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1969 Chevy Camaro COPO Yenko - Solid Gold

Cliff Ernst's Prototype Olympic Gold '69 Yenko Camaro

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Geoff Stunkard

Rock crooner Bryan Adams sings about the summer of '69. But what was really going on back then? Vietnam, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, Apollo 11, and AM radios playing acid rock. If that sounds like turmoil, musclecar fans were at peace because Detroit was busy turning out all sorts of diversions from the pop culture noise. NASCAR-derived specials from Dodge and Ford had you covered. How about upscale? There were Buicks and Oldsmobiles with plush trim galore. On a budget? Plymouth's Road Runner and Pontiac's new Judge were there for you. Then there was something really special that not everybody and their brother knew about. If you could hook up with a knowledgeable Chevrolet dealer for a Camaro or Chevelle built under the special COPO codes, you were hot!

The COPO, or Central Office Production Order, was a group of "insider trading" numbers that allowed dealerships in the know to order special combinations from Chevrolet. Factory-employed product specialists, like the late Vince Piggins, were smart enough to figure that some non-authorized packages could get put together without drawing the attention of the front office or the insurance gurus. One of the best insiders was former sports car racer Don Yenko, whose little dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, had been using COPO codes since the Stinger Corvair days of 1966 to get special stuff built on the assembly line.

After the Stinger program, Yenko had built short runs of 427-inch Camaros for retail sale in both 1967 and 1968. This required a crate-delivered L72 427 to be installed after the car was delivered. Due to the network of dealers that had been established during the Stinger program, Yenko had market access beyond his own environs, so selling the cars was no problem. With demand for muscle growing, Piggins authorized a special COPO code to do the 427-inch installs on the assembly line for 1969.

Yenko was not the only one to take advantage of COPO 9561 during 1969; at least 500 Camaros were built this way. However, the Yenko operation did handle approximately 200 of those cars plus an additional batch of 427-inch Chevelles built that model year, making it the largest COPO supplier by far in 1969. That fact brings us to the car seen here.

Like virtually all Yenko Camaros, this one received a stripe and decor package, but it was the first of only 10 painted in Olympic Gold, the very one that drag racer Ed Hedrick thrashed for an article in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine back in the summer of 1969.

Because it was a prototype, the car features special emblems that did not end up on the regular examples. It is also the only one of the gold cars known to have white graphics, as opposed to the black versions, and the only gold one documented as having been optioned with Atlas wheels by the dealership prior to sale. This car was used as a dealership demo, and was in a solid, hot state of tune when it was pressed into duty as a magazine test car in the early summer.

"At the time, I was driving the Yenko Super Stock race car," recalls Hedrick. "We were in the NHRA points chase, we were at York, and an associate of the Don Yenko organization named Dick Williams, who lived near Pittsburgh, drove the car from the dealership to the track. He also helped arrange to do the test. I don't recall whose idea it was to start with."

Stahl made a batch of spring clamps that were put on the car that day to prevent wheelhop, and had also built some custom-length 6-inch collectors for the already-installed Doug Thorley headers to help with exhaust-cycle cylinder scavenging. Though the stock clutch was retained, a Lakewood blow-proof housing had been installed in the name of safety, and an 8,000-rpm Stewart-Warner tach was mounted inside.

"One of the magazine guys took the car out and made a couple of passes, mashing the throttle and sort of beating on it. I told Dick that the stock clutch on the car was never going to last with that going on, and he got the car back over to our pit area. Otherwise, there might not have been a road test."

The story was recalled in the July 1969 issue of SS&DI as Hedrick drove the car through six passes, cranking off a best of 11.94 with set of slicks, and the headers uncorked. It turned better times than the $7,000-plus ZL-1 version that the magazine had tested months earlier, and they rightfully sang its praises as a less-expensive alternative.

"Personally, I know we were all astonished at the level of performance we got out of that thing, which was basically a streetcar. By the third run, which was on stock tires and mufflers, it was down in the 12s, a 12.59 at 108 mph. The skinny tires were a real problem because you really had to baby the car to get off the line. You couldn't powershift it, either, since Dick had to drive back to Canonsburg, so I had to lift off the gas between shifts. I guess I was pretty good at it, because it went pretty darn quick!"

By Geoff Stunkard
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