of the Camaro’s selling points. In 1969, there were 14 available engines (including the two COPO 427s), 18 exterior colors, 5 vinyl roof colors, and 3 convertible top colors. There were also 15 interior trim colors, including four variations of the distinctive houndstooth pattern. Decisions, decisions.

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The Rally Sport package returned for 1969. That included the signature, vacuum-operated hideaway headlamps, but with new windows that allowed illumination in case the doors failed, relieving the driver of the chore of manually opening them in the dark. Although immediately identified with the ’69 Camaro, the option was comparatively rare. A little more than 37,000 cars were outfitted with the package, or just more than 15 percent of the total production.

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At the rear, RS taillights were distinguished from other models with all-red lenses and separate backup lights installed below the bumpers. Non-RS cars had the backup lights incorporated in the center of the three-section lenses.

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It’s known universally as the cowl-induction scoop, but Chevrolet called it the Super Scoop upon its debut on the 1969 Camaro. It was offered as a $79 option (RPO ZL2) on Super Sport and Z/28 models. And while it seems today they were installed on 105 percent of the production run, only about 10,000 were officially ordered. That’s only 4 percent of all the ’69 Camaros built.

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Side-by-side profiles here show the standard SS hood, with simulated hood vents, and the available cowl-induction hood, which was also available on the Z/28.

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In 1969, for the second time in three years, the Camaro was selected as the Indy 500 pace car. Chevrolet built 3,675 replicas that became instant collectibles. The actual pace car and its backup clone were 396-powered. Most were 350-powered, with a comparative handful equipped with a 396.

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The track-used ’69 pace car and its backup featured specially built 396 engines. They started as L89 aluminum-head engines, but iron heads were swapped on them to ensure durability on the track. The engines were also blueprinted and more, and backed by Turbo 400 transmissions and 3.31 rear axles.

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This seldom-seem vintage 1969 Camaro ad shows an RS-equipped SS convertible with wheel covers, the standard hood, and the body-color front bumper. The trunk-mounted luggage rack was a dealer-available accessory. The other focal point of the ad was French Alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy, who won three gold medals the previous year at the winter games in Grenoble. This ad was a promotion for a CBS show featuring him. The hockey stick stripe just makes the car, does it not?

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The story of the special-order 1969 COPO Camaros is one that entails more than can be crammed into a photo caption, but here are the basics: COPO 9560 was the all-aluminum ZL1 and only 69 were built; COPO 9561 featured the iron-block L72 engine and it’s estimated a little less than 1,000 were likely built.

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Here’s the solid-lifter L72 engine that was the focal point of the COPO 9561 package, which was initiated by dealer Don Yenko for his special models. Other dealers ordered their own; and at less than $500, it was a much cheaper alternative to the much more costlier ZL1.

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Only 69 ZL1 models were built in 1969, from an order initiated by dealer Fred Gibb. He had to order 50 of them, but because of the high price, most were returned and redistributed to other dealers. Other dealers caught wind of the plan and ordered their own, pushing the final tally to 69. This yellow example is the third car built and was sold by Michigan’s Berger Chevrolet.

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This is one of two Canadian-sold COPO Camaros in collector Tim Schell’s roster of 19 ’69 Camaros. It is restored to a “Day Two” look, complete with Cragar S/S wheels and yellow traction bars. It is believed that about 80 of the 9561 L72 cars went to Canada.

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Schell’s ultra-rare COPO was ordered from the factory with the V75-code “liquid tire chain” traction aid. Chevy records show only 188 out the 243,000-plus ’69 Camaros built had the “instant burnout” option—at least one of them on a COPO Camaro.

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Not all ’69 Camaro performance models were built strictly for the strip. The Z/28 blended strong horsepower and agile handling to make it a performer on the road course. It was powered by a 302ci small-block rated at 290 horsepower. Production was strong, at more than 20,000, compared to the 602 and 7,199 built in 1967 and 1968, respectively.

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The ’69 Camaro all but defined the street machine and Pro Street movements of the ’70s and ’80s, as this 1978 cover of Hot Rod depicted—complete with the requisite GMC-style blower installation.

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Like the street machine trend a couple of decades earlier, the 1969 Camaro was the archetype for today’s Pro Touring movement, led by the cars built by Mark Stielow. This is his Red Devil car, built in 2010 and featuring an LS7-based engine with an LS9 supercharger.

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The Gen 5 Camaro was unabashedly retro in its design, with cues unmistakably inspired by the 1969 Camaro, from the grille to the simulated rear quarter-panel vents and even an obvious homage to the cowl-induction hood.

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Yes, Virginia, there was a hemi small-block. Sort of. In an effort to further improve the 302 engine for Trans-Am series competition, Chevy experimented with an all-aluminum small-block that featured canted-valve cylinder heads, making it more of a semi-hemi, intended to be sold over the counter for ’69 Camaro racers. The uber-expensive engine was never built in quantity, but a handful still exist, including at least one in this ’69 Z/28.

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Five That Mattered
Countless 1969 Camaros have been built for the street, strip, and more over the past 50 years. And while it would seem impossible to narrow them all down to the most important and influential, we’ve nonetheless taken a run at it. Here, then, is CHP’s list of the five most significant 1969 Camaros in the history of high performance.

1. The Fred Gibb-Dick Harrell ZL1
It was the first production Camaro ZL1 built and one of the 50 ordered by dealer Fred Gibb. He immediately sent it to Dick Harrell’s shop in Kansas City, Missouri, to prep it for Super Stock competition. Driven by Herb Fox, who bested Ronnie Sox’s Hemi Barracuda in eliminations during the car’s first outing, this was the car that established the ZL1 legacy.

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2. Les Sutak’s ’69 Z/28 Street Machine
Blown first-gen Camaros all but established the street machine movement, but Sutak’s car, immortalized on the cover of Hot Rod’s November 1979 issue, epitomized the popular trend that still has roots. It had the right stance, with the big-and-little Cragar S/S wheels and traction bars, but it was the 6-71 “huffer” pushing through the hood that helped it define the era and trend. Better still, Sutak still owns it and it still looks the same as it did 40 years ago.

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3. Dan and R.J. Gottlieb’s Big Red
In the mid-’80s, when everyone else was tubbing their Camaros, the Gottliebs teamed up with Bill Osborne to build road-going ’69 Camaro like no other. Originally conceived for Mexico’s La Carrera Classica rally, the car was Pro Touring before Pro Touring existed. More than 30 years later, it remains one of the most recognizable Camaros out there and a fixture at speed-trial events, with a top speed to date of 266.2 mph.

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4. Rick Dyer’s C.A.R.S. ’69 Camaro
The yellow C.A.R.S.-backed Camaro campaigned by Rick Dyer was a trendsetter. Running a nitrous-fed 540 big-block, it ran 8s and made its mark in the very first Hot Rod Top 10 Fastest Street Car Shootout in 1992, which was a precursor to today’s Drag Week. With its full interior and real glass all around, it helped launch (no pun intended) the new wave of ultra-powerful street/strip cars that continues to evolve today. The last we knew, it was owned by Jeff Atkinson, who continues to run it.

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5. Mark Stielow’s Jackass
Mark Stielow’s influential Camaro builds date back to the early ’90s and drove today’s popular Pro Touring movement. He’s built about 10 ’69 Camaros, but the 2009 debut of the yellow Jackass car stands out for its incorporation not only of the latest suspension technology, but also an LS9-supercharged engine. He’s freshened the car since the original build, too, with more power and a new Detroit Speed front subframe. It’s currently owned by Jason Ayres, but it’s a Stielow car through and through.

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